Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Yankee Lady lands in Manistee (MNA Sept. 07)

Associate Editor

MANISTEE — “There she is, that’s the old girl,” said Manistee WWII veteran Carl Carlstrom as he stood on the tarmac at Manistee’s Blacker Airport watching the B-17 bomber, “Yankee Lady,” land on Friday afternoon.
With a bit of a late arrival, a crowd of more than 150 people — some veterans who flew aboard the B-17 or other planes such as the B-24 Liberator or B-26 Marauder — had built up a heightened sense of anticipation of the legendary aircraft’s arrival.
Carlstrom, garbed in his B-17 hat and T-shirt, had probably been anticipating this moment more than the rest, as he was about to once again fly aboard the plane that had taken him to the brink and brought him home again more than 16 times during the second world war in the Meditterranean Theater of Operations.
“Many times I feel that the Almighty had His hand around my shoulder, or I wouldn’t be here,” said Carlstrom, who served as a flight engineer aboard a B-17(G) Flying Fortress stationed in Fogia, Italy.
As an enlistee in the Army Air Corps at the age of 19, in 1942, Carlstrom said “...that’s what I wanted — I wanted to fly.”
But Carlstrom hasn’t flown in a B-17 for more than 60 years, since October of 1945, by his recollection.
“I never thought I’d get to fly in that plane again,” he told his wife, Norma, after he received a call telling him that Martin Marietta of Manistee was going to host a flight for him aboard the Yankee Lady as part of the festivities for the opening of Blacker’s new airport terminal.
Along with nine other lucky passengers, Carlstrom was able to fly in “the old girl” one more time, earning him the envy of some of his old flight crew when he rejoins them in Indiana next month for a reunion. Three other members of his 10-man crew are still alive.
“We were lucky that only one of our original crew didn’t make it back,” said Carlstrom. “They split us up on our first mission — they never let an entirely green crew fly together — and our navigator’s plane got hit.”
Carlstrom saw his navigator’s plane get hit and spin it’s way down in three pieces. “You always watched for chutes, but we didn’t see anything.” Two men did manage to make it off of that plane, however.
Seeing the Yankee Lady touch down and taxi up to the assembled crowd, Carlstrom reflected on those who had been lost.
“It makes you realize how brittle a thread life really is,” he said, as he periodically reached into his back pocket for a handkerchief to wipe his moistened eyes.
Carlstrom, nicknamed “Swede” by his fellow crewmembers, still remembers how much fuel the B-17 took, oil levels, RPM’s during various parts of the flight, air pressure and other readings. “These things were hammered into us every day. We had to know every last nut, bolt, and wire on that ship,” said Carlstrom. “The crew depended on the flight engineer to know everything — their lives depended on it.”
“You’re a flying mechanic, you do what maintenance you can in flight,” said Carlstrom. “You’re responsible for the welfare of that airplane.”
While the historic airship was on the ground before take off, Carlstrom was able to walk around the entire plane, and through the interior, from the rear hatch to the cockpit, and even sat in the pilot’s seat for a while — a position he’d been in before.
During the war, Carlstrom would run up the engines to test them, and even get to fly the plane, or get “stick time,” as the pilots called it, during training missions or when they were “out in the open,” he said.
“Hirsch, our pilot, told the crew that every one of us would get some ‘stick time,’” said Carlstrom. “He said the Swede will get the most stick time, because he knows the ship the best. If a round gets both the pilots, he’s the logical man to bring her back.”
Some of the targets his group bombed were in Vienna, as well as other Austrian targets, and some in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, northern Italy, and southern France. Over the course of 16 official missions aboard the “Miss Enid” and other B-17’s, the flight engineer worked to hold his aircraft together while bombing targets such as bridges, airfields, aircraft factories, ball bearing factories, and refineries.
Out of all those missions, living in tents and taking off from pre-fab airstrips in Foggia, Italy, Carlstrom said that the men he flew with became a tightly knit group.
“Your crew was like family. They were close,” he said. “You didn’t allow yourself to get close to any of the other crews. You didn’t want to get to know them. Then, if another ship blew up, you were just glad it wasn’t you.”
Watching Carlstrom, it was easy to see that at times his thoughts turned to that era, when he was so young and taxed with such an important job. And he surely must have thought about those he served with, the ones who came back — and the ones who didn’t — and how he was one of the lucky ones.
Years later, someone asked Carlstrom, “weren’t you worried?”
“Don’t pay to worry,” said Carlstrom. “Either they’re gonna get you, or they’re not. We had ships come back with their whole vertical stabilizer shot away, so they had no rudder and the pilot was steering with his engines. They were a rough airplane — they took an awful lot of punishment. We came back one day with 200 and some odd holes in one ship, and not a man scratched.”
His survival against unfavorable odds is why Carlstrom, now 85-years-old, feels he had the arm of the Almighty around his shoulder, and why he is so modest about his time in the service.
Several people came up to Carlstrom on Friday, thanked him for his service to our country, and shook his hand. He simply nodded, and told them, “we did what we had to do,” and proceeded to answer their questions about what it was like to fly during the war.
Carlstrom had the same answer for those who tried to label him and the other men of his generation as “heroes.”
“Some say we’re heroes, but I say ‘no.’ We were just a bunch of highly trained kids trying to get a job done and trying to stay alive doing it,” he said.
With WWII veterans dying at the rate of 1,200-1,500 per day, it was a chance for a couple of old vets to have one last look at a piece of their past, for a whole new generation to be exposed to a working historical monument, and meet the men who lived to tell about it.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at: cburgeson@pioneergroup.net

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