Correction to This Article
This article about a ceremony at the Air Force Memorial incorrectly said that 30,000 U.S. airmen based in Britain were killed in World War II. The Air Force says that 30,099 U.S. airmen were killed in the European, Mediterranean and North African theaters during the war.
AIRMAN REMEMBERS

Flyover Harks Back To Europe And 1945

Retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee,one of the Tuskegee Airmen, watches the flyover.
Retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee,one of the Tuskegee Airmen, watches the flyover. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)

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By Sopan Joshi
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 11, 2008

As three World War II-era planes flew over the towering steel spires of the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, retired Air Force Col. Robert Vickers arched his neck just like everybody else in the crowd. The planes stood out starkly in the cloudless blue sky, reflected in his Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses, and his thoughts drifted back six decades.

"It was two Mustang fighters that saved me and my crew from the Luftwaffe," recalled Vickers, 84, a bomber pilot during the war. "I was flying a B-24 Liberator, and there was the co-pilot, the navigator and six gunners. We were flying a mission to bomb an oil refinery north of Dresden on January 16, 1945."

For 10 minutes yesterday afternoon, that day seemed not so far in the past as the airspace between Andrews Air Force Base and the Pentagon was closed to allow a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress, a P-40 Kittyhawk and a P-51 Mustang to soar overhead. The flyover was to honor the 30,000 American airmen who gave their lives flying from British bases during World War II.

The event was arranged by the American Air Museum at Duxford, England, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The aircraft evoked more for Vickers, perhaps, than for many of the 200 or so who gathered beneath the memorial's spires. Vickers, who lives in Taos, N.M., has been to the British museum, but this was his first visit to the Arlington memorial.

After the growl of the engines had faded, Vickers recalled the 1945 bombing mission in which he almost lost his life.

Antiaircraft fire had damaged three of the B-24's four engines. The electronics had failed.

"We couldn't talk to the Mustang pilots, but they hovered above us and kept the Luftwaffe at bay," said Vickers, who during the war flew "just about all the bombers they had at that time."

"They escorted us beyond General Patton's line into France, where we bailed out to safety." Pointing in the direction of the three planes, Vickers added, "I'm no hero, just a survivor."

Duxford and the U.S. Air Force have a special relationship. The first American servicemen were based there in 1918. During World War II, from 1943 to 1945, it was home to the 78th Fighter Group.

A contingent from Britain came to Arlington to view the flyover, headed by former prime minister John Major, the guest of honor. Also present was Air Chief Marshal Peter Squire, until 2003 the chief of air staff for the Royal Air Force. He now wears two hats as chairman of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford and president of the related American Air Museum.

Vickers's presence reinforced that tie -- he was the inspector general of command and control at the headquarters of the Air Force European Command, before he took up a position at the Strategic Air Command at the Pentagon. He retired in 1975 after 32 years in the Air Force.

Vickers finds much to admire in today's pilots, compared with his generation. "Today's pilots are very well-trained," he said. After a brief pause, he added, "We were darn well-trained for the little time we had for training."

The business of aerial warfare has changed greatly, he said.

"Technology has changed everything," he said. "The needs of today's warfare are so different."


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