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Shining B-17 warbird stirs WWII memories

SHARE Shining B-17 warbird stirs WWII memories

PROVO — The warbird gleaming on the runway of Provo Municipal Airport brought an avalanche of memories to Ray T. Matheny.

But the restored B-17 bomber wasn't needed for vivid memories, good and bad. There's no day, said the Brigham Young University archaeology professor, when he doesn't think about flying in combat in one of these bombers during World War II, or of his companions who were killed when the plane was shot down, or his 16 months' internment in a German prison camp.

Matheny was among 150 to 200 who turned out at the airport Tuesday to admire "Sentimental Journey," the four-engine bomber flown in by the Confederate Air Force. The group, which restores antique aircraft, offers educational tours and flights to the paying public.

"Well, it's very familiar, and the oil leaking from the engines and everything is so normal" for that type of plane, he noted. It's not normal for modern aircraft, but the use of copious amounts of oil was usual in those days.

In January 1944, Matheny was an 18-year-old top turret gunner on the heavily armed Flying Fortress. The 10 crew members flew the plane from Kimbolton, England, to northern Germany, where they bombed submarine pens at Kiel.

Messerschmitt fighters attacked the formation, and an ME 109 hit their tail just as the young gunner was firing his twin .50-caliber machine guns at the enemy plane. He saw the Messerschmitt's engine was hit, and then an explosion threw him out of the turret. The bomber slid into a flat spin.

As the plane cartwheeled toward the ground, the centrifugal force pinned him to the floor. Meanwhile, the spin wrenched the bottom turret from the plane, and hurled it to the ground with the gunner inside.

"His last few seconds of life was terminal velocity toward the German countryside," Matheny said.

Matheny was able to clip on the right hook of his parachute, but the force of the spin was so great he could not hook the left. He was flattened, facing in such a direction that the blood went to his brain and he was not knocked out. He struggled to unlatch the hinge on the plane's bottom hatch, but the spin prevented it.

Pointing to the hatch of the "Sentimental Journey," he said that ordinarily the plane is flying forward and releasing the hinge will make the hatch "catch in the slipstream and fly away."

Now the answer was to pull on the handle instead of trying to open the hinge. "I was beating on the door with my fist," he recalled.

Suddenly he was falling through the air, feet-first. He yanked the parachute cord. The 'chute opened, and because he had only hooked it on one side, "it displaced all my ribs here, on the left, as you can imagine. It never did go back. It's still sticking out."

As he descended, the plane exploded, "just blew to pieces. The engine and parts of it were going down. It hit in the snow and there was a big fireball coming up."

Bits of the disintegrated aircraft rained onto his parachute, but the parachute did not collapse. Then a Messerschmitt fighter "comes right at me," he recalled.

"I thought it was going to shoot me." He hung limp, playing dead, hoping the pilot wouldn't fire. Actually, Matheny said, "he was sending my position for the ground crew to pick me up."

He could see the parachute of another crewman drifting in the breeze and knew he too had escaped.

"Then I saw another parachute tangled up in a burning wing on the ground, and a man's body laying there."

Matheny landed hard on the ice in a canal, and the ice broke. Fortunately, the canal had been drained for winter and only about 2 1/2 feet of water remained.

"I scrambled out of that water and lay down on the ice. I never felt so grateful.

"I was alive — and why? You know, why?"

A telling incident happened when he was taken to a farmhouse before the German soldiers arrived. Two teenage girls kept pointing to pieces of the aircraft's wreckage on the roofs of their village, and yelling at him, "Kaput, kaput!"

At that point, Matheny showed he was a true 18-year-old. He made the farmer who was walking him in stop for a moment so he could comb his hair, "to be presentable before these girls — the enemy, no less!"

No disastrous ending happened when "Sentimental Journey" took off Monday. The huge propellers, black with yellow tips, started spinning one at a time, and the plane gushed clouds of smoke as it revved up.

The B-17 was surprisingly quiet as it taxied, then turned and ran back down another runway. Aluminum skin shining in the sunlight, it lifted. The engines growled powerfully. Watchers stood in the shade of the wings of parked planes, spellbound.

People gaped, smelling the oil smoke and shielding their eyes from the sun. "Wow!" said one man.

Don Norton, a Confederate Air Force oral historian and assistant professor of language at BYU, one of the spectators, noted that seeing such planes and interviewing family members helps youngsters understand history.

Twenty-five minutes after it took off, the B-17 landed gracefully and taxied back to its starting point. "Need to clear this area," said a ground crewman of the Confederate Air Force, gesturing for people to move away.

"I love it!" said Susan Rutkowski, Orem, who had brought her two children, 9-year-old Benjamin and 11-year-old Jennifer, to see the aircraft. Old war planes are "the classics," she added.

"To me, there's nothing that compares. Awesome. I don't know — they are just awesome."

Jennifer added, "It's cool."

What did Benjamin think of the plane? "Neat," he said.

"Neat?" exclaimed his mother. "It's awesome."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com