B-17 flight brings back memories for Arlington WWII vet

EVERETT — The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’ four engines rumbled as it rolled down the taxiway at Paine Field.

The 71-year-old bomber turned onto the airport’s main runway. The pilots opened up the throttles. The engines’ rumble rose to a roar.

The B-17 “Sentimental Journey” sped down the runway and jumped into the air.

A moment later, 92-year-old Art Unruh, of Arlington, was standing by the .50 caliber machine gun on the right side of the plane just behind the wing — the right waist gun. That’s where he flew 35 combat sorties in Europe during World War II. Fifteen of those were so long that they counted as two missions, meaning Unruh was credited with flying 50 combat missions from February to July 1944 in the 15th Air Force’s 32 Bombardment Squadron.

He was a 20-year-old staff sergeant at the time.

“We were just a bunch of kids,” he said.

They were kids tasked with taking out enemy troops, vital resources and infrastructure. It was a deadly job. Nearly 90,000 U.S. airmen died during the war.

His unit flew out of Foggia, Italy. Their targets included some of the most heavily defended sites under Nazi control, such as Vienna, Munich and the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.

“I went to Ploesti four times, and thank God, I’m still here,” he said.

Boeing designed the B-17 to be durable and ferocious against enemy fighter planes. The bomber had 11 to 13 .50 caliber machine guns. The idea was it could either shoot down attacking planes or endure whatever damage it suffered.

“You’re ankle deep in shell casings, trying to shoot at enemy fighters,” the Arlington resident said.

On Unruh’s last mission, his plane limped back with much of its vertical fin blown away and more than 600 holes from flak and enemy fighters.

“We were so busy in the air, there was no time to be scared,” he said. “It’s when you get back and start walking around that airplane — it’s butchered and beat up. You get shaky.”

At first, his unit flew without friendly fighters providing cover.

“Then we got lucky,” he said. “We got the Tuskegee Airmen,” a segregated unit of black pilots.

The unit — the 332nd Fighter Group — overcame the American military’s institutional racism at the time to earn a distinguished combat record.

“Our losses went way down” after that, Unruh said.

Monday’s flight was strictly pleasure.

The Commemorative Air Force takes its B-17G, “Sentimental Journey” on tour from May to October. It is at the Flying Heritage Collection at Paine Field through Sunday offering flights to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The plane can accommodate eight passengers, and tickets cost $850 to sit in the nose, $425 for seats in the radio room.

The airplane was built in late 1944 and delivered to the military March 13, 1945, too late to see combat during World War II. It served in a variety of roles until sold as surplus in 1959. It then spent 18 years as a fire bomber, flying thousands of missions against wildfires across the U.S., likely including some in Washington.

The CAF’s Arizona Wing acquired the airplane in 1978 and set about restoring it. Today, it is the most fully operational B-17, according to the group.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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