Jean Steckmyer, one of the people who toured a B-24 Liberator at Central Nebraska Regional Airport on Monday, used to fly a B-24 himself during World War II.
The Grand Island man, now 92, piloted a B-24 over Italy during the war. The plane he flew wasn’t as “gussied up” as the one he inspected Monday. The plane that came to town as part of “Wings of Freedom Tour” sported a coat of paint. The B-24 that Steckmyer flew reflected the sunlight because it was made of unadorned aluminum.
Steckmyer, who still has a pilot’s license, was asked if he could still fly a B-24 in event of an emergency. He said he wouldn’t be opposed to trying it, but he would need about nine friends to come aboard with him. The B-24 crew totaled about 10 people, said Steckmyer, who was accompanied by his daughter-in-law, Cheryl Brandes of Seattle.
At the other end of the spectrum were 19 kids from the Grand Island YMCA. Those youngsters, aged 4 to 12, got to go inside the B-24. One of them, 5-year-old Bridger Robison, was most impressed with the guns sticking out of both sides of the aircraft.
Central Nebraskans will be able to get a glimpse of World War II flying history through Wednesday. The B-24 is one of three aircraft brought to the Grand Island airport by the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Stow, Mass. The other two planes on the tour are a B-17 Flying Fortress and a P-51 Mustang. Twelve volunteer crew members, including pilots and mechanics, brought the tour to Grand Island, one of 110 cities the planes visit each year.
The group waiting for walk-through tours to begin Monday included veterans and others with a connection to the military, who shared their stories while they were waiting. Some of those individuals had very good stories to tell.
Steve Warner, 73, of Norfolk brought photos of his late uncle, Lt. Gerald E. Warner, and the pilot’s crew. The lieutenant flew a B-24 in World War II. Gerald Warner flew four missions. The final bombing run was over southern France on May 26, 1944. His craft took a direct hit, sending the plane into the Mediterranean. There were no survivors.
One member of the crew didn’t make the trip that day because he was sick, said Steve Warner’s wife, Karen. According to letters received by the family, that crew member, wracked by guilt, was never the same after the war. He would have been better off if he’d made the trip, Karen Warner said.
Gerald E. Warner, a native of Vermillion, S.D., learned to fly in Norfolk. Before the war, he was a teacher in Meadow Grove and Valparaiso, Neb. Steve and Karen Warner were accompanied Monday by their grandchildren.
Alton Bossung of Arapahoe was very happy Monday because his 28-year-old grandson, Grant Schutz, paid for both of them to take a half-hour flight in a B-17. That trip set Schutz back $900. He did it because his 76-year-old grandfather is a big fan of the B-17. The time aloft was a “once-in-a-lifetime deal we get to do together,” said Schutz, who lives in Elmwood.
Margie Kohler of Grand Island taught for 16 years in Liberal, Kan., the home of a B-24 air base during World War II. She rode on a B-24 when the Collings Foundation brought planes to Grand Island two years ago, and has the T-shirt to prove it. She thinks B-24s are “awesome” aircraft and likes to watch them take off and land. She also likes to hear the stories of veterans who come out to see the planes.
Flying aboard a B-24 two years ago made Kohler appreciate what the young men who flew the planes went through. Kohler’s father was in the infantry during World War II on Guadalcanal and her son was in the Marines from 1996 to 2000.
Also at the airport was Montelle Babb, a 91-year-old Central City resident who served in three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam. During World War II, he was a 20mm gunner on an ammo ship. A Fullerton native, Babb joined the Navy in 1943 and finished as a master sergeant in the Air Force,
In Vietnam, every day you woke up, you were “glad you were alive,” he said. But soldiers in each war are just as scared as they are in any other war, he said.
Babb wouldn’t ask any young person to go to war, he said. He’d be proud of anyone who chose to serve, but he wouldn’t ask them to go. Anybody who’s truly been involved in war wouldn’t ask that of his worst enemy, he said.
In Korea, Babb served aboard the U.S.S. Hornet. But he doesn’t like to talk a lot about his experiences. Serving in the 1950s at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, he loaded a B-47 many times. “But that was all working with nukes and stuff. So I don’t talk about that,” said Babb, who came to Grand Island on Monday with his Central City neighbor, Bob Mustard.
The planes also brought out Glen Kolar, an 80-year-old Wolbach man who was in the Seabees from 1954 to ’56. He spent much of his Navy career doing work in the Philippines.
Also on hand was George Rees, 65, of Wood River. Rees served in the Navy from 1968 to ’74 and again from 1986 to ’97. He served on the helicopter carrier New Orleans from 1971 to ’74. His more memorable experiences included visits to Hong Kong, Singapore, Sidney, Wellington, Guam, Okinawa and Japan.
Rees’ father, also named George, flew B-24s in the Aleutians in 1943-45. Because of that, the younger Rees took a trip in a B-24 two years ago.
Visits to local airports are the Collings Foundation’s sole fundraiser. “We don’t charge airports or local communities to bring the aircraft in, so the gate revenue is what we (use to) help keep the airplanes flying and keep us on the tour,” said Ryan Keough, one of the volunteers.
The crew members this week come from Ohio, Florida, California and Colorado.
“It’s all about the veterans and it’s about keeping the World War II veterans’ history alive,” said Keough, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y. “Most of the World War II aviation museums that you’d find in the United States are in far-flung destinations that people like folks that live here in Grand Island would have to travel thousand of miles to go see. So for us, it’s important to bring these airplanes in to allow our veterans and their families to see these airplanes up close and personal without having to travel so far.”
Wings of Freedom Tour
Where: Central Nebraska Regional Airport
Remaining times for walk-through tours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday.
Cost: For a walk-through tour, the suggested donation is $12 for adults and $6 for kids. World War II veterans get in for free.
Flights: Before and after the walk-throughs, if a sufficient number of people sign up. A half-hour flight on the B-17 or B-24 is $450 per person. On the P-51 Mustang, the cost of a half-hour flight is $2,200. For an hour, it’s $3,200. That flight includes “stick time,” which means occupants get a chance to fly the airplane.
For more information: Call 1-800-568-8924 or visit www.cfdn.org.