His window seat on the 737 had more legroom than the cramped nose section of the B-17 where Lt. Col Richard Wheeler sat as the navigator on an American bomber during World War II.
Wheeler—better known to his friends and family as Ken—flew more than 35 missions over hostile territory to support Allied march across Europe.
The Gig Harbor resident sat in the main cabin for Alaska Airlines flight with about 100 of his “brothers” as part of the Honor Flight program that provides veterans an opportunity to visit the war memorials in Washington D.C. Midway through his flight, the pilot walked into the passenger cabin with an “airmail delivery” of letters written by friends and family thanking the veterans for their service.
“I did not know anybody on the plane when we took off, but we were family by the time we arrived in D.C.,” said Wheeler.
The retired flight officer said the trip to the nation’s capital as a civilian gave him a deeper appreciation of the memorials to fallen war heroes than during the three years he served at the Pentagon at the conclusion of his 28-year career with the Air Force.
His trip was highlighted by a pilgrimage to the pillars and fountain that make up the World War II Memorial on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Wheeler emphasized that each passenger on the Honor Flight was treated “like a true VIP.” He said wheelchairs were waiting for every participant as they exited the airplane and available as the group toured the sites in nation’s capital.
The 93-year-old Wheeler was accompanied on the trip by his oldest son, Steve Wheeler of Puyallup, who served with the Marine Corps during Vietnam. The former navigator made it abundantly clear that he did not require assistance from his son or a wheelchair.
The career military man has shared stories about his experiences at schools and civic organizations throughout the South Sound. He was an honored guest at the Veteran’s Day ceremonies at a middle school and at Peninsula High School last month.
“Young people just want to shake my hand,” said an embarrassed Wheeler. “Some even asked for my autograph.”
He was touched by the standing ovation he was given after his talk at a middle school.
“He was overwhelmed,” said his wife Sharon. “It was amazing to realize that young people today have very little concept of the true impact of a world war.”
Wheeler’s presentation always includes details of the raid he flew in December of 1944 when his plane took off from a base in Foggia, Italy with orders to destroy an oil refinery in Poland. The B-17 ran into anti-aircraft fire that punctured the oil supply and forced the pilot to shut down two of the four engines. The plane dropped out of formation at 28,000 feet and turned back toward Italy. They were joined on the return trip by a B-24.
Wheeler’s pilot ordered his crew to lighten the plane by tossing ammunition and guns overboard as it continued to lose altitude. Wheeler said the crew dropped its payload of bombs on warehouses in Gyor in Hungary.
The B-24 was shot down over Zagreb in Croatia. A few minutes later the captain of the B-17 ordered his crew to “get the hell out of here” as the plane passed over the border into Austria.
“I had been so focused on navigation that I had not noticed that the number three engine had caught fire,” he remembered. “I crawled to the edge of the exit hatch, slid out the door, said a prayer and pulled the ripcord. “Thankfully the parachute opened.”
Wheeler will turn 94 in January, but he can describe the events of what happened next as if they happened yesterday. He met up with two other members of his crew who also made it safely to the ground. The trio sloshed down the snowy mountain where they met a woman who did not speak English. She took the risk of taking all three men back to her home, fed them and provided them with dry clothes.
Her generosity was only surpassed by her trust, said Wheeler. At one point the woman left the American flyers alone in the house with her three-year-old daughter when she left to find her husband.
“Here we were—three men with guns—she had never met before,” said Wheeler. “We knew right then we could trust her.”
As a token of their appreciation, the Americans gave the woman much-needed medicine for her teenage daughter as well as a needle and thread from their Escape Kits. The mother was grateful for the parachute one of the airmen flyers had stashed in his jacket.
The woman’s husband led the crewmen to a meeting with a man who spoke English. That man provided them with traditional clothing and directions to the coast, 135 miles away. The Americans walked for two weeks through the war-torn countryside, hiding in burned out buildings until they reached the town of Split in Yugoslavia. They waited in a shack on the dock until they made their dash for freedom under a hail of German bullets and jumped aboard British patrol boat that sped into the harbor.
“People consider me a war hero,” he concluded. “The real heroes never made it home.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo who treasures the opportunity to preserve the stories of past generations. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.