Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders Gather for Reunion at Heart of America CAF Wing Before Doolittle Raid 75th Anniversary

By Carmelo Turdo
The Aero Experience continues the coverage of our visit to the Heart of America Wing of the Commemorative Air Force in Olathe, KS with a look at the Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders Reunion held in the wing's hangar on Wednesday.  The reunion was timed to begin a week of festivities around the Midwest to mark the 75th Anniversary of the historic B-25 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo flown on April 18, 1942.  Other events this week include a gathering of B-25 Mitchell bombers at Grimes Field Urbana Municipal Airport in Ohio this weekend and ceremonies held at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force with at least 13 B-25 Mitchells participating in a flyover of Memorial Park.  Appropriately, the kickoff to the festivities began in the heart of the Midwest with a small, but feisty group of the original workers (mostly real Rosie the Riveters) from the now demolished Fairfax defense plant where most of the B-25 bombers were built.

The Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders Reunion was organized by Dr. Dan Desko, Founder of the B-25 History Project, a non-profit organization dedicated "To preserve and honor the history of the B-25 Mitchell bomber and the men and women who built, flew and maintain them past, present and future."  Dr. Desko and a small group of historians have devoted much time and energy to researching the Mitchell's history in minute detail, assembling authoritative documentation and educating audiences both in and out of aviation circles on the B-25s flown in the past and those currently in operation.  The group has formed strong connections with B-25 operators over the years, and as we will see, provided a memorable reunion for those who produced the "Arsenal of Democracy."  Future plans include establishing a facility to base their own flying B-25 Mitchell.

Wednesday afternoon's festivities began with a rumble of Harley-Davidson motorcycles from around the hangar, and it was obvious who had arrived.  Members of the Kansas Patriot Guard, established in 2005 by American Legion Post 136 members, were directed to park in front of the CAF Wing's hangar near the open doors and facing the apron.  One of the members told The Aero Experience that they were at the Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders Reunion to honor those who built the bombers needed by to win World War II and help in any way to make the event a success.  Their presence alone was a great show of support.   


At 2:30pm, exactly on schedule, the B-25J named Show Me appeared on the apron directly in front of the CAF Wing's hangar.  Show Me, flown by Matt Conrad and his crew, flew in from the Missouri Wing of the CAF based in St. Charles, MO near St. Louis.  This late model B-25J was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces in January 1945 and served stateside as a trainer until sold as surplus in 1959.  The Missouri Wing of the CAF received the B-25 in 1982, and it serves along with a Grumman (General Motors) TBM Avenger and Aeronca L-3E named Lil' Show Me.  Conrad and the Show Me crew met with the Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders, real Rosie the Riveters, on the apron and "talked shop" about the construction of the B-25.  One spritely volunteer, Anna Lorene Bailey (nee Norman) climbed up the ladder into the cockpit for the first time.  She remarked that the plant was so large that she and many other plant workers had not seen a complete bomber since it came out of the other end of the huge factory.  The ladies moved through the crowd like rock stars, signing autographs and telling anecdotes of their B-25 production work during the early 1940s at the Fairfax Plant.  We were all eager to hear first-hand how the bombers were built.  We could have stayed there all day, but there were other activities to come that afternoon.


Following the gathering with Show Me, the reunion activities moved into the CAF Wing's hangar where refreshments were served and the formal program began.  The honored guests signed more autographs, met the restorers of Sandbar Mitchell, the B-25 rescued from a sandbar near Fairbanks, Alaska in 2013 by the Warbirds of Glory Museum in Brighton, MI.  Mayor John McTaggart of Edwardsville, KS presented the Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders with the Margaret Landis Award from the Wyandotte County Historical Society and Museum.  Dr. Dan Desko gave a detailed presentation on the Fairfax Airport and adjoining Fairfax Defense Plant where two-thirds of the B-25s were assembled from 1941-1945.  Some of the Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders were recognized, including Mary White, who worked on wiring in the bomber cockpits.  Matt Conrad, pilot of Show Me, was also recognized for the Missouri CAF Wing's support of the Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders.  Conrad told the gathering that it was his honor and privilege to have flown Mary White four years ago and met Anna Bailey in the cockpit that afternoon.


At 5:45pm, again right on time, the U.S. Navy type of B-25J, the PBJ-1J named Semper Fi, from the Southern California CAF Wing, appeared overhead and minutes later taxied up to the apron and parked nose-to-nose with Show Me.  Semper Fi is the only U.S. Navy PBJ currently flying, and has been active less than a year since her 23-year restoration was completed.  The aircraft was on it's way to the 75th Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid event this weekend, and it was arranged that it spend Wednesday night through part of Friday at the Heart of America CAF Wing for an appearance at the reunion.  It was a treat to have Semper Fi visit this Midwest Aviation event, and to have both U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps represented with their B-25 models!  The crew were just as awed with the Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builders as we were, and they instantly realized how special this meeting would be.  Show Me then had to return to St. Charles, MO before sunset, so the crew bid farewell shortly thereafter.  Both bombers will be in Dayton, OH for the events next week.

The day's activities came to a close, and the reunion could only be called a huge success.  In the next post, we will have more coverage of PBJ-1J Semper Fi, the Heart of America CAF Wing and their great museum.

Special thanks to the Heart of America CAF Wing, Dr. Dan Desko and the B-25 History Project, the crews of Show Me and Semper Fi, and all those who made the 2017 Fairfax B-25 Bomber Builder Reunion a success.

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