Tom Pawlesh Reports:
The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum‘s 23rd Annual World War II Weekend and “Gathering of Warbirds” is one of the largest events of its type in the world. The 2013 event held last weekend in Reading, Pennsylvania hosted over 1800 reenactors, 80 aircraft and more than 200 military vehicles. The weather on arrival or “A-Day” as they call it, had low ceilings and heavy rain. Saturday started out cloudy but, thankfully dry. The sun came out around noon and the the weather was perfect the rest of the weekend.
The WWII Weekend is a celebration of the “Greatest Generation” and the 1940’s. I have an emotional attachment to these men and women because my father was a tail gunner on the B-17, “Heaven Can Wait.” His crew was shot down on their seventh mission and my father spent the remainder of the war in Stalag 17. I grew up listening to my father and his war buddies talk about WWII and our family vacations centered around POW, 8th Air Force and Heaven Can Wait reunions. I was fortunate to spend so much time in the company of these men who did not even realize they were heroes. There will never be another generation like them.
The WWII Weekend is more than just an air show. I watched as the young reenactors prepared to recreate the flag raising on Mount Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima. A US Navy Jeep pulled up near us with an unassuming elderly gentleman in the passenger seat. When the reenactors saw him they all ran over, they stood in line and shook his hand and thanked him. The elderly man was 95 year old Mahlon Fink, a survivor of Iwo Jima. This moment more than any other part of the weekend defines what it is all about for me, paying our respects to the last of the “Greatest Generation.”
There was so much to see at the WWII Weekend that one day was really not enough. There was a large flea market with over 120 vendors selling everything WWII and 1940’s, from military uniforms and clothing to suitcases, jewelry, weapons and toys. The musty smell can bring back a flood of memories of exploring grandma’s attic. There was a 1940’s fashion show, a radio show and a stage show that featured tribute acts with Abbott and Costello, the Manhattan Dolls, Frank Sings Frank Sinatra and other pop culture icons of the 40s. WWII veterans are in the hangar to meet and greet and sign autographs and books. On Saturday evening, we attended a Catholic Mass on the hood of a Jeep as P-51’s, B-25’s and B-17’s taxied behind the priest. At 7PM, the hangar dance began with the big band sounds of Glenn Miller. If you think it was filled with older folks, think again, I was surprised by the number of 20 and 30-somethings dressed in period clothing, swing-dancing.
For the aircraft junkies, there was plenty to see and fly in. I can’t think of anyplace in the world where you have a choice to fly in a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell Bomber, B-24 Liberator, P-51 Mustang, SB2C Helldiver, SBD Dauntless, Stearman “Yellow Peril,” T-6 Texan or Vultee “Vibrator.” The B-29 Superfortress and Helldiver are the only flying examples in the world. These aircraft were kept busy from 9AM until sundown taking people on the ride of their life and providing photographers many opportunities to get that perfect image.
The airshow began with the L-Birds or liaison aircraft such as the Piper Cub, Stinson Sentinel and Aeronca Defender to name a few. The primary trainers and the advanced trainers were next with a seven ship formation of North American T-6 Texans. Transport aircraft made some impressive photo passes with the Curtiss C-46 Commando, Douglas C-47 Skytrain and Beech C45 Expeditor. The Battle of Iwo Jima had top cover from a Corsair, Helldiver, Dauntless and an Avenger while fighting off a Japanese Val replica. Aerobatics routines were flown in the Corsair, Mustang, Spitfire, Jungmeister, SNJ and Valiant.
The bombers rounded out the show with the B-25’s “Yankee Warrior,” “Panchito,” “Georgie’s Gal” and “Take Off Time,” with help from the B-17 “Yankee Lady.” The B-29 “Fifi,” put on an impressive show for such a big aircraft with high speed passes, gear down passes and impressive tight turns. Fifi provided some of the best photo passes of the day with low altitude, high bank turns across the show line, the noise from the camera shutters almost as loud as her radial engines.
The WWII Weekend is one of my favorite events of the summer and I am already looking forward to next years’ show.