By Michael Kinney
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Joe Jones was born one year and 13 days too late. The Wayne native came into this world April 24, 1945, almost two weeks after his uncle, George Taylor, was shot down and killed during a bomber run in World War II.
For his entire life, Jones has heard about the heroic life of Taylor, who was only 24 years old when he died. Yet Jones never felt closer to knowing who his uncle really was than on Thursday, when he took a ride in the Aluminum Overcast, a restored B-17 bomber.
“This was so special for me because I’ve heard about Gerald and saw his pictures, touched the stuff he touched,” Jones said. “Read letters and anything I could about him. Today, it’s like we touched him. I feel closer to him now. That may sound funny to some people, but it’s right here in my heart.”
Jones was part of a small group of veterans who were invited to go along with the media when the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) flew the bomber around Norman. The Fly Fortress, as it was called in WWII, will be open today and Saturday to the public for tours at the University of Oklahoma Max Westheimer Airport. For $475, walk-up spectators can go aboard the B-17 bomber and take a flight around the city. Pre-booked rides are $449. Flight times are 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.
Ground tours (2 to 5 p.m.) cost $10 for an individual or $20 for a family. Veterans and children under age 8 are admitted for free.
“It’s impossible for us to knock on the door of every single veteran in the United States,” crew member Shad Morris said. “The next best thing is for us to get it flying and fly it around to the veterans. That’s exactly what we do.”
EAA’s Aluminum Overcast was built in 1945 but was delivered to the Army Air Corps too late to see active service in World War II. The B-17 was donated to the EAA Aviation Foundation in 1981 with the provision of the aircraft being maintained in air-worthy condition.
After being displayed at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis., for a decade, the airplane made its national tour debut in spring 1994. Since then it has brought back vivid memories to veterans from a time many people have forgotten about.
According to Jones, Taylor was a bombardier in a B-17. He was on his fifth mission when his plane was shot down on April 11, 1944, over the Baltic Sea, where he froze to death.
“I wore his dog tags today,” Jones said. “It’s the first time they’ve been flying since 1944.”
Jones is a veteran of the Vietnam War and suffered his own injuries in battle. But it was his uncle who was in his mind when he crammed himself into the cockpit of the bomber.
“Every now and then I would stop and it would well up inside of me,” said Jones, who took the ride with his wife. “It was an awesome feeling. It was pretty hot, but I didn’t care about any of that. Just being there I wanted to hear the things (Taylor) heard and see the things he saw. When I went up in the nose and looked in the bomb sight, I imagined him leaning over that thing dropping bombs on people. That bothered him. He was an excellent man — young boy, I should say.”
Paul Ratliff, a veteran of WWII, also made the flight. He was celebrating his 91st birthday. During WWII, he flew escort for bombers in Navy hellcats.
“Being up there brought back old times,” Ratliff said. “It’s very special.”
Being able to bring that type of experience to the country’s veterans is why the crew of the Aluminum Overcast took four weeks away from their jobs and homes to fly the bombers around the country. They also want people to realize what veterans had to go through.
“It’s not that comfortable,” Morris said. “It really gives you an idea of what the boys went through during the war. It’s either too hot or too cold. The good thing we have going for us is that nobody is trying to kill us all day long. Imagine being in that environment eight to 10 hours a day, having to do it at least 35 or maybe even 50 times before you ever got to go home. Quite a sacrifice those guys went through.”