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Historic planes bring back WWII memories to Missoula

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Decades of signatures live inside the steel bomb bays of two 80-year-old airplanes that landed on Missoula’s tarmac on Monday. Whether new or faded, each draws back to the great air battles of World War II, when thousands of Americans took to the skies.

Now parked at the Museum of Mountain Flying, volunteers are bringing those signatures — and accompanying stories — back to life this week through tours and flights of the last historic bombers left in the world.

“Bringing the aircraft gives people a real life experience of the sacrifice these flyers made for us,” said Bob Gates, flight crew chief for the planes. “Our Air Force veterans feel safe to relive their time when they are here.”

Two planes made the journey from Arizona as a part of a summer tour: the B-25 Maid in the Shade and the B-17 Sentimental Journey. The metal giants will stay at the Museum of Mountain Flying next to Missoula International Airport through Sunday.

The B-17 "Sentimental Journey" and B-25 "Maid in the Shade" land in Missoula during a summer tour.

The B-17 is one of five bombers still running from the original 12,000 manufactured during World War II. Nicknamed the Flying Fortress, the high-altitude bombers are known for dropping a majority of bombs during the war.

Sentimental Journey, manufactured in California during late 1944, did not see active combat, but continued service as a test bomber for nuclear trials in the Pacific Ocean.

Afterward, fire teams retrofitted the plane to dump fire retardant onto burns across the northwest U.S. The Commemorative Air Force, an all-volunteer education nonprofit, bought the plane in 1978, restored it, and began touring the country.

Maid in the Shade is one of 30 or so remaining B-25s. It’s known as a Purple Heart plane after flying 15 combat missions in Italy and Yugoslavia. On some missions, volunteers said Maid in the Shade was the only plane to survive.

After the war, the B-25 was used for training and then sold for spraying pesticide in the South for decades. When the owners were ready to scrap it, the Commemorative Air Force bought it, restored it over 20 years, and put it back in the air in 2009.

The air group is an educational organization that started to keep historic aircraft alive and tour them to places across the country. Based in Arizona, volunteers fly and maintain the planes.

The two relics rolled into Missoula from Kalispell on Monday. A small crowd of 20 greeted the great, heavy machines, which roared from the car-sized propeller engines. Inside, the interior looks just like it did in the 1940s. Photos of Sentimental Journey’s original crew cover the radio station desk. Even the chain guns used to deter fighter planes have live ammunition in them.

Lana Gates, flight coordinator for the Commemorative Air Force, said this is one of the first times the two planes have gone on tour together.

The planes travel the country each summer to give a real-life look at the tragedy and triumph of the tens of thousands of aviators who flew during the war. Some reports say up to 50% of American pilots didn’t survive the war.

“We are trying to keep that inspiration alive,” Gates said. “It is truly an honor to be near and experience these aircraft.”

And with years of service, the all-volunteer Air Force has dozens of stories about the original men and women who filed the planes. Missoulian David Thatcher, who was an engineer/gunner on a B-25 during World War II, was one of the members of the Doolittle Raid — the first attack by the U.S. on Japanese soil.

Another Missoulian, Ken Taylor, flew a B-25 during the Korean War, Gates recalled six years ago in Missoula when the flight crew asked him to sign Maid in the Shade.

“He was on the brink of tears and shaking when he signed his name. He was so emotional that someone else finished it for him,” Gates said. “You could tell how much it meant to him. That's why we do it.”

Other signatures come from Rosie the Riveters, women who joined the war effort as manufacturers. First started as a government campaign to get women into defense industries, the nickname was popular for women working jobs left open by men at war.

More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, which was 65% of the total workforce, according to History.com. One signature in Maid in the Shade is from Betty Hayes, who built B-17s in Long Beach, California.

Crew members said Hayes could have built Sentimental Journey during the war, too.

Chris Bennett, who recently retired after 29 years in the Air Force, said he had to stop and tour the planes after dropping his daughter off at Missoula International Airport. He and his family looked closely at each message in the B-17. Above, the flight crew slowly unpacked their belongings from the main cabin.

The veteran said it felt surreal after flying the same routes as the plane when he was stationed in England. He said more people should be familiar with World War II.

“It’s easy to forget history,” Bennett said, noting the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid died in 2019. "We need to give it up for the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.”

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