Fortress flies over town
Sun News Service
A little more than 60 years ago, 21-year-old Harry Vandelinder climbed out of the cockpit of his B-17 Flying Fortress for the last time, jumped to the ground and gave the foreign soil beneath his feet a long kiss.
“It was, I’ll tell you ” it was a real kiss,” Vandelinder, an Incline resident of more than 10 years, said with a chuckle. “No, I mean it ” that was some kiss.”
Vandelinder had just landed safely after his 35th and final mission for the 305th bomb group in the Eighth Air Corps. Completing the maximum number of allowed flights was nothing short of miraculous in the European theatre of World War II.
This week at Truckee Tahoe Airport, Vandelinder got a chance to climb back into the cockpit of a B-17 as the Truckee Tahoe branch of the Experimental Aircraft Association brought a refurbished B-17 to Truckee for tours and demonstration flights.
To underscore the experience as bittersweet for Vandelinder may be saying the least.
Between 1935 and 1945, 12,732 B-17s were produced, 4,735 were lost during combat missions.
Vandelinder’s 305th bomb group alone lost 872 airmen. The Eighth Air Corps lost 40,000 in all.
Ten percent of each crew was lost each mission. Chances of an airman surviving eight missions was 50-50.
Vandelinder recently wrote:
“Someone figured out that… doing 25 missions your chances of survival would be only about four percent. In the end everybody go shot down. The psychology goes like this: ‘Well, we’re going to get killed anyway, what the hell’s the use of worrying about it?'”
Other airmen shared similar thoughts:
“My number is down to seven now. Long overdue for the old fickle finger, and whoever or whatever is tailing me out there,” wrote author Sam Halpert, another survivor of 35 B-17 missions for the Eighth Air Corps. “You’d think I’d be able to handle this by now, but it’s rougher these days than when I started. I was scared then, not knowing what I was up against. Now I’m beyond scared. Somewhere between numb and dumb. Probably not even a word for it.”
Today, Vandelinder, 83, looks out over the deck of his vast Incline home through the trees and onto the water. He adjusts his glasses and squints in the sun. “Snow’s all gone,” he smiles.
While he clutches the original, the proud war veteran dons a bomber jacket replica of the one he wore for three years in Europe. Stenciled beneath the right lapel are 35 white bombs ” one for each mission ” lined up in rows, each the size of a roll of nickels.
“That gives you some idea doesn’t it?” he asked rhetorically as he stretched his arms out in the jacket, adjusting its fit.
Vandelinder tells his war stories with the same laconic tone one would associate with the recall of a recent trip to the grocery store, changing patterns of speech only when he nears a punchline or quirky detail, as if the dry nature of the humor mixed with the humanity of it will be his certain legacy.
“We used to all take a shot of whiskey after each completed mission before interrogation,” he said. “After my (last) mission, my whole crew poured theirs into my glass and literally carried me to the train.
“I remember sitting there, lying there ” just staring at the ceiling ” woke up to an old lady slapping my face, just to see if I was still alive.”
Typically, B-17 missions lasted for more than eight hours and struck at targets deep within enemy territory. Because of their long-range capability, formations of B-17s often flew into battle with no fighter escort, relying on their own defensive capabilities to ensure a successful mission.
“They were strong ships,” Vandelinder said. “Sometimes you’d land and see 50 holes where flak hit. Amazing ships.”
But there are ghosts that have followed the combat pilot for well more than a half century. The rear gunners shot and frozen stiff at 27,000 feet (“that’s a wake up call”); the flak that came through the cockpit cutting his oxygen mask from its supply (“It didn’t scare me then, but now when I think about it ” well…”); twice being shot down but making it back to allied territory (“My B-17 was badly shot up with one engine out and low on petrol. The gauges were pegged out at empty and we were running of fumes. The cloud cover was 100 percent and it was getting dark….”)
…And, of course, the individuals lost in battle.
Recently, through a Eighth Air Corps newsletter Can Do Notes, Vandelinder connected with the daughter of one of his comrades, Ray Colaizzi. She never knew her father as the telegram announcing her birth arrived in England the morning after Colaizzi was lost in action.
“He would never see his child and know the feeling of parenthood,” Vandelinder wrote to Colaizzi’s daughter, Rae Anne Hartman. “For 59 years the name Colaizzi would come into my thoughts from out of nowhere and the agony of what happened…. Ray will never know about the generation that he created and how honored he would be.
“I did 35 missions, came home, went to USC, graduated, got married, had four boys, worked as an engineer for Lockheed, retired and moved to Lake Tahoe.”
Vandelinder said he was looking forward to the B-17’s appearance in Truckee this week as an excuse to catch up with some old acquaintances and share stories with other veterans.
“I think a few of us are going to meet up on Wednesday,” he said.
Indeed, Don Kaplan, an Incline resident and an aviation cadet in World War II, said he’s excited to see Vandelinder as well as veteran pilots planning to come from the Bay Area to Seattle.
“They’re the real heroes,” Kaplan said.
John Spratt, who helped bring the B-17 to the basin on behalf of the Tahoe Truckee Experimental Aircraft Association, said he sees veterans and the craft as figures of “living history.”
“In coordinating this I came across a list of nine (area) veterans,” Spratt said. “As pilots, as enthusiasts (of aviation) history, as Americans ” it’s just going to be a great experience.”
It will be a nice break from his regular routine, Vandelinder said. The ex-airman and retired engineer taught himself how to type a few years ago, and now busies himself chronicling his experiences as a 19-year-old man in a land far away.
“It never leaves you,” he said.
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