Bombers Kindle Memories

By Beacon Staff

Albert Schwagel, 86, was crouched in a small sphere attached to the underbelly of a B-17 bomber when he was shot down for the third time during World War II. He survived the crash only to spend the next 479 days in Stalag 17, a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Still, Schwagel, who now lives 10 miles north of Whitefish, says he’s eager to tour the same type of plane this week in Kalispell.

“All three times I was shot down I was in a B-17, and I can still say I like that plane,” Schwagel, who also helped build several of the bombers in a California aluminum plant before he was drafted, said. “It was well armed and, after all, I survived.”

The Wings of Freedom Tour will visit the Flathead Valley next week for an exhibition that features some of World War II’s most important aircraft. On hand will be a selection of heavy bombers used during the war, including a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator called Witchcraft. The tour also includes the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber and the P-51 Mustang fighter plane.

The planes are scheduled to arrive in Kalispell at Glacier Park International Airport at noon on Wednesday, June 25, and will be open for tours until 5 p.m. that evening and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 26. Tours cost $12 for adults or $6 for kids 12 and younger.

The planes will also be available for flights during the evenings. Thirty-minute flights aboard the aircraft are tax deductible and cost $425 per person for the B-17 and B-24. A ride in the B-25’s front fuselage is $400 per person and $325 per person for the waist gun section. Flights aboard the P-51 are $2,200 for 30 minutes and $3,200 for one hour.

The Wings of Freedom Tour has visited 110 cities – including Kalispell previously in 2006 – in about 35 states annually for 19 years. As a major focus of the Collings Foundation, a non-profit education foundation dedicated to organizing “living history” events, the tour has two purposes: to educate the visitors, especially younger Americans, about national history through direct participation, and to honor the flight crews who manned the planes, workers who built them and other veterans.

“Education; it’s all about education,” John Gisselbrecht, a contract aviator and organizer for the local event, said. “It’s an eye opener for people when they get the chance to see first-hand what flying in one of these planes was like. And there are very few left – not many made it out of the war in one piece.”

The B-24 Liberator heavy bomber and P-51 Mustang are the only remaining planes of their type still capable of taking to the air, according to the foundation. The tour’s B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber is one of only nine such planes in flying condition in the U.S.

For Schwagel, the B-17’s visit evokes vivid memories of the 15 missions he flew in them.

Most Flying Fortress crewmembers considered Schwagel’s position in the ball turret the worst crew position on the aircraft. The ball turret gunner would sit hunched, legs bent, with a gun between his legs and his feet in stirrups on each side of the confining sphere, which was fastened to the underside of the aircraft. About 13 inches of armored glass separated them from enemy fire.

At 5 feet 9 inches and about 155 pounds, Schwagel got the position because his crewmember originally assigned to it was too large to fit.

“It wasn’t a coveted spot,” Schwagel said. “Anyplace on those planes, though, was uncomfortable, especially when you were in high altitudes and it got down to 70 below zero. Those electric suits we wore weren’t very dependable.”

And that’s when Schwagel was able to wear his: He often had to forgo the suit and a full-size parachute because they were too bulky for his cramped quarters. With the threat of being shot down, though, the cold was the least of his worries.

“When those planes came around from behind you could usually turn the suit down,” he said, “because you were already wet and hot with sweat.”

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