Bob Cummings couldn’t swing himself through the hatch of the B-17 like he used to by grabbing the top and rolling in.
“I’m not 18 anymore,” he said with a smile as he sat in the doorway of the restored Flying Fortress parked at Spokane International Airport late last week.
But for the next few hours, the Greenacres retiree was 18 again.
He was not a 72-year-old grandfather on a restored bomber shuttling to its next show in Boise.
He was a young tail gunner on The Hornet’s Nest, flying one of his 47 bombing missions over North Africa and Europe during World War II.
“The memories just came flooding back. I went back 50-some years,” he said. “It was a fantastic flight.”
As the Nine-Oh-Nine, a B-17 restored and flown by a Massachusetts foundation, skirted the mountains of North Idaho on Thursday, Cummings thought about the mountains he saw when his plane crash-landed in western Italy.
Skimming the Snake River, he thought about the runs along Italy’s Po River to knock out railroad stations or factories.
Different sights and sounds reminded him of the time The Hornet’s Nest turned back when one of its four engines was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and the plane that took its place in formation was blown out of the sky. Or the time over southern France when flak punched a hole through his tail turret and he looked out at the sky above and the sea below.
“Everything was real rough,” Cummings said. “There are some bad memories. The guys that didn’t come back. The wingmen that blew up in midair next to us.”
He flew every mission scared to death, and contends anyone who said he wasn’t scared was a liar. But like many World War II bomber crewmen, Cummings loved the members of the crew, who became like family. And he loves the B-17.
He tells fond tales of the plane’s durability, how his landed with a hole in one wing big enough to drive a jeep through or flew with only one of its four engines.
He hadn’t flown in a B-17 since December 1943, when the pressure from high-altitude flying caused an intestinal problem so severe he passed out during his 47th mission. He was hospitalized, saved from gangrene by sulfa drugs and sent to the United States.
When he first returned home, watching newsreel footage of the war made him shake, said Betty, his wife of 50 years. For decades, he didn’t talk much about his experiences.
A few years ago, Cummings toured the Nine-Oh-Nine when it was in the Puget Sound area. His eyes lit up, and his family remembered.
Last week, when his son, Bob, read the plane was coming to Spokane, he didn’t hesitate. His son booked two seats on the flight to Boise.
Each seat cost a $300 donation to the Collings Foundation, which owns the plane and a vintage B-24. Betty asked her son if he could afford it.
“I can’t afford not to,” he replied.
The senior Cummings has had four major surgeries for colon cancer. After his last operation, doctors said they think they got all of the cancer that had spread to his spine. If not, there’s nothing they can do; there are no more operations.
Cummings is not an emotional man, his wife and family said. He is stoic about his war experiences, and quiet about most things.
But news of the B-17 ride prompted him to shout for joy, and left him beaming all week. The glow hadn’t worn off the day after the flight when he sat in his Greenacres living room and recounted tales of his missions and crew.
“This really perked me up,” he said. “Next year, I’m going to take the whole family on that plane. If I don’t get to go, they’re going to.”
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