WW II planes head to Livermore for Memorial Day event today

'Flying museum' is chance to hear war stories

Two World War II bombers -- a B-17 Flying Fortress known as the 909 and a B-24 Liberator named Witchcraft -- will will be flying into the area today for a Memorial Day weekend show.

They'll spend the weekend at Livermore Airport, along with a support plane, a P-51C Mustang fighter called Betty Jane.

Called the "Wings of Freedom" tour, the three planes are a flying museum and tribute to the crews who flew and maintained them and the people who built them.

This is the 18th year the planes will stop in Livermore, and stop coordinator Kevin Ryan said there's always a big turnout. He said last year the three-day event drew around 3,000 people.

Ryan said his favorite part of the planes' local stop is hearing the experiences of the veterans who flew in the planes, and their family's reaction to the stories.

Mick Hanou, another coordinator, said his father was in forced labor in Germany during the war, so the Memorial Day event has special meaning to him.

"It's the people who keep us coming out," he said. "The other thing that's important is that we do this for the veterans."

The planes will be open for tours, and a look inside gives a visitor a first-hand idea of the conditions bomber crews endured on a mission.

Walter Hughes, who now lives in Hawaii, was just 22 years old when he piloted a B-24 in World War II. He flew 35 missions during the war and will be on hand to talk about what it was like. Hughes said every mission was different.

"There were a few that we didn't have much opposition, they were called 'milk runs.' You'd see a little flack and nothing more. Then you'd get to some where there were 600 to 900 antiaircraft guns," he said, adding that planes often had to fly into clouds created by exploding shells. "The flack, that's pretty scary stuff. We had holes in the airplane on more than half the missions we flew."

The cold at altitudes of 21,000 feet was also a major factor.

"My average temperature was minus 40 on those missions. Sometimes, the equipment on the airplanes would freeze," he said. Although the crew wore heated suits, sometimes it was cold enough to affect the steering; other times, the bomb bay doors would freeze up.

At first, there were no fighters that could fly alongside the bombers on their long missions to drop their payloads of three to four tons of bombs over Germany. That meant they were on their own for much of the flight, and 75 percent of bombers were shot down.

Later, P-51s like the fighter that will accompany the two bombers this weekend started flying with them, and that dropped the casualty rate to 40 percent. During his 35 missions, just one of Hughes' crew was killed and only three were wounded.

Fear was an everyday event, but Hughes said "You just got through it."

In addition to seeing the touring planes and hearing veterans like Hughes, the public will be able to see some locally based planes and military vehicles, along with historical photos and World War II memorabilia.

The planes will arrive Sunday and will be open for tours between noon and 4 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. The Singing Blues Stars of the U.S.S. Hornet will perform songs from the 1940s and 1950s from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday.

The tours are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12.

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