B-24 Liberator triggers memories for veteran
It was a relatively short plane ride of about an hour and a half from Beverly Airport to Barre/Montpelier, Vt., but for World War II veteran Chet Miller, a member of the 389th Bomb Group based in Hethel, England, it was a trip he’ll remember forever.
Miller and his daughter, Jane Brown of Groveland, were two of the privileged passengers making this historic flight on the B-24 Liberator as the little plane and its companions, a B-17 and B-25, left Beverly after their weekend “Wings of Freedom” visit, which began Friday.
As the plane taxied down the runway a little after 1 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 25, WW II aficionados and other interested people, some on their lunch hour, watched from some of the back parking lots of businesses that border the airport. Others, who had come to see the planes in person, studied the sky from the parking lot at the airport as the B-17 flew up toward the clouds, followed by the B-24 and a B-25.
The planes are part of the flying squadron owned and maintained by the Collings Foundation based in Stow, Mass. Its mission is “to organize and support living history events that enable Americans to learn more about their heritage through direct participation,” per its Web site.
One such event is the “Wings of Freedom” provided at different airports throughout the country. The aircraft had flown into Beverly Airport Sept. 21 from Manchester, N.H, where the volunteers and staff enthralled other history buffs and tweaked the memories of those who had flown in similar aircraft on dangerous missions.
Thanks to his son, Keith Miller of Danvers, who had made the arrangements, Chet Miller, 85, was scheduled to fly to the next destination, Barre/Montpelier, on Monday. Keith, who had driven ahead, was planning to meet the plane. Keith would then drive his sister back to Groveland and his dad to Peabody, where he and his wife of 57 years, Phyllis, had moved eight years ago after 47 years of residing in Danvers.
This would be taking Chet Miller back 63 years, and he could hardly wait. Though the plane was scheduled for a 1 p.m. takeoff, by 11 a.m., Chet Miller had already toured the Liberator plane similar to those he had flown in on 28 missions during the war. Miller had been a waist gunner.
“Climbing into the back of the plane brings back quite a few memories,” Miller said, reflectively. “The last time I flew in one was May 29, 1944.”
Still a little in awe and pensive as memories whirled around in his mind, Miller entered the plane once again, this time as an escort for the Danvers Herald reporter and photographer. Deceptively large on the outside, the inside of the B-24 Liberator is relatively small but efficiently designed for a 10-man fighting crew that carried bombs in its underbelly.
Miller remembers carrying 10 bombs, 500 pounds each, at times, or a like number of 1,000 pound bombs. He also reveals that temperatures in the plane dipped to 60 degrees below zero.
“We got up to 20,000 feet,” he said. “We had electric boots, electric suits and electric gloves.”
The cold also made the oil congeal, so that instead of loud repetive deafening noises from the rapid firing of the machine guns came pop, pop sounds, as the gunners shot at German planes.
Though Miller doesn’t say much about himself, in a story in 2001 he did reveal that his 28 missions were in the European Theater over Norway, Germany, France and Holland. For his heroism, Miller was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters.
Miller, a graduate of Revere High School, Class of 1940, enlisted in the Air Force Sept. 1, 1942. The young man did his basic training at gunnery school in Panama City, Fla., attended radio school in Salt Lake City and was transferred to Tucson, Ariz., where the crew, which was to stay together for 16 months of missions, was assembled.
The men trained at El Paso, Texas, and Denver, Col., before being certified as ready to fight the enemy. They were then sent to Lincoln, Neb., to pick up their plane before taking off for Bangor, Maine, for refueling and heading overseas.
It was then they discovered the plane was leaking fuel and needed new gas tanks.
“We were heading toward Preswick, Scotland, then to our base in England,” Miller said in the 2001 story. “We ran into a storm. The radio was out. The instruments were out. We had additional gas tank problems and the engines were giving us problems.”
Blown off course, the plane landed on a strip of beach, which turned out to be friendly territory outside of a little town named Lahinch in County Clare, Ireland, a neutral territory. Because of its neutral status, the town had to expedite the leave-taking of the Americans or intern them if they stayed longer than 24 hours.
With the help of the townsfolk, the men were driven to Northern Ireland, from where they were able to fly to Preswick and then to their base in England. But, before this could happen, something had to be done about the crashed plane named “The Flyin’ Trollop,” with its topless pinup girl painted on the side — especially before anyone was allowed at the site.
“The parish priest got someone to paint a bra on her,” Miller chuckled.
Parts of the plane were later salvaged.
When asked if he ever thought about the danger he was facing as he clumbed into a plane for each of his subsequent 28 missions, Miller said, “Of course we were concerned about whether we were going to make it back. None of us got hurt, none of us got wounded. We got shot up a little, but all 10 of us got back.There are four of us left now.”
A little more pensive at this point, Miller stops to recall those who didn’t make it back.
“We went to Berlin,” Miller said. “There was a 1,000 plane raid; 60 of them got shot down — Those are the kind of things that are imbedded in your mind.”
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, says:
“The B-24's spacious slab-sided fuselage (which earned the plane the nickname “Flying Boxcar”) was built around a central bomb bay that could accommodate up to 8,000 pounds of bombs. The bomb bay was divided into front and rear compartments and further divided by a central catwalk, which was also the fuselage keel beam. A universal complaint arose from the extremely narrow catwalk. The plane was sometimes disparaged as ‘The Flying Coffin’ because the only entry and exit from the plane was in the rear, and it was almost impossible for the flightcrew and nose gunner to get from the flight deck to the rear if they were wearing their parachutes. An unusual set of ‘roller-type’ bomb bay doors retracted into the fuselage with a minimum of aerodynamic drag, keeping speed high over the target area. …. the B-24 had an array of .50 caliber machine guns — in the tail, belly, top, sides and nose — to defend it from attacking enemy fighters.”
E-mail Myrna Fearer of The Danvers (Mass.) Herald at firstname.lastname@example.org