World War II Veterans Fly in Vintage Bomber

Tom Brooks carefully steps into the belly of an authentically restored warbird. He sits down near a waist gunner and buckles in.

He's patient and looks out the window as the classic bomber's engines start up and the aircraft makes its way to the runway at the Victoria Regional Airport.

Wearing bright green earplugs to protect against its roar, Brooks smiles as the aircraft takes off. His light gray hair flutters in the wind.

"I waited 70 years to fly in a B-17," he told family members once he made it back on the ground.

When he served as a U.S. Air Force gunner during the end of World War II, he flew in the later models.

This was a special day for the 88-year-old as he got the opportunity to fly in a Flying Fortress, one of only nine still flying.

Sue Brooks said her husband hadn't been feeling well recently, but this was something he was excited about.

The couple lives at Brookdale Copperfield Village in Victoria. Another resident and military veteran, Gerald Snyder, sat next to Brooks in the aircraft.

Snyder, who served in the U.S. Navy Band from 1951 to 1955 during the Korean War, said seeing the bomber makes him happy.

"We have a strong military, and I'm glad that we were able to fight off our enemies," he said.

The ride aboard the "Texas Raiders" B-17 Saturday was sponsored by the Gulf Coast Wing located in Conroe, which is part of the Commemorative Air Force.

The nonprofit is composed of volunteers with a love of aviation, history and the preservation of vintage aircraft. Three other vintage aircrafts -- trainers -- were part of the public event that ended Sunday.

The visit to Victoria provided special flights for veterans of that era, and those who were unable to fly still got to see the famous bomber up close.

This B-17 was built in 1945 for the U.S. Army Air Corps, then transferred to the U.S. Navy, where it flew 77 months in military service.

After it was retired, the aircraft was used for mapmaking and aerial photography until it was acquired by the Commemorative Air Force in 1967.

The bomber has been restored to its original combat configuration by volunteers who added the ball turret and top turret and preserved it for decades.

"We work extremely hard to take care of it," said pilot Aric Aldrich, of Houston, who has flown this B-17 for the past three years.

The aircraft does not have an oxygen system for its crew and is restricted to altitudes below 12,000 feet, offering none of the comforts available in modern aircraft.

"It makes you appreciate what these guys had to deal with," Aldrich said.

Just before takeoff, Victoria resident Harlan Schroeter pointed at the ball turret, which sits in the bomber's belly.

He served as a gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1946. He recalls while weighing 138 pounds at the time, he often crawled into a similar turret.

He flew in the B-24, which followed in the footsteps of the B-17.

Another memory that causes him to chuckle was flying an AT-6 advanced trainer and landing the aircraft at the wrong air base.

On the B-17, Schroeter found a seat next to Edwin Gregurek, 88, near an old radio compartment.

Gregurek's cap is embroidered to indicate his service in the U.S. Army from 1945 to 1949 assigned to the 609th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company.

"Many people have never heard of it before," he said. "Our job was to bury the dead whenever feasible."

After the war, Gregurek was a pharmacist at Walgreens in Victoria and a Master Gardener.

But being near the warbirds brought back memories of his often-somber responsibility of identifying remains of those who served.

"So many young people have no idea what went on in those days, and not all appreciate what we all did to enable their freedom," he said. "Freedom is a costly object." ___

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