T/Sgt. Orvin W. Larson - 419th Squadron
WWII bombers drop in
By CANDACE CHASE
Daily Inter Lake Published: Thursday, June 26, 2008 1:20 AM CDT
Planes rev up memories, Orvin Larson smiled when he heard that people paid more than $400 for a flight Wednesday on a restored B-17 Flying Fortress like the one he served on as an engineer gunner. I've seen a time when I would have paid $400 to stay on the ground, he said with a laugh. Especially if we were flying over Vienna or Munich. Larson, 85, a retired logger and mill owner from Eureka, revisited his war years on a tour of the B-17G Nine O Nine Wednesday when the Wings of Freedom Tour landed four historic aircraft at Glacier Park International Airport.
The B-17 rumbled in down the runway, following the B-25 Mitchell and the B-24 Liberator bombers and the P-51 Mustang fighter. All four remain on view and available for tours through 5 p.m. today at the Semitool Hangar (gate 7 just past the airport s main entrance). Larson said friends from Eureka flew him to Kalispell in a Cessna 182 just to have a hamburger. He was excited to find instead a blast from his past, circa 1943-44, when he was a member of the 301st Bombardment Group, 419th Squadron based in Italy.
I had to be all of 21 or 22 back then, he said. It was very memorable to see it (the B-17) put the gears down and land. Checking the landing gears with a hand crank formed a critical part of his duties as an engineer gunner. As if it were yesterday, Larson recalled the routine on his 35 bombing runs. I would stand behind the pilot and read the airspeed on take off, he said. When the shooting started, Larson morphed into top turret gunner. He stills recalls the sound like gravel slamming the side of a tin tub of flak hitting and often penetrating the Flying Fortress. I've seen daylight coming through the side of the ship, he said. Larson explained that his group flew in formations of seven planes with the lead craft at 25,000 feet and the others at staggered elevations above and below so locked-in anti-aircraft fire couldn't take out the whole squadron.
Tail-end Charlie was 200 feet below the rest, he said. According to Larson, the German air force was largely depleted of fuel by time he was flying, so most of the fire came from the ground. He carries a memento: a scar still visible in his eyebrow. We got shot up over some little town in Yugoslavia, Larson said. Flak hit me in the top turret and ripped my eyebrow open. I thought I was dead with the blood running down my face. He wasn't, but the crew wondered if its B-17 was a goner as flak hit the engine and the oil poured out. The propeller flew off and the engine didn't catch on fire. We were able to limp back and land at a British fire base on a little island in the Adriatic, he said.
He went on to marry Echo, now his wife of 62 years, and raise a daughter and two sons. A few years after the war, Larson earned a private pilot's license that he still maintains to fly his Piper Colt. I flew it on Monday, he said with a smile. Flying was always fun, especially when they weren't shooting at you.
Not every war story had such a happy ending, as Roger Wendt can attest. His brother Wayne, a B-17 pilot who grew up in their large family in Creston, went down with his B-17 aircraft Silver Doll on Nov. 13, 1944. As he waited a turn Wednesday to tour a B-17 for the first time, Wendt remembered the terrible telephone call from Western Union. His family, including eight children, was told Wayne was missing in action. Wendt, 14 at the time, never thought that his brother was gone at 27. He had his life ahead of him with a degree in business earned at the University of Montana and his fiancée, Mildred Gordon, waiting with his diamond on her left ring finger. It never could happen he'd parachute out and turn up somewhere, he said. His eyes still mist over, remembering the pain when his family learned about a month later that its first-born son died in the fiery crash that followed an engine malfunction. Four of the 10-man crew escaped, largely due to Wayne's bravery in staying at the controls after ordering others to abandon ship. A letter to Wendt's father Gus from one who survived recorded his courage. We who escaped were able to do so only because of the way Lt. Wendt handled the ship, David Workman wrote. He was still there working with her when I left the plane. The family collected letters from survivors and their families about the fateful night when Wayne piloted the B-17 on a secret night bombing mission over the Blechhammer oil refinery in southern Germany. Wendt said it was a dangerous Lone Wolf assignment in which each plane flew by itself over the heavily defended installation. Wayne volunteered for that mission, knowing how bad it would be, his brother said. The pilot had survived 30 missions but Wendt said his brother understood he might never return. That's why he wouldnt agree when Gordon wanted to get married before he left. Tears fill his eyes again as he remembers Gordon's personal act of courage and kindness after losing the love of her life. She gave back the ring to my mother, he said. That was really nice. I get emotional, even now.
Wendt, scheduled to take a flight on the B-17 Wednesday night, planned to say a prayer as a final salute in the sky to his brother's act of bravery in the faltering Silver Doll. He was a neat guy. He was very patriotic, Wendt said. He always told the rest of us to work hard, be honest and never embarrass your family. Wayne Wendt set a high standard but the family, though broken-hearted, carried on to enjoy the freedom he died to preserve.
Roger, a retired machinist, and his wife Donna had four children. His brother Ray died recently but two other siblings, his sister Pat Jiroux and brother John, are still alive along with his many nieces and nephews. He planned to take a lot of pictures to share with his large extended family. Wendt said he felt a mix of emotions about seeing the sights and hearing the roar of the engines that Wayne heard in his final hour. I'm sad but excited, he said. The public may view the World War II planes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. Walk-through tours cost $12 for adults or $6 for children 12 years or younger. There is no charge to view the planes from the outside. Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.