I didn't catch the man's name. I don't think he mentioned it to anyone.
He showed up at the Davenport airport alone. While everyone else was dressed in shorts and tee-shirts, he showed up wearing his best suit, which you suspected he didn't wear very often. He was not a flashy guy. You'd barely know he was there.
He may live nearby or he may have traveled a long way to arrive this clear Friday morning. He was quiet as he waited in line in the shade of the enormous wing of the B-17G Flying Fortress on the ramp in front of the small terminal building among the handful of people waiting to tour the interior of the plane looming above them.
As he neared the entry hatch, the man finally pulled out a small snapshot, tinted brown with age, and showed it to the crew member helping guide people into the belly of the plane.
It showed two rows of young fresh-faced kids, some standing, some kneeling, grouped in front of a B-17. As I saw him point to the picture, I realized that one of the young men in that picture taken 60 years ago, now stood before me.
The crewman manning the plane seemed to straighten and immediately shook the man's hand, and as the news spread among the small group of people, the crewman welcomed the man, refusing to accept his money for the tour, and told him to take all the time he liked going through the plane.
As fathers leaned down to explain to young boys that this man once flew in a plane just like this one, they pressed closer and the man held the snapshot low so they could see it. I suspect he'd just become 10 ft tall in their eyes. I know he did in mine.
The ordinary man, almost invisible a moment before, had suddenly transformed into something even more impressive than the aircraft itself, someone who had actually flown in it and has survived to tell the tale.
The crewman explained that they often get former B-17 crewman coming to view the plane, and warned the man that once he got inside, he just might find old memories flooding back and tears might fall. If that happened, the crewman admonished firmly, "You let 'em come, you just let 'em come."
The man climbed into the plane, spent a moment looking forward into the bombadier's and navigator's stations in the plexiglass nose of the plane. "I used to curl up there and take naps." he said, "Plenty of times", he added with a small chuckle.
Then he climbed the 3 steps up to the flight deck and stood gazing at the cockpit. I had climbed in behind him into the cramped space ahead of and below the flight deck. After a few minutes, I looked up. The man was standing on the flight deck in tears, his hand to his face. Another gentleman he didn't know stood beside him in silence and gently put his hand on the man's shoulder.
I sat silent for several more minutes until eventually, the man turned and moved back through the fusilage to look through the rest of the plane.
I walked a distance behind him, watching him look at the no-doubt familiar sights... the 6" wide strip of metal that they had to cross over the open bomb bay to access the rear of the plane... the ball turret with it's tiny armor plated hatch which the gunner would have to squeeze down into to sit in the turret in a fetal position, his knees drawn up between the guns with the sight between them.... the radio operator's station with it's small desk and electronics... the waistgunner's stations with their swivel mounted machine guns and boxes of ammo.
And then on to the incredibly cramped passage through which as a young man, this man used to crawl, through the mass of wires and hoses, over the ribs of the plane, squeezing around the tail wheel and back into the tiny tail gunner's station, where he'd have to situate himself in a kneeling position, a good 20 ft away from the nearest crewman, hook up his oxygen hose, his intercom, and plug in his electrically heated flight suit. (Temps at altitude could reach -60 F.)
The tailgunner was only added to the plane's design after they realized that it was vulnerable to attacks from the rear. The tail-gunner was critical in defending the ship, and enemy pilots knew it. The tail gunner was often the first thing they tried to take out.
The man then exited into the sunlight and stood gazing at the plane, lost in memories. After a few moments, a man gently broke his revery and asked if he'd mind standing by the tail guns for a photo. That's when I snapped this shot of a humble, solitary hero, come alone to pay his respects to the plane and the men he served with so long ago. For this gentle man, the plane's name, "Sentimental Journey", was more than a famous Les Brown tune of the time.
I didn't catch his name. But to me, his name was not as important as what he was a part of. He represented the thousands like him who served, and the many who didn't come back. I shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and said simply, "Thanks."