« So Many Opinions, So Little Time

Big day: A flight in a B-17

by Mike McFeely

(UPDATE: Because of a "low-ceiling Monday, the B-17's arrival in Fargo was delayed. So the flight is rescheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m.)

Stuart W. McFeely was born in 1922, which means he was 19 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The United States declared war on Japan and, in what remains a tactical mystery to this day, the Germans soon declared war on the United States. We had a world war on our hands.

As with most 19-year-old American males in 1941, Stuart faced the prospect of spending what would today be considered one's college years fighting a war in either the Pacific or European theater. Being the smart guy he was, young Mr. McFeely enlisted in the armed forces (as opposed to being drafted), choosing the Army Air Corps (precursor to today's Air Force).

Stuart completed his training in early 1942, earning his flying wings at Victorville Army Flying School in southern California. He was trained as a bombardier for B-17s , the workhorse bomber of World War II that was essentially the first mass-produced aircraft in the United States. By the end of the war, nearly 13,000 B-17s (better known at the time as "Flying Fortresses")  were built by Boeing. Flying Fortresses dropped 640,000 tons of bombs on Europe during daylight raids.

Fortunately for me (and my three sisters), 1st Lieutenant Stuart W. McFeely of the 350th Bombardment Squadron, 100th Bombardment Group (H), went through the war unscathed. He flew 30 successful missions over Nazi-occupied Europe 1943-44. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters for his work as a bombardier on the B-17 "Alice from Dallas." 

Eventually, Stuart was honorably discharged from the Air Corps and reserves. He married Olga Mihokanich of northeast Minneapolis in 1951 and became a union printer at newspapers in the Twin Cities area (ending up at the Star and Tribune). Stuart and Olga bought a home in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal and raised four kids.

Unfortunately for me, Stuart died in 1988. This was when I was 21 years old and far more interested in drinking beer, chasing girls and playing town-team baseball than asking my dad about his experiences in World War II (or anything else). It remains one of the great regrets of my life. While my mom saved many newspaper clippings, mementos (including a mission-by-mission diary) and official papers from dad's military career, I really don't know much at all about the time he spent in Europe.

I do recall asking Dad whether he killed people in the war (the basic son-asking-dad question about war). His response, as I recall all these years later, was something along the lines of, "I dropped bombs on them, so I suppose people died. I never really thought about it."

And that was the end of the "conversation."

An aside: I also remember as a youngster half-lecturing my dad about how he shouldn't harbor such ill-will toward Japan (he was a guy who wouldn't buy anything made in Japan -- certainly not any of those goddamn cheap Japanese cars -- and in the '70s and '80s still referred to Japanese people as "Japs" and "Nips."). Essentially, my point was, "Why don't you let it go? It's been 40 years." His response was: "Learn your history. Go read about the Bataan Death March."

I did. I never questioned his feelings about Japan again. 

So we fast-forward all these years to today. The Commemorative Air Force from Arizona is bringing one of the last flying B-17s to Fargo and I am scheduled to get a flight in the plane (named "Sentimental Journey") at 1 p.m.

This is one of those things that means nothing to anybody else but me, but I am viewing this day as a very special moment in my life. I've been able to walk through a B-17 at the Fargo Air Museum while it was on the ground, but I've never gotten to fly in one. It has been one of those lifetime goals/dreams that has always been in the back of my mind. And today is the day.

The flight is supposed to last about 40 minutes. Many missions Stuart W. McFeely and tens of thousands of other B-17 crew members flew lasted 6-8 hours. They also had to endure enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. More than 4,700 Flying Fortresses were lost in combat, often costing the lives of the entire 10-man crew.

Here's what I can never get over regarding my dad's and everybody else's mission in World War II: HE WAS 19 YEARS OLD! And most everybody else who enlisted or was drafted and WON A WORLD WAR was between 18- and 25-years-old. They were just kids. Teenagers. Remarkable.

I just wish I would've asked my dad about it.

(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)