Hutchinson — Fighter pilots who were part of a celebrated group that destroyed hundreds of German planes in World War II visited the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center for their final reunion.
The stop at the museum on Sunday gave the men who belonged to the 352nd Fighter Group a chance to see aviation memorabilia, including rockets they had to contend with in aerial combat.
Looking at a smaller version of the Walter 509A HWK rocket engine displayed in a glass case, Ray Mitchell of Woodstock, Va., recalled facing the real thing.
"Three of them went straight in front of me," he said. "They lost a lot of pilots on those."
Mitchell was among about 200 veterans from the 352nd Fighter Group Assn. who toured the museum and watched an IMAX film on fighter pilots.
Police escorted the group into Hutchinson while members of the Hutchinson Community College jazz band welcomed the pilots and their families with patriotic and jazz music. Members of a Boy Scout troop formed a color guard, and Cosmosphere president and CEO Jeff Ollenberger thanked the pilot group responsible for destroying 776 enemy aircraft on 420 flying missions.
"The history of the military and the struggle to make this country what it is today is my passion," Ollenberger said. "The space race is a direct off-shoot of everything that happened after World War II. Thanks for all that you've done."
Wichita resident Ken Wagnon, host for the get-together, was adopted by the group six years ago after members found out about his restoration of a P-51, the aircraft many of them flew in Europe.
Last year's reunion was to have been the last for the organization, but Wagnon talked members into gathering one more time, with the Cosmosphere as a special attraction.
"This is a highlight we have to offer them in our area, with aviation and space-related items," Wagnon said. "These men are very special and are true American heroes."
Don McKibben, a World War II fighter pilot from Maine, shared stories during the tour with Andy Fredrick of Homosassa, Fla.
"I was in London when some buzz bombs like these came over me," McKibben said, pointing to the aircraft above him. He showed off a picture of the plane he used to fly, one called "Miss Lace" after a character in the "Male Call" cartoon strip.
Frederick, too young for World War II, got involved with the group after meeting some of its members while serving in the Air Force 40 years ago.
Sunday was his second 352nd Group reunion, and he said he's learned more from the veterans in the last two years than from any history book.
"So many people don't know World War II history, so it's fun to get the firsthand experiences," Fredrick said. "They were just average people - average people who did a superb job."
The fighter group flew its first combat mission in September 1943, using the P-47 before making the change to the P-51 aircraft for which it became best known, planes featuring distinctive blue-painted noses.
Maj. George Preddy, who shot down six German fighters in one mission alone, ranks as the top ace among P-51 Mustang pilots. He was credited with just under 27 kills, most of them while flying the Mustang.
Ten pilots from the group received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. combat award. Seven from the 352nd rose to the rank of general, including J.C. Meyer, who later was to head the Strategic Air Command and became vice chief of staff for the Air Force.