Of all the people on the tarmac Monday outside the Savannah Aviation terminal, few knew the B-17 Flying Fortress better than Gordon Fenwick.
The World War II veteran flew 35 bombing missions over Germany with the 401st Bomb Group, part of the Mighty 8th Air Force.
A decorated tech sergeant, Fenwick said some of those missions from nearly 75 years ago are easier to recall than others.
“I don’t like to remember all those days,” he said.
It was a dangerous job. Of the 12,732 B-17s built before the end of World War II, 4,735 were lost in combat. And those who served on the aircraft had a life expectancy of about 15 missions, according to some accounts.
Yet Fenwick and others who served on the B-17’s 11-man crews kept going back up and flying into the teeth of German air defenses, and B-17 crews dropped more bombs than any other aircraft in World War II, according to the Liberty Foundation.
The B-17s were tough. The crews were, too.
“You were kind of immune to any trepidation or fear,” Fenwick said. “You sometimes felt the next mission could be your last, but you were pretty much focused on the task at hand.”
Fenwick, who served primarily as a radio operator but also as a medic and photographer, was on hand Monday to help put a human face on the history of the B-17.
He called it an aircraft that “came along at the right time and was the proper piece in our arsenal at that time. It helped us win the war,” he said. “Without it, the war would’ve gone on much longer.”
As Fenwick spoke, behind him sat parked one of those B-17s, a piece of American history built in 1944 and only one of less than 15 still able to fly.
Known as the Madras Maiden, the B-17 will be open to the public for ground tours at times this weekend in Savannah. Flights are available to those able to spend $450 ($410 for Liberty Foundation members) to ride in a piece of history.
The half hour flights and 15-minute history briefings help keep the Madras Maiden and the history it represents flying, according to Liberty Foundation pilot Cullen Underwood, who flew the B-17 from Columbia, S.C. It costs on average between $4,000 and $5,000 an hour to keep the aircraft going.
“This is a piece of history and we are flying it,” Underwood said. “It’s not like it’s in a museum somewhere were they’re not going to see it, hear it and smell it.”
Those who purchase tickets are “provide a wonderful thing for us,” Underwood added. “It keeps our foundation going and helps us honor these veterans. Without the public’s participation it’s just way too expensive to do this.”
The flights in the B-17 are “a trip of a lifetime,” he said, noting that his favorite thing is to see the impact the aircraft has on children.
“If we can spark the interest in just one child, it’s worth it,” he said. “These days, we put fences around every airport because of the bad things that happened during 9/11, and that’s necessary, but it’s prevented people’s interaction with aircraft, so kids don’t get to have that enjoyment that I had growing up.”
Fenwick said he hopes the history of those days isn’t forgotten.
“I think all students should be taught the history, it should be in focus,” he said, “so they have some sense of how important it is to keep our country well prepared and be ready to defend it if we have to.”
To schedule a flight or for more information, go to www.libertyfoundation.org. or call 678-589-7433.