Out in the parking lot, the vibe is decidedly pre-New Army. “Get this through your thick skulls,” roars a sweating sergeant named Murphy at campers standing at attention (sort of). “See these stripes? I actually work for a living. I am not a ‘sir.’ ”
A 60-year old ex-Marine, Tim Murphy is one of about 10 volunteer re-enactors populating the illusion. Most are members of the Arizona Ground Crew Living History Unit, based in Phoenix. Genial and low-key behind the scenes, Murphy describes their mission simply: “Folks come here wanting to be immersed in World War II. Well, we’re gonna drown you.” He plays the part like a B-movie character actor, bellowing and blustering, venting harangue and sly humor. All part of the make-believe, sure. But when Sergeant Murphy gets in your face, you wipe off that grin and shape up.
Jamie Stowell is the sole female camper. A power grid controller from Sacramento, she’s already drawn the nickname “Miss Roosevelt” from Murphy. (“You gotta be related to the president, ’cause I don’t know how you got into the Army Air Corps otherwise.”) Actually, Stowell’s father trained in B-24s before requesting a transfer to the North American B-25. During combat in Europe, he was a B-25 aircraft commander. Stowell is here as a tribute to his service. “I think it’s going to be really cool to get in the turrets and see what my father went through,” she says.
In the role of ranking officer, Captain Bill Gaston, another Arizona re-enactor, wears a flat-brimmed campaign hat and khakis with razor creases. He remains meticulously in character at all times, ordering us about in clipped, unsmiling sentences. After a faded Army filmstrip on venereal disease prevention—“Mandatory!” he snaps—a half-day cram course begins.
Navigation, armament, and bomb delivery, along with real-life hardware, are fast-tracked through show and tell. Instructor credentials are impressive: Jim Goolsby, one of the pilots of the Collings B-24, teaches navigation and radios. A retired United Airlines 747 captain, Goolsby began as a commercial airline navigator on Boeing 707s.
Parked a hundred yards from fantasy camp is a Consolidated B-24J Liberator named Witchcraft, in honor of a European-theater bomber that flew 130 missions with the Eighth Air Force. Built in 1944, our bomber flew with the Royal Air Force under the Lend-Lease Act. Later, in the Pacific, it pulled anti-sub patrol on missions lasting more than 20 hours. Then and now, Boeing’s B-17 got the glamour. But the four-engine B-24 was the Big War workhorse, shouldering more tonnage than any other bomber in the U.S. fleet.
MO LEVICH is a jazz trumpeter and director of a Bay Area big band that has performed for years beneath the wings of Collings Foundation bombers at airshows. That’s no coincidence: Levich’s home library is devoted entirely to World War II history. “I’ve studied this stuff since I was five or six years old,” he tells me during a break from class instruction. But his hitch at B-24 camp results from deeper gravitational forces. “I was pulled here because of my background,” he says. A few members of Levich’s family, Polish Jews, got out of Europe after Germany was defeated. “All I can do now is come here and honor the guys who flew these airplanes,” he says. “Because if they hadn’t prevailed then, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Levich and the other cadets assemble in the hangar-turned-classroom. “Turn off the cameras,” says Taigh Ramey, “and close the doors.” The Norden bombsight is unveiled. Though its mythology overshadows its real-world accuracy, the Norden was one of the war’s most guarded secrets. It’s a mechanical brain with hundreds of moving parts, capable of steering the course to the target and computing the bomb release point. A bombsight historian and collector, Ramey fills the chalkboard with diagrams depicting drift angle, track, and wind speed. In case we’re forced down, he passes around once-classified documentation showing precisely where to shoot a Norden with a .45 pistol to make it unusable to the enemy.
1 p.m. Lunch under a camp canopy on a sun-bleached ranch. The baloney sandwich buffet is from a World War II Army recipe book, and the food is served in mess tins.
After lunch, we make our way to a makeshift gunnery range to perforate paper airplanes with everything from machine guns to handguns. A 1942 Chevy turret trainer truck rests in a patch of shade. Using a shotgun mounted inside the powered turret, campers learn aerial targeting. Clay pigeons simulate attacking fighters.