The skies over Olive Branch resembled war-torn Europe during World War II recently.
A runway not unlike those in Europe where sorties and missions to save the civilized world took place daily conjured up memories of "flyboys" and brave airmen in the cockpit and machine gun turrets.
One of the last examples of thousands of Allied B-17s, which flew missions deep into Nazi-occupied territories to bomb rail lines, fuel depots, war machine factories and ultimately to stop Nazi madman Adolf Hitler helped to resurrect old ghosts.
The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) brought their B-17G-VE “Aluminum Overcast” for a three day visit so that the public could see what is one of only 12 B-17s still flying out of the 12,732 produced during WWII.
During the initial press preview, Capt. Rex Gray – pilot – introduced 97- year-old Jep Williamson of Southaven, a veteran B-17 Flight Engineer aboard “Raidin' Maiden” of the 463rd Bomb Group, 5th Wing based in Foggia, Italy in 1944.
“We flew most of our missions over Austria and Czechoslovakia, through some pretty intense flack (aerial bursts designed to cripple Allied planes) and yeah, it was scary," Williamson recalled.
“We never encountered (German) Me-109s or Focke Wulfs fortunately, but our bombing raids were at times frightening. We'd see others (B-17s in our group) get hit and watch them spiral-in. It was, of course, upsetting because we all knew each other, and liked each other and it was hard to see them perish,” he remembered.
At the time Williamson served aboard "Raidin' Maiden" he was just 22 years old, a bit older than many in the crew, some of whom were only 19 years old at the time.
Williamson trained at U.S. Army flight schools in Boise, Idaho; Casper, Wyo. and in Dyersburg, Tenn. before shipping out to Italy.
As he rode aboard Aluminum Overcast, it was incredible to watch him move around the aircraft, never losing his balance or stumbling. He spent much of the time in the cockpit behind the pilot and co-pilot since that was the position he occupied during the war, where he could monitor instruments.
Upon landing, asked if the flight brought back memories of 70 years ago, he smiled.
“Oh yeah, it was like 'old-home week in a way," Williamson said. "The vibrations, sounds of the engines; monitoring the rpms, and pressure and fuel gauges was just like it all happened yesterday,” Williamson said with a grin.
Asked how he can be so active, spry and alert at 97, Williamson shrugged and offered his assessment.
“Well, I was working full time at Air Repo up until three years ago – when I was 93 – and someone made a mistake on paper for an order with FedEx that shut down the company, and we all lost our jobs. Up until then, I was putting-in a full eight-hour shift, five days each week.”
Asked what he does these days, Williamson replied, “Well, I go dancing three days a week with my girlfriend and sorta help her out some,” he winked. His old friend and workmate, Clarence Cooper – a man more than half Williamson's age – nodded in the affirmative.
“Jep will never stop," Cooper said. "He has more energy than most men in their 60s, and he's just three years short of 100!”
The "Aluminum Overcast" rolled off the assembly line in May, 1945 – too late to see action – and with the war in Europe having ended in April of that year, the U.S. Army declared the aircraft "surplus."
Then in 1946, it sold for $750 and began serving as a cargo plane, an aerial mapping platform and a forest fire retardant bomber, accumulating over one million miles.
Then in 1978, a group of investors bought it, intending to restore the B-17 to its original Army Air Corp configuration. But costs were so high that in 1983, they donated the plane to the EAA.
It then went through an extensive 10-year restoration, including a repaint in the colors of the 398th Bomb Group, specifically to honor B-17G 42-102516 which was lost over France during its 34th mission on Aug. 13, 1944.
Then the EAA began a refurbishing at their flight center in Wisconsin to prepare the bomber for its first national goodwill tour.
The plane as it sits today, fully restored, is 74.4 feet long, has a wing span of 103.9 feet and is 19.1 feet tall, and powered by four 1,200 hp Wright-Cyclone nine-cylinder radial engines spinning three-blade Hamilton Standard, 11.7 foot propellers.
Empty weight of the aircraft is 34,000 pounds with a gross weight of 65,500 pounds. The fuel capacity is 1,700 gallons.
The Aluminum Overcast can reach 35,600 feet and, during WWII would have been armed with 13 Browning M-2 .50 caliber machine guns; all of which were found and reinstalled. The aircraft was capable of carrying up to 8,000 pounds of bombs at a maximum speed of 300 mph, although cruising speed of 170 mph assured better fuel consumption. Its rate of climb is 20,000 feet in 37 minutes.
Williamson is just one of a few of airmen, soldiers and sailors still alive to recall how these military warplanes helped to save the civilized world.
And they helped to do it.
Mike Lee is a feature writer for CLICK magazine, sister publication to the DeSoto Times-Tribune, and is an occasional contributor to the DeSoto Times-Tribune.