WWII Veterans from Arkansas recall time served; take rare flight

Two World War II veterans from Arkansas, with completely different experiences, recently spoke with the Log Cabin Democrat before boarding a flight that would take them back in time.

 

The two men, now both in their 90s, were part of a significant period in world history.

North Little Rock’s Dub Toombs and Conway’s Al Hiegel candidly recalled moments in time few can fathom, while waiting to board one of the last intact B-17G planes from World War II. The flight event was hosted by the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) on Thursday.

Toombs was in the U.S. Air Force and worked as a flight engineer on B-17s and B-24s traveling through England, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and other countries.

“It brings back old memories,” he said. “Some good memories and some bad memories. I try to forget about the bad ones.”

Toombs said he wanted to try and enjoy the flight.

“You don’t have to worry about fighters,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about anti-aircraft fire. Just sit up there and enjoy yourself.”

Toombs said a good memory from the war was the last day he had to fly. He said when the crew was fighting, they had some hard targets to hit.

“When we made the target, and had good results and got back, and you could see what you did with the photographs that came in, then that was a good feeling,” Toombs said. “But, the bad feeling is when I think about all the guys that didn’t get back.”

He said that is one aspect of the war he tries to forget, choosing to focus on the good things that happened despite the tragedy that surrounded him.

“I lost a lot of good friends over there and that just … you can’t dwell on it because if you do, it’ll bother your mind, so I just think about the good things,” Toombs said.

While he’s flown on several B-17s since the war ended — remembering how it was noisy, loud, hot in the summer and cold in the winter — Toombs said he was still looking forward to Thursday’s flight, but said he knew it would be different than how it used to be.

“I don’t get around in them like I used to,” he said. “Used to, I could run from one end to the other. That ole catwalk’s not but 8 inches wide, and I used to just run down through there. [I] can’t do that anymore, but I enjoy it.”

For Hiegel, who was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, said Thursday’s flight was his first time to ever fly in this type of aircraft.

“I’m tickled to death to get to ride in it,” he said.

Hiegel was stationed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence where he lived for one year and served as a radar operator, mostly in the Battle of Okinawa.

“My job was picking up the Kamikaze boys on our radar and sending our airplanes out after them,” he said.

At 17 years old, Hiegel said he enlisted and left the United States on Valentines Day in 1945.

He arrived in Hawaii and was there for only a short time before asked by someone what ship he wanted to be on … he chose a carrier.

Heigel said the man told him he had a carrier shipping out in the morning and was going to war.

“He said go get out of those dress blues, get in your dungarees and hop on that ship,” he said. “So that’s how I got on a carrier.”

By 18 years old, Hiegel was in battle.

During the Battle of Okinawa, he said there were, he thinks, between 5,000-6,000 sailors who lost their lives because of the Kamikaze pilots coming in.

Hiegel said the Kamikaze pilots knew they were going to die and they would dive into the largest carrier that they could, and if that wasn’t an option, they’d go for the destroyers.

“We lost 52 men, my ship did, over the life of the ship,” he said. “We lost 105 airplanes.”

Aircraft and men alike were both buried at sea.

Hiegel remained in the U.S. Navy for 19 months before he returned home.

“I saw more action than any of these guys ever see now days,” he said, humbly. “World War II was the last time the Navy was actually challenged. We didn’t have any other country that really challenged our carriers the way [it was] in World War II.”

Talking about the war isn’t hard for him, Hiegel said, because he wasn’t in a lot of gory situations and wasn’t in a place where he had to kill a lot of people.

“Our pilots … you’ve always got to have people you look up to, and I looked up to our pilots because they were in so much more danger that I was,” he said.

To view the B-17 Toombs and Hiegel flew on Thursday, community members and visitors can head out to the Conway Municipal Airport this weekend.

The flight tour, available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. is $435 for EAA members and $475 for nonmembers, which includes a one-year EAA membership.

Ground tours, held from 2-5 p.m. will also be available for $10-$20. Those 8 and under are free with paid adult. The tour is free for veterans or active military.

Today, there will be a Veterans Day program at 1 p.m. with the University of Central Arkansas’ ROTC (Reserve Officers’s Training Corps) posting the colors, Sen. Jason Rapert as the master of ceremonies, with guest speaker Gen. Dwight Balch, patriotic marches and period music by UCA’s Dixie Lane Jazz Band and a playing of taps to honor fallen heroes.

World War II Veterans — who should check-in at the ticket booth with their name, branch of military service and theater of operations — will be recognized by name during the ceremony and other areas of service will be acknowledged as well.

 

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