‘War Birds’ arrive: Trained volunteers give tours of aircraft

WILLIAMSTOWN-A crowd was already forming at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Monday morning in anticipation of the noon arrival of three World War II “war birds” with the national Wings of Freedom Tour.

The tour, which will be at the airport through noon Wednesday, includes two heavy bombers, a B-17 flying fortress and a B-24 Liberator, as well as a P-51 Mustang fighter plane.

The B-17 was of special interest to Clem Dowler, 90, of Washington Bottom, W.Va., who flew 13 missions as a gunner in one of the bombers during World War II.

“My plane was in the 91st Bomber Group, and I was a ‘belly gunner’ operating a ball turret gun underneath the plane,” Dowler explained as he waited in line to enter the B-17.

On April 28, 1944, he was part of a 10-man crew operating the flying fortress on a bombing run over the Avord Air Base in France when the huge plane was shot down.

“The ball turret is in very tight quarters, and there was no room for my chest parachute, so I had to put it back on before we jumped out of the plane,” Dowler said.

He said all 10 crew members made it safely to the ground-five were captured by the Germans occupying that area of France, but the remaining five, including Dowler, escaped.

“I was never captured, but spent five months in enemy territory,” Dowler said, adding that one of the five who escaped later died in battle.

He’s written a book about the experience entitled “Milk Run.”

“Because it was supposed to be an easy bombing mission,” Dowler said.

When he reached the head of the line Dowler set aside his walking cane and proceeded to climb the ladder leading to the bomber’s interior.

“It’s just as I remembered it,” he said after making his way through the aircraft, passing several obstacles, including side and lower gun turret stations.

Noting the 13th mission was his final mission aboard the flying fortress, Dowler now says 13 is his lucky number.

Mac McCauley, 70, has been piloting the B-17 and B-24 bombers for 16 years now, and flies the planes from city to city for the Wings of Freedom Tours. He said a lot of World War II vets tour the aircraft.

“Seeing these planes bring back a lot of memories for them,” he said.

His co-pilot, Heather Penney, agreed.

“When the veterans come you can just see them standing a little taller,” she said. “It reminds them of the service they gave for their country.”

But veterans aren’t the only ones who come to tour the planes.

“Typically we draw a pretty good crowd, including many younger children who have never seen these rare war birds,” Penney said. “After the war most of these planes were dismantled so that the metal could be used in American industries.”

Penney, McCauley and the other crew members for the three aircraft are volunteers, said Hunter Chaney, director of marketing for the Stowe, Mass.-based Wings of Freedom.

“The pilots and crew are all trained volunteers, many travel with the tour for periods of six months to a year,” he said. “And they’re constantly performing maintenance to keep these planes flying, even during stops at airports along the tour.”

He said the tour averages stops in 110 U.S. cities each year where 3.5 million people get a close-up look at the war birds.

“And we’re all dedicated to keeping this tour going,” Chaney said. “We want people to remember World War II.”