Glimpse history with the "Greatest Generation"

By Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz, 62nd Airlift Wing on May 19, 2017

As Aluminum Overcast, a 77-year-old B-17 Flying Fortress, roared to life on the tarmac at the Olympic Flight Museum, the cabin filled with smoke and the passengers, wearing smiles and snapping photos, filled with anticipation.

Anticipation was not a foreign feeling aboard Aluminum Overcast. Decades before in the upheaval of WWII, young men clad with weapons rather than smiles had likely been filled with fear-tinged anticipation for the flight ahead, the enemy who lay in wait, and the gravity of the mission at hand.

Members of the local media were given a larger-than-life history lesson when they flew aboard the fully restored B-17, May 10, in Tumwater, and spoke with WWII veterans who either worked aboard, or piloted the aircraft during its heyday.

Despite the harrowing circumstances, many of these veterans welcome the idea of embarking upon the Flying Fortress once again, as if being reunited with an old friend.

"In combat it was always a blurred line between being excited and being afraid," said 94-year-old Dick Nelms, 447th Bombing Squadron B-17 pilot. "It's just exciting to see this aircraft today, knowing I'm going to fly in it again."

According to the Liberty Foundation, B-17s dropped more than 640,000 tons of bombs on European targets and downed more enemy aircraft per thousand raids than any other aircraft in the United States' arsenal, making it the champion of the American aerial campaign during WWII.

Even so, the cost of victory was high. Of the 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and 1945, 4,735 were lost in combat.

"I flew to Berlin (Germany) three times," Nelms said. "I watched B-17s being shot down, many of them carrying my friends. We had to learn to control fear, and I did. That's why I'm able to sit here and talk to you seventy-four years later."

While millions of men like Nelms were serving a grateful nation in Europe, women on the home front were fighting the good fight as well.

"I bucked rivets in '44 while I was in college," said Betty Lausch, who laid eyes on a fully-operational B-17 for the first time May 10. "My husband worked on B-17s during the war, but I haven't seen a completed one until now. It's better than anything I could have imagined and I'm so grateful for the chance to fly in it."

For many, the B-17 is not just an aircraft, but a symbol of the generation who carried the United States through one of its most turbulent eras with unwavering resolve.

"I'm glad it was these guys who were there to answer the call," said Tom Ewing, present-day B-17 pilot. "The more you learn about what they were asked to do and what they did, the more you'll understand why they are called the ‘Greatest Generation'. These are true heroes and it is a very lucky thing that you see these men standing here today."

As the Flying Fortress burst through the cloud bank and the Puget Sound came into full view through the glass bubble traditionally occupied by the bombardier, passengers couldn't help but ask WWII veteran and B-17 crewmember, Fred Parker how one might ever get used to a view like that.

Parker didn't miss a beat.

"You never get used to the view," he said. "You stay scared."