Ludwig Havlak tours a B-24 Liberator parked on the tarmac at Skyline Aviation at Mathis Field in San Angelo, Texas on March 31. The last time Havlak, now 92, set foot on a B-24 was in April 1945 after finishing more than 40 missions as a crew member during World War II in the Pacific. (AP Photo/Standard-Times, Patrick Dove) (Patrick Dove / AP)
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SAN ANGELO, TEXAS — Ludwig Havlak’s mind was made up before stepping foot on the runway.
The first thing the 92-year-old World War II veteran intended to do upon laying eyes on the last B-24J heavy bomber still whizzing through 21st century skies was kiss the hulking Army-green aircraft. Havlak, a Rowena native, flew the first of his 43 Pacific Theater missions nearly 70 years ago when he manned two guns in a B-24’s bottom turret.
“You can’t tell me that anybody who goes down there isn’t scared, isn’t all shook up,” Havlak told the San Angelo Standard-Times. “I looked down to see flashes and all that smoke around the ball turret — I was ready to go home.”
The Wings of Freedom Tour, sponsored by the Collings Foundation, flew into San Angelo last week with a convoy of World War II aircraft for the public to explore. Wings of Freedom tours 300 days a year and hits 110 cities, basically circumnavigating the United States, said Ryan Keough, sales manager with the tour’s flight experience program.
The airplanes represent the backbone of American air power during World War II, he said.
“Our mission is educating the next generations about these aircraft and what our veterans did during World War II,” Keough said. “It’s important to preserve these airplanes because without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
“Witchcraft” is the last B-24J flying in the world out of 18,000 built from 1940-45, Keough said.
Once Havlak kissed the bomber, he crouched under the plane, climbed inside and grabbed hold of a .50-caliber Browning machine gun. Not since 1945 had he squeezed through the tight quarters of a B-24.
Havlak’s son, Roger Havlak, said it was majestic to see his father scaling the same type of plane he spent more than 600 hours in during wartime. He too navigated the plane’s narrow corridor from the back end through its slim bomb bay, fortified with a labyrinth of wires, oxygen tanks and bombs.
“For the size of this plane, you see what little space all of those people had in there,” Roger Havlak said. “How did these people hang on, much less do their jobs?”
Each night mission Ludwig Havlak flew over the Philippines and New Guinea lasted about 12 hours and 2,000 miles, he said. He was given the option of leaving the Air Force after 35 missions but elected to make additional flights to aid the war effort.
“Thank goodness it worked out,” he said.