NORMAN — As the B-17 Flying Fortress at Max Westheimer Airport roars to life, the two dog tags around Joe Jones' neck glint in the sunlight from the aircraft's waist gunner window. One of the tags is his, worn during his time as a Green Beret in Vietnam. The other once belonged to a man who knew this type of aircraft all too well.
This particular B-17, named “Aluminum Overcast,” is a restored World War II bomber taking an annual flight tour by the Experimental Aircraft Association out of Oshkosh, Wis. The group offers rides on the bomber, with a particular focus on giving veterans a chance to experience history.
For Jones, this trip is a chance of a lifetime — not just to fly on a historic aircraft, but to connect with the life of a family member he never had the chance to meet.
In 1944 Jones' uncle, Gerald Taylor, was aboard a badly damaged B-17 limping back toward friendly territory. Taylor, the bombardier, had just completed his fifth successful mission in an attack on German-held Poland. But the aircraft had taken heavy damage during the raid.
It became clear to the crew that their bomber wasn't going to make it back. Their only option would be to ditch the aircraft in the freezing-cold sea.
“The crew of another B-17 with the group reported that they saw 10 chutes,” Jones said, “so they all made it out of the airplane.”
Yet only one of the crew's bodies was recovered.
Taylor wasn't the only member of Jones' family who had made sacrifices during the war. Gerald Taylor's brother was a pilot. He flew paratroopers over France during D-Day, and though he was seriously injured by anti-aircraft fire, returned wounded men onboard the aircraft to their base in England. Joe's wife, Nancy, the daughter of a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot, is no stranger to the conflict either.
“They had real guts,” Jones said. “It's amazing to think about what they did, and they were only boys.”
As Jones gets ready to take the B-17 flight in Norman, crew chief Shad Morris tells him and the group accompanying him what to expect.
“It's loud, bumpy and hot,” he said, “But it'll give you an idea of what those boys had to deal with. And remember, there's nobody on the ground trying to kill us.”
The ride in the B-17 is rough as the large aircraft is buffeted by the wind. Inside, any words that aren't shouted get drowned out by the four radial engines. The temperature feels 10 degrees hotter than the already steamy Oklahoma summer day. Yet Jones smiles, his hand resting on a .50-caliber machine gun as he surveys Norman below.
After the bomber is back on the ground and most of the passengers have cleared out, Jones makes a special request. He wants to get in the nose and sit at the bombardier's station, where Gerald Taylor had spent his last hours. Jones grew up looking at pictures and hearing stories of his uncle, but nothing has brought him this close.
Jones bends down and looks into the B-17's bomb sight. The last time a member of his family looked through the sight, it was to deliver a blow to the forces that had stolen the freedom of so many.
“It was amazing,” Jones said. “To hear what he heard, and to see what he saw.”
It's loud, bumpy and hot. But it'll give you an idea of what those boys had to deal with. And remember, there's nobody on the ground trying to kill us.”
Crew chief, ‘Aluminum Overcast'