A national group that travels around the country showing off restored World World II fighter planes stopped in South Jersey this week.
But what made the event unique was the ten local WWII veterans who showed up and described in vivid detail their experiences in the military.
“Opened the bomb bay doors, it was clear as a bell that day, and I’m looking down and you seen all these planes coming up, German fighters,” said retired Air Force Sgt. Charles “Sandy” Wentzell, 93.
A radio operator in B-17s bombers, Wentzell flew some missions in France but fought mostly in Germany, where his plane was shot down during the first air raid on Berlin.
“They hit us hard, just about wiped us out. And I was one of the fortunate ones that made it back. It was rough — that was a rough day.”
The South Jersey native would go on to fight in the Korean War, in which he was captured and held as a prisoner of war.
Wentzell was among 10 WWII veterans sharing stories and eyeing old fighter planes at the Millville Army Air Field Museum in Millville on Thursday.
Still painted as they would’ve been in the 1940s, the planes sat open for curious viewers on the tarmac of the Millville Airport: a B-25, a B-24 Liberator, and the famous B-17 Flying Fortress.
“It saved my life, this aircraft, when we got shot down,” former Air Force Staff Sgt. George Reuben of the B-17.
An armored gunner, Reuben said the Flying Fortress lived up to its name when, once while he was on a mission, his plane was hit by enemy fire and began falling out of the sky.
“We had 270 holes in it, two engines out, no electrical equipment, the bombs had to go out manually, we couldn’t get the wheels up or down, and we crash landed in a small field outside of a German town,” Reuben said.
All the men on board survived.
Another vet, Lt. Col. Rocky Gannon, joined the Air Force at age 17 while he was still a junior at Ocean City High School.
Although Gannon only piloted B-17s for “less than a year,” he waxed nostalgic seeing upon one in person.
“It’s one of my favorite airplanes … This is like your first girlfriend or your first date. You sort of have that love affair with the B-17,” he said.
Coincidentally, a group of active duty male and female Air Force airmen were also at the Millville Airport on Thursday for an officer training course. When the two groups met inside the museum, each current airman shook hands with 90-year-old vets, who had been in their shoes some seven decades earlier.
“This is amazing. A piece of history, to shake men’s hands who helped us get where we are today is just awesome. I have no words for it,” said Capt. Francine Kwarteng, the team leader.
“Every single time we have an opportunity to see great men like these men here … love it,” she said.