BETHANY — Albert Wheeler waited 67 years to take a ride on the bomber he says saved his life.
On Saturday, thanks to a selfless act by a Shawnee man young enough to be his grandson, Wheeler finally got to live out his dream.
The World War II veteran from Oklahoma City was telling war stories Friday in the cockpit of a B-29 Superfortress at Wiley Post Airport in Bethany when an inspired stranger decided Wheeler needed to experience the aircraft in all its glory.
Before the 88-year-old veteran could object, Drew Walker, a 27-year-old system operator for Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. swiped his credit card through a credit card machine set up alongside the airport's runway and bought Wheeler a ticket to ride.
For $595, Walker ensured Wheeler was among the several dozen people who took to the skies Saturday in the bomber known as FIFI, the last of the B-29s still airworthy.
“I was just so overcome; I really hesitated about accepting it,” said Wheeler, who showed up to the airport wearing a brown leather bomber jacket and a blue U.S. Navy cap, his wife of 66 years, Mercedes, in tow. “Finally my greed overcame my other emotions and I accepted.”
Historic aircraft flights
B-29s are best known for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, subsequently ending World War II.
FIFI is one of several vintage bombers brought to the Oklahoma City airport last week by the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit Texas group that preserves and flies historic aircraft across the country. The group raises money to restore its aircraft by charging people for short flights.
Wheeler, who patrolled the Atlantic Ocean during the war in a U.S. Navy torpedo bomber known as the Grumman TBF Avenger, said he was dispatched to the Pacific Front in the summer of 1945 but never made it.
“Just as I was about to leave, Harry Truman dropped the bomb and the war was over,” he said in the pilot's lounge before his flight Saturday. “Like I was telling those other young men earlier, that really made a Democrat out of me for a long time.”
His brother, who served with the U.S. Army, was called back from Korea when the war ended, he said.
The Wheelers ventured out to Wiley Post on Friday to check out the bombers.
‘The right thing to do'
Albert Wheeler retired several years ago from his job as chief chemist at Wilson Foods; Mercedes Wheeler worked as a secretary at Tinker Field and then as food editor for The Oklahoman. They met at college in Arkansas and raised five children.
Walker, who said he has a passion for aircraft and military history, said he overheard Albert Wheeler talking about his war experiences and hatched a plan.
“Al was up in the cockpit and I heard him mention he had equipment like that in the plane he flew, and it kind of sparked my interest,” he said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. Just hearing him talk, I think you would understand.”
Walker said three of his four grandparents served in World War II, and his sister currently works as a U.S. Air Force nurse in Omaha, Neb.
He pulled Wheeler's daughter, Susie Eubanks, to the side and told her he was going to buy the veteran a ticket.
“Dad practically started crying when we told him,” Eubanks said. “He said, ‘I've dreamed about someday flying in that plane and I never thought I would.' It meant a lot for him to feel that way, and it meant a lot to me, too.”
Wheeler, who suffers from a degenerative eye disease, said the men who joined him for the flight Saturday — some of them fellow veterans — made the trip more memorable than he expected. One man took photos for him, while others assisted him on and off the airplane.
“The camaraderie of being there with the guys beside me made it very well worth it,” he said. “I was just overwhelmed by how these guys were so solicitous of my behalf.”
Especially Walker, he said. It touched him that a stranger, a “kid” who might normally be bored from his stories, gave him attention and respect. He said it's been a long time since he's been on the receiving end of that kind of generosity.
“He has a lovely wife, and deservedly so because he seems to be a really nice kid,” Wheeler said of Walker.
“I'm just amazed there are people running around like that with empathy for us old ducks.”