By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Imagine — you’re in your 90s, and you’re looking at some of the bombers you remember all too well from your days fighting in World War II. Memories would come flooding back, and they did for a few veterans as the nation gets set to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.
May 8, 1945, marked the toppling of Hitler’s Nazi regime and the end of World War II on the Western front. It’s a day the world should never forget.
Ahead of the commemoration, a few veterans — in their 90s, but still as witty as they were in their prime — gathered at the Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia to put their memories into words and to see the planes they remember so well take to the skies again.
It was a rare moment — seeing two B-17 Flying Fortresses, a B-24 Liberator and the only remaining airborne B-29 Superfortress together on a runway. The aircraft were practicing for the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., 70 years after VE Day.
“I can’t believe I’m here to experience this,” said retired Army Air Corps Lt. Col. Bob Vaucher, who flew 117 missions, including the first and last B-29 flights over Japan. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d be doing anything like this at 96 years old.”
The B-29s were brought into service toward the end of the war and were most famous for one thing — dropping the atomic bombs.
“Two days after [the first bomb drop], we all got pictures of what happened in Hiroshima. We looked at these pictures and we couldn’t believe that one airplane had done all the damage we had done with 450 airplanes,” Vaucher said. “It was almost unbelievable.”
One feisty vet experienced the VE Day practice flights firsthand. Urban Rahoi, 96, was a B-17 captain with the 15th Air Force’s 463rd Bomb Group and fought in Africa and Italy during WWII. He said he never had any fear while flying then — “If I live, I live. If I’m meant to die, I die” — and he certainly didn’t have any reservations now. He went up with the crew of one of the B-17’s at the flyover practice.
“I know two [current] Air Force majors, and they said they feel I could fly those planes myself right now, but I have no desire to do it,” Rahoi said while laughing.
He did get to fly a B-17 again just last year.
“It was kind of unique how it happened. Two guys flew it ahead of me and made rough landings. I thought I was going to have to fly in the right seat [as co-pilot]. So the guy in the right seat gets out, and I was getting ready to get up in there when the guy in the left seat [commanding pilot] gets out, turns around and says, ‘Captain, your seat,'” Rahoi said. “When I sat in that seat, I felt like I never left it.”
Rahoi — who looks 75, not 96 — credited his youthfulness to his wife’s attitude and common sense. He said he’s thankful for the commemoration, “the fact that somebody remembers it, what we did and what it was for.”
Another vet showed that same youthful exuberance and positivity. Karnig Thomasian, 91, was a B-29 left gunner with the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 20th Air Force in the China-Burma-India Theater, when his plane went down in December 1944 over Rangoon, Burma. As one of the few to survive the crash, he was taken prisoner by Japanese forces and thrown into a prisoner of war camp, where he faced isolation, interrogations and beatings.
His camp was liberated by the British long after VE Day, but it’s still a day he will never forget.
“It just made you feel great, because now they can really hone in and get us out of there,” Thomasian remembered.
Despite all he had seen and been through, Thomasian never let the stresses of war get him down.
“In all these crazy moments, there are moments that you’d have to laugh, which really keeps you going. To survive in prison, I think one of the chief things is you have to decide whether you’re going to capitulate and just go back into yourself and die, or you’re going to say, ‘Hey. I’m living. I’m breathing. I’m going to go on and succeed, and I’m getting out of here,'” he said.
That positive sentiment was a theme with the veterans, who had seen so much over their long lives.
“I lived my dreams. I got to do what every fighter pilot in the world wants to do — engage the enemy and win,” said Bud Anderson, an Army Air Forces fighter pilot who flew 116 missions, mostly escorting heavy bombers over Europe.
“Our mission was to destroy the Luftwaffe and then allow the invasion of Europe to happen,” Anderson told a slew of reporters. The mission was successful — and Anderson was ever so humble about it. “It seemed like good fortune followed me everywhere I went.”
Neils Agather is the unit leader for the B-29/B-24 Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force. He pilots the B-29 that’s part of the VE Day commemorations — Fifi, which is named after his mother. The plane tours around the country, as do the other restored bombers.
“We still have a few veterans that come out, but unfortunately that number has dwindled. We now have a lot of children and grandchildren of veterans who come out, saying, ‘My dad sat in this position. What does that look like?'” Agather said. “They get on board and get a better appreciation.”
The restored bombers are four of more than 50 World War II-era aircraft to be part of the commemoration’s Arsenal of Democracy Flyover down D.C.’s Independence Avenue. The flights mark the first time since 9/11 that any civilian aircraft can fly over that restricted airspace.
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