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SELLERSBURG, IND. — Tech Sgt. James Lee Hutchinson fought in 20 missions in a Boeing B-17 bomber during World War II before he was 20 years old. He said his last mission is passing along his history and the history of other veterans to people today.
“What we try to do is just tell the story for this generation because it’s being lost,” the technical sergeant told the News and Tribune. “I’m 89 and I’m one of the youngest flyers that were there.”
One foundation is giving people a glimpse into what Hutchinson’s experience might have been like.
The Liberty Foundation’s 2014 Salute to Veterans tour is offering 30-minute flights on a Boeing B-17 “Memphis Belle” bomber aircraft to the public. Flights are $410 for foundation members and $450 for non-members and will circle over Louisville and southern Indiana, taking off and landing from the Clark County Airport July 19 and 20.
Scott Maher, director of flight operations, said that the flights give people a more tangible sense of the “tremendous efforts” of World War II veterans.
“It makes such a difference … if you can actually go out there, touch something, put your hands on something, sit on something, you remember that a lot more than reading it in a book or seeing it on a video screen,” Maher said. “It’s a living history lesson and also a living tribute to all our combat veterans of World War II.”
The bomber is only one of 12 left that still fly of the 12,731 originals. The aircraft was manufactured in 1945 and is modeled after the original Memphis Belle for the 1990 film. The original is kept in the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
“This is fairly unique,” he said.
Maher said B-17 bombers were one of the reasons the Allies won the war.
“It’s a lot stronger than today’s aircraft,” he said. “This thing was built like a tank. One of the hallmarks of the B-17, one of the reasons it became the iconic aircraft of World War II, is the fact that it got its crews home. It took a tremendous amount of damage.”
Bombers held 10 men who would be in the skies for as many as eight hours a day looking for and fighting the enemy.
“These are open to wind, so you can imagine if you’re flying around at 25,000 feet where it’s 40 degrees below zero with an open window, it gets a little breezy and a little cold,” he said.
One of the telltale signs a soldier was a part of a bomber crew was a burn ring around their mouths and noses, a result of frostbite from oxygen masks soldiers wore while flying.
“There were pretty uncomfortable conditions up there,” he said.
Hutchinson said he was 18 years old when he entered the war in October of 1944. He didn’t even know how to drive a car.
“They told me they’d make a pilot out of me,” he said. And they did — in just a month.
In November, he joined the Lt. William D. Templeton crew. When he took to the skies, the U.S. had already been involved in the war for about a year and a half.
“And then when Hitler heard I was coming, he began to give up,” Hutchinson said.
He said his crew was excited to get a B-17 plane for their good reputations.
“And then they gave us a beat-up plane that almost didn’t make it and scared us to death before we got there,” Hutchinson said. “But we managed to keep up, and we bombed Berlin.”
Flyers who fought earlier in the war weren’t so lucky, he said.
“When the Memphis Belle flew, it was early, and (bombers) didn’t have the fighter protection. They had fighters with limited mileage,” Hutchinson said. “And the German fighters knew just where that was and they would sit out there and wait.
“The losses were terrible. That’s one reason the 8th Air Force lost 26,000 men was because of the lack of protection.”
Nevertheless, the original Memphis Belle was the first bomber in the war to complete 25 missions and bring back its entire crew alive in 1943.
He showed a lucky ring that he wore during flights.
“We believed in everything. Anything people would send, I would wear,” he said. “I looked like a traveling jewelry store.”
These days, the number of World War II veterans alive to tell the tale is dwindling. Hutchinson said they started with 16 million and are now down to one million or less, with about 1,500 dying every year.
“We’re fading fast,” he said.
Pat Coons saw the Memphis Belle land Monday with his 2 year-old grandson, Spencer.
Coons’ father was in World War II, and several of his family members are veterans.
He said taking Spencer to see the B-17 was more than just entertainment.
“He needs to know the history,” Coons said. “A lot of us aren’t taught enough in school to where they have an appreciation of what people actually went through to have what we have today.”