WWII bombers make stops in Arkansas

Published Sunday, March 02, 2008

LITTLE ROCK (AP) Thurl Harber didn't want to walk and carry a gun through World War II so he decided to take his chances in the skies over Nazi-occupied Europe, flying 30 missions in a B-17.

Each plane carried nine men, 13 50-caliber machine guns, 10 500-pound bombs or 20 250-pound bombs, and 2,900 gallons of fuel, Harber recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Russellville.

"It was a war horse, I tell ya," he said.

This month, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-24 Liberator and a B-25J Mitchell make appearances at North Little Rock, Fort Smith and Texarkana as part of an annual nationwide "Wings of Freedom" tour, sponsored by the nonprofit Collings Foundation of Stowe, Mass.

The group was founded in 1979 to promote an understanding of U.S. history and, over time, narrowed its focus to teaching lessons through a collection of vintage planes, said foundation spokesman Hunter Chaney.

Many bombadiers of World War II did not survive as many missions as Harber did, he said. Born and raised in Izard County, Harber graduated from the Army Air Force cadet school in 1944 and served "three years and 17 days" in the war. He flew with the 487th Bomb Group out of England, and would often return with "a few holes" in his plane. But he was never shot down.

His longest flight was 11 hours 15 minutes to a target in Germany, near the Czech border.

At the time, a tour of duty was 35 missions, Harber said, but the military "knocked off" five for him because he was the lead pilot on 10 missions.

Now a retired contractor for the state Highway Department, Harber figures it was luck more than anything else that he wasn't killed in the war. On Christmas Eve 1944, 39 planes left on a bombing mission and 13 didn't come back, he recalled.

"When you come home and the guy, you're flying his wing, he doesn't make it, I suppose the luck is that it didn't hit me," he said. "I wouldn't say that it was skill because I'm sure that that pilot flying that lead plane was probably just as proficient as me."

The 88-year-old Harber planned to visit the bombers on display Saturday at North Little Rock Municipal Airport. He figured one of the best things will be knowing that he doesn't have to fly one of the planes again.

"Thank God," he said. "It's not very pleasant sitting up there and that flak breaking all around you."

For more information see the Collings Foundation www.collingsfoundation.org

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