John Roberts speaks of the Greatest Generation with reverence.
“When I was a little kid,” he said, sitting inside the Resort Aviation Jet Terminal at Pappy Boyington Field in Hayden on Monday afternoon, “my uncle lived with us. He was a nosegunner [and] bombardier. He almost never talked about his service. My dad joined the Navy when he was 17. He’s 92 now. Until he was 80, he never even mentioned what boat he served on. That was just the generation of people who served. They never talked about the war. That’s just not who they were.”
Roberts and Bill Croutch have seen that reticence among World War II veterans before — many prefer not to speak of their combat experiences. As Loadmasters for the 10th Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit based in Mesa, Ariz., that tours North America in restored military aircraft, Roberts and Croutch have seen what the power of nostalgia can do to honor those who’ve served.
This week, that power can be found within the bomb bay doors of a B-25 Mitchell and a B-17 Flying Fortress parked on the tarmac at Pappy Boyington Field in Hayden.
“A lot of times, people who fought will want to come out to see it,” Croutch explained. “They’ll come out if they can, and they won’t say much, won’t think much of [the war] because they never really talked about it. Maybe two years ago, we had a veteran come out to see us, and he was relaxed and talked with us, and everything was fine. But then [someone] said, ‘Five minutes to enemy territory.’ That’s what they heard when they crossed the [English Channel] on bombing runs during the war. They’d be chatting and joking around until they heard, ‘Five minutes to enemy territory.’ Then they got real serious, and that’s what happened with this veteran, all that time later. He heard, ‘Five minutes to enemy territory,’ and his entire mood changed. It’s usually not just the plane that brings that kind of memory back. It’s usually some kind of a trigger like that which takes them back to their service.”
The B-25, built in 1944 and christened “Maid In The Shade,” saw combat during the end of World War II over Italy and then-Yugoslavia, flying 15 combat missions from the island of Corsica. The B-17, also built in ‘44 and named, “Sentimental Journey,” was stationed in the Philippines during the war. One of more than 48,000 Flying Fortresses at the time, the aircraft is now one of only 10 B-17s in the world still able to fly.
“It’s exhilarating,” Croutch said. “As many times as I’ve flown, it’s still a thrill for me to take off, just to see it take off. They’re incredible machines.”
Loadmasters — like Roberts and Croutch — are tasked with a variety of mid-flight responsibilities, the first of which is the safety of their passengers and crew. They also keep watch over the rear of each engine, and they act as a rearview mirror, keeping an eye out for any air traffic in the pilot’s blindspots.
“It’s a nice, serene flight coming in here from Penticton [British Columbia] like we did today,” Roberts said. “But when you imagine flying in one of these, and there’s flak going off around you, it definitely changes your perspective.”
“It’s one thing to fly around and see the sights for 30 minutes or so,” Croutch added. “It must’ve been something completely different to sit in the tail on eight-to-10-hour missions when it’s 50 degrees below zero. But that’s what they did. When they got back — if they got back — they sacked out, woke up the next morning and did it again.”
The two vintage bombers arrived Monday as part of a weeklong stop in Hayden, one of the last legs on a North American tour that will eventually lead back to their home base in Mesa.
“After World War II,” Croutch said, “they were scrapping most of these planes. Their numbers kept dwindling down; eventually, someone realized, ‘If somebody doesn’t do anything to save them, pretty soon they won’t be there.’ Slowly, over the years, more and more planes were restored. Interest grew, and soon, there were requests for air shows.”
The Commemorative Air Force is made of 70 wings made up of 170 airplanes — two-thirds of which, Croutch estimated, flew during World War II. Like the combat missions the bombers once flew, Croutch and Roberts both contended the planes wouldn’t fly without the more than 10,000 support staff, almost all of whom serve as volunteers.
Today through Sunday this week, people can visit the bombers and can take pictures from the outside of the plane for free. For $15 per person or $25 per family, visitors can get an inside look at the “Sentimental Journey” and the “Maid In The Shade,” complete with an up-close-and-personal tour.
Visitors can also buy airborne experience on Friday, Saturday and Sunday: Prices for tickets onto the B-25 range from $325 to $650. Prices for the B-17 range from $425 to $850. Roberts and Croutch agreed their stop in the Coeur d’Alene area is a weeklong opportunity for a new generation to experience a dying history.
“[The bombers are] flying museum pieces,” Croutch said. “That’s what they represent … Inside the planes are the signatures of just about everyone we’ve come across who’ve served in that war. It’s a badge of honor, and I’m proud just to be part of it.”
“I think people who’ve never heard the stories from this era need to come out with the veterans who’ve served and just listen to them,” Roberts said. “Everybody needs to hear these stories because, the ones who can tell them: There aren’t many left.”
To sign up, visit www.azcaf.org/location/coeur-d-alene-id-tour-stop or call (602) 448-9415.