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History comes alive for WWII vets as B-17 bomber visits Sugar Grove

World War II veterans, their families and history enthusiasts will have an opportunity to visit a flying museum on Father's Day weekend, when the Liberty Belle, a fully restored B-17 bomber built in 1945, hosts a series of a series of public flights at the Aurora Municipal Airport. One of the most important tasks for the Tulsa, Okla.-based Liberty Foundation, which restored the heavy bomber over a period of several years starting in 2000, is bringing the Liberty Belle to B-17 veterans around the world, many of whom have not seen the iconic planes since serving aboard them during WWII. At times, the airplane acts as a catalyst so that a veteran who hasnt been able to talk to his family or his loved ones about what he experienced [can] open up and really tell their story, said John Shuttleworth, the Liberty Belle's pilot, at a special preview flight earlier this week. For us, as we do this, its very moving to see family members react to what their grandfathers or what their great-grandfathers went through," Shuttleworth said. One such veteran was Gene Simms, an 89-year-old veteran from Plano who toured the Liberty Belle during the preview exhibition. Simms served as a ball turret gunner in 1944 and 1945, protecting the belly of his B-17 with a pair of heavy machine guns. His 10-man crew bombed targets across Europe during the waning years of the warand Simms was visibly moved by the memories that rushed back during his recent visit. You never would have a finer, more closely knit group in a crew that flew together, really, he said of his crewmates. They were my brothers. We trained together and slept together and ate togetherand we were ready to go down together, I guess. Simms position was among the most dangerous on the airplane; as the shortest man on the crew, he was relegated to the cramped ball turret that hung below the plane's belly. He would be locked into his tiny metal and glass sphere for hours on end during combat missions. It was so tight inside his turret that he couldnt take his parachute with him, so he stashed it safely nearby in the airplane. Simms flew 35 missions in his B-17, and he learned firsthand about the bombers famous ability to take a beating and continue flying during a mission in 1945. Over Berlin, we were very badly shot up, he recalled. Just about every system on the airplane had been destroyed: the hydraulics, the oxygen systemeverything but the engines, he said. Without oxygen, the crew was in real trouble. But Simms said his plane had a bit of good luck. The oxygen system was shot out, but it just so happened, in this case, that our ground crew chief had put in a big canister of oxygen. He said, You guys might just need that. We did, and we got to stay up because of that. The vintage Liberty Belle is one of just 15 functioning B-17s left in the world. Some 12,740 B-17s were built over the course of WWII, with most seeing action in Europe, where they were used to bomb cities in France and Germany. The exceptionally rugged aircraft, which bristled with machine guns and carried 6,000 pounds of explosives in its belly, was nicknamed the Flying Fortress by its devoted crew. Simms voice shook with emotion as he recalled his time serving aboard a B-17. Nearby, his wife, Nancy, beamed with pride and noted that the couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary just a few days ago. Singular moments like this are what keep Shuttleworth and the foundations crew coming back year after year. The Liberty Belle is on the road about 40 weeks a year, and volunteers fly in from all over the country to help out at air shows and exhibitions. At each stop, veterans and their families line up for one last look at the heavy bomber that helped turn the tide of the war. The Liberty Foundation operates this airplane as an educational lab so that people can come out and understand what a B-17 is, what its role was, and get a chance to hear, smell and feel what a B-17 is about, Shuttleworth said. The Liberty Foundation is a non-profit museum, but the titular aircrafts operating costs come out to about $4,500 per flight hourand the foundation spends another $1 million each year on maintenance and touring expenses. The Liberty Foundation will offer rides on the vintage airplane from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21, at the airport, located at 43W636 U.S. Highway 30, Sugar Grove. A half-hour flight on the Liberty Belle is $430; while in the air, visitors are able to explore the interior of the aircraft and visit each of the main crew stations, including the bombardiers position in the aircrafts nose. For more information about the Liberty Belle, call 918-340-0243 or visit www.libertyfoundation.org. Story and photos by Patrick W. Rollens | Triblocal.com reporter

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