Tom Creekmore of Millsboro, Del., has had a long and good life as a father, grandfather, husband and airline executive, but at age 90, he still vividly remembers the men he fought and flew with in World War II.
And he wants others to never forget them.
Toward that end, he is searching for a captured Nazi flag that was presented to the 305th Bomb Group in 1945 and has been missing for decades. Five Altoona flyers were among those who were photographed with the flag in 1945.
Creekmore's story is particularly relevant this weekend as World War II bombers are on display at the Altoona-Blair County Airport. The planes will be open for viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.
"We loved the 17s ," said Creekmore from his Delaware home as he discussed one of the bombers - a B-17 - on display at the airport.
He said when his B-17 crew, stationed at Chelveston, England, went to London on leave, they would always meet up with crews that flew B-24s, one of which is also on display this weekend at the Martinsburg-based airport.
"We'd get in arguments over what is the best airplane," he said, stating that some of those discussions were rather spirited.
Creekmore was only 19 and newly married to his first wife, Barbara Jean, when he was assigned to a B-17 bombing crew that flew 19 missions over Germany before the war ended.
His job was in the radio room of the huge bomber. On a mission into the Ruhr Valley, his aircraft took a lot of fire but didn't go down.
When the crew got back to the base in England, he counted 80 holes in his radio room. His jacket had been nicked.
He remembers that on another mission, two planes flying in front of his B-17 as part of a 12-plane formation, slammed into each other; the crews dying.
That night, officers and sergeants came into the barracks and cleared out the belongings of those who had died.
Then at 4:30 a.m., "They grabbed your toe and said, 'You are going (on another mission),'" Creekmore said in a recent telephone interview.
"We were so young. It
didn't bother you. ... We just did the job," he said.
But he still remembers the horror, and just two months before his 91st birthday, Creekmore, who goes by the nickname "Creeky," is on another mission, to make sure that people appreciate the sacrifice of those times and those fighters.
Creekmore is searching for a missing Nazi flag that at one point was on display in a German ball bearing factory in Schweinfurt.
The American strategy was to destroy the ball bearing plants in Schweinfurt, but attempts to take out that important industry were extremely costly.
When American troops captured Schweinfurt in April 1945, its Nazi flag was taken from the ball bearing plant and sent to the 305th Bomb Group in England to honor the flyers who died in raids over that city.
Creekmore has written his own story of what happened.
He said that in 1883, Friedrich Fischer invented the machine to manufacture ball bearings, and in 1906, his son founded the Kugelfischer Ball Bearing Co.
In World War II, Willy Sachs owned the company and built a stadium next to it, where he hung the Nazi flag.
The ball bearing plants were bombed 15 to 20 times, Creekmore said.
In a raid on Oct. 14, 1943, the 8th Army Air Force lost 600 men and 60 B-17s.
"The 305th Bomb Group dispatched 18 aircraft on this mission, and only two returned to the home base of Chelveston in England," he said.
Creekmore wrote that during April 11-13, 1945, the Army's 42nd Infantry, known as the Rainbow Division, fought and captured Schweinfurt. That division took possession of the flag.
"I was present in a hangar at Chelveston when the Schweinfurt flag was presented to the men of the 305. ... Our colonel read the inscription on the bottom of the flag: 'To the 8th Air Force, the Rainbow has avenged your losses at Schwienfort (sic),'" Creekmore wrote.
But in the years since, the Nazi flag has gone missing.
"It is my hope that during my lifetime this historical flag will be found and displayed honoring all of the 8th Army Air Force young men that died bombing the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt, Germany," Creekmore concluded.
Local flyers posed with the flag
Many groups of flyers had their pictures taken with the flag, but Creekmore believes one of the last groups included five servicemen from Altoona.
On June 2, 1945, the Altoona Mirror published the photo of those five men holding the flag.
They included: Sgt. Harry J. Sullivan of 1306 14th Ave.; Staff Sgt. Carl Leidel, 520 Pleasant Valley Blvd.; Master Sgt. Richard K. Heiler, 412 13th St.; Pfc. Robert F. Lister, 4022 Cortland Ave.; and 1st Sgt. William B. Fox, 1925 Pine Ave.
Creekmore said those Altoona flyers are all deceased now, but he has been in contact with the stepgrandson of Leidel, Kevin Brower of Altoona. Brower said Leidel was his stepmom's father.
Brower has become deeply involved in the history of the 305th Bomb Group, and, with his son, Zach, 18, participates in re-enactment ceremonies associated with World War II.
Creekmore has another connection to Altoona.
He was married on Oct. 16, 1942, and he was drafted in January 1943, about five weeks after the turned 19.
His marriage to Barbara Jean Hostettler lasted for more than 40 years until her death.
In 1988, he married Lorene Skelley Reed, who was from Altoona. They were together for 15 years until she died in 2003.
Lorene Creekmore's sister, Doris Danella of Hudson Avenue, Altoona, remembers Creekmore.
"He's very nice," she said.
Danella said Creekmore knew a lot about many things and "is very knowledgeable about the war."
Getting away from the swamps
After being drafted, Creekmore said, "I went to Fort Lee in Petersburg, Va.
"The next thing you are on a troop train to some place. You don't know where you are going," he said.
He ended up in Camp Polk, La., and about all he can remember from there were "swamps."
His enduring thought at that point was, "I've got to get the hell out of here."
He saw a sign advertising the Army Air Force and jumped at the chance for a transfer.
He was trained as a radio operator, and after training, his crew was given a "brand new B-17, and we headed to Europe."
At that point, he said he told his wife he just wanted to fly his 30 missions and return home.
He promised his young wife he'd be home quickly.
The war was nearing an end, Creekmore said, but he and his crew saw some heavy action.
When the war in Europe was over, Creekmore was told he'd go back home to prepare to join the war in the Pacific.
He said he got on the Queen Mary and headed home.
After the war, Creekmore decided not to continue his service as a reserve, but he joined the airline industry, flying routes to Chicago and New York.
Creekmore had three children.
His military experience as a flyer has carried through the succeeding generations. He said his grandson, Eric, recently flew F-18s in the Marine Corps and has now become a preacher.
Creekmore himself hasn't lost any enthusiasm for his times and his generation.
He can be seen on YouTube singing at a USO-type re-enactment event when he was a mere 88 years old.
The song: "I Love You ... There I've Said It Again," was popularized by musician Vaughn Monroe "back in the day."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.