B-17 bomber's visit brings WWII history to life

John Williams
World War Two veteran Douglas Holt looks out the window of a B-17 bomber during a flight out of the Waukesha County Airport on June 24, 2010 as a part of Wings Over Waukesha.
Published on: 6/29/2010

Stepping onto the airstrip at Waukesha County Airport with a B-17 bomber brought back memories for World War II veterans Doug Holt of Mequon and Ed DePreter of Shorewood.

Wings Over Waukesha, which took place over the weekend, honored the war and its veterans with re-enactors, restored aircraft and flyovers.

But the star of the show was the B-17 Aluminum Overcast, which attracted about 5,000 visitors.

During the event the public was welcome to tour the bomber and even take a ride. Holt, a member of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, sat in on one of the flights noting the familiar hum of the engine and how the plane looked exactly as it did in 1943. Holt should know as he helped restore Aluminum Overcast to its original condition.

Preserving history

DePreter feels it is important to preserve the B-17, as well as the veteran's stories and the history of the war.

"Most people don't know diddly squat about what happened in the Second World War," he said.

In order to help people learn more, DePreter, a member of the historical society, shared his story with people waiting in line to see the B-17, and he has quite the story to tell.

After joining the Army Air Corps in 1942, he went through basic training and spent six weeks learning how to pilot a B-17.

He was sent to England in 1944, and upon his arrival was told by his superiors, "Forget everything you were taught in training about formation flying. You're going to learn how the Eighth Air Force flies formation flying."

DePreter's close call

He flew 30 missions, mostly over Germany, and even participated in the infamous bombing of Dresden. DePreter had some close calls during his mission.

While flying over Germany he was attacked and had to fly his plane back to the base in England with only two of the plane's four engines. DePreter attributes some of his safe return to the B-17.

"It could fly when other planes couldn't," he remarked. "The B-17 was a fabulous airplane."

Holt faced tough conditions

Holt almost didn't have the chance to fly this fabulous plane. At 18 years old and only 110 pounds, Holt wasn't necessarily the ideal pilot.

After fudging a few numbers and going through physical and mental tests, he was accepted into the Air Corps and trained to be a pilot. While sitting in the waist of the plane, he recalled stealing his crew's seat cushions just to reach the pedals in the cockpit.

He also remembered the difficult flying conditions in the B-17. He and his crew would fly for 10 hours in freezing cold eating only a donut, cup of cocoa and shot of 100-proof rye his comrades would give him before a flight.

"Memories like that are impossible to forget," he said.

Bill Bergner, head of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society's Wisconsin chapter, thinks this event hosted by the Waukesha chapter of the EAA taught the public a lot about World War II. DePreter, Holt and other society members were present all weekend to share stories and show off the famed bomber.

"Instead of getting knowledge from history books, people can get history right from the veterans who were there," said Bergner.