HONOR on OVERDRIVE

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  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Johnny Bryant looks at photos from his recent trip to England. Bryant, a retired master sergeant, visited 66 airfields and 34 museums in 15 days to collect information, take photos and to honor World War II veterans of the 8th Air Force.

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    Johnny Bryant Photo Pictured is a B-17 Flying Fortress, named Sally B, at the Royal Air Force Museum in Duxford, England. It is the only flying B-17 bomber left in England.

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    Johnny Bryant Photo Pictured is the USA’s best fighter plane of World War II, the P-51 Mustang. This plane is named “Ferocious Frankie,” and has 8 victory flags on the canopy.

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    Johnny Bryant PhotoPictured is a B-24 Liberator Assembly Ship model. The photo was taken at the 458th Bomb Group Museum in Horsham, England.

  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Johnny Bryant looks at photos from his recent trip to England. Bryant, a retired master sergeant, visited 66 airfields and 34 museums in 15 days to collect information, take photos and to honor World War II veterans of the 8th Air Force.

  • 1

    Johnny Bryant Photo Pictured is a B-17 Flying Fortress, named Sally B, at the Royal Air Force Museum in Duxford, England. It is the only flying B-17 bomber left in England.

  • 2

    Johnny Bryant Photo Pictured is the USA’s best fighter plane of World War II, the P-51 Mustang. This plane is named “Ferocious Frankie,” and has 8 victory flags on the canopy.

  • 3

    Johnny Bryant PhotoPictured is a B-24 Liberator Assembly Ship model. The photo was taken at the 458th Bomb Group Museum in Horsham, England.

COEUR d'ALENE — Johnny Bryant is a walking encyclopedia on the European conflict of World War II.

Honoring fellow veterans at 144 World War II museums, cemeteries and memorials has made him that way.

The Coeur d'Alene man's latest whirlwind tour included this month's stops in England at 66 airfields and 34 museums in just 15 days.

"Every night I'd go back to my hotel and realize how lucky I am to pay respects to those who died for us," he said. "It's humbling. It makes you realize how lucky you are to be from this country."

Bryant served in the Air Force from 1986 to 2006 with tours in Sicily, Turkey, Italy and Holland. In Italy, Bryant participated as a munitions systems specialist in Operation Deny Flight, which enforced a no-fly zone over Bosnia that prevented Serbia from making air strikes.

Bryant said he spent more than 250 hours over a year and a half planning for the trip to England. His itinerary outlining details of each stop is meticulously organized in a binder.

"This trip was dedicated to the 8th Air Force of World War II," Bryant said of the grueling schedule. "It was the hardest thing I've done in my entire life, but I did it."

Bryant said at one point during the trip, he didn't sleep for 36 hours.

He spent $8,400 and roughly half of that was on materials such as books and videos that he plans to share with fellow veterans. He took almost 3,000 photos.

Bryant said it's impossible to retain all of the information from the trip by memory, but the unwinding days ahead will be his opportunity to soak more in.

"I'm still coming down from (the trip)," he said.

Bryant said he'll not forget the story 84-year-old Patricia Everson told him from a control tower at the very airfield where she witnessed war mayhem from her nearby family farm when she was 10.

"The Germans snuck up behind the B-24 crews as they were about to touch down," Bryant said. "They blew one up as it landed and three other B-24s came back around to try to land on the short runways. The first one stopped early, causing the other two to slam into it and blow all three up. She said 17 of the 30 airmen lived.

"She brought me there. It was touching."

Bryant said the involvement of the United States and its allies in Europe during World War II doesn't get as much attention as some other conflicts. However, 33,803 died flying out of England or Nazi-occupied Europe.

"We had 120 airfields in England during World War II," he said. "I tried to put myself in the bomber crews' place. If you're flying over the North Sea, struck and knowing that you're going to die of hypothermia after you hit the water, what is going through your mind?"

A military cemetery in Cambridge has a wall with the names of 5,271 bomber crew members who were never found in the North Sea.

The final day of his trip, which was the 75th anniversary of the first B-17 mission over Nazi-occupied Europe, saw Bryant visiting the Royal Air Force's museum in London.

Bryant said one of the take-home messages he grasped from the adventure is England's deep appreciation for the sacrifices the United States made in Europe during World War II.

"They've built museums and restored control towers from scratch," he said. "There are remembrance days at the airfields to honor the crew members. (The Royal Air Force) took a severe pounding until we came into the war. They had been in the war for three years (1939 to 1942), wondering if they were going to make it."

When Bryant set up tours via personal appointments, he said residents went out of their way to be there, accommodating his busy schedule.

"They were so hospitable and asked me what time I wanted them to be there," he said.

Bryant said the amount of work that went into building bomber bases in three years is mind-boggling.

Each base had about 410,000 square meters of concrete, 11 miles of roads, 3.5 miles of sewer lines, 5 miles of water drains and 14.5 miles of storm drains.

Bryant began touring World War II air museums wherever he was stationed in the Air Force.

"The interest grew from there," he said.

In addition to his deep desire to honor vets based on his own military career, Bryant had plenty of reasons to do so growing up. His grandfather, Edwin Mills, fought in the 7th Army during World War II and was awarded a Silver Star for valor against the Germans.

"He and another infantryman volunteered to be the meat, drawing fire upon themselves so their fellow infantrymen could advance," Bryant said.

Bryant also had four uncles who served in the Army, including three in Vietnam.

Bryant's World War II tour mission isn't over. He plans to visit 22 more sites around the United States.

"I want to have it done by the time I'm 58, so I can enjoy it all in retirement," he said. "I'm fortunate that, with my Air Force career, I've gotten to see the world and history. To be a part of it and see the museums is moving."

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