B-17 saga

Joseph Blinebury , 95, stands next to the B-17 Flying Fortress at Northeast Philadelphia Airport. He was a B-17 ball-turret gunner in the European theater of WWII, flying 32 missions.

One of the things I love about my job is that it puts me in touch with a wide array of people. I’ve been close to American presidents, foreign royalty, star athletes, politicians at every level, stars of radio, TV, the stage, screen, recording artists, educators, do-gooders, do-badders. It’s a long list.

I also get to meet with people who need help, usually powerless people, and it’s a blessing if I am able to help them.

Occasionally, like this week, I get to interview someone special to me. The politicians and athletes and stars are not special to me. 

I’m talking about 95-year-old Joseph Blinebury, the ball turret gunner in a beautiful B-17 Flying Fortress that flew over Nazi-infested Europe in 1944. (His machine guns fired .50-calber rounds.)  Here’s Friday column:

It was my privilege to interview him and tell his story.

I haven’t met them all, but I have never met a World War II combat veteran who was a braggart. They’re not whiners, either.

In 2008, I was honored to tell the story of Capt. Luther Smith, who flew a P-51 Mustang fighter that escorted the B-17s. Smith was one of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American aviators who were better than their white comrades. They had to because some generals weren’t keen on black men succeeding in a skilled position. Smith was shot down over Yugoslavia, captured and sent to a POW camp. He didn’t whine in telling me his story.

Nor did another Philadelphia Tuskegee Airman, Eugene Richardson Jr., who couldn’t get a job as a commercial pilot after the war because America, the country for which he had risked his life, was not ready. “This is just another one of these things,” he told me. He became an educator and eventually principal of a Philadelphia middle school.

(His son is a captain with American Airlines.)

Back to Blinebury.

One fact that didn’t fit into the narrative was that during part of his tour, his B-17 pilot was named Lt. Werner Goering, the  nephew of Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and for a long time Hitler’s closest deputy.

The crew believed the co-pilot was an FBI agent assigned to keep an eye on the pilot.

That’s just amazing, and so is this: Former Sgt. Joseph Blinebury was to take his last B-17 ride today, but threatening weather grounded him, his son Joe Jr. told me. He’s set to go up Sunday. I’ll update this to let you know how it turns out.