The Advocate: Bombardier Recounts Duty Aboard Fighting Fortress


"Like a legendary quarterback reliving his glory days, 88-year-old Lawrence Witherspoon, of Metairie, held a small crowd captive in a patch of shade on the tarmac at New Orleans Lakefront Airport.
He recounted proudly what it was like to fly in a mammoth B-17 bomber during World War II, just like the one parked a few yards away with hot and sweaty history buffs carefully climbing through the narrow spaces inside its fuselage.
Patiently, he answered every question about how it felt and how it worked — because he knew.
Although he never saw combat action during his 2½ years of service, Witherspoon was trained as a bombardier, the crewman who would aim the bombs to be dropped on their targets.
And Saturday, he got to revisit his precarious perch as the Commemorative Air Force paid a visit to New Orleans with Texas Raiders, an authentic, meticulously restored B-17 Flying Fortress. It is one of only nine such aircraft still flyable in the world and one of only 11 still intact.
The bomber drew dozens of families, history buffs and armed forces veterans to the lakefront. For $5, visitors were able to climb through the belly of the beast, smell the metal, walk the tiny catwalk between the cockpit and the belly, see the (replica) bombs etched with messages for Hitler and aim the machine guns out of the waist gunner positions. For $425, the crew would take you for a ride in the back — $625 to sit up front.
The Mitchell family, of Baton Rouge, almost bought that ticket for Randy Mitchell, who teaches high school history in East Baton Rouge Parish, and who long has been fascinated by all things World War II — its aircraft in particular.
Although he said he couldn't justify the expense of the flight — “I am a public school teacher,” he said — it was a dream come true for him to see and touch the B-17 on Saturday.
“The B-17, that’s the airplane,” Mitchell said. “This was the workhorse. And if you know the history and you know what these guys inside these things went through. I mean, 25 missions, life expectancy — you were on borrowed time after nine. Just to stand where they stood, you get some kind of feel for what it must have been like. Hell at 30,000 feet.”
Son Benjamin was duly moved. “It must have been really, very scary,” he said. “With the windows open, always having a mask on your face. I just couldn't do it.”
But Witherspoon did. And he was pretty excited to get to revisit one.
“It’s just like it was back in 1945,” Witherspoon said. “I remembered everything in there.”
As a small crowd gathered to listen, Witherspoon recounted how the bombardier would steer the plane to its intended target, described the various navigation systems used at the time and even yelled, “Bombs away.”
He also explained what would happen if the bombs didn't drop.
“If it was a training mission, you’d go back and start over,” he said.
Crew member Jeff Brown said the visiting plane — dubbed the Texas Raiders and with a sexy cowgirl painted on its nose — has been through three major restorations and is as authentic as possible.
The Texas Raiders came off the assembly line in New Jersey just as Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, so it never saw combat. It was used by the Navy as a patrol and air/sea rescue plane and later was used for seismic exploration and photographic mapping. It also has appeared in two movies: “Ike, The War Years,” and “Brady’s Escape.”
The plane can be seen at Hawthorne Global Aviation Services, 6401 Stars and Stripes Boulevard. Sunday tours are from 10 a.m.. to 5 p.m.. The cost is $5 for adults, $3 for children over 5 years of age. World War II veterans and current armed forces personnel are admitted free.
For information about tour rides, contact or call (817) 304-0393."
Lyons, Lori. (2013, June 3) Bombardier recounts duty aboard Flying Fortress. The Advocate. Retrieved June 3, 2013, from