I’ve been to a number of various “State” H.O.G. Rallys over the years, but the one that set off a series of events that I will never forget and continually ponder, was the Ohio Rally of 2001. “Never forget” I say, because to this very day the “domino-effect-events” derived from that Rally are forever linked, just as the fabric of each are interwoven with love, pride, happiness and sorrow, while tightly bound by amazement and awe.
I’d ridden my dear friend, Dianna Redic, a little over 100 miles to Buckman’s Harley in Xenia, Ohio. This was one of the meeting places for a procession of Harleys bound for Dayton, where the event was held at the Wright-Patterson AFB, home to the National Museum of the US Air Force. As we merged into a line of Harleys as far as I could see in either direction, our parade took us through 30-some miles of small towns along US 35. We were amazed by the number of people lining the route, sitting in lawn chairs, all waving and witnessing the parade. Through every town, the local police had blocked intersections and made it possible for over 2,200 motorcycles to travel without interruption. My feet never touched ground!
As we rode close enough to clearly see the entire air base from a hillside view along the route .. I noticed a long line of bikes entering the base from the opposite side, proceeding to fill up massive amounts of parking near the museum. I remarked to Dianna, “look, there’s more coming in from the other side”. She smacked me on the head and said “dummy, that’s the front of the line”. I never did see the end of the line behind us.
We were given the approximate number of bikes in the parade later that day, as all of the attendees met on the tarmac for a group shot. We stood in the shape of the infamous HD Bar & Shield as a photographer took the group shot from a crane-hoisted platform high in the air. A line of Harleys was in front of us, and planes parked on the tarmac were at our rear. Before we left that day, each of us received an 8×10 glossy of that shot. Trust me, I do have it .. somewhere.
That was my first of many subsequent trips to the museum .. as I was completely overwhelmed with what I saw. It’s the largest and oldest aviation museum in the world. Exhibits include more than 300 aircraft and missles, plus family-oriented and historically interesting aeronautical displays. The theater within the museum will put you in various planes for the “ride of your life” experience. They have an 11-minute virtual tour online that might tempt you to add this place to your “bucket list”. It’s also the place where you can get up close and personal with the only two US Stealth planes on exhibit, anywhere. The B-2 Stealth Bomber and the X-36UAV Boeing Bird of Prey leave you in awe. And if you’ve ever been lucky enough to be at an event where either do a low fly-over .. the feeling is just downright dauntingly eerie! Low, Slow, Silent and Intimidating.
Your imagination can’t run wild enough .. from Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first airplane to the many warplanes that you’ve only read about .. “Bockscar” is a standout attraction. Bockscar is the name of the US Army Air Forces B-29 bomber that dropped the “Fat Man” nuclear weapon over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, the second atomic weapon used against Japan. The name painted on the aircraft after the mission is a pun on “boxcar” after the name of the aircraft commander, Captain Frederic C. Bock.
As we walked around and I’m shooting pictures of everything .. I came upon a B-25 Mitchell Bomber. This is the one that captured me. Coincidentally, my father had been a radio operator/waist gunner in the B-25 while he was stationed in the South Pacific during WW2. Over the years he never spoke of his war experience, and what little time I spent rummaging through his old wooden chest of war memorabilia and Japanese souvenirs always left my imagination and curiosity in overdrive. I’d put together a B-25 model plane when I was a kid that still hung in the attic of the old farmhouse until a fire in 2009. I’d always envisioned it as a huge plane .. but now, I saw just how incredibly small this little gunship was. It was 52’11” overall length with a wingspan of only 67’7″.
What caught my attention next was a sign posted near the plane: Rent a ride in the original Barnstormer/B-25 “Old Glory”, with a phone number for the Tulsa Air and Space Center. The plan for my next series of events was thus hatched. Father’s Day was just around the corner, and for a man who was incredibly difficult to find any gift or surprise .. this was going to be something extraordinaire. I made the call, reserved the flight and then contacted my sister, who volunteered to share the ungodly expense. But we both understood, this was going to be worth every penny! Next was to tell my Mother and all my friends who lived around the Muncie, Indiana area so they would be watching the sky for an historical event.
Mom had given me a few treasures I needed to take with us the morning I met my sister and brother at the farm, 6am bright and early. Dad didn’t have a clue what his “surprise” was as I took the long way around into Muncie, and came to the airport. To keep the charade alive as long as possible, my sis said, “Joe, let’s stop at the restaurant here for a coffee and a bite to eat?” .. totally worked for me and the plan. Later, Dad said that he was wondering to himself, “naw .. can’t be an airplane or balloon ride .. I’ve done all that”. So he unwittingly joined us for his trademark black coffee, though he did notice I was carrying a small attaché and Peg had her video camera.
As we sat there having coffee, I threw a set of dog-tags on the table and asked Dad if he’d ever seen them before. “Where in the hell did you get these?” .. again, with his trademark expletives. Next I set a wooden handled Buck pocketknife before him .. which really got his attention, as he carried it in his pocket while stationed on the islands in the Pacific. Next came an old photo of Dad and his crew beside his B-25 taken on an island airbase. This time, I saw him start to crack for the very first time I can ever remember. He choked on his words as the began to talk about his time on the islands for the first time .. and I found out then that the photograph was taken prior to his last mission, and the last time he saw all those men alive, except the co-pilot.
I changed the subject as fast as I could as I placed a hand-typed roster of the men of his “Fighting 48th Wolf Squadron”. The cover was illustrated by one of his friends, also quite the cartoonist. It was made on base, and each man stationed there received one. At this point, Dad was quite in awe with the “surprises” Mom had provided from her collection. Suddenly, a man approached our table, which was right in front of the windows facing the airstrip. Patrons could watch planes coming and going, but not what was parked down the tarmac around the corner. “Richman party? Come with me please”. Dad was still clueless as we climbed into a van, him up front in the passenger seat, me poised in the middle of second row with camera clicking away. I took 113 shots that morning.
It wasn’t but a short trip around the corner when “Old Glory” came into view .. and Dad was overwhelmed with belief and disbelief .. “What the hell?” I had also contacted the StarPress about the plan .. so John Carlson and his crew were there to do a front page feature entitled “Father’s Day gift brings … a flight back in time”. It came out June 20, 2001. I still have several faded copies and actually carry one in a plastic sleeve in Bosco’s saddlebag. I’ve shared this story with strangers around the country, and having that front page helps me believe that this surreal event actually happened. At age 77, almost 60 years after he flew as a 19 yr old volunteer out of high school, he got to relive the moment with his three children .. and that’s something that just doesn’t happen every day.
The only way to enter the plane is through one of two belly hatches. A little ladder to climb up, and when Dad approached it once again the pilot/owner, Don Elgin, offered his arm for assistance. We both laughed as Dad shoved his arm away and scurried up the ladder as if he was a kid again. “He didn’t forget how, did he?” was Don’s comment. We spent a little time nibbing around then buckled in. Peg and I rode just ahead of the waist-gunner’s position, where the radio equipment was located. We faced backwards toward Dad, who sat in one side’s gun position as my brother sat in the other. In combat, the plane’s crew only had one waist gunner, who switched from side to side, or he moved forward a few feet to operate the radio.
As we taxied to the end of the runway, I could tell Dad was getting anxious. After the turn and holding for clearance to take off .. Dad was rocking in his seat, saying “come on, let’s get going!” Though we all wore headphones that covered our entire ears .. the roar of those engines was exhilarating! Then wide-open for a short sprint and a quick climb .. it was a “rush” far surpassing any jet airplane or the small engine aircraft I’ve flown in while sky diving. And did I mention the roar of the twin Wright R-2600 Cyclone 1,700 hp engines was deafening? All I could think of that moment was what it must have sounded like when a whole squadron of these gunships came roaring in to strafe a Japanese airstrip at 275 mph, all guns blazing only to pull up just in time to drop 5,000 lbs of bombs .. and later, Dad went on to describe just that moment.
He said, “You’ve got to remember I’m flying behind a 19 yr old crazy pilot who’s coming in a few feet off the water at full speed. Two 20mm cannons and all five .50 caliber machine guns blasting .. you’re scared shitless .. and when the pilot pulls up to drop the bombs all I saw was the bottom of the palm trees .. we’d make a pass then go back and do it again.” But at the very moment we cleared the ground for our take-off .. and with that deafening roar of the engines .. Dad sprang from is seat and flipped the lever to unlock the closest .50 cal .. swung it around and soon had both arms extended .. staring out the gun port and seeing who knows what.
But as I later studied the picture close-up .. both triggers were pulled completely back and the hair was standing up on his arms. We had just taken him “back in time” to days he could never forget. I took my turn on each gun and crawled back to the tail gunner’s position. That was incredibly eerie. You could see all around you .. but limited to a short angle of range with your gun for protection. Relying on help from the other guns meant life or death .. unfortunately, the B-25 was also known as the “Flying Coffin” .. because the life expectancy of the crew was one of the shortest of all combat planes.
I also found out later, that on that last mission from the picture at the coffee shop, the one which rattled Dad .. they crash belly landed back at base after losing all but two crewmen, caught fire, and he squeezed himself out one gun port where, after the fire was extinguished, he couldn’t get his shoulders through it again. The riddled plane had 380-some bullet holes in it, and Dad said he refused to fly after that one. He was busted in rank from Master Sergeant to Sergeant, but lived to serve another two years in the South Pacific.
When I showed Don and his son the Squadron Roster and various proof that Dad served in a B-25 during WW2, he became the second Army Air Corp person they invited to autograph the fuselage inside the plane. He signed it Sgt. Melvin D. Richman, 48th Squadron. It was during that conversation with Don that I jokingly first said that I too, was a pilot .. “I fly a Harley Davidson about 6 inches off the ground”. That line seemed to have stuck over the years.
For the next few days, my friends who saw the flight or read the paper kept calling and asking “was that you in the WW2 plane that buzzed Muncie?” It sure was, and I’m sure they heard us coming from miles away. Quoted in the interview, Dad said “That .. is the greatest Father’s Day present I’ve ever had”. Little did he realize how very much that meant to all of us .. and will forever remain as one of those cherished moments of a lifetime.
A few weeks ago, I got an email that sent me to a link celebrating the anniversary of what was known as “Doolittle’s Raid over Tokyo”, April 18, 1942. A small squadron of 80 men launched sixteen B-25’s off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on a secret mission to bomb Tokyo. It was the first air raid by the US to strike the Japanese home islands, specifically Honshu. Forced to leave miles prematurely due to inclement weather, the 1200-mile range of the warbirds caused many to considered it a suicide run. All of the aircraft involved in the bombing were lost and 11 crewmen were either killed or captured. Thirteen entire crews, and all but one crewman of the 14th returned either to the United States or to American forces. Four of those original crewmen attended this year’s Doolittle Raider Reunion.
The history of the B-25 is legendary. And as I viewed pictures of the seven restored B-25’s parked on the tarmac at the National Museum for “the Reunion”, the third picture was a close up of “Old Glory”. After sending it to my sis, she immediately texted me to say “that’s the plane we rode in!” And I’m certain Dad’s autograph is right there on the fuselage where he left it.
So another Father’s Day has once again came and gone. And by all the fragments that came together to remind me of the H.O.G. Rally and this one incredible “adventure” .. I’m convinced that “things DO happen for a reason”. If two points are destined to touch .. the universe will always find a way to make the connection .. even when all hope seems lost .. certain ties cannot be broken .. they define who we are and who we can become .. across space .. across time .. along paths we cannot predict .. nature always finds a way.
The truth behind Dad’s frightful war experiences will probably never be known .. save for those brave souls who never made it home to their loved ones. Our “truth” is that we will always believe what we want to believe about our Dads .. for it’s that “feeling” in our hearts that speaks the only truth that matters .. and nothing will ever change that. Rest in peace Dad .. and Happy Father’s Day!
Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe
and the Adventure continues …
One last tidbit. A B-25 was embroidered in the lid of Dad’s casket, he was 86 when he died. On the back of his tombstone is an inscription that reads:
There is a destiny that makes us brothers .. none goes his way alone .. all the light we give to others comes back into our own …
This just happens to be Adventure “25” .. B-25, around Father’s Day. Now, is that just a coincidence or not? Food for thought.