In 2008, I was introduced to an older gentleman. Had we met in the line of a grocery store, we might have nodded to each other, maybe exchanged greetings but, to my discredit, I am sure little else. That we met next to the fuselage of a B-17 bomber casts a different light on our meeting.
For me, the next hour held only 10 minutes as I got to know Herb Heilbrun. And in that first meeting, it seemed for Herb, the last six decades held only 5 years, as he, modestly but vividly, recounted some of what it was like to be a pilot of a B 17 during World War II. Engaging, articulate, and funny, Herb is a walking history book, a lesson in sacrifice, dedication, and devotion. A strikingly handsome man in his youth, his keen looks, confidence, and assured demeanor must have given his crew immediate confidence. Yet his relaxed, self assured appearance belied the immense responsibility he bore, as in his hands, he held the throttles and yoke of a B-17, and the lives of nine other men.
Herb is an all-too-infrequent visitor to our project. We see him every couple of months. Now in his eighties, Herb has aged in the manner we would all desire. Indeed, how many senior citizens are planning on taking laps in a two-seat Indy Car? Like our other veterans, he is an inspiration to those of us who work on Champaign Lady.
We are always honored to spend time with Herb as he encourages us in our work, and often describes, in vivid detail, the missions he and his crew flew in World War II. During our all too short conversations, we alternate between tears, laughter, and astonishment, as Herb relates the events of 60 plus years ago. His modest, self effacing manner masks the terror of the life and death struggles as he flew 35 missions against the Third Reich. Near to his heart is Johnny Leahr, a Tuskegee Airman. Their close friendship and stories are recounted in the book, Black and White Airmen, by John Fleischman.
This charming gentleman does not wear his battle experience on his sleeve. He, like the other veterans, shrugs off any accolades we offer, saying he was merely doing his job, like everyone else in his generation. It is humbling to meet the wonderful men and women of the Greatest Generation as we go about our tasks of building a new B-17G.
There are many other elderly men and women who grace our hangar with their visits. Combat veterans, ground personnel, and factory workers from the Arsenal of Democracy alike bring to our hangar a vivid sense of history, dedication, and sacrifice. They are as important to this project as any part of the airplane. Indeed if not for them…
We look forward to seeing each of them! Their presence and friendship mean the world to us…their courage and sacrifice gave the world to us! Being a small part of the Champaign Lady project has taught me that heroes walk in our doors every day and has enabled me to fully realize what they did for me. I realize how much I, and humanity, owe them.
So, the next time you encounter a person of Herb’s age, walk over, say hello, and shake their hand. You just might be meeting a hero.
Written by: Robert Buchwalter
Staff Sgt. Arthur Kemp, DFC
Almost every Saturday at 1400, word begins to roll around the hangar: “Art’s here!”, and we see the smiling face of Art Kemp. S/Sgt. Kemp is a tail gunner in the 508th Squadron of the 351st Bomb Group (H), based at Polebrook, England. Art lives nearby and reports in every week to share a laugh, cajole us into working faster (!), and to see what’s new. Not only does he keep watch on us, but since he is a machinist, Art sometimes brings in parts for the airplane that he has made in his shop. Visitors to our hangar often wonder what it must have been like to fly and fight in one of these airplanes. We are fortunate that we can introduce them to Art and let him give them the “straight dope”. Art relates his experience with humor and humility. He might start out talking about himself but within a few sentences, the talk is about the sacrifice and actions of other people.
Through Art’s words, we have learned what it was like for a young man to be caught up in the whirlwind of the war, his training, deployment to England, his missions, and coming home to build his post war life. We sat beside him in the briefing rooms, watched him clean and then load his guns into the airplane, seen him crawl back into his tail gun position, and, using an Aldis lamp, flash his squadron code “J” from that position, as his squadron went through the dangerous and sometimes deadly procedure of assembling a raid in the cloudy skies of England. We know what it was like for a young man to fly his first mission and learn it was no milk run. Art’s green crew flew their first combat raid right to the heart of Nazi Germany: Berlin.
Art tends to downplay his actions but occasionally, the conversation centers on the Merseberg raid, his eleventh. Coming off the target, his B-17 had been seriously damaged by German fighters, and two crewmen were killed. Defending his airplane and crew, Art shot down two fighters from the tailgun position. That day, Art’s courage under fire, gunnery skills, and cunning earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Yet, Art quickly emphasizes the actions of the other crewmen, the communication through the airplane, and the strength of the B-17. Their airplane got the surviving crew home, flying almost 500 miles on only one good engine.
Most of the pictures we see of World War II are in black and white. Having Art in our hangar and in our lives begins to add some color to those stark images. The presence of Art, and all our other veterans, reminds us that the reason we build and maintain these airplanes has nothing to do with aluminum.
Each week, Art provides us with insight into the quality and quirks of the B-17. For example, many of you know there are two tail gun configurations for the B-17: the stinger tail and the Cheyenne tail. Wonder which one Art preferred and which type he was in the day he shot down two enemy fighters? Why don’t you stop in some Saturday afternoon? You can ask him yourself!
Look for an article on Mr Kemp; Two Kill Tail Gunner, in the September/October issue of Warbird Digest magazine.
written by: Robert Buchwalter