SANTA FE – Just sitting inside a vintage B-25 at the Santa Fe Airport took Maj. Bernie Armstrong decades into the past.
Though the World War II pilot mostly flew fighter planes – and never spent much time in the back of a military plane like he did Tuesday – he said the noises, even the smell, of the restored 1943 bomber dubbed “Maid in the Shade” were nearly the same as he remembers from his three years based on Pacific Ocean islands.
The Michigan native and 40-year Cerrillos resident, now 92, went into the Army Air Corps at age 17 – before getting his high school diploma – and eventually flew P-40s and P-51s – single-engine fighter planes.
“You didn’t hear quite as much noise,” he said, comparing the fighters with what was going on inside the double-engined B-25 over Santa Fe on Tuesday.
“But we were doing 8-hour missions sitting there” as a fighter pilot, he said. “Couldn’t get up and move around.”
He did escort B-25s and similar bombers, recalling a mission in which he accompanied a B-29 from his post in Iwo Jima to Tokyo. “We were in the only fighter plane that could fly that long of a distance,” he said of his P-51.
Armstrong was among a handful of veterans – and the only World War II vet – to take a ride in “Maid in the Shade” as part of a special veterans flight Tuesday morning.
The plane was brought to Santa Fe as part of the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum’s summer “Flying Legends of Victory” tour. The nonprofit takes three World War II aircraft to various cities across the U.S. and Canada. The Santa Fe show is open to the public for ticketed tours and flights through next weekend. Tours end Saturday and flights on Sunday.
Armstrong was in high spirits throughout the morning, making a joke about checking the aircraft for oil drips while waiting for take-off and smiling throughout the 20-minute flight.
Armstrong, who was recalled to fly in the Korean and Vietnam wars, didn’t delve too deeply into his memories of wartime.
“I’m trying to forget a lot of that,” he said, adding that there were both good and bad times.
Following his service, he was a pilot for state government and flew five New Mexico governors: David Cargo, Bruce King, Toney Anaya, Jerry Apodaca, and Garrey Carruthers. Armstrong retired in 1990. He continued flying on his own until just a couple of years ago.
The Arizona museum spent almost 30 years restoring Maid in the Shade for new flights. In World War II, it was stationed on the French island of Corsica, just off the coast of Italy. It made 15 missions during 1944, according to the aircraft’s load master Tim Thorstad.
“Thirteen were in Italy, a couple were in Yugoslavia,” he said. “We (the U.S.) bombed railyards and bridges.”
After 1944, the plane was returned to the U.S. where it took on more utilitarian roles, including as a fire ant insecticide sprayer over farms in Texas up to the 1970s. Once it was donated to the museum, workers named it “Maid in the Shade” because it was reassembled in a hangar rather than outdoors in the Mesa, Ariz., sun. An outline of Corsica and a scantily-clad woman were painted on its nose.
Armstrong said it’s important to him that Americans remember the historical importance of World War II, something he says they can do by seeing or riding in planes like the B-25.
Stan Jarocki, a 88-year-old Korean War veteran from Albuquerque, was also on Tuesday’s flight. He said citizens need to be “cognizant” of veterans’ sacrifices through history.
Most people today will thank veterans for their service if they’re wearing a hat or shirt indicating where and when they served, Jarocki said. But he said that wasn’t always the case, especially during and just after the controversial Vietnam War.
“They forgot what these guys had done in the war for them, (and) all the ones that never came home,” said Jarocki.