Sunday, June 11, 2006

Bonnie's Flight in the B-17 Liberty Belle

Carel Stith and Bonnie Hellums with the Liberty Belle.

All veterans are asked to sign the door after visiting the plane.
As Bonnie exited the plane, she was asked to do them the honor of adding her
father's name, which she did through tears.

Pete and Bonnie's Story • June 11, 2006

It was a sweltering, steamy, hot and humid day that Sunday, but I hardly noticed. I had never been to Hooks Airport in far northwest Houston before and I was very concerned that I would be late and miss this golden chance to waltz in my Daddy’s shoes.

But let me back up… my father was 1st Lt. Newton Storey Blackford but everyone called him Pete. He was the only son of George and Mary Blackford. He and my mom, Lorraine, attended Oak Park Riverforest Township High School in Chicago, Illinois. They fell in love at age 15, but didn’t marry until my Mom graduated from the University of Illinois in May, 1942.

Pete had dropped out of the U of Illinois and immediately joined the Army Air Corps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. His training had taken him to Wyoming, San Antonio, Waco, and finally Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, where I was conceived. While my mom was still pregnant with me, he was shipped out to fly with the 2nd Bomb group, 429th Sqd. He flew from Florida to Brazil and then across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa and then to North Africa in March of 1943.

In June, 1943 his group had moved to Ain M’Lalia, Algeria and they had started bombing Italy. Pete had flown some six missions as the pilot of the “Lucky Leprechaun,” which was a B-17. Problems had occurred with at least two of the engines on a previous flight so they had been removed and replaced by the ground crew.

After becoming a member of AWON and learning how to research various sites, I found the 2nd Bomb Group. I then found Chuck Richards, who turned out to be the historian of the 2nd Bomb Group. I had several conversations and many emails with Chuck, who told me that he arose very early that morning of the 16th of July, 1943. It was characteristically very hot and dry in Algiers, even early in the morning. He washed up and went outside to watch the formations take off as he often did in the early morning.

I have learned that one of my Dad’s crew had been injured by flak in the previous bombing raid. The plane had been struck as well. My dad had heroically piloted the limping plane back across the Mediterranean to bring his crew member to the hospital. His name was Marion Benbrook. Because of his injuries, Marion was still hospitalized and therefore unable to fly with the rest of the crew. The entire crew, plus Marion’s substitute, ate breakfast together and then visited the hospital tent to tease Marion about being a gold bricker, shirking his duty by sandbagging and staying in the hospital. I have spoken with Marion on the phone and he informed me that he really hated not being able to go with his crew, who always flew together.

At the time, because it became so cold in the planes when they were airborne, the custom was that the crew would arm the 500 lb. bombs while they were still on the ground so that they could simply be shoved out the bomb bay when they were over the site. My Dad’s crew had armed all the bombs before takeoff. There were twelve 500 lb. bombs on board when they took off in formation to bomb San Giovanni, Italy.

Unfortunately, the repaired engines which had been placed on my Dad’s plane failed on takeoff. According to Chuck Richards, who was watching that morning, the engines only feathered after the plane was airborne and the plane began to mush. It was clear that they were going to crash, so my Dad, the pilot, flew the plane away from where many of the men were sleeping in the tents. Chuck said he saw a huge plume of black smoke as the plane went down. All but one of the bombs exploded on impact and the entire crew was lost on that dusty, hot desert morning in Algeria. Half a world away was the one-month-old daughter he would never see and who would spend a lifetime missing a Daddy she never knew but was so similar to, according to everyone who knew him. The hole in the heart is immeasurable….

But I am fortunate enough to have had a man placed in my life that “gets it”. My husband, Carel Stith, I am sure was sent to me to help compensate for the loss of the first important man in my life. Never once has he said, “It has been 63 years; can’t you just get over it and move on?” He has never questioned why when I totally lose it when seeing a missing man flyover, or hearing “The Army Air Corps” anthem, “I’ll Be Seeing You” or anything by Glenn Miller. He just holds me or pats my hand to honor my feelings.

So, I guess I should not have been surprised when this year for my birthday, he informed me that he had secured for me a ride on a B-17 like my father had flown. (Do I know that technically this model came out just after my dad died? Yes, but it is close enough for government work, as they say.) He had seen a news story about a restored plane called “The Liberty Belle” that was going to be in Houston over this particular weekend and he had called and informed them that he had a war orphan who was having a birthday and wanted her to have this experience as a gift. He really knocked my socks off.

When we arrived at the field, the plane was just returning from the previous flight. I had read a lot about “The Flying Fortress,” as the B-17 was called, and had even seen one at an air show, but I was actually going to get to ride and my heart was throbbing. I had on my AWON shirt, my Dad’s wings, and the Gold Star. The symbolism and emotion of it all was almost more than I could bear. The folks who handle the “Liberty Belle” were wonderful to me. They let me board the plane with a photographer who had been hired by a good friend of mine as a birthday present to record this event. We took a bunch of pictures in the plane where I sat in the pilot’s seat and imagined what my Dad must have looked at and felt. It was so strange to grasp at shreds of feelings or images to try to conjure up a man for whom your heart longs so badly.

Thanks to Jack Forgy, I had found out that when my dad was in training to get his wings at Ellington Air Base here in Houston, he and his pilot had crashed in a field quite a bit away from the landing strip because the map they were using for the flight had flown out the window and they got totally lost. I could not picture how that would have happened until this gawky, loud, antique plane took off and started to fly over Houston. I was allowed to sit in the jump seat directly behind where my Dad would have sat and then was allowed, after takeoff, to stand behind the pilots and film out the front windows. The wind was very loud coming in those open windows and suddenly I could picture exactly what happened when the map blew out the window.

The ride seemed very short, but oh, so sweet. I had another piece of the ghost puzzle I will be working on for the remainder of my days, until I get to hug him face to face someday.

Bonnie Crane Hellums

The photos were provided by Carel Stith and Bonnie Hellums, with many thanks to both,
and in memory of 1LT Newton Storey (Pete) Blackford.