FLAK SHOOK THE B-29 Superfortress bomber group as it flew toward Japan during World War II. As the explosions and smoke thickened, the scores of planes in close flight broke formation.
The plane designated K-40 of 330th Bomb Group was one of those planes. After losing an engine, the massive bomber passed beneath K-31, another giant four-engine B-29 in the same group. With the two planes unknowingly stacked atop each other, one or both changed altitude and the tail of K-40 smashed into the bomb-bay compartment of K-31. Seven feet of tail sheered off K-40, leaving the plane rudderless. The bomb doors of K-31 were destroyed, making it incapable of dropping its load.
K-31 had to return to the airfield in Guam, dodging the packs of Japanese fighter planes that waited for vulnerable solitary bombers. Amazingly, K-40's pilot, Lester Gilbert, continued toward the target. He steered the plane by powering its outboard engines up or down. After successfully bombing its target, the plane was forced to land at Iwo Jima. The crew received the Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. Army for that flight.
That story is one of several heart-stoppers volunteer George Litzenberg tells about the B-29 bomber on exhibit at the Pima Air and Space Museum.
This particular B-29 is the most complete bomber of its type surviving today.
"From nose to tail," says Litzenberg, "and wing tip to wing tip, this is the entire plane that bombed Japan. The only major parts of this plane that aren't original are the tires, props and engines."
To walk up and touch the same plane that flew 32 wartime missions brings new meaning to the phrase "getting a feel for history." It's easy to look through a turret bubble and imagine the scared boys behind that glass 50 years ago.
And they were boys. One of the crew was 14 when he went to war. Only three of the 11 were old enough to vote, says Litzenberg. The oldest was radar operator Jonas Carpenter.
"He was much older than the rest of them," says Litzenberg"--he was 29--so they had to call him 'Pop.' And Pop Carpenter is now 78.
"The other eight crew members were teenagers. I don't know if you want to go flying thousands of miles in a plane this size operated by a bunch of teenagers, but back in those days they grew up fast. They had to, there was a war on."
The crew was lucky to have survived. Many of their friends did not. The ground crew of K40 used to work on another plane, but that was shot down on its first mission. The newly-arrived Gilbert and his flight crew were replacements who inherited the ground crew of the destroyed plane.
But Gilbert and company were optimists. They christened their plane the Sentimental Journey (the number one song at the time) in anticipation of their trip home after the war.
The crew survived the war, and now Litzenberg, a retired FBI agent, works to make sure their story survives too.
The story of the Sentimental Journey is of particular interest to Litzenberg. He's the nephew of the crew chief, Harry Temple.
After thousands of hours interviewing the crew and researching the history of the 330th Bomb Group, Litzenberg has refined his hour-long narrative about the plane and her crew. In his talk, Litzenberg hopes to give visitors a connection to the people who fought and died in the war. He sees the restoration of the plane as both a monument to the crew and a means of keeping their story alive.
"What a lot of people lose sight of," says Litzenberg, "is the people who were involved and how the war changed their entire lives. People should realize that when there's a war, it's the people who fight it. So what if and airplane goes down, it's a piece of metal, so what. But there's a person in there. That's the tragedy."
A host of volunteers have spent months working on the plane. Now, from the outside, the bomber looks almost as it did during the war, Litzenberg says, adding the old bird still needs a new set of tires. Some of the tires now on the plane were made during the WWII, and, although they were in storage all this time, they're in bad shape.
Litzenberg would like to see the plane looking its best before members of the surviving crew come to the museum at the end of March for a 50th anniversary celebration.
The public is welcome to attend the ceremonies on March 28 and March 30.
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