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Ancient aircraft spark memories

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By Michel Northsea

Two ounces of booze were given to crewmembers after flying a mission in the Pacific. The whiskey was supplied by military doctors to help offset the affects of going from temperatures of 20 degrees below zero, at an altitude of 20,000 feet in the B-24, to 110 degrees on the ground, Ed Grass recalled, while he walked around the World War II bombers on display at the Ocala Airport as part of this year’s Wings of Freedom tour.

Grass was a nose gunner on a B-24. He flew 36 missions in the Pacific, most of which lasted 20 hours. Once off the ground, the bombers would start climbing. The higher they went, the colder it was in the non-pressurized aircraft.

“We had to keep adding more clothes as we went up,” Grass said. The extreme temperatures the crew endured also meant military doctors did medical check-ups after each mission.

“They would give a two-ounce glass of whiskey to help our bodies adjust to the temperature difference. It would still take two or three hours for our bodies to get back to normal,” Grass said.

On the longer missions, only one bomb was hauled aboard so extra gas could be loaded. If it was realized the extra gas was not necessary, then it was dropped. The gas in the wing tank was held until last, he said.

Grass started his military service in field artillery but he didn’t like that duty. To get away from the big guns, he took an IQ test in hopes of becoming a navigator or bombardier. Before the results were back, military officials had filled all potential navigator and bombardier slots – and he ended up as a gunner on a B-24.

Fighting the Japanese and flying on the B-24 made for an interesting life for a 19-year old, he said of his war experiences.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Grass ended up moving to Florida and became a watermelon broker after the war. He purchased a house in Ocala 49 years ago for $16,000.

Grass wasn’t the only one reliving days in the air.

Also on display during the Wings of Freedom tour was a B-17 bomber. Russ Smith, one of the Decrepit Birdmen and a Gainesville resident, completed 50 missions between June 6 and Sept. 3, 1944.

“We flew everyday. The only breaks came from weather or maintenance,” he said. Some of the missions were aimed at destroying the Pulaski oil fields in Europe.

Smith said he had joined the Army Air Corps because of its reputation for offering the “good life.” The good life meant better food and a better sleeping area.

But in Italy he found himself questioning if he was in the “good life.”

“We were 60 miles behind the front line, sleeping in pup tents and eating rations,” he said.

Not all visitors to the three-day stopover were veterans. Maria Santiago and Paula West brought a group of pre-kindergarten students from Kids’ Zone, a daycare center, to see the aircraft. “They’re just excited about being at the airport,” West said.

“This is a good experience for them. With the opportunity to learn some history too,” Santiago said.

Fred Lewis sees the B-17 and B-24 all the time. He has volunteered with the Collings Foundation since 1995 and made the 110-city tour numerous times. Volunteers include 40 pilots and 150 others willing to do other less glamorous but necessary jobs.

Lewis said they were pleased with how the Ocala visit had gone. Several $3,200 flights on the P-51 were sold and B-17 and B-24 had gone up several times with payloads of passengers over the weekend.

Despite concerns of the cold for Florida weather, Lewis said the interest level in Ocala had been great. Pleased with the amount of ramp space they get at the Ocala International Airport, Lewis said next year’s tour may also include the German ME-216 fighter, recently acquired by the Collings Foundation.