Wednesday, September 30, 2009

90-Year-Old B-25 Pilot Returns to Scene of WWII Crash

World War II pilot Bernerd Harding, 90, smiles inside the cockpit of a B-25 in Laconia, N.H., Friday, Sept. 25,2009. Harding was a pilot when he was shot down 65-years ago while flying a bombing mission over Germany.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

By NORMA LOVE, Associated Press Writer Norma Love, Associated Press Writer – Fri Sep 25, 5:19 pm ET
MANCHESTER, N.H. – World War II pilot Bernerd Harding feels he finally has completed his mission — 65 years after his B-24 airplane was shot down over Germany.
Harding, now 90 and being treated for prostate cancer, was a passenger Friday in the Witchcraft — the last B-24 still flying. He sat in the cockpit behind the pilots. The skies were clear during the 30-minute flight from Laconia to Manchester that ended with a safe, smooth landing.
"It was fun. It was worth it. It's history," he said after the flight.
As the four engines rumbled to life, Harding was taken back to another time — back when he was a 25-year-old first lieutenant piloting a bombing run to Bernburgh, Germany. On the way back to his base in England, fighters crippled his plane, forcing him and his crew to bail out with their parachutes.
Harding waited for the others to jump, then turned and saluted a German fighter pilot for not blowing up the plane with the men inside.
"He flew alongside to make sure I jumped out," Harding said.
Harding said he felt that mission — his 14th — was incomplete without one more landing. Friday's was "close enough," he said.
Harding's B-24, nicknamed Georgette, was shot down a month after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, on July 7, 1944. One member of Harding's crew was killed. The others — including Harding — were taken prisoner.
Harding landed in a freshly cut wheat field, barely missing a barbed wire fence. Three farmers, two with pitchforks and one with a gun, captured him and herded him into a cellar in Klein Quenstedt (klyn KWEN' -shted), a village southwest of Berlin. Fearing reprisals from villagers for being a bomber pilot, Harding buried his pilot's wings in the cellar floor.
Two weeks ago, Harding returned to Klein Quenstedt to search for the wings with villagers' help. He didn't find his wings but a resident gave him a silver bracelet recovered from the body of a dead American airman that day. The bracelet belonged to Jack H. Glenn and is being returned to his sister in Anchorage, Alaska. She plans to send it to a museum in Texas where Glenn grew up.
The Collings Foundation, which owns the Witchcraft, presented Harding with a new set of pilot's wings after Friday's flight.
That wasn't Harding's first time inside the Witchcraft. He toured the bomber about 10 years ago with his grandchildren but didn't fly in it, so this time it was a treat.
"He says, 'I'm making my last landing.' In light of the cancer, what a gift," said his wife, Ruth, 84, who rode in the B-24 on Friday.
Harding's only complaint about the flight is that he couldn't see outside the plane much.
"I was watching them in the cockpit," he said.
It took a friendship, bonded across a generation, and a mutual interest in the war to pull off Friday's special flight.
Two years ago, Harding met Bob Korkuc, who was writing a book about his uncle's death aboard a B-17. Korkuc had noticed Harding's POW license plate and asked if Harding was a ball turret gunner, since Harding was short enough to fit into that part of the plane. Harding told Korkuc his story and Korkuc asked if he could research it for another book. Their talks cemented a friendship.
Last October, Korkuc decided to help Harding travel to Germany find his wings and land in a B-24 again. Korkuc called the Collings Foundation and arranged for Friday's flight. Korkuc, 47, of Amherst, also helped arrange Harding's trip to Germany.
Harding of Milford, N.H., was also accompanied on the Friday flight by his son Brian Harding, 53, of Milford, and Korkuc. The Associated Press also was on the flight.
The Witchcraft is in New Hampshire as part of the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour. The foundation, based in Stow, Mass., offers tours of military planes as well as flights aboard the aircraft.
On the net:
Slideshow:Ex-POW returning to Germany to dig up pilot's wings

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