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Monday, June 23, 2003
A flight to remember

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

The extent of my airplane trauma is getting stuck in a middle seat on a four-hour flight, and once having to watch both "Maid in Manhattan" and "Two Weeks Notice" on consecutive flights. I don't want to diminish the suffering involved with repeatedly watching Ralph Fiennes describe J-Lo's rear end as "exquisite," but let us consider what the brave men who flew bombing missions during World War II endured.

"The B-24 (bomber) was built like a 1930s Mack Truck, except that it had an aluminum skin that could be cut with a knife," Stephen F. Ambrose wrote in "The Wild Blue." "Steering the four-engine airplane was difficult and exhausting, as there was no power except the pilot's muscles. It had no windshield wipers, so the pilot had to stick his head out the side window to see during a rain. Breathing was possible only by wearing an oxygen mask -- cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat -- above 10,000 feet in altitude.

Verle Caple
Verle Caple, in front of a B-24 bomber like he flew on in World War II.

"There was no heat, despite temperatures that at 20,000 feet and higher got as low as 40 or 50 degrees below zero. The wind blew through the airplane like a fury, especially from the waist gunners' windows and whenever the bomb bay doors were open. The oxygen mask froze to the wearer's face. If the (waistgunners) touched their machine gun with bare hands, the skin froze to the metal. ... Absolutely nothing was done to make (the B-24) comfortable for the pilot, the co-pilot or the other eight men in the crew, even though most flights lasted eight hours, sometimes ten or more ..."

Oh, and it also probably should be pointed out that the Germans were trying to shoot the plane out of the sky.

My father, Verle Caple, was a navigator on a B-24 Liberator during WWII, flying multiple bombing raids from his base on Italy's Adriatic coast. His mission targets included Austria and southern Germany, as well as Romania's notorious Ploesti oil fields, a site so heavily defended that a third of the planes failed to return from one terrible raid.

There were 18,300 B-24s manufactured during WWII. That's more than any other American airplane ever made. And of those 18,300, do you know how many B-24s are still flying? Just one. It's called "Dragon and His Tail," and it's lovingly operated by the Collings Foundation, which restored it through thousands of hours of volunteer work (they even painted a naked woman on the nose for authenticity). The good folks with Collings fly the plane all over the country, along with a B-17 Flying Fortress, as a traveling museum.

I've seen ads for their air exhibits for several years, but I never saw them until after they had left the area. After just missing them again on their visit to Seattle last year, I was determined I wouldn't let it happen again. Looking at their website (collingsfoundation.org), I saw when they would be in Seattle this year and bought spots for my dad, my older brother, John, and myself on Sunday's last flight as a late Father's Day present.

It was my father's first flight on a B-24 since his last mission 59 years ago. "I remember that flight well," he said. "The bomb bay doors wouldn't close and we had to fly home with them open."

Yeah, well, I'm sure it wasn't pleasant. But remember, "Maid in Manhattan" played on both legs of my recent two recent flights. That makes four viewings total.

* * * * *
My father rarely mentioned his war experiences when I was growing up. He is a quiet, strong and uncomplaining man. He rarely shows his emotions, other than muttering whenever his beloved Mariners or Huskies fall behind in a game. ("They're going to lose, I just know it," he'll say after Seattle strands two runners in the first inning).

Caple family
Father and sons didn't look too nervous before the flight.

Like many WWII veterans, he began opening up about a decade ago with the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He began regularly attending reunions of his 455th bomber group and recounted his memories for Ambrose's book. Last year, we visited the site of his old base in Italy. The day we arrived, my mother fell and cut open her scalp, but she wasn't hurt badly, so it still was a better arrival than it had been for my dad during the war.

That's because the morning after he arrived for his first mission in 1944, a fully loaded bomber exploded on the ground at his base. Days later, they were still picking up pieces of the bodies. My dad flew his first mission soon after the explosion. He was 21.

And I thought it was intimidating walking into Tom Kelly's office after the Twins lost on my first day on the beat.

The Germans surrendered long ago though, so I wasn't too worried about our flight Sunday when we arrived at Boeing Field -- until the Collings people required us to sign waivers releasing the foundation from all liability should the plane crash, which is never reassuring prior to boarding a plane.

Neither were the last-minute warnings given beside the plane.

"Be careful," the man warned us. "The bomb bay doors were designed to break open if the bombs accidentally fell on them before release, and they'll also break open if you step on them. Obviously, you don't want that to happen while we're flying over the city. So stay on the catwalk. The red panels around the front wheel will break open, if you step on them as well. Stay on the catwalk.

"I'm not saying this to frighten you, but to remind you that this is a working WWII era plane."

"Is it too late to back out?" my brother asked me.

"Yes," I replied.

Deferring to his veteran status, the crew allowed my father to ride in a prime seat up front, while John and I went to the back and sat near the plane's waist. There were no seats, just the hard metal floor with canvas seatbelts hooked up in such a way that we had to sit facing the plane's tail. It was a bit like flying on Southwest, only more comfortable.

The engines gunned to life and I grinned at John. After years of looking forward to such an experience, we finally were flying on a Liberator with my father and about to get a small flavor of what it had been like for him so long ago. We were excited and we were ready.

There was just one problem: I couldn't get my seatbelt to fasten.

Jim Caple
Jim helps protect Seattle from enemy invaders.

At age 21, my father had flown to the other side of the world, repeatedly strapped himself into a plane loaded with 8,800 pounds of bombs and taken off into enemy territory not knowing whether he would ever return. And me? I couldn't even fasten my seatbelt. Could I possibly be any more pathetic?

Yes, as it turned out. Because as I fumbled with seat belt, a cell phone fell out of my jacket pocket and slid down toward the bomb bay.

With visions of the phone dropping onto an unsuspecting pedestrian's head ("Can you hear me now?"), I flopped over on my stomach and reached around desperately. By the time I finally wrapped my fingers around it and my brother strapped me into the seatbelt, the plane was roaring down the runway.

I zipped the phone up in my pocket and grabbed my camera. And then we were off the ground.

* * * * *
The beauty of the "Dragon and His Tail" is that the Collings Foundation maintained the plane's original interior as much as possible, so that flying in it now is very nearly like flying in it during WWII. Other than the fact that the machine guns have no ammunition, the bombs are fake and no one is shooting at you.

I unhooked the safety belt, stood up by the open waist gunners' window and stared out at the city rushing past my view. A cold wind blew across my face as I grabbed the machine gun and pointed it beyond Safeco Field, saving Ichiro and the Mariners by shooting down a dozen imaginary Messerschmitts.

Flying in a 60-year-old plane with its windows open, my brother was a little hesitant to move about the interior. Not Dad. When I walked/crawled toward the nose of the plane, I found my 80-year-old father eagerly climbing into the nose gunner's turret. I held my breath and prayed that he wouldn't step on the dreaded red panels, no doubt feeling the same fears he did when I was 15 and he handed me the car keys for the first time.

I wanted to get a photo of him in the nose turret, but it was impossible for him to turn around. He always told me a B-24 was small, but this was ridiculous. Picture Mo Vaughn climbing into a baby buggy, then replace the rattles and binkies with a .50 caliber machine gun, and you'll get some idea of how cramped it is up in that turret.

Dad crawled back out, and I made my way past him. We were wearing earplugs and we couldn't hear each other above the engines' roar, but we didn't need to. We both knew we were sharing a moment we would remember the rest of our lives, one every bit as precious as the first baseball game he took me to (Seattle Pilots vs. Cleveland Indians, Sicks Stadium, August 22, 1969, Tommy Harper Night, Pilots score four in bottom of the ninth but Indians win, 9-8).

Verle Caple
It had been almost 60 years since Verle had flown in the famed B-24.

When my father was gone, I squeezed into the nose turret. It was extraordinary. I've logged well over a million miles in commercial airliners, but this was something far different. I could hear the wind rushing past. I looked down and saw the waters of Puget Sound directly beneath me. I could see the islands and city all around me.

I didn't feel like a passenger; I felt like I was actually flying.

Children can never picture their parents as having been young, but I tried to imagine what flying those missions must have been like for my father. He grew up so poor in a little town called Puyallup that his father had to cut wood and sell it for a two or three dollars a cord. His mother died of an asthmatic attack when he was 10. And then the war started when he was 19 and a student at the University of Washington. He left school and soon found himself on another continent, risking his life on a regular basis by crawling into a cramped, cold plane and dropping bombs on the enemy.

Try as I did, I simply couldn't imagine what it was like for him. I don't think anyone who wasn't there can.

The flight was short, just 30 minutes. Making my way back to Dad and John, I wasn't even aware that the plane had turned around until I saw the Ballard lift bridge on my left and the UW campus in the distance. Soon we were zooming past the Space Needle and descending toward Boeing Field. The buzzer sounded twice, signaling it was time to sit down and strap on our seatbelts again.

As I did and our flight came to an end, I looked over at my dad. He was flying in a B-24 for the first time since the war and the guy was smiling so broadly I would have thought the Mariners won the World Series and the Huskies beat Notre Dame the same day.

Except for one thing. There also was a tear running down his cheek.

It's the first time I've ever seen my father cry.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.