Standing in a cluster near the runway at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport is a small group of World War II veterans. While swapping old war stories from the good old days, they were waiting for the arrival of the iconic B-17 bomber.
“It's just a wonderful opportunity,” said Floyd Smith a World War II veteran. “I wish the whole city could turn out and watch this thing land. It's something that you just don't see. There it comes right there. And it's something you don't see everyday. You know? And I just wish so many kids could see that. Oh what a wonderful sight.”
In its heyday, the B-17 bomber was a force to be reckoned with. During World War II, the flying fortress dropped more than 600,000 tons of bombs in Europe. Virtually helping to turn the tide of the war. But these days only a handful of those heavy bombers are flyable.
One of them is Sentimental Journey. She’s one of the most authentically restored B-17’s out there today. Recently, the iconic warbird found its way to the airport as part of the Flying Legends Victory Tour.
Shelby Bolkey is the loadmaster of the Sentimental Journey. She’s a redhead with a fiery personality to match. And she’s passionate about are her heroes.
“My dad was in the Navy,” Bolkey said. “My father-in-law was there when they took the bridge at Remagen. One of the bloodiest battles that was the first bridge across the Rhine river. And so they're both gone. And so to be able to honor their memory is this is part of it. This plane is a symbol of all of them, but you know how can you not? They gave us a free world. How can you not honor them?”
Larry Perkins is the pilot of Sentimental Journey, and he’s been flying her for nearly 26 years.
“If it weren't for B-17's carrying out their missions, you and I'd be speaking German right now,” Perkins said. “It was very important to the war and they took some terrible losses. I believe there were about 4,000 of them shot down. And you know on each of those airplanes there's 10 people.”
Perkins served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He said he’s honored to fly his fellow veterans a plane ride of a lifetime.
“I would have liked to have been young enough to join them,” Perkins said. “You couldn't fly or serve with better people. And the people who come out have such rich stories.”
Unlike other B-17’s you see in old war photos or movies, this aluminum beauty is bare-metal.
“At the end of the war they didn't take time to paint the airplanes,” Perkins said. “The last P-51's built, the last B-17's built were all bare-metal.”
While we’re talking about her look, her nose art is of the famous ‘40s pinup model with the Million Dollar Legs, Betty Grable.
“You notice that she has her posterior toward the camera,” Perkins said.
At the time, it was rumored Grable was pregnant, but it was never confirmed. However, the plane’s namesake comes from the Doris Day and Les Brown ‘40s hit Sentimental Journey. But don’t let her age or beauty fool you. She’s a solid warbird.
“It's about as safe an airplane as you can fly in,” Perkins said. “It has 4 engines. It'll fly real well on two-engines. And if you remember the battle damage that the airplanes flew home with, the airplane is literally built like a bridge.”
A Boeing design, Sentimental Journey was built in 1944 in Long Beach, California. Because of manufacturing she didn’t see any combat. Instead she was sent over to the Pacific theater for the rest of the war. Three years later she became an aerial mapping plane.
“Her last military job she was the mothership to remotely control another B-17 through a nuclear blast,” said Bolkey.
For nearly two decades, Sentimental Journey was used to fight forest fires for a company in California. She was relieved from her duties of dropping slurry on those fires when they discovered that the slurry was corrosive to her aluminum exterior.
So they moved her to a field. Birds made a home in her engine. Her tires were flat and her propellers were bent. The company eventually decided to auction her off.
“At the auction two guys were bidding to get her,” Bolkey said. “One literally wanted to turn her into beer cans. The other one was our first leader and he had the dream that we could bring her back to life and we could fly her.”
Airbase Arizona got her. They cleaned her up and flew her to her current home in Mesa, Arizona. It took 18 years to fully restore her back to her former glory. And now she serves as a flying museum for veterans and civilians.
When you step onto the plane the first thing you’ll see our guns and ammunition. The seats are more like nets and the inside is pretty crammed. Bolkey who was our guide motions us to take a seat, buckle up and enjoy the view as we fly over Cape Girardeau. When the flight was over she gave us her flight attendant speech.
“We know you have a choice when you fly,” Bolkey said. “So the next time you decide to go blasting through the air in an unpressurized aluminum tube, we hope you'll fly with Airbase Arizona.”
After the flight, Smith said he left the plane with a different perspective.
“I didn't realize how important it was to the overall victory that we had to have you know,” Smith said. “Now this is just one airplane of course. [But] then I think about all of them doing the same thing and the guys on the ground dying. And I realize how important this bomber is.”
While he enjoyed spending the day catching up with old comrades, there was one veteran that was on his mind--Clifford Heinrich.
Heinrich was 18 at the time of the war. Serving as a tail gunner on B-17, his plane crashed coming back from a mission.
“We went on a mission and we came back to England,” Heinrich said. “[We] made it back to England alright. And we crashed and we crashed when we get there.”
By the time the plane hit the ground he made it to the plane’s radio room where a nearby nurse found him.
“[The] nurse was there near where we crashed,” Heinrich said. “And she's the one that pulled me out.”
Heinrich was the only one to make it out alive from his 10 man crew. He spent the next 14 months in a hospital. For more than six decades his efforts went unrecognized. Earlier this year that changed when he received a Purple Heart medal among others. To this day it’s still unknown as to what exactly caused the crash.
But it’s stories like Heinrich’s that remind this crew what it’s really all about. Underneath the wide open bomb bay doors, Bolkey pointed out the scattered names of veterans and their comrades.
“[The] people who have come out and flown with his us that have actually been veterans and flown in a B-17, we have them sign our doors,” Bolkey said. “This is our wall of honor.”
This one was Earl’s. He was a pilot of a B-17.
“We saw him on July 7, 2014,” Bolkey said. “He was the pilot. He listed all of his crew members including the three that were killed in action. So when they went down. He lost let's see his radio operator. His left waist gunner and the ball turret gunner.”
All of this hits home for Bolkey. Her husband served 22 years in the military and her son served in Iraq.
“I sent my son off to Iraq,” Bolkey said. “ And within four days he lost his best friend. And within two weeks he lost four of his troops. And he said ‘I grew up watching World War II movies where I had to you know watch the guy write the letter home.’ He said ‘[I] never knew how hard that was until I had to write four.’ You know luckily he came home.”
For many of these veterans Sentimental Journey is more than just a piece of history. It’s a place to say goodbyes.
“We had a gentleman that came and struggled to get his walker out of his car, and struggled his way all the way up to the plane, and he put his hand on the star in the back,” Bolkey said. And I waited until he stood up and I said I would help get back to his old crew position if he wanted to, and he said ‘I came to say goodbye to ghosts.’ You know and you think about that.”