Rob Collings arrived in Stockton piloting the P-51 Mustang Betty Jane. As a multi-caliber salvo erupts, he describes how the Collings Foundation’s philosophy shaped the camp. “Our whole mission is living history,” he says. “The airplane rides have been one part of it. Now we want to get more of that experience across. We can’t show campers all the hardships of war, certainly, but we can show them the training and what people had to go through on a daily basis.”
The logistics are daunting. “Especially when you want to shoot machine guns,” says Collings. “There are lots of places where you just can’t do that.”
“I’m not a gun nut,” Jamie Stowell assures me after her turn at the thundering .50-caliber. “But oh my God! It’s just astonishing power.” Nothing like the rat-tat rattle of movie machine guns, the fire-spitting Browning quakes the air and even the ground beneath your feet.
Over at the training turret, clay pigeons maintain air superiority. Few 21st century skills are transferable to sitting in a rotating turret while simultaneously adjusting gun elevation and manually tracking an unfriendly in three dimensions. Craig Connor respects the lower-tech ethos of 1944. After climbing down from the turret, he says: “In World War II, the human aspect of a bomber crew, the interaction between those guys, was everything. Now black boxes tell you where to go and what to do. Technology just takes people further and further out of the picture.”
Recoil bruises, intense sunlight, and the umpteenth .50-caliber cartridge jam eventually sap campers’ trigger-happiness. Back in Stockton, the 12-hour day ends with re-enactors reading aloud fake letters from home. “You may return to your billet,” Captain Gaston commands, “and fall unconscious.”
DAY TWO, 7 A.M. Above Witchcraft, an American flag flutters in clear morning light. As Jim Goolsby conducts a walk-through of the B-24, he exudes more tough love than romanticism. Mo Levich inquires about the big bomber’s glide ratio; “A little better than a brick,” he replies bluntly.
Up narrow steps, the flight deck is a museum of war production ergonomics: banks of dials and toggles flanked by handles and levers. Control of the bomber’s large flight surfaces is unassisted by hydraulics. “They’re a little heavier than what you’re used to in a Cessna,” Goolsby tells Levich as we test the action. Rudders have the pedal travel of an elliptical trainer at the gym. Pulling the control wheel back to its limit, you feel every foot of greased cable winding through pulleys and stretching back to the big elevators.
How do today’s pilots relate to Witchcraft’s fly-by-might controls and primitive cockpit environment? “We get jet jockeys in here all the time,” says Goolsby, “and they do a terrible job. We’ve also had people who fly for the airlines train to fly it and they’ll tell you, this ain’t anything like an airliner.”
Re-enactor Sergeant Ken Terpstra, of the Stockton Field museum, has World War II bomber nose art tattooed on his right arm, so I’m not surprised when he says, “I should have been born a long time ago.” A San Joaquin County deputy sheriff, he stands atop the ball turret trainer, psyching up volunteers to squeeze into the metal orb with the plexiglass porthole. Not everyone wants to—or can. After training in basic rotation and target tracking, Terpstra instructs aspirants to signal him in case of sudden claustrophobia and/or vertigo. “I’ll get you out of there quick,” he promises.
Mid-morning lethargy is staved off by loading 220-pound cement bombs into Witchcraft’s bay. Oil must be purged from engine cylinders too. “I’ll do the freakin’ counting for you,” Sergeant Murphy shouts as we manually push the enormous props through a prescribed number of revolutions.