Joseph Dreher, Jr., gives a thumbs-up to a crew member of Sentimental Journey, a B-17 vintage bomber, after a beautiful takeoff from Lost Nation Airport Thursday in Willoughby, Ohio. During the war Dreher, now 88, was a radio operator/waist gunner who flew 29 missions over Europe on a B-17 with the U.S. 8th Army Air Forces. He was shot down on his 29th mission and captured after parachuting from his flak-damaged aircraft. (Lynn Ischay / AP)
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WILLOUGHBY, OHIO — Joseph Dreher soared on the wings of World War II memories Thursday, driven by the roar of vintage B-17 bomber engines.
During the war Dreher, now 88 and living in Rocky River, was a radio operator/waist gunner who flew 29 missions over Europe on a B-17 with the U.S. 8th Army Air Forces.
He was shot down on his 29th mission and captured after parachuting from his flak-damaged aircraft.
The experience was an unsettling end to his military aviation career, but not disturbing enough to deter Dreher from accepting an invitation to once again fly aboard a fellow survivor of that bygone war.
He gladly signed a waiver warning of this “inherently dangerous and hazardous activity.”
“No doubts at all. It’s a very dependable airplane,” Dreher said before the flight. Then, flashing a grin, he added, “Besides, if you had to go, that’d be the way to go.”
The B-17 he flew aboard Thursday is visiting the Lost Nation Airport in Willoughby where the Gathering of Eagles XVII Air Show will be held Saturday and Sunday. The event, presented by the U.S. Aviation Museum, features a variety of vintage airplanes, plus other displays and activities.
Dreher’s winged time machine was the “Sentimental Journey,” a B-17 maintained by the Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing Museum in Mesa.
The bomber was built in late 1944 and was flown in the Pacific theater during World War II. As Dreher walked to the plane, a smile spread across his face as if evoking lyrics of the bomber’s nickname: “Gonna make a Sentimental Journey, to renew old memories.”
Dreher was experiencing a vivid sense of deja vu as he climbed aboard. “Yeah, this is memories,” he said, settling into the familiar radio operator’s seat. “It seems like a long time ago.”
As the engines roared to take-off speed, Dreher let out a long sigh. His fingers tentatively traced the vintage radio knobs and Morse code key, touching the memories they held for him.
As the bomber rose into the sky, then leveled off, Dreher slowly gazed at the surrounding tube of riveted aluminum and smiled. “Just like old times,” he said.
Almost. He wouldn’t be using that .50-caliber machine gun fixed overhead. Dreher remembered they had to remove those weapons because gunners kept hitting the plane’s own tail.
And he wouldn’t be bailing out on this flight. He stared out the window beside the radio operator’s desk, and remembered that day when the only escape was straight out the hatch.
“Number two engine was on fire. The flames were shooting past this window, and that kind of encouraged me to go for the door,” he said.
For those facing the challenge of parachuting from a stricken aircraft, Dreher offered a little advice: Grab your ankles as you drop out the door so you don’t pull the ripcord too soon.
As the bomber flew along the Lake Erie shoreline, Dreher quietly stared out the window, occasionally glancing to the nearby bomb bay where replicas hung as another reminder of the original grim nature of this airplane’s missions.
Twenty minutes later the bomber lightly bounced onto the Lost Nation runway, as the smell of smoke and burning rubber filled the air.
Dreher looked like he’d just bombed Berlin all over again. “That was a nice ride, a very nice ride,” he said with a face beaming as bright as the sun.
“A beautiful day and a lot of memories,” he added. “And the nice thing is, they weren’t shooting at you.”