Art Unruh, World War II veteran, celebrates a couple days before his 98th birthday with a parade and vintage warplane flyover Sunday afternoon at the Arlington Airport. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Art Unruh, World War II veteran, celebrates a couple days before his 98th birthday with a parade and vintage warplane flyover Sunday afternoon at the Arlington Airport. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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A high-flying thanks and happy 98th birthday to a war hero

As a gunner in B-17 “Flying Fortress,” Arlington’s Art Unruh flew 50 missions to fight Nazis in Europe.

ARLINGTON — In the piercing cold, wearing his “World War II Veteran” cap, Art Unruh stood to salute as a P-51D Mustang flew low over the airstrip. The fighter plane screamed past, dipping a wing to honor the war hero who was about to celebrate his 98th birthday.

Unruh, who turned 98 Tuesday — the eve of Veterans Day — was hailed Sunday with a flyover and vehicle parade at the Arlington Municipal Airport, where members of the Cascade Warbirds aircraft preservation group came to celebrate one of their own.

“This is our time to show him our appreciation of his WWII service and his continued dedication,” said a statement shared by Kerry Edwards, a Cascade Warbirds member and the group’s public relations director. Unruh has volunteered “countless hours over the years honoring history and the men and women who have come to make a difference throughout the ages,” Edwards added.

A frequent speaker at high schools and the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum at Paine Field, Unruh has missed those opportunities this year due to pandemic-related closures.

“Everybody loves him,” said Saundra Baker, Unruh’s Arlington neighbor, who was among well-wishers gathered outside Ellie’s at the Airport restaurant for Sunday’s commemoration. “He didn’t know anything about this, we kept it a secret,” she said.

Sunday was clear, cold and windy. Those conditions couldn’t compare with what Unruh experienced as a young gunner in 1944.

Based in Foggia, Italy, he was credited with flying 50 missions aboard a B-17 “Flying Fortress” with the 15th Air Force, part of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Unruh, manning a .50-caliber machine gun in the right waist gun position, flew 35 combat sorties over European sites heavily defended by the Nazis. Fifteen of those missions were so long they counted as two, making 50 in all from Italy with the 301st Bomb Group of the 32nd Bomb Squadron.

On Unruh’s last mission, gunners destroyed eight enemy fighters. He and the rest of the B-17 crew were given the Silver Star, awarded for bravery and exceptional service under fire.

In his 2008 book “The Shadow Casters,” Unruh wrote of that final mission to an airdrome in Wiener Neudorf, Austria.

“These will be my last missions. Number 49 and 50,” he wrote of the July 26, 1944, flight. He told of praying “to get all of us through this one safe and sound. But it was five hours and 30 minutes of Hell and Destruction.”

Unruh talked Sunday about what those missions were like. Up at 4 a.m., the crew had fresh eggs for breakfast because of the ordeal to come. Missions lasted as long as eight hours. At altitudes nearing 30,000 feet, temperatures could hit 20 degrees below zero. He recalled taking oxygen, and being so woozy back on the ground that he was sent to the infirmary “for a shot of bourbon.”

Back home after the war, he became a family man who worked in the automotive industry. And he became a pilot.

“Oh yeah, you betcha, I love the flying,” said Unruh, who’s had his pilot’s license since 1947. He raised three children and has multiple grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Brandon Edwards, Kerry Edwards’ son and the veterans liaison with Cascade Warbirds, accompanied Unruh on a trip to Park Hills, Kentucky, in 2018. There, the World War II veteran reconnected with 100-year-old John Klette, a co-pilot on Unruh’s final mission. Unruh was part of the 2018 Memorial Day parade there, and toured the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Klette died not long after their visit.

Because of their positions on the plane, the two men never met on that July day in 1944, when more than 50 Nazi fighters attacked their formation of B-17s on the bombing mission outside Vienna. Brandon Edwards said it was Staff Sgt. Unruh who shot down the last German aircraft in the battle, a Focke-Wulf 190.

Sunday’s flying display was coordinated by Tom Hoag of Cascade Warbirds, with Lt. Col. Greg Anders flying the P-51 Mustang. During the war, the P-51 was a long-range escort fighter often used to provide cover during B-17 missions. Kerry Edwards said it was too windy Sunday for some other aircraft to join in the event.

Along with the flyover, an Arlington Fire Department truck, with lights flashing, led other vehicles in the drive-by tribute to Unruh. There were flags flying, horns blowing and cars sporting “Happy Birthday” signs.

Unruh remembered another special Veterans Day event, when more than 1,000 Marysville Pilchuck High School students joined in singing, “Happy Birthday to You.”

It’s important, he said, for young people to know and understand the sacrifices made by generations of U.S. military veterans.

“Once we start forgetting things like that, we’re in trouble,” Unruh said.

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

Learn more

The nonprofit Cascade Warbirds is Squadron No. 2 of EAA Warbirds of America. Many of Cascade Warbirds’ more than 250 members are pilot-owners of historic military aircraft. With a motto “Keep ’em Flying,” they promote the flying preservation and display of military aircraft, honor veterans, and engage in aviation education.

Information: cascadewarbirds.org

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