Sept. 17—CEDAR RAPIDS — When B-25 warbirds like this one were in their prime, there were over 10,000 of them, each carrying about a dozen veterans fighting the Axis powers during World War II. Now, the pilots taking the B-25 on national tours are lucky if they see one veteran from that war, said the crew from Experimental Aircraft Aviation.
But never before has the B-25 been available for flights to the public in Iowa. This weekend, one of about 28 airworthy B-25s left in the world offers flights in Cedar Rapids.
With the World War II vets who flew them few and far between, the Berlin Express has a chance to be seen through a new set of eyes — the eyes of those who follow to preserve and examine the history left in the clouds.
“Pretty much everybody’s family has a connection to these (warbirds),” said Justin Cook, president of Experimental Aircraft Association’s Chapter 33 in Cedar Rapids. “How often do you get to see a piece of living history like this?”
Now, it’s your turn to see what they saw 80 years ago. Here’s what I saw.
One reporter’s experience
Planes like this are so out of memory that it was hard to believe the thing taxiing toward me on the tarmac wasn’t one of the hand drawn illustrations I was used to seeing of warbirds.
“This is the loudest aircraft you’re going to be on in your life,” said Doug Platten, traveling aircraft maintenance officer with the EAA, before four ear-plugged reporters and photographers climbed aboard.
It’s so loud that you can’t talk about its legacy while it’s running — you have to feel the magnitude of its presence as it conveys an attitude matching the legacy of wartime manufacturers like Rosie the Riveter.
After I’m seated in tight quarters, a sign to my right tells the story of Hajira Buser, a riveter known as “Rosie’s daughter,” who helped restore the B-25 to its former glory. Her grandfather was killed in action while serving as a B-25 engineer. They named Buser’s mother “Rosie.”
Pilot Julie Cruze said the sight and flight of a B-25 for surviving World War II veterans today brings alive “another person,” inside of them. But even when they’re not present, it’s not hard to imagine them inside the metal tube where men barely out of high school spent hours bereft of creature comforts.
“Taking this flight is a whole other level of understanding and learning and respect for the Greatest Generation and what happened during World War II,” said pilot Sean Elliott.
My flight Thursday was warm inside the old plane, even on a mild fall day. I imagined the comforts that were so few to a handful of kids thrown into a war against nations they barely had time to learn about in school.
To my left was an outlet to plug in heat suits. Flying at a medium range of about 10,000 feet altitude in an unpressurized cabin, it was one of the only comforts afforded to those flying missions over Asia, Europe and the Middle East. That, and oxygen masks.
As the puttering prelude of the engine simmered to a calm at our cruising level of about 2,500 feet, I took a look out the only windows you can see anything through. With machine guns built into them, they’re made only large enough for you to see what you’re shooting at.
For veterans like my grandfather, a tailgunner in a B-17 who served missions over Europe and Northern Africa in the war, this was their first chance to see a bird’s-eye view of earth in the era before commercial air travel.
For others like Earl Mefford, the World War II vet I met on an April Honor Flight, that view was something they were only able to see in the military.
And as the fields of Iowa passed underneath us in squares and rectangles of various browns and greens, I saw the imagery they matched to the words of America the Beautiful — spacious skies, amber waves of grain and fruited plains.
In that moment, for the first time, I understood why my grandparents always teared up singing that song.
As four reporters squirmed around each other in the tight space with large cameras, trying to get a glimpse of the view that struck a sense of awe into their forefathers, it was clear the plane was not designed for the size of the average American today.
Even at our cruising level, the headwinds made for a wobbly ride. You know the feeling when you drive fast over a hill — how your stomach drops as you eclipse the top of the hill? Imagine that for several minutes.
Other rides are smoother, the crew said. But the feeling wasn’t nauseating to everyone. To me, it was the embodiment of excitement.
As we fumbled around to get a salvageable view in the 30,000-pound “jack of all trades” plane designed for missions most would rather not relive, the flight showed me that the lessons of history can only truly be captured through the eyes of those who experienced it.
“A lot of these guys went home and forgot about it. Put it behind them,” Platten said.
That’s probably why my grandpa didn’t tell us every detail from the accounts that I now find riveting as an adult.
Platten said the purpose of these flights today, with special Federal Aviation Administration exemptions for their service, is worth the price of admission for one reason: “to show us what World War II vets did for us to be who we are now.”
After the 10-minute flight, I visited the tailgunner’s quarters. I emerged with a new sense of gratitude I never had the chance to express to him while he was alive.
With unparalleled versatility for its time, the B-25 flew every theater in the war for bombing, ground attacks, strafing, and dropping torpedoes.
With two 1,700-horsepower engines and 30,000 pounds of weight, pilot Elliott said it flies more docile than other warbirds, with a very forgiving nature.
Its deafening volume at takeoff is due to its short exhaust stacks, but it had significant advantages with a 1,000-plus-mile range and the ability to take off of an aircraft carrier with only 800 feet of runway.
The B-25 model is perhaps most known for its bombing of Tokyo just four months after Pearl Harbor. With no strategic value, the strike on Japan served as a moral boost in the early years of the war.
This exact plane — the Berlin Express — was named for the 1948 movie it was featured in. As a result of its starring role, it’s the only B-25 modified with stairs that cascade from the rear exit.
The EAA bought and restored the plane from a collector in 1975. After a stint in a museum, it started touring the country as a “living museum” several years ago.
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