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Bomberville

In which a tiny air force has an impact far greater than its numbers suggest.

Team members usually salute the end of the day with a cold beer, then follow their own preferences. If there is mechanical work to do and the ramp is equipped with lights, Nightingale and Strawn go back to work after dinner. Phil Haskell spends evening hours on the phone, scheduling riders for the next day's flights. As for the others, "some go dancing, some to movies, some just crash," says Dee Brush.

Ask anyone on the team what makes the rigors of the road worthwhile and you'll get the same answer: the veterans. Michael Garemko of Hartford, Connecticut, a top turret gunner from the 100th Bomb Group, approaches the B-17 tentatively. "Just let me touch it," he whispers, running his fingers across the underside of the wing. Robert Bogue of Norwich, Connecticut, an ordnance handler for the 392nd Bomb Group, listens to the B-24's 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-65 radials throttling up. "Oh, what a sound!" he exclaims. "You can't put a dime on me right now without hitting a goose pimple."

Some come to stare in silence, taking the trip back in time alone. Others come with comrades to reminisce. Often Nine-O-Nine and All American bring together men who haven't seen each other since the war, as well as strangers who discover they were in the same outfit and greet each other like long-lost friends. There are tears and smiles, and many, many photographs. From meticulously arranged scrapbooks, well-worn leather billfolds, and tissue-soft envelopes come surprisingly sharp black-and-white snapshots of young men in uniform, standing proudly in front of the mightiest warplanes of the day.

If there's a time and place veterans will talk about their experiences, it's in the presence of these airplanes. Bob Collings can't forget one tour stop when a young boy, his father, and grandfather, a wartime B-17 pilot, showed up for a visit. "The grandfather had suffered a stroke eight years before," remembers Collings. "He was still sharp and alert, but his speech was completely garbled." Yet when the veteran pilot got up to the cockpit and began to tell his son and grandson about his experiences, "all of a sudden he was very articulate, describing flak hitting the cockpit, the airplane on fire, bailing out with his crew," says Collings. "It was the first time his grandson had ever heard him speak clearly, and he told them the whole story."

As the crew members load their gear and prepare for takeoff, their visit suddenly feels all too brief, but there's another crowd at the next airfield, and the team doesn't want to keep them waiting. The bombers climb into the sky, leaving behind two kinds of people: those who wish they could go along, and those who've already been there.

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