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WW II veteran, docent an expert on anything B-17

Veteran Walter Bergstrom, 89, is Museum of Flight’s oldest docent

Tacoma native and Federal Way resident Walter Bergstrom, the oldest volunteer docent on staff at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, enjoys sharing his love of aviation with children who come through the museum. /Tyler Hemstreet

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When the final bell rang signifying the end of the school day at Lincoln High School in Tacoma in the late 1930s, young Walter Bergstrom would sprint home, climb up a maple tree and try to get a glimpse of a Royal Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress returning from a training mission and landing at McChord Field.

It was his first brush with aviation, and the experience started a love affair that still burns bright for Bergstrom today.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor a few years later, Bergstrom tried to enlist as a pilot trainee but couldn't because of a broken chin. After the Army Air Corps changed its enlistment requirements two years later, Bergstrom signed up and went in as a pilot trainee. Although he eventually washed out and was sent to gunnery school, he still forged a long career serving on his beloved B-17 as part of the 351st Bomb Group, stationed out of Polebrook, Northhamptonshire, England.

Now 89 years old, Bergstrom, a Federal Way resident, is the oldest docent on the volunteer staff at the Museum of Flight in Seattle - and the resident expert on anything B-17.

"It was a very reliable airplane," Bergstrom said.

About five years ago, Bergstrom met a museum docent that was already volunteering and suggested he give it a try.

"I'd been looking for stuff to do," he said.

Bergstrom, who volunteers once a week, especially enjoys speaking to children who come through the museum about aviation.

"Children ask the best questions," Bergstrom said. "That's really what I come out here for ... to teach the kids."

But the WW II veteran also enjoys speaking to guests about of his experiences with the B-17. He spent much of the time on his 24 missions in the gun turrets.

"To me, it was the nicest place on the aircraft," Bergstrom said.

Bergstrom keeps his mind fresh by constantly writing articles for a publication put out by a group of former 351st Bomb Group members.

"We're dwindling down to just a few," he said.

While Bergstrom doesn't like to talk about some stories that bring back bad memories , he does enjoy talking aviation with the other docents at the museum.

"I like the people," he said. "There is a lot of good camaraderie."

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