The B-24 Liberator was overdue. Ugly gray clouds and a misty overcast cut visibility to less than a mile. Hot and sticky, the crewmembers had been airborne most of the day and they were eager to land. Big sweat beads rolled off their faces and dripped onto the metal floor. The nose art on front of the B-24 identified her as Diamond Lil. Ground personnel were anxious, hoping Diamond Lil could make the airfield. Unattractive and ungraceful, the B-24 merited a reputation for difficult handling and unpredictable flight characteristics.
But experience sat at the controls. The pilot, Paul Stojkov, had flown B-24, B-29, B-17, and B-25 bombers, plus wrestled the sticks of legendary P-51 Mustang and P47 Thunderbolt fighters. In bad weather and rainy conditions, Paul Stojkov was the man you wanted in the pilot’s seat of the cumbersome flying hulk.
Eyes scanned the skies until someone shouted, “There she is!” Out of the mist at the north end of the runway Diamond Lil slipped through a dull-looking shadowy raincloud like a phantom seeking the protection of solid earth. She appeared to bank at a ninety degree angle, her right wing pointing straight towards the ground until Paul leveled the beast just before touchdown.
Diamond Lil slowed then swiveled onto the runway apron. Lumbering past a grateful and cheering crowd, an arm emerged from the copilot’s window. He waved as if to say, “Glad we made it.”
Diamond Lil had not been on a bombing mission to Berlin or the horrific raid to the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti when 54 out of 177 B-24s were lost. No, Diamond Lil, one of only two Liberators still flying today, had just touched down at Atlanta Regional Airport-Falcon Field in Peachtree City. The festive occasion was the 12th Annual WWII Heritage Days event sponsored by the Commemorative Air Force Dixie Wing to honor the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
The event is a trip back in time, to a country and citizenry once united for a cause worth fighting for. The general public steps back to an era of men and women whose generation is slowly slipping away from an important and critical period in our history. Women, decked out in the dresses and hats of the WWII home front (a few with a black mascara line drawn up the back of each leg to mimic how ladies faked the lack of silk stockings during the war) promenaded with men decked out in suits that thankfully are now out of style.
A younger generation wore the uniforms of our WWII soldiers, as did a few American boys dressed as Japanese soldiers plus a plethora of men and women dressed as German infantrymen and/or Red Cross workers. One tall Aryan-looking man donned the uniform of a German officer; he fit the bill to a tee. The ‘Americans’ and ‘Germans’ performed a lifelike reenactment of the Battle for the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen using a multitude of WWII weapons loaded with blanks, including .30 caliber machine guns. The noise was deafening, as battles are. A few people covered their ears, little people in strollers cried or had a look of total bewilderment on their pinkish faces, yet gung-ho spectators applauded and clamored for more. By the way, the American soldiers won.
Outside the main hangar, several jeeps, staff cars, a Red Cross tent, old Army trucks, a Japanese Zero and an American Vought F4U Corsair of Pappy Boyington’s Black Sheep Squadron renown, a very active air raid siren, and dozens of reenactors were available for photo shoots. And, of course, tasty American hot dogs and cheeseburgers were available for grumbling stomachs.
Tuskegee Airmen and their supporters manned a booth inside the main hangar as did the Silent Service (submarine) veterans of WWII. Clothes, watches, medals, bayonets, chest ribbons, books, flags and hundreds of other WWII items were on display. Two young women dressed as American Red Cross workers displayed the first aid kits and medical instruments of WWII. My wife and I were informed that during the North African Campaign when our nurses ran out of sutures to stitch injured soldiers they used their own hair strands to sew up our boys.
Gun enthusiasts were not disappointed. Most likely every weapon a soldier could carry in WWII was on display inside the main hangar. A German Panzefaust (tank fist) anti-tank weapon, Mauser rifles, and the feared MG-34 German machine gun drew crowds. American weapons included the reliable M-1 Garand, M-1 carbine, Thompson submachine gun, M3/A1 ‘Grease Gun’, and dozens more. The mainstay Japanese rifle in WWII, the Arisaka, drew attention as did Type 96 Light Machine guns and Nambu pistols.
Carol Cain, the well-known Rosie the Riveter performer, demonstrated her many talents and more than enough military historians hawked the knowledge they’d memorized over the years. After gulping down two cheeseburgers in record time…my wife called them Concrete Burgers…I scampered over to the main terminal to beg, con, or slip unnoticed into Diamond Lil. Slipping unnoticed onto the B-24 was noticed and halted in a split second by a friendly yet unyielding sentry. So, back to begging or conning. Those ideas didn’t work either. Fortunately, my Georgia Press Association card did the trick.
I toured the B-24 alone. Compared to the B-17, the Liberator is bigger and better but still not the best. It’s spacious and the cockpit offered a pilot and copilot ample leg room. A Liberator flew faster, had a longer range, and carried a heavier bomb load than a B-17, but a B-24 lacked the survivability and altitude of the legendary Flying Fortress.
The pilot, Paul Stojkov, described the Liberator in no uncertain terms, “It’s challenging and it’s fun, but very heavy in the elevator. Actually, the B-24 is the crappiest aircraft I’ve ever flown. Flying a Liberator is comparable to driving an eighteen wheeler with ten flat tires. During the war you could identify a pilot or copilot of a B-24 by the size of their arms from having to fight the controls for eight hours or more. But, it did its job and helped end the war.”
I noticed two men of the Greatest Generation on the tarmac admiring Diamond Lil with loving eyes, even caressing her large nose art anatomy in specific areas. Both men were navigators on B-24s during WWII, Hap Chandler and Paul Koshewa. Hap witnessed air crashes, the flak-filled skies dotted with parachutes, aerial fights to the death, and breakfast with another crew who were later killed in a crash during takeoff. Hap survived 35 missions ‘without a scratch’ and lived to fight another war in Korea as a B-26 pilot. A lady named Skee Price accompanied Hap to WWII days…she worked for the OSS (precursor to the C.I.A.) in London and Norway during the war.
Uncle Sam got his money’s worth after training Paul Koshewa as a B-24 navigator. He fought in three wars, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, retiring as a full-Bird Colonel. In July of 1944, Paul’s Liberator was ambushed by 10 German Messerschmitt fighters. The fighters peppered the bomber with accurate fire; two projectiles hit Paul’s lower left leg smashing the bone. Injecting himself with morphine, Paul crawled to other wounded airmen to render aid. His bravery was awarded with a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross. During the Korean War, Paul navigated C-47 cargo planes on propaganda leaflet missions or dropped saboteurs behind enemy lines. During the Vietnam War, he guided C-124 cargo planes from Manila into Da Nang, Phu Cat, Saigon, and other hot spots. In civilian life Paul taught and coached at Westminster High and served as an assistant football coach at The Citadel.
Brave men flew, navigated, defended, and died aboard the B-24 during WWII. By wars end, America produced 18,482 Liberators. Over 3,600 aircraft would be lost in combat. The more famous B-17 Flying Fortress faired far worst – of the 12,732 built, over 5,000 were lost in the battle for air supremacy. B-24s like Diamond Lil were notorious to catch fire, they were unattractive, hard to handle, and regularly broke apart when forced to ditch at sea. Ugly and unpredictable? Perhaps. But so is war, and the Liberator helped win the biggest war of all.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.