|Memories of the 'Greatest Generation': A B-17 Lands in Hazen
Gessele, Chris. "Memories of the 'Greatest Generation': A B-17 Lands in Hazen." Hazen Star, 13 November 2008, 7.
The B-17 Flying Fortress was a heavy bomber produced from 1936-1945. The United States Army Air Force primarily employed the planes for the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial, civilian and military targets.
This is the story of a plane – a World War II relic, really – told by three men who all played different parts in lifting a small North Dakota community following the end of a worldwide war.
The year: 1945.
World War II was coming to a close, and Hazen boy turned decorated airman Rudy Froeschle was receiving his military separation papers at Lacklund Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He had served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, then known as the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserves.
The servicemen and women were in a large hall. In one corner of the hall was a surplus administration desk, Rudy recalled. He approached the desk and asked what he could get. He was able to get papers to purchase a Fairchild PT-26 for $600 – used as a Canadian instrument trainer, a Stinson Reliant for $1,200 – used to transport generals and other individuals of significance, and a B-17 for $350 – which could only be used for monumental or educational purposes.
Rudy’s brother, Ferd, came back from the war shortly thereafter and Rudy, a pre-med student in Fargo at the time, told him of the opportunity to purchase the plane, and that he’d be willing to fly the plane to Hazen from Oklahoma. Rudy had some experience in that department. He flew B-17 Bombers throughout World War II.
Rudy, 86, now resides in Fort Myers, Fla., with his wife Judy.
“I liked it a lot,” he said of flying B-17s. “It’s not a fast plane. It was kind of the difference between driving a car and a Greyhound bus,” he added, laughing.
In the fall of 1942, Rudy was ready to leave for Chicago and medical school when “the wheels started to turn.” The Hazen School Board decided to purchase the plane for educational purposes. But Rudy was leaving for medical school, so former World War II pilot Lyle Benz of Hazen offered to fly the plane.
Lyle, who now resides in Estancia, N.M., with his wife, Grace, had been a B-17 instructor in Texas for part of World War II, and later was a B-29 instructor at Shreveport, La., until the end of the war.
Lyle was unable to be reached, but told through a previous interview with Rudy, here is Lyle’s story:
Lyle and his brother, John, went to Altus, Okla., to gas up and add oil to the B-17 engines that had been “pickled” at the end of the war, when they were placed in storage. Lyle removed the cowling from each of the four engines, and with John’s help cleaned the spark plugs with gasoline and washed them off.
There was no radio equipment on the plane so they knew they would have to fly visual flight regulations, or VFR. When they departed Altus, the weather bureau forecasted clear weather. After awhile they approached clouds and climbed above them. The weather ahead seemed to be getting worse, so the Benz brothers decided to fly back. The nearest airport they sighted was at Perry, Okla. The brothers set down the B-17, and made their way back to North Dakota via land, to raise more money for gas and oil before going back for the giant aircraft. The No. 3 engine had lost a lot of oil so they had to fill it back up. After refueling, the duo took off for Dickinson, where they would park the plane until the day Hazen was celebrating their arrival.
When they arrived at Dickinson the No. 3 engine was smoking badly and the local police were right at the airport to make certain they were safe. They knew they would lose oil on the way, Rudy wrote, so they added more oil before they departed for Hazen a few days later. It was a calm day when the Benz brothers soared over Hazen and landed on a pasture on top of the hill just south of town. The ground was softer than they had anticipated and the plane nosed over, bending the inboard propellers on the No. 2 engine. The plane came to a rest nose down, and with the help of the locals they brought the tail down and towed the plane to the spot it would rest for the next few years.
Young Lee Suess was there to witness the big bird touch down on that hill South of Hazen.
Lee Suess, now 72 and residing in Jackson, Calif., with his wife, Joan, was born in Hazen. He then moved with his parents to Stanton when he was 5 years old.
The year: 1949. Lee was 13 at the time.
“I believe the whole county heard about it,” Lee said of the arriving B-17. “The (landing site) was full of people.”
Lee rode to the Mercer County Regional Airport with his sister, Marian, and her boyfriend to witness the spectacle. It was a late August, early September afternoon, best Lee can remember.
“There was anticipation waiting for the plane, listening, looking at the sky. It seemed like a real jubilant celebration. People never seen a plane that large except on newsreels,” Lee remembered. “It was really exciting waiting for that plane to come in.”
When the plane was finally sighted, it was a magical moment.
“Just the sound – it was really, really something to hear. The engines were roaring above us and the sun was sparkling off the silver plane…” Lee recalled out loud, his voice fading.
Everyone held their breath, because the gathered crowd wasn’t sure the landing strip would hold up under the weight of the plane, Lee said. Sure enough, the plane drove off the sod runway and into a wheat field.
The crowd swarmed around the airplane, Lee said, and as Lyle and Johnny Benz climbed from the cockpit, “everyone was screaming in jubilation.”
Lee climbed up into the cockpit and was able to sit in the tail gunner’s seat.
“It was a real exciting time for people in that area.”
Lee isn’t sure if the plane was ever used for its intended educational purposes, as people were scavenging parts from the plane as it sat near it’s landing site.
“I’m surprised they were ever able to fly it out,” he said.
But eventually, fly out it did.
A few unknown pilots waited until the ground was frozen and a 40-mile per hour wind from the northwest. The conditions were right one particular morning and the plane departed – without anyone there to witness it. The B-17 had left Hazen.
But the story isn’t finished.
About five years after the plane’s departure from Hazen, Rudy was practicing medicine in Tioga. One day, he treated a pilot who had been in a plane accident while crop dusting. The man was the pilot who flew the plane out of Hazen.
Before taking off from Hazen in the B-17, there had to be repairs made to the plane, the man told Rudy. The propellers were bent in the rough landing, so Herman Mayer, the Hazen blacksmith, pounded out the dents. Propellers are usually formed and shaped to aeronautical perfection.
“Herman was a meticulous guy,” Rudy said, chuckling, “but he wasn’t aerodynamically-trained.”
The man and his co-pilot flew the plane to Florida to deliver it to buyers, who planned to use it for aerial photography. According to Rudy, those buyers had the plane for two years before selling it to a Canadian group who used it for aerial photography for quite a few years. The plane eventually ended up in Arizona and was restored by a bunch of World War II veterans.
In a photo dated 1947, Esther Wolf sits with her daughter, Arletta, and son, Rodney in their 1947 Chevy Impala. The family wanted to see how large the plane was up close, Esther said. Her husband, Tobias, took the photo. Esther didn’t remember viewing the landing, but remembers the plane sitting atop the hill for several years.
The Hazen B-17 is now enshrined in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The plane is forever enshrined in immortality.
For Lee, so was that day – and those who made the event possible.
“To me, the Benz brothers were just like the Wright brothers,” Lee said. “They were aviation daredevils and risk takers, and stimulated a lot of aviation in the area.”
The plane’s landing has forever imprinted the community: About six to eight years ago, Lyle and his wife drove back to Hazen and were asking directions to local cemeteries, Rudy noted. While asking directions, they discovered the man who gave them directions had watched the B-17 land in Hazen when he was 8 years old.
For Lee, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps himself, the men that made that landing possible can never be repaid the memories they gave him.
Of Rudy and the Benz brothers, “They were our heroes and role models,” Lee said, “We looked up to them.”
“Truly, the greatest generation.”
Reprinted with permission from the Hazen Star, BHG, Inc.