Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Roar of the Engines...Across Sea and Time

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

The roar of the engines would have been enough for me.

We didn't even have to take off.

My late father, Stan Levine, had told me about the sound and the vibration you could feel in your bones.  So, just sitting in his old seat -- the navigator's -- aboard a B-29 firing up its giant four engines, would have been enough.

But ten days ago, hearing the engines was just the beginning.  At the Rocky Mountain Air Show in Colorado, I flew aboard "Fifi," the last airborne B-29 from World War II.
I've written before about my father's last mission aboard the "Nip Clipper." 
I wrote how the B-29 was shot down after a bombing run over Yawata in August 1945 on the Japanese mainland, how the crew floated for seven days in the ocean before being "rescued" by fisherman who turned the men over to the militia who beat them, and how a Japanese military policeman saved them from beheading.  ("Hiroshima, Personally," my piece in The Miami Herald, written on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack, can be found here).
Well, I always wanted to fly a B-29, and this was probably my last chance.  (The Air Show also featured a still-flying B-24 Labrador, plus several World War II fighters.  More information on the tour here.  It's coming to Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas in September).
As those engines fired up, so did my tears.  Oh, how I wished my father could have taken this flight with me!  I sat gripping the sides of the navigator's desk, which had a map of Japan and a sextant for nighttime navigating.  (This particular map had been borrowed from the Enola Gay).  I traced my fingers over the spot where my father's craft had been shot down.  And then over Hiroshima, where the crew had been taken one week after the bombing.
I imagined my father's emotions sitting in am identical aircraft with hundreds of others, on North Field, Tinian Island, preparing for the 13 hour bombing run.  (Hoping it would be a 13 hour run, meaning they would make it home).  My body tensed, and I felt my father's presence with me.  
Once airborne, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. 

I watched the flight engineer at work with the ancient controls.
..and the co-pilot. 

I looked forward through the cockpit and the famous glass "greenhouse" where the bombardier would sit -- in front and below -- the pilot and co-pilot.  (Photo shows the original Norden bombsight).
I wished the young pilot good luck on landing the big bomber. 

And wondered if these ancient instruments still work. 

For me, the most interesting piece of equipment in the cockpit was also the least photogenic.  A simple hatch in the floor. 

It's where my father and the crewmen in the front of the plane bailed out.  One after another, the radio operator, flight engineer, navigator, bombardier, co-pilot, and pilot jumped into space as their aircraft, one wing engulfed in flames from a flak hit, screamed toward the ocean.  Ten of the eleven crewmen survived the crash, the ocean, imprisonment, and the war.  The pilot, Lt. George Keller, did not.  His chute never opened, and he was killed on impact with the water.  My thoughts turned to him and his family, too.   
The entire experience lasted about an hour.  And a lifetime.  Even now, I can feel those massive engines in my bones. 


  1. Emotional journey for both you and your dad. You've posted about his war days before but this seemed more personal and gripping. Made me think of my own father's war experiences. Thanks for reliving the flight with us.

  2. Paul, I bet you flew over my house! We live right next to the airfield where the show is held every year. We can always tell when the show has started because our house shakes as the planes fly over. We love to watch the old planes and wonder what they've seen and where they've been.

    What an incredible experience and way to honor your father and the other crewmen.

  3. Paul
    I know some of your feeling . Pride and being overwhelmed by your Father's flying history. I learned a lot growing up. Father a navigator in a B 17 . Most flights over Germany and Ploesti oil fields. He would show my sister and I bombing pictures. It turned out he navigated 50 missions before coming home to Pittsburgh. He was killed by a drinking and drunk driver when his only grandchild was 6 months old , although lost in that way. I learned his rich military past when a member of his crew was looking for him for a reunion. I learned amazing heritage of honor and bravery that I passed on to his grandchild. So when I see you write about your Dad . I feel that bond .