Joe Collector strapped himself into a B-17 Flying Fortress minutes before the plane’s four engines rumbled to life Monday.
The 88-year-old retired home builder plugged his ears as the restored war fighter barreled down a runway at Chesapeake Regional Airport and lifted into the air.
The old man with white hair and dark, bushy eyebrows gazed out a window as the plane passed higher and higher over trees and fields. He leaned back in a familiar green canvas seat and shut his eyes.
For a moment, he was back in 1943.
Collector was a baby-faced bachelor the first time he climbed into a B-17, the iconic bomber credited with helping allied forces win World War II. The former aerial gunner flew 36 combat missions over Europe, including a pivotal four-day raid on Berlin weeks before the invasion of Normandy.
He was 20 years old – “just a dumb kid,” he said – when he flew his first mission on a bitter cold December day in 1943. It was a strategic attack on a northern German seaport.
Collector had been trained as a ball turret gunner, but on this mission, he was assigned to tail gunner. Crouched on his knees and decked in thermal coverings, he looked out in awe from the rear of the plane as hundreds of B-17s assembled in formation around him, each manned by young airmen just like him.
By the end of the mission, Collector would watch dozens of the aircraft get blown apart, falling like bricks from the sky. More than 600 men died that day.
“Watching all of this was unbelievable because it looked like a movie,” Collector said. “It didn’t look like reality. Planes blown apart, guys jumping out, fire everywhere.”
The lifelong Norfolk resident, whose family ran a delicatessen and bakery on Church Street for half a century, had mixed emotions when he learned a national veterans group was offering former airmen, such as himself, free flights aboard the Memphis Belle, one of only about a dozen fully restored B-17s.
He has fond memories of his time in the service. It was aboard a bomber where Collector learned what it meant to be a man and bonded with others who quit jobs and dropped out of college to answer the call of war.
But there was also tremendous pain.
“We lost a lot of good men on this plane,” Collector said. “It was the most awful thing in the world.”
Collector flew with the 390th Bomb Group out of Parham Airfield in England on a Flying Fortress nicknamed “Skippy.”
During a mission to bomb another German town in early 1944, malfunctioning landing gear forced the crew to crash land the plane near an airfield in England. Flustered, Collector fled the ball turret, located below deck, without first stowing the guns, a violation of protocol.
“In any event, we landed just perfect, and the chief came up with the major, and they wanted to know who the ball turret operator was,” Collector said. “I put my hand up, and boy, he chewed me out unmercifully. But I was alive, so I didn’t care.”
Weeks later, leaving the ball turret guns down during crash landings became standard practice because it puts drag on the plane.
“They learned that from me, but they didn’t apologize, didn’t give me another stripe, didn’t give me a medal, didn’t give me nothing,” Collector said.
Not many weeks later, on a mission to bomb an area in occupied France, a fire in the plane’s bomb bay forced the crew to bail out. But the rear emergency door had frozen and wouldn’t blow open.
“Seemingly, we were unable to exit the plane,” Collector said in an interview with Old Dominion University researchers many years later. “Pandemonium broke out. It was terrible.”
Collector came up with a plan to stack four crew members on top of one another and use their combined force to push open the door enough to squeeze someone through.
“I immediately began pushing the first one, then another of my crew mates out the crack,” Collector said. “This worked fine until I was the only one left on the plane.”
Collector managed to force his body through the door, but one leg got caught. He dangled from the plane – on auto-pilot en route for a water landing in the English Channel – for several minutes.
“I figured I was going down with the plane,” Collector said. “That was the end.”
He eventually fell out of his heavy flying boot, pulled his rip cord and landed moments later, face-down in thick muck along the edge of the channel. When he wiped the mud from his eyes, he found four British soldiers with rifles trained on him, thinking he was a German pilot.
After a three-day stay in a hospital for deep leg bruises, Collector rejoined his crew.
Collector laughs often telling these stories. He tries to find humor from his days on his B-17. They’re documented in a stack of yellowed newspaper clippings and fading black-and-white photos, which he keeps hidden away at his waterfront home in the Meadowbrook neighborhood.
He doesn’t often speak about what happened April 13, 1944, though.
It was his 26th combat flight, a bombing mission over a manufacturing plant in Augsburg, Germany. A burst from an anti-aircraft gun hit the plane as it crossed over the target.
The pilot, Lt. Thomas J. Sutters – “a man I respected beyond measure,” Collector said – was hit in the leg with shrapnel. The crew chief climbed down from the upper turret and was applying a tourniquet to his leg when another blast struck the plane. The crew chief’s foot was blown off; the pilot was killed.
The Skippy sputtered back to Parham Airfield with just two engines. Afterward, the plane was decommissioned, and the crew buried their pilot.
Collector finished the final months of his combat tour filling in on different crews before returning to Norfolk to help out at his family’s deli.
Collector smiled Monday when the restored Memphis Belle rumbled into sight over Chesapeake.
“Hot dog! This is exciting, you know that?” Collector said, beaming at Harriet, his wife of 41 years, who agreed to fly with him.
“If he goes down, I’m going down with him,” she said before being helped into the plane.
The Liberty Foundation has been traveling across the country with the restored plane and offering B-17 veterans free rides. The public can pay to fly in the plane Saturday and Sunday for $450 a person.
Once the plane was in the air, Collector was free to climb out of his seat in the radio control room and explore. He walked up to the cockpit and chatted with the volunteer pilots.
He popped his head out the plane’s hatch, his hair whipping in the wind.
He ran his hand over the barrel of a vintage machine gun at the waist gunner’s slot, thinking of those he knew who had manned that position.
Collector looked out over the rural Tidewater countryside before returning to his seat. He rubbed a trembling hand over his worn and wrinkled face, folded his hands in his lap and sat quietly for the remainder of the flight.
“This brought back a lot of old memories,” he said after landing. “I haven’t thought about the war for years. I don’t like to talk about it too much. It wasn’t a pleasant thing.
“But, you know, it had to be done.”
Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, email@example.com