Flying is a breeze — even for a 92-year-old.
On a gusty Sunday afternoon at the Tail Draggers Model Airpark at the entrance to Arkabutla Lake on Perry Road, friends, crewmen and fellow RC model airplane owners and club members gathered to witness a milestone in an on-going aeronautical project that has been in progress since 1997.
Marion O. Brown of Millington, Tenn., was 18 years old in 1944 and a senior in high school when he was eligible to be drafted into the Second World War – and decided instead to enlist, even though he’d not graduated.
Brown took all of the Army exams and passed them easily with the goal of joining the then-Army Air Corps, predecessor of the U.S. Air Force. Brown’s test scores were exceptional and the training center assigned him to tech school at Muroc Army Base in California, where he trained for and became a Flight Engineer assigned to bombers, specifically the Consolidated B-24.
“I remember the night of Dec. 24, 1944 we loaded up the 15 aircraft in our group and took off heading for (Hickam Field) Hawaii in convoy with other B-24s,” Brown recalled, “led by Marine P-61 “Blackwidow’s,” which were night fighters. They took the lead because the P-61s had radar. Our 30th Bomb Group, consisting of four squadrons, was eventually destined for the island of Saipan where we shared the field with Marine P-38s and it seemed like almost every day Japanese attack aircraft would bomb our runway.”
From Saipan, Brown’s B-24 would fly as much as 13-hours to bomb enemy held islands in the Pacific. “They were awfully long flights, but we flew under 10,000 feet so we wouldn’t have to carry oxygen aboard. My job was to make sure that all four engines were in operational condition, that we had ammo for the machine guns and that hydraulic fluid was topped-up, electrical systems were ready to go and then we took off. It was a lot of responsibility, but one I took very seriously,” Brown said.
His last mission and the final flight of the “Puddle Jumper II” was a strafing along the beach at Iwo Jima, for which the crew received a commendation. Brown then finished out his enlistment and returned to Memphis where he married his high school sweetheart and started his family, two boys and a girl.
Brown’s career direction took at 90-degree turn after returning stateside when he was hired by the Ford Motor Company, relocated to Michigan and worked at the company headquarters as an auditor supervisor; a job he kept for the rest of his life, retiring from Ford two years ago.
With the memory of “Puddle Jumper II” and its role in his life, in 1997 Brown located and purchased a scale RC flying model of a B-24 and ordered the Jack Stafford kit. Construction got underway, but the project stalled and was put aside where it languished for twenty years until a friend, and fellow enthusiasts, Dave Doyle took up the project with the goal of completing the plane in the exact colors and insignia of Brown’s original B-24.
With the model 99% ready for its first flight, on Sunday afternoon everyone involved gathered for its initial taxi tests. The actual takeoff will come in about a week when FedEx engine technician – and model airplane pilot – Mike Fortune will take the B-24 into the air. Marion Brown will be by his side and, according to Fortune, “I’ll hand him the control and let him fly the model himself,” to which Brown grinned, “Well, okay but only as long as you’re right there….just in case.”
The model B-24 is truly a masterpiece of loving construction, with almost every feature of the actual aircraft duplicated in scale. The turrets rotate, wheels retract, bomb doors open and close, flaps and ailerons function correctly; and there’s even a miniature crew seated in position. The B-24 is finished in correct silver color just like the original, and marked with accurate insignia including squadron identification. Best of all, an exact copy of the nose art - “Puddle Jumper II” – is in the right position just under the canopy. “That was difficult to recreate,” said Doyle who finished the project, “since I had to research the actual plane. I was amazed to find a color photo of it taken on the island of Saipan, which gave me all of the details I needed to miniaturize the nose art.”
When the model “Puddle Jumper II” takes to the air in a few weeks, it will be the first time the bomber has flown in over 70 years, albeit in much smaller scale. To celebrate the event, the original flight engineer – 92 year old Marion O. Brown – will take the tiny sticks and fly it on its one and only flight before the model will retire to hang on display in his home in Millington.
Mike Lee is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.