B-17 was the bomb, WWII vet recalls

Posted: August 22, 2014

I TOOK A FLIGHT over Philadelphia in a B-17 Monday. It was thrilling.

Joseph Blinebury took 32 flights in a B-17 above Nazi-infested Europe. It was killing.

He didn't die, but a lot of the World War II aviator's comrades did. "Guys - one day you're playing cards in the barracks, the next day they're gone," he says, his head shaking, his eye misting.

When he speaks of those long-ago days of valor and victory, dread and death, he is a deep well, drawing up stories with a mind clear as a cockpit window.

Blinebury is one of our Greatest Generation, whose candle is flickering in the wind. Each day we lose about 1,500 veterans who truly did save the world for democracy.

Blinebury describes the bond of his 10-man crew as "100 percent trust." Each of their lives depended on the other.

The connection with the B-17 is more like love. We're at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, and as we approach the iconic aircraft with its unique silhouette, Blinebury gets excited. "That baby is still majestic looking," he says, shaking his head. "See, I'm really thrilled about it. Seventy years later and that baby is still there."

So is Blinebury.

This B-17 is a replica of the Memphis Belle, the one used in the 1990 "Memphis Belle" movie, but it is a real B-17. The Boeing-built, high-altitude heavy bomber was nicknamed Flying Fortress because of its bristling array of machine guns - front, back, sides, top and bottom. The bottom was called the ball-turret gunner and that was Blinebury's position.

"I was a bundle of nerves," he says, "until I got into the ball turret," which is a bubble on the belly of the plane armed with two .50-caliber machine guns. He sat in a recliner and operated the guns with foot pedals. "Down in the ball turret, I was comfortable as hell," he laughs. "It was my parlor."

He's now 95, a little hard of hearing and using a cane because of equilibrium problems that annoy him, but he's needle thin and rail straight. We are having a long conversation at the airport, where civilians can fly in a B-17 over the weekend. Blinebury arrives wearing the very hat he wore in combat.

He got into the fight late, in 1944, leaving his deferred job in a defense plant to follow two younger brothers into what was then the Army Air Corps.

Blinebury admits he was scared, even in his parlor. "We were taught when you get up there you're going to be scared, just don't panic," he says.

He was so scared a couple of times, he thought he had moved his bowels, but on landing found it had only felt like that. After landing, each crew member was offered a shot of whiskey to help them "down." They had landed, but they weren't "down."

"Back in the barracks, when you think about what happened, and what could have happened, you get shook up," he remembers.

Before missions, the former altar boy always said two prayers, one "to St. Michael the Archangel and the other to my 'girlfriend' - the Blessed Virgin Mary."

Although there were German fighters around, by 1944 U.S. bombers had mastered tight formation flying that kept Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs at bay.

Not the flak, though.

The Germans knew American bombers were coming and could see them clearly during daylight bombing. Hundreds of bombers would come over and the flak was so heavy you could walk across it. "Halfway through my missions, I never thought I would see the United States again."

But he did, thanks to his B-17.

"The strength of that plane was something," he says. "It could take a beating. We'd come back with the hydraulic system gone, holes in the wings, the tail shot off, but she got us back."

After the war, the Burholme resident married his sweetheart, Vivian ("the best friend I ever had in my life"), raised two sons and two daughters while employed at Brewerytown's McKuen Glass for 46 years, reluctantly retiring at 72.

A final word about Blinebury's many stories: He was awarded the Soldier's Medal for heroism.

He doesn't mention it to me.

Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

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