When rare historic World War II aircrafts visited Penn Yan last week, former crew members had a chance to share their vivid memories of missions in Europe
Their names are Jimmy and Dean. Anyone overhearing their easy banter would think they’d known each other for years, and in a way, they had.
The two World War II veterans met for the first time last Wednesday at the Penn Yan Airport, where they came to see the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom Tour, but they discovered they shared many experiences more than 60 years ago.
While other World War II veterans flew on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine O Nine,” Consolidated B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft,” and P-51 Mustang fighter Wednesday afternoon, the two men sat in the sun and recalled their days in Europe. At one point, Dean Ottaway of Port Crane, said, “This is the greatest day!”
A former flight engineer who celebrated his 19th birthday on a B-24 in a bombing raid over Germany, Ottaway had told his nephew who drove him to Penn Yan he was hoping to meet someone else who spent time on the aircraft. He couldn’t have been any luckier.
The wiry man who sat next to him, James “Jimmy”Andrecheck of Richfield Springs, was also a flight engineer on 50 missions in a B-24. The two men traded stories and joked that they didn’t need to take rides today — they had already taken plenty.
“I’m done flying. I lived in the B-24,” laughed Andrecheck, explaining even though he wasn’t a pilot, he took off and landed B-17s while he was stationed in Tuscan, Ariz. before going overseas.
The two men were stationed in North Africa and Italy in 1944 and 1945 as part of the 15th Air Force. Ottaway, who flew 66 missions, is an uncle of local women Edie Mann and Gwen McCausland. Their cousin, Jack Ottaway brought Dean to Penn Yan to observe the flights.
He served as a top turret gunner on a B-24 with the 465th Bomb Group/782nd Bomb Squadron.
Based at Pantanella Airbase in Italy, he celebrated his 19th birthday, Nov. 20, 1944 on his 25th mission — a raid on the German’s synthetic oil production facility at Blechhammer. “We went there day after day and we leveled it, but they would build it back up, so later we had to go back,” he explained, describing the missions that lasted between seven and 10 hours each.
That’s seven to 10 hours in uncomfortable, cramped, cold, hard space aboard the utilitarian aircraft that was not pressurized during flight. Visitors to the Penn Yan airport last week were able to get a feel for the conditions onboard the bombers that carried loads of 10 500 lb. bombs in addition to a crew of 10.
“That’s a long time to sit in that turret,” said Ottaway, who remembers returning from a mission over Budapest. “We came back all busted up. We had to put their parachutes out to act as brakes. Well, I still have a piece of that parachute,” he said.
Andrecheck, who folded his small frame into the ball turret that hung below the belly of the B-24s as they swooped low over targets, said,”You had to be a little crazy to fly in the ball turret.”
He has his own parachute story. They were on the runway in North Africa, getting ready for take off. He saw a chest chute laying on the tarmac. He opened the bomb bay doors and scooted out to grab the bundle. “I jumped back in and away we went.” The parachute came back to the states with him, and his wife’s wedding gown was made from the silk.
These two men flew in the era before fighters escorted the bombers, so he and other ball gunners were exceptionally vulnerable.
But when he looks back on those experiences, he exclaims, “I could see everything from the ball turret!” Seeing everything included having an unencumbered view of the heavy damage done to other bombers on their missions.
While the visiting B-17 and B-24 aircrafts toured the skies over Yates County and Keuka Lake, the two men compared missions and wartime experiences as a small crowd of others listened. “It’s just great to hear the stories,” commented a man whose uncle was killed in action during World War II. He traveled from Rochester to see the aircraft, and listening to the two veterans was a bonus.
Jimmy and Dean traded tales of missions over Polesti, another German refining facility in Romania, and flights over Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in 1944.
From under his shirt, Andrecheck pulled a red ribbon with a blue and white cross — the French Medal of Honor. “I helped liberate France!” he exclaimed. The award was presented to him a few years ago at West Point. Although is crew was nominated for the Distinguished Flying Cross, he never received the honor. “They said they lost the papers,” he said.
The two men’s chatter paused as the B-17 and B-24 landed, and slowly rolled back toward the area where they would be on display for the next two days.
As Ottaway waited for a golf cart ride to get closer to the historic airplanes, he talked about how rewarding it has been to stay in touch with some others from his crew. The ball turret gunner and the radio man from his crew are still alive, and the three stay in touch. “People don’t realize how close 10 people can be, and everybody was looking out for everybody’s back,” he said.
Fifteen World War II veterans took rides in the rare bombers last Wednesday, and another — Bill Mair of Himrod, took a flight in the P51 Mustang. After spending his military career in B-17s, the 93-year-old Mair said he wanted to fly pursuit. “I told him (the pilot) no loops!” said Mair. The pilot flew Mair over his Sprout Hill Road home a couple of times.
Mair was stationed at Hunter Field near Savannah, Ga. from 1942 to 1945 during the war.
The Collings Foundation’s Wings Of Freedom Tour flew into Penn Yan Airport to give the public an opportunity to visit, explore, and learn more about these unique and rare treasures of aviation history.
The B-17 is one of only eight in flying condition in the United States, the B-24J and Full Dual Control P-51C Mustang are the sole remaining examples of their type flying in the World.
Visitors could explore the aircraft inside and out for a fee, and for $450, they could participate in a flight aboard the bombers. For $2,200 they could take the more thrilling ride in the P-51.
The Collings Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit educational foundation devoted to organizing “living history” events that allow people to learn more about their heritage and history through direct participation. The Nationwide Wings of Freedom Tour is celebrating its 26th year and visits an average of 110 cities in over 35 states annually. Since its start, tens of millions of people have seen the B-17, B-24 & P-51 display at locations everywhere. The Wings of Freedom Tour tour is one of the most extraordinary and unique interactive traveling historical displays of its kind.
For more about the foundation, visit www.collingsfoundation.org.