The B-17 in my neighborhood

There are people, veterans, who can still tell us what happened to them in the Second World War. I met a few Tuesday night at the Wings of Freedom Museum in Milwaukie, Oregon. It’s a small building across the parking lot from the only B-17 bomber in my neighborhood.

The “Lacey Lady” B-17G at the Bomber complex in Milwaukie, Oregon
©2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

How the Bomber came to Milwaukie is a great story in itself. Read this fabulous piece done three years ago by KATU News in Portland. The great plane has suffered a long decline, not for lack of love but lack of money. These old birds are expensive to maintain.

Tuesday’s event was a dinner to honor ex-prisoners war in WWII, particularly from Oregon. Three had come. We listened to stories of hunger and deprivation at the hands of the Germans. We listened to an actual recording of the last American transmission, in Morse code with the nearly simultaneous spoken transcription, as the Japanese attacked the Island of Corregidor in the Philippines in May, 1942. You’d have to imagine fifty of us, sitting at tables in a WWII museum, surrounded by the stuff of war — a .50-calibre machine gun, Norden bombsight, maps, flags, uniforms, medals and insignias, and the nose of a B-17G waiting for restoration — in silence.

We listened to Kristi Burke’s memories of her dad. He’d been shot down over Japan after piloting a number of successful missions. He never talked about it. He always wore long sleeves and long pants to cover his burns, to cover his past. Finally, as a grown daughter, Kristi asked the question: what happened to you in the war? They wrote the book together. Proof Through the Night recounts Ernie Pickett’s ordeal as a POW of the Japanese.

Virginia was also a POW of the Japanese, though she was never brutalized. She was a civilian and to my knowledge has never flown a B-29. Yet I’ve asked the same question: what happened to you in the war?

My declared mission is to share her story. My secret mission is to inspire other people to do the same — ask the question, record the answer, and put it on YouTube if that’s what it takes. There are people who can still tell us what happened in the war, but somebody has to tell the kids.


© 2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

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