By Donna Beth Weilenman
William Binzen knew about his father’s accomplishments as a B-17 co-pilot during World War II through the collection of letters and other papers the veteran assembled as a legacy for his children. But Binzen will never read those letters the same way again.
For about a quarter hour Thursday afternoon, Binzen had the chance to fly aboard a B-17 himself, the Aluminum Overcast that has been available for flights and ground tours at Buchanan Field, Concord this past week.
For the short time Binzen was in the air, he put himself in the place of the young men who risked their lives as they took those mighty “Flying Fortresses” into action.
Binzen’s father, also named William, was a member of the 463rd Bombardment Group. He flew his entire World War II service aboard the Umbriago, a B-17 Binzen had flown on his initial military mission to its Italy base from North America, stopping in Iceland. It would be the only B-17 he would fly.
He worked hard to get into that co-pilot seat. A tall, slim man, he ate “tons of ice cream” and other fattening things, but still couldn’t make the weight minimum, Binzen’s wife, Nancy, said about her father-in-law. Finally he joined a ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“He served as a cowpoke,” she said.
That got him the muscle mass that let him make the grade.
Destination of that first flight was a base in Foggia, Italy. It had been kept secret until the plane was an hour past American air space. For years, he couldn’t tell his parents where he was stationed. Sometimes, he had to wait to describe some of his missions.
One of those earned him a War Department citation.
For that assignment, the Umbriago and its crew set out from Italy with its group March 24, 1945, to destroy the Daimlar-Benz Tank Works in Berlin, Germany. That plant was one of the essential keys to Adolph Hitler’s successes.
The mission asked pilots to attempt the deepest escorted penetration in the European Theater of the war. To many, the assignment seemed impossible.
Airplane mechanics had worked furiously to make sure each plane reached its peak efficiency, according to an account of the mission in the War Department’s citation. Those involved in intelligence gathering and in operations tried to get the bomber crews the best information about the target.
The senior William Binzen’s plane was joined by 30 other B-17s packed with the maximum amount of bomb tonnage the planes could hold. Binzen, a lieutenant, had been flying with the Umbriago for several years when this mission was announced. He was about 28 at the time.
The 31 planes crossed the Alps after clearing the areas of Austria and Czechoslovakia where they likely would have encountered enemy fire. But as they approached Germany, they received a barrage of anti-aircraft assaults that struck each of the bombers, destroying four.
The surviving pilots returned their battered planes to formation, then faced 15 enemy fighter jets who fired cannons and rockets at the Allied planes. The unusual enemy aircraft – few warbirds were jet-propelled during World War II, and this was the first time jets had been employed by the Germans – finally were repelled by “friendly fighters” that joined the fray.
Now with a fifth companion downed, the riddled bombers faced another round of enemy fire as they approached their target. Another B-17 fell from the sky.
As a War Department’s citation for the group’s mission later described, “But not withstanding the severe damage sustained by the aircraft, the unnerving experiences just passed, the improvised character of the formation and the last minute changes of bombing calculations and the weariness induced by the many hours spent at high altitude, the 463rd Bombardment Group relentlessly and unswervingly led the entire wing formation through for an exceptionally successful bombing run….”
The surviving planes focused its tons of bombs on its target, extensively damaging a vital enemy installation and supplies in the capital city. Then the “doughty but damaged formation rallied and turned for home.”
The return was hazardous; the flight was over enemy terrain, and six more planes were forced down, fortunately reaching “friendly” fields in northern Italy and Yugoslavia. The airmen received medical treatment and the planes received mechanical repairs.
But 14 of the original attacking force reached home base. One was the Umbriago. Binzen was one who made it back to Southern Italy.
“By the conspicuous courage, airmanship and determination of the combat crews, together with the outstanding professional skill and devotion to duty of the maintenance crews, the 463rd Bombardment Group has upheld the highest traditions of the Military Service….”
The younger William brought the inch-thick spiral-bound collection of his father’s letters, documents and cartoon illustrations, titled “Letters from the Wild Blue Yonder,” with him to Buchanan.
He wanted the letters of his father with him as he took a media ride aboard the nonprofit organization Experimental Aircraft Association Foundation’s Aluminum Overcast, delivered a few days before the Umbriago’s bombing of the tank works in Berlin.
The silvery plane’s last day in Concord was Sunday, when it allowed visitors a chance to take ground tours and to fly their own trips. Those aerial voyages lasted half an hour, giving those aboard views of the Golden Gate and other Bay Area sites.
By contrast, World War II missions could last for 10 hours, with the crew of 10 in air masks and flak jackets ignored altitude, freezing temperatures and incoming enemy fire to accomplish their assignments.
“I felt really close to Dad,” the younger William said after emerging from his own flight that give him views of Contra Costa and Solano counties, then south past Walnut Creek, with views of the Carquinez Strait and Mount Diablo from the air.
“I’m really filled with admiration and deepest respect with what he had to contend with,” Binzen said. He lost his father in 2011 after the elder Binzen reached 92.
A member of a prestigious New York advertising firm before the war, the war veteran decided after his return to become a freelance photographer, and his pictures were published in the weekly magazines of the day – Look, Life, Colliers, Boy’s Life – and he was sought by major accounts to photograph their products for advertisements. His son has continued in his father’s profession, and carried his own camera to document Thursday’s trip.
The plane’s body amazed Binzen.
“It’s a tin box,” he said.
The thin metal walls are well-ribbed for support, but “they would stop no rounds.” On the other hand, he said, “The engines are so sweet. I don’t like ‘dead’ engines.”
Those are the four Cyclone engines that give the B-17 such a distinctive sound that residents of both sides of the Carquinez Strait have felt compelled to look up for a glimpse at the massive plane.
Binzen’s father and the rest of the crew – including the famous American television writer-producer Norman Lear – “were ready for anything,” Binzen said.
Lear was a radio operator and gunner. While the men didn’t often talk about their wartime service, Binzen said his father attended crew reunions year after year. Lear would show up, too, he said.
Binzen said the flight he took Thursday “makes it so real now.”
Of the 12,732 B-17s built, the Aluminum Overcast is one of 11 B-17s that still are capable of flight. It bears the colors of the 398th Bomb Group.
Ground tours are $10 for individuals and $20 for families. Cost to fly aboard the Aluminum Overcast is $449 for nonmembers and $409 for EAA members for those booking the flights in advance at www.eaa.org. Walkup costs are $475 for nonmembers and $435 for members.
Flights are at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m., with ground tours taking place afterwords. If six people are available for a later flight, EAA volunteers said one final flight out of Concord could be made today.
Those wanting to be on the flights must check in at the B-17 trailer an hour prior to the scheduled flight time.
The Aluminum Overcast will be at Nut Tree Airport, 301 County Airport Road, Vacaville, March 17 to 19, after which it will be in Napa for flight training.
After that, it will be available four tours and flights at the Reno/Stead Airport, Reno, Nev., March 31-April 2, and will return to California to the Yuba County Airport, Honeycutt Aviation Ramp, 149-A Sky Harbor Drive, Olivehurt, where it will be available April 7-9, and Redding Jet Center, 3775 Flight Ave., Redding, where it will be April 21-23. From there, the B-17 flies to Bend and Eugene Ore., for the next leg of its tour.
EAA offers memberships at various levels starting at $40 for individuals, and has chapters specifically for those interested in flying, planes, ultralight planes, aerial acrobatics, World War II and other vintage planes. In Contra Costa County, EAA has its Chapter 393 in Concord that meets at 6:30 p.m. the fourth Wednesday oif the month at the Airport Clubhouse, 200 Buchanan Field Road, Concord. Its chapter website is www.eaa393.org, and those interested in joining may email firstname.lastname@example.org.