Chuck Jones, a B-17 pilot and a member of the 483rd Bomb Group, looks over a B-17 G model during an annual reunion while visiting the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News via AP)
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YPSILANTI, Mich. — It's been 67 years since Charles Jones flew his last mission as the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress, but he remembers well the challenge it presented.
"It's a complicated job you had to do," said Jones, 91, who flew 50 missions with the 483rd Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II. "You had to supervise the crew and sometimes even other airplanes."
Recently, more than a dozen former servicemen with the unit and their family members had the chance to go up in a vintage bomber at Willow Run Airport.
Going up in the old B-17 cost $425 per person, and Jones decided not to fly, content instead to reminisce on the ground. The flights were just one event scheduled as part of a week of activities for the 483rd's annual reunion.
"It's a great opportunity to see good friends, and we get to visit from different parts of the country," said Jones, who traveled from his home north of San Francisco with his son Stanley, 67.
It's the first time the reunion has been held in Detroit since the first one in 1979. The group once included 900 former servicemen and their families but now is down to about 100.
The veterans, now in their late 80s and 90s, walked their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren around the B-17 Flying Fortress before the flights, pointing out where they used to sit during missions.
The 483rd bomb unit, which was stationed in Italy, earned distinction for its strategic bombardment missions, according to Mike Roland, curator at the Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Ga.
Crews would fly low enough to take out oil refineries, factories, airfields and other targets throughout enemy-occupied territory in Europe, often taking fire from German planes, he said.
The 483rd shot down more enemy fighters during the war than any other group but suffered many casualties: about 40 percent of the 646 servicemen originally sent to the Italian base were killed or taken prisoner.
Former Staff Sgt. Harry Millnamow of Farmington Hills organized the first yearly reunion of the 483rd at the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit in 1979. He booked a single room, not expecting much, and was amazed when dozens showed up.
"I had to go down and ask them if we could rent out the bridal suite, too, there were so many people," he said.
Millnamow never forgot his time in the 483rd, nor his fellow servicemen. "You can have brothers and sisters and all sorts of family, but you just don't have the camaraderie that you have with someone you risked your life with."