This degree of courage hard even to imagine

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 7, 2010

The four propellers on the B-24 Liberator aircraft spun in unison, causing a wind tunnel effect to those standing behind. The rumble of the motors reached deep into the bones. The 50-caliber machine guns pointing from the back windows intimidated despite their lack of bullets.

Seeing such aircraft, flown in or by many of our grandfathers during the second Great War, will drop any patriot to his knees.

Three restored aircraft — the B-24, a B-17 and P-51 — spent two days at Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour sponsored by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation. A fourth-grade class at St. Francis Xavier Elementary visited on Tuesday to look at the “cool” planes.

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Those students may have seen Mr. Bill Archer or Mr. Ray Fitzgerald standing alongside the aircraft in which they flew. Mr. Archer co-piloted a B-17 over Europe, while Mr. Fitzgerald was the flight engineer on a B-24 in the South Pacific.

On Monday, while trying to see if an approaching storm would hold off long enough for those two vets, and a few others, to actually fly from New Orleans to VTR in one of those aircraft, they spoke about their experiences. World War II holds such a special place in the history of this country. Those who saw action, who led bombing raids in the fight against tyranny are held as near royalty. When they speak, no one else speaks. When they speak to each other, necks strain just for a chance to listen to the stories.

Nearly 66 years ago, Mr. Archer flew the first of his 25 bombing missions. His 25th mission ended when he and the rest of the crew bailed out of a crashing airplane at 2,000 feet. He recalled the day so vividly, as if it happened two weeks ago, certainly not 24,000 days ago.

All but one of the men on that jump landed in liberated Belgium. One, Mr. Archer said, landed in enemy territory only to be rescued by an American tank.

Mr. Fitzgerald crash landed at the end of a runway with all four engines out of gas. He said several times Monday that God was with them every day.

The vast majority of us cannot fathom the sacrifice and the courage it took for those men and women to rise together under one flag.

Having them there, to talk about the war while standing in front of the instruments they used to help secure the world’s freedom, only makes the experience more special for everyone at every age.