There are a few things that little Alex Floyd dreamed of doing one day. Storm the Alamo ...check. Run the City of Pembroke ...check. Join the Mafia ...check (Football Mafia, but you know.) I checked another one off my list last Thursday: climb into a B-17 bomber.
After thousands of B-17s saved western democracy during World War II, only nine of these big beautiful aluminum birds grace the skies in 2019. One of them, the appropriately named ‘Aluminum Overcast’ was the guest of the Experimental Aircraft Association at Savannah Aviation. Mr. (Jeff) Whitten, knowing my enthusiasm for history, graciously invited me to attend the "media flight" after several pointed questions about my life insurance policy.
While the cloud cover was not cooperative and we did not get to take-off, our hosts were gracious enough to tell us all about the plane and allow us to climb inside and unleash our inner child. Also like the Alamo, the B-17 is one of those things that looks a lot bigger in the movies. The Alamo is roughly the size of the Pembroke Christian Church and the inside of a B-17 is about the size of a Pringles can (at least after you stuff 8-10 winter-weather-clad reporters in it.)
Still one cannot feel any more American than when standing behind the 50-caliber waist machine gun or walking the 6-inch wide bomb-bay catwalk between the center section and the cockpit. When looking through the front window, the concrete and steel of the airport seemed to melt away to the forests and cities of Germany or the palms and sandy beaches of the Pacific. The chatter and click of cameras gave way to what I can only imagine would be a deafening roar of the engines and the rattle of the guns. These bombers were built for long range missions meaning they typically flew unescorted by fighters and relied on their own armament. The smell of the pristinely clean aircraft gave way to the acrid smell of gas and oil and the sting of frigid high-altitude air. It was truly one of the unforgettable experiences of my life.
I had two items in my chest pocket. One was a set of dog tags bearing the name Albert M. Floyd. Many of you older north Bryan readers may remember Albert; a stocky, quiet unassuming man when I knew him, Albert had driven trucks onto the beaches of Normandy and across Europe in 1944-45. While I don’t believe he ever flew in a B-17, he watched them from the airfields in England.
The other object was mine and Albert’s picture. I’m probably 5, he’s early 70s. It’s in a small Relay for Life frame since he died of cancer in 1996. I think about him and the greatest generation a lot as I walk through the city that their fathers built and their children, grandchildren live in today, but other than when I stood on the shore at Normandy or at his grave in Bulloch County, I’ve never felt closer to him.
I looked out the door of the plane and saw my wife and son. They of course never met Albert, but a tear came to my eyes as I pondered the unpayable debt of gratitude we owed to men like him and men who rode the skies in aluminum horses.
It will not be long before America mourns the loss of the last veterans of World War II. Pembroke did so last year with the passing of sailor Rex Waters. This will leave only the artifacts like the ‘Aluminum Overcast’ and Albert’s dog tags to tell their story.
As we approach the holiday season of love, gratitude and family, I encourage our readers to see another B-17 at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler and consider the costs associated with our freedom.
Alex Floyd is Pembroke city administrator.