World War II vets visit Tinker

  • Published
  • By Mike W. Ray
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Today they walk with canes or get pushed in wheelchairs. But 70 years ago the members of the 388th Bombardment Group were young men in their late teens or early 20s, risking their lives flying in B-17s on bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.

Twenty surviving veterans of the Army Air Corps unit, along with about 65 family members, visited Tinker AFB last week in conjunction with the 388th Bomb Group Association's 64th annual reunion. "It's unusual for a unit to maintain this kind of coherence," said Ben Forrest Jr., outgoing president of the organization.

The visitors got a "windshield tour" of the base on a pair of chartered buses, escorted by members of the 72nd Air Base Wing Security Forces Squadron, and afterward they ate lunch at the Tinker Club. After the meal they were treated to a flyover by a B-17 from the Commemorative Air Force. The reunion concluded with a banquet Saturday night at an Oklahoma City hotel.

"We are especially pleased to know you wanted to come to Tinker Air Force Base," Col. Christopher Azzano, 72nd ABW and Tinker installation commander, told the entourage at the Tinker Club. "And thank you for the legacy you have left for our generation," he continued. "We so much appreciate your service."

The colonel noted that Tinker was established in 1941 and is named for Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, an Oklahoman and Native American who lost his life while leading a group of bombers on a mission against the Japanese in the vicinity of Wake Island on June 7, 1942.

Colonel Azzano revealed that his father was a crew chief on a B-25 Mitchell bomber in World War II. Renzo Azzano, now 91, a first-generation American son of Italian immigrants, enlisted in the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor.

The 388th BG, a unit of the 8th Air Force, originated in 1942, according to Mr. Forrest, of Bellevue, Wash. The 388th still exists but has evolved into a fighter wing based at Hill AFB in Utah, he related.

History records that some 30,000 members of the Army Air Forces died in the European and Mediterranean theaters of operation. About 14,000 were wounded -- many sustained frostbite from numbing temperatures as low as 50-below while flying in uninsulated airplanes at altitudes of 25-30,000 feet -- and approximately 33,000 were captured and spent some time as prisoners of war. Only German U-boat submariners had a higher rate of casualties during the war.

The 388th flew more than 300 combat missions between July 17, 1943, and May 20, 1945, records reflect. The missions were focused primarily on targets in Germany and France, but some of the missions went to Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Ledgers show that 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses were built, and 4,754 of them -- including 142 from the 388th Bombardment Group -- were shot down, crashed or simply went missing in the European Theater of Operations.

About half of the 20 surviving members of the 388th who attended the reunion in Oklahoma City were captured during the war, said Henry Curvat of Jacksonville, Fla., past president of the 388th Bomb Group Association. His adopted father, Col. Wayne Daniels, was shot down on his third mission and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp.

"Every day, they didn't know whether they were coming back," said Mr. Forrest, himself a naval and commercial aviator.

For example, the first 388 BG crew shot down in combat were on their first mission. And Mr. Forrest's father, now 90 and living in a nursing home, was a ball turret gunner on a Flying Fortress that had a harrowing experience on a bombing run over Berlin on March 29, 1944.

With the pilot and co-pilot both wounded, bombardier/navigator Charles Neff, who had never flown an airplane, took control of their plummeting, crippled B-17 -- which was named "Borrowed Time". Lieutenant Neff leveled off at 9,000 feet and managed to steer the aircraft back to their home base in England via an unplanned, alternate route. He performed the first-ever landing of a B-17 on autopilot, and brought the aircraft down intact, albeit two hours behind schedule. The entire 10-man crew survived.

Mr. Neff, 88, said he finally was sent home after completing 35 bombing missions across Europe, including two on D-day, June 6, 1944.

The 65th reunion of the 388th Bomb Group Association will be held next year in Ogden, Utah, home of Hill AFB, said Rick Thompson of Cincinnati, Ohio, the incoming president.