Seventy-three years after his last bombing mission over Europe, John Luke boarded Nine-O-Nine for one more B-17 flight.
While it was Luke’s 32nd trip on a Flying Fortress, the flight Saturday had some new wrinkles. Nobody was trying to kill him; likewise, Nine-O-Nine wasn’t Berlin-bound with a load of bombs.
It also was a different B-17. This Nine-O-Nine is a tribute to the long-gone bomber Luke had flown on during World War II. And this time, Luke was actually inside the aircraft.
The Vancouver veteran was a ball turret gunner, manning a pair of .50-caliber machine guns to protect his aircraft’s underside from German fighters. He reached his position by crawling through a hatch and squirming into a Plexiglas ball suspended from the B-17’s belly.
Luke flew 29 missions aboard Nine-O-Nine in 1944, plus two more on other Flying Fortresses. He actually was credited with 35 missions, because some were rated as extra hazardous.
He got to relive the experience Saturday — some of it, anyway — when a heritage organization brought a restored B-17 to Aurora, Ore.
“It was a nice ride. It brought back a lot of memories,” Luke said as sons Ross and Rod joined him in his Van Mall Retirement Community apartment. “I had forgotten how noisy it was.”
On Saturday’s flight, the 94-year-old veteran got to ride in the radio operator’s spot rather than his old position. This B-17 is operated by the Collings Foundation, which supports living history through its “Wings of Freedom” tours. Its WWII air fleet also includes a B-24 Liberator, a B-25 Mitchell and a rare two-person P-51 Mustang.
Rod Luke contacted the nonprofit, based in Stow, Mass., before the tour’s Portland-area stop and arranged for a complementary flight for his father.
The B-17 wasn’t the only attraction that day, it seems. As visitors admired the Flying Fortress, many of them wanted photographs taken with Luke.
“That floored me: pictures with me,” the 1942 Vancouver High grad said.
The foundation’s B-17 was restored to match Luke’s WWII aircraft. It has the same serial number, 42-31909, which was the source of the Nine-O-Nine name painted on its side.
It has the same nose art, showing Columbus riding a bomb toward its target while he thumbs his nose at Hitler.
The original Nine-O-Nine certainly deserves a tribute, Luke said. It performed with distinction, completing 124 missions without a mechanical abort. More importantly, as several crews took their turns flying the B-17, “No one got killed on it,” Luke said.
Fast and furious
It sure wasn’t for German lack of effort.
“I saw many planes go down,” Luke said.
Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters tried to pick off American bombers on their way to their targets, keeping Luke and his crew mates on high alert.
“They came in so fast. They flew through our formations — in and gone,” he said. “And I couldn’t always shoot, because there could be another B-17” in the line of fire.
Over the target, the German pilots peeled away so they wouldn’t get hit by their own anti-aircraft artillery. It was formidable.
If heavy fire forced the American bomber crews to make another run over the target, “That was kinda hell on earth.”
By the end of the war, about 600 holes had been put into Nine-O-Nine. And as Rod Luke pointed out, his dad was responsible for the first two bullet holes.
The plane was on the ground before a mission, Luke said. He checked his electrically operated machine guns, “just to see if it clicked.”
It fired a .50-caliber round, which bounced off the concrete runway and put two holes in the tail section.
Luke reported the incident, and was told that it might be a court-martial offense.
Then, Luke said, the officer told him: “But you’re going to Berlin, and might not even come back.”