WWII aircraft elicits memories

MARTINSBURG – Jerry Barker of Williamsburg remembers piloting a B-24 bomber during World War II when he was a young man in his early 20s.

Now 95 years old, Barker stood Wednesday on the grounds of the Altoona-Blair County Airport, in front of two vintage World War II era bombers flown into the airport as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour.

“They weren’t made for comfort,” Barker said. “Everything about them was built for utility.”

His granddaughter, Bonnie Butler of Roaring Spring, brought Barker to the airport to see the warbirds. She said her grandfather didn’t talk about the war when he was younger. So she appreciates the stories he tells now and the chance to see the type of aircraft he flew over Germany.

“It leaves me in awe of the courage it took for him to go into that aircraft and on those missions,” the granddaughter said.

“That was a good airplane,” Barker said of the B-24.

He recalled one mission where his crew destroyed a German fighter before the fighter destroyed them.

And he recalled another mission when his aircraft returned to base with 200 bullet holes.

“When I got done with 35 missions, I had beat all the odds,” Barker said.

The Wings of Freedom Tour, sponsored by the Collings Foundation of Stowe, Mass., visits an average of 110 locations annually in 35 states. It allows patrons to crawl inside the restored aircraft and it offers rides, weather permitting.

“We do this for all the veterans and the younger generations,” said pilot Jim Harley of Akron, Ohio, who has been flying for the foundation for about 10 years. “When I first started, it was the World War II veterans who were showing up for our tours. Now it’s the veterans with family members who want to know more.”

“A lot of family members want to go too,” said fellow pilot Mac McCaulley who flys the B17. “They want to experience and see what the veteran went through.”

What they learn, Harley said, is that the aircraft is cramped, loud and primitive.

While the Collings Foundation has brought vintage aircraft several times to the Altoona-Blair County Airport, Wednesday’s patrons included some first-timers.

“I’ve never seen them here before,” said Jack Weaver, 88, a World War II Army veteran from Saxton who came to the airport on a bus trip arranged by the Van Zandt VA Medical Center. But he remembers planes like the ones on display.

“They were flying over Germany,” Weaver said. “I crawled all over Germany.”

“I used to fly those planes,” said Andy Leja of Ebensburg who was on the same bus trip. “They seem smaller than I remember, not as huge as I thought they were when I was 25, I think.”

“I seen a couple of them come down,” said George Coughenour of Hollidaysburg, a World War II Navy veteran. “But I was never on one.”

Willard and Laura Gunnett, longtime Clappertown residents now living in Homewood at Martinsburg, said the airplanes brought back memories of how they met during the war while in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, on a transport ship which eventually docked in New Guinea.

Willard, a Blair County native, was a B-29 radio operator and waist gunner. Laura, a Kansas native, was in the Women’s Army Corps. They have been a couple ever since.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.