Mikaela Rodenbaugh THE COLORADOAN
‘It’s the closet thing to being a bird’: WWII Veterans Reunited with Wartime Planes at Wings of Freedom Tour
July 15, 2018
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  • Dave Cunningham is 98 years old, but that didn’t stop him from getting animated when he saw World War II fighter planes on display at the Wings of Freedom tour at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland on Saturday.

    Cunningham was a flight instructor during WWII. Now, he marvels at how young he and other service members were during the war. He said he was just a kid, a fresh-faced 22-year-old.

    “It’s amazing to me how all these young people flew B-17’s or they crewed a B-10 or a B-24, I can’t get over it today,” Cunningham said.

    Cunningham was one of several WWII veterans who gathered at Wings of Freedom Saturday for a reunion organized by Brad Hoopes, a Windsor man who has recorded and preserved more than 350 oral accounts of WWII veterans across the country since 2000.

    “It’s just important that we honor these guys,” Hoopes said. “They’re on the last few miles of a long journey, and we have got to do everything we can to pave those last few miles in gold.”

    Beside Cunningham was his wife of 74 years, Gladys, who is 94. She was a nurse during WWII.

    “I was signed up with the Air Force as a trainee and when I finished I went into the service,” she said.

    The couple got married during the war, and Dave calls Gladys his “war bride.”

    Gladys said you had to grow up very fast during wartime.

    “You caught on quickly,” she said.

    As Dave sat beside the tarmac talking, he identified each plane button pinned to his cap. He stopped in the middle of his story to photograph a B-24 taking off. He didn’t want to miss anything.

    This story continues below the photograph.

    A few seats over, Bill Way, who is 94 years old, described his time aboard the USS Albemarle, one of two such U.S. Navy seaplane tender ships.

    “I volunteered — you know when you volunteer you get to choose which service you wanted,” Way said. “I didn’t want to sleep in foxholes, so I picked the Navy.”

    During the war, his ship was converted to a troop carrier which would be escorted by naval destroyers and cruisers. When the ship was not carrying troops and had no need for an escort convoy, Way said it could feel very vulnerable.

    But “we were very fortunate, our ship was never attacked,” he said.

    Way pointed to the planes parked in front of him.

    “As big as they are, they’re so full of equipment that you have to get down on your hands and knees to get through spaces,” he said.

    John Brubacher, 92, was drafted right after high school. He never saw combat, but he came close. He said his troop was called four times for missions but each was cancelled.

    “The fourth one we were on the runway taxiing for takeoff, and they cancelled out,” Brubacher said. “The ground troops were moving so fast that they didn’t want to bomb them, they didn’t want to kill our own people.”

    Gerry Ravenscroft’s plane was shot down in 1945 during combat in mainland China.

    “I expected Chinese sampans and I found a destroyer,” the 95-year-old said.

    As he went into a bomb dive, his plane was downed. Ravenscroft was forced to eject from the P-51.

    “I bailed out and was rescued by the Chinese guerrillas and lived 30 days with them,” Ravenscroft said. “They couldn’t talk English, and I couldn’t talk Chinese, but we had a wonderful time together.”

    Despite the harrowing experience of being gunned down, Ravenscroft still wistfully describes flying the planes as “pure joy.” When he sees the P-51, he gets emotional.

    “It’s the closest thing to being a bird,” Ravenscroft said.