By Mike Lee, Desoto Times Tribune
1940s history returned to Olive Branch, Mississippi, the weekend of November 17 with a perfect three-pointer on the field. No, not a football field, but a runway not unlike those in Europe where thousands of Allied B-17s flew missions deep into Nazi-occupied territories to bomb rail lines, fuel depots, war machine factories, and ultimately to stop Adolf Hitler.
EAA brought its B-17G Aluminum Overcast for a three-day visit the weekend of November 17 so that the public could see what is one of only 12 B-17s still flying out of the 12,732 produced during World War II.
The airplane as it sits today, fully restored, is 74.4 feet long, has a wingspan of 103.9 feet and is 19.1 feet tall, and powered by four 1,200-hp Wright-Cyclone nine-cylinder radial engines spinning three-blade Hamilton Standard, 11.7-foot propellers. Empty weight of the aircraft is 34,000 pounds with a gross weight of 65,500 pounds. Fuel capacity is 1,700 gallons.
Aluminum Overcast can reach 35,600 feet and during WWII would have been armed with 13 Browning M-2 .50-caliber machine guns; all of which were found and reinstalled. It was capable of carrying up to 8,000 pounds of bombs at a maximum speed of 300 mph, although a cruising speed of 170 mph assured better fuel consumption. Rate of climb is 20,000 feet in 37 minutes.
During the initial press preview on Thursday, Capt. Rex Gray — the pilot — introduced 97-year-old Jep Williamson of Southaven, a veteran B-17 flight engineer who flew aboard Raidin’ Maiden of the 463rd Bomb Group, 5th Wing based in Foggia, Italy, in 1944. Jep had been specially invited to see the plane and to fly once again in a B-17 with which he is very familiar.
“We flew most of our missions over Austria and Czechoslovakia, through some pretty intense flak and yeah, it was scary,” Jep recalled. “We never encountered Me-109s or Focke-Wulfs fortunately, but our bombing raids were at times frightening. We’d see others get hit and watch them spiral in. It was of course upsetting because we all knew each other, and liked each other and it was hard to see them perish” he remembered.
At the time Jep served aboard Raidin’ Maiden he was just 22 years old, a bit older than many in the crew, some of whom were only 19 years old at the time. Jep trained at U.S. Army flight schools in Boise, Idaho; Casper, Wyoming; and Dyersburg, Tennessee, before shipping out to Italy.
As he rode aboard Aluminum Overcast, it was incredible to watch him move around the aircraft, never losing his balance or stumbling. He spent much of the time in the cockpit behind the pilot and copilot since that was the position he occupied during the war, where he could monitor instruments, but he walked to the rear to look out the waist gun ports.
Upon landing, asked if the flight brought back memories of 70 years ago, he smiled.
“Oh yeah, it was like ol’ home week in a way. The vibrations, sounds of the engines; monitoring the rpms, and pressure, and fuel gauges was just like it all happened yesterday,” he said with a grin.
Asked how he can be so active, spry and alert at 97 years old, Jep shrugged.
“Well, I was working full time at Air Repo in Memphis up until three years ago — when I was 93 — and someone made a mistake on paper for an order with FedEx that shut down the company, and we all lost our jobs. Up until then, I was putting in a full eight-hour shift, five days each week.”
Asked what he does these days, Jep replied, “Well, I go dancing three days a week with my girlfriend and sorta help her out some” he said with a wink. His old friend and workmate, Clarence Cooper — a man more than half Jep’s age — nodded, “Jep will never stop. He has more energy than most men in their 60s, and he’s just three years short of 100!”
To have been privileged to see up close and to ride in the EAA’s B-17G Aluminum Overcast was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime treat. But just as importantly, to spend time with Jep Williamson — a living witness to history — was equally wonderful. His memory is razor sharp and his stories are, in his words, “not stories really, but facts. I was there; I saw and did everything I talk about.”
Very few of our nation’s WWII veterans are still with us, but fortunately a few like Jep and EAA’s Aluminum Overcast remind us of the monumental effort put forth by our nation during a time of world war, and of their victories and successes that made freedom a reality.