By Mike Killian
The weather may not have cooperated for the Arsenal of Democracy’s highly- anticipated Washington DC flyover to commemorate this year’s 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, but the truth is, it was never just about the flyover. It was about thanking and honoring our veterans of WWII, including personnel who were held as POWs or listed as missing in action, for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States, and to thank and honor their families.
An entire generation of Americans and our allies came together to defend democracy and defeat the forces of oppression and tyranny in Japan and Germany, and they paid an absolutely terrible price for the victory. The examples set by our grandfathers and grandmothers must never be forgotten, and may be more important now more than ever with all the division and anger currently across our great nation.
One of those veterans, Lt. Col Thomas “Bob” Vaucher, was the honorary air boss. He served as a pilot and commander in the Army Air Corp from 1940 to 1946, and while he had a decorated career, his (arguably) most notable mission was as Mission Commander and lead pilot for the American “Show of Force Flyover” on Sep 2, 1945, when 525 B-29 Superfortresses flew over the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Had the weather cooperated this weekend, Mr Vaucher would have flew on the Commemorative Air Force B-29 Superfortress “FIFI”. He actually piloted the very first B-29, and flew as aircraft commander on the first B-29 strategic combat mission against mainland Japan on June 15, 1944. He even flew the longest non- stop WWII combat mission (4,030 nautical miles roundtrip, 18 hrs., 50 min., India to Sumatra), flying the aircraft beyond official max. range on Aug. 10, 1944.
Some 70 vintage aircraft of more than 20 different types were in attendance, many of whom were real WWII combat veterans themselves, all gathered to fly 24 historically sequenced formations over the nation’s capital representing some of the war’s major battles, from D-Day to the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raiders attack on Japan, Iwo Jima and others, to the final air assault on Japan and concluding with a missing man formation. Everything from Pathfinder aircraft to trainers to fighters and bombers and transports was present, thanks to the organizations and individuals whose mission is to preserve these historic artifacts in flying condition.
Many women were crew members were on the aircraft too, including the CAF WASP Squadron‘s AT-6 Texan “Nella” to honor the contributions of female aviators to the war effort. Nella was used for flight training WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) at Avenger Field during WWII. 1074 women received their silver wings as WASP during the war, flying over 60 million miles, transporting every type of American military aircraft, towing targets for gunnery practice, simulating strafing missions, transporting cargo, and more. Thousands of women also helped build the planes, tanks, guns, pretty much anything you can think of, and gave their men overseas hope in their darkest hours.
Connie Palacioz was even in attendance. She did the riveting on B-29 ‘DOC’ while the plane was being built in WWII. She noted with pride during a press conference that, when the aircraft was restored years after World War II, only 7 of her rivets had to be replaced. She too was slated to fly in the flyover, as was WWII veteran Paul Hilliard, who at 17 years old left his hometown in rural Wisconsin to volunteer for the US Marines, serving for more than three years, including a tour of the Pacific as a radioman and gunner in SBD Dauntless Dive Bombers. He flew 45 combat missions and was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, in addition to receiving the Air Medal with six bronze stars.
I don’t think we saw the sun much at all for 3 days. Thursday Sep 24, the clouds and weather cooperated enough to allow practice day, but the flyover forecast was questionable. Friday morning you could feel the excitement and optimism, and while the clouds loomed and drizzle fell, everyone still had high hopes. I was to fly in the tail gun position on the B-25 ‘Panchito’, with the tail gun removed so I could shoot photos and video of the B-25 formation behind us as we flew over DC.
I’ve worked with a lot of crews over the years, and have traveled across half the world for the past 3 years documenting various WWII tributes, from America to England and to Normandy, France; twice. In 2019 I was honored to work with the D-Day Squadron as they retraced the airborne invasion from England across the English Channel, culminating in a mass jump reenactment over France commemorating the invasion which would mark the beginning of the end of Hitler’s rule in Europe.
I’ve stood at the graves of the Normandy American Cemetery in silence paying my respects. I’ve shook the hands of veterans who flew the planes and jumped into hell for their country and never asked for anything in return. I’ve stood on Omaha Beach and let the winds blow the once blood-soaked sands through my fingertips. I’ve stood atop Pointe du Hoc trying to imagine the Rangers ascending the cliffs as Nazis fired down on them like target practice, and I’ve flown over every historic WWII site in Normandy flying photo missions with both the CAF ‘That’s All, Brother’ / D-Day Squadron and the U.S. Air Force, who painted many of their C-130s with D-Day stripes for various flyover tributes. We even flew a missions with ‘That’s All, Brother’ joined by one of those C-130s, which the crew named ‘Heyl Yea, Brother’. ‘That’s All, Brother’ was one of the lead planes of the D-Day invasion, and the C-130s traced their lineage to D-Day.
Needless to say, the Arsenal of Democracy 75th anniversary flyover of DC was to be several years of my own work coming full circle back to our nation’s capital. The Panchito crew and myself were all excited, as was everyone, and I can’t thank them enough for accommodating me. We had just turned the props, when the call to scrub was called.
The forecast was not much better for the backup day on Saturday, Sep 26. The call to cancel came early the next morning. Authorization for the airspace did not extend beyond Sep 26, which meant there would be no reschedule. Instead, event organizers presented a special video program on the Arsenal of Democracy YouTube and Facebook pages, which included footage of the aircraft and interviews with veterans to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. You can watch that here:
Even without the flyover, just the gathering alone was one of the most diverse arrays of World War II aircraft ever assembled, with most of the planes staging out of Culpepper Regional Airport in Virginia, while the heavy bombers staged out of nearby Manassas.
It took a tremendous amount of work, money, approvals from several federal agencies such as the Secret Service, FAA, TSA and even the National Parks Service, and coordination across all to put on such a big event, not to mention getting a green light to take over DC’s airspace – one of the most secure places in the entire world. The event organizers of the Arsenal of Democracy were General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATC), International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) and Commemorative Air Force (CAF). Bob & Elizabeth Dole and Linda Hope were the Presenting Sponsors. A special thanks to Leah Block and the Arsenal of Democracy media team for all their hard work and support of my ongoing coverage of WWII tributes honoring the greatest generation.
Many thanks to Mike Killian for this great story. If you wish to learn more about Mike’s work, visit www.mikekillianphotography.com