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Archive for Sunday, August 1, 2004

Veteran airman returns to the skies at 84

Wings of Freedom Tour brings bombers to Topeka

August 1, 2004

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— It's been 60 years since Dwight Nesmith piloted a B-24 bomber in the last of 40 Air Force combat missions he flew during the latter stages of World War II.

But as part of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour's three-day stop in Manhattan in July, the 84-year-old Nesmith climbed aboard a restored Consolidated B-24 Liberator for a 30-minute flight. The bomber, along with a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, was on display at the Manhattan Regional Airport historic aircraft tour.

Nesmith's flight was a Father's Day gift from his son, Thomas Nesmith of Albuquerque, N.M., who helped bring the Wings of Freedom Tour to Manhattan. But only two weeks before the event did he know for certain the bombers were coming to town.

He said his son had seen the bombers in New Mexico and learned the tour was making a stop in Kansas City. The tour will stop in 120 cities this year.

"My son thought, as long as you're coming this close you might as well come to Manhattan," Nesmith said. "I haven't seen a B-24 since I got out of the service."

The Collings Foundation asked for a $400 tax-deductible donation for the 30-minute flight. Nesmith said one of his neighbors questioned why someone would pay that much money to take off and land in the same place.

"I told him every time I took off I was hoping I would land in the same place," Nesmith said.

Reluctant pilot

Nesmith, who was born in Kechi and raised in Chicago, never had great aspirations to fly until talking to an Air Force buddy.

"I hadn't done any flying, but I didn't want to be in the infantry," he recalled. "He talked me into joining the Civilian Pilot Training Program. I had built model airplanes, but I never thought of flying one myself. The great things you do in life are always by dumb luck, and that was one of them, getting into CPT."

Nesmith learned to pilot multiengine bombers instead of single-engine bombers. He went to Texas for bomber training only 14 days after marrying Doris, his wife of 48 years, who died 15 years ago. When he finished training, he picked up his bomber crew in Pueblo, Colo., and spent most of 1944 flying bomber missions overseas.

South Pacific

"Once I got to Hawaii, I don't think I was over being scared until I got back home again," Nesmith said, "but I never missed a Christmas at home."

Nesmith said 29 of his 40 missions were raids on Truk Harbor in the central Pacific.

"It was the Japanese version of Pearl Harbor," Nesmith said. "We did single plane raids instead of the mass formation raids they were doing in Europe. We only flew 150 mph, so it took from 6 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon to get to Truk and back. That was a terrible strain on those airplanes."

The B-24 crew consisted of four officers and six enlisted soldiers. Nesmith said there were many close calls, but one really sticks in his memory.

"We got hit with anti-aircraft (ammunition) and it broke a gasoline line," Nesmith said. "Gasoline was spilling out on the super charger, so there is this flame running all the way down the side of the airplane, but fortunately in the air. B-24s were really flying gasoline tanks."

Kansas calls

When Nesmith returned stateside he was stationed in Florida, where he piloted B-29 and B-32 Super Flying Fortresses.

"I didn't want to go into command and teach some greenhorn and have him kill me in a B-24, and I didn't want to go back to combat for God's sakes," he said.

When World War II ended, Nesmith went to Northwestern University near Chicago on the G.I. Bill and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. As a boy, he had visited his grandparents in Salina and Winfield, so he knew Kansas would be a good place to raise children.

The family settled in Manhattan, where Nesmith taught mechanical engineering at Kansas State University for 35 years before retiring about 20 years ago.

Nesmith has kept in contact with his old B-24 crewmates over the years.

"We used to get together every five to 10 years," he said. "It's amazing how tight you get with the crew. I keep in touch with the co-pilot, who is a wealthy farmer in Indiana. The radio guy died a year or so ago."

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