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Miss Mitchell

This story of the B-25 World War 11 Bomber "Miss Mitchell," was submitted by retired Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter, Mike Kaszuba.

 

Photo courtesy of Mike Kaszuba

Miss Mitchell crew in 1945

Seventy-five years after rolling off the assembly line, Miss Mitchell will be pulled out of a hangar this Spring after a long winter of maintenance. Its engines, belching smoke, will loudly come to life and the B-25 will again slowly rise into a shimmering sky.

For nearly four decades the twin-engine World War II bomber has held center stage inside a hangar at South St. Paul's Fleming Field, the home of the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. Though it did not see action during the war, Miss Mitchell was the only B-25 to fly over the funeral services in 1993 for Jimmy Doolittle, the architect of the famed B-25 raid on Japan during the early days of the Second World War.

For the Wing, Miss Mitchell has long ago morphed into more than a bomber that was rescued from the graveyard and brought back to life after a 12-year restoration.

Dan Desko, the founder of the B-25 History Project in Kansas City, said Miss Mitchell is already more authentic than many remaining B-25s. "What's there is 85 percent right," he said. "There's not a lot that's wrong, you're just missing stuff." Of the more than three dozen B-25 bombers still flying, he said, Miss Mitchell ranks at least in the Top 15 for authenticity.

Two years ago, Miss Mitchell even gave Desko a new experience: His first chance ever to operate the top machine gun turret. "Today was the first – ever," Desko said after swiveling around in the turret. "There's not many operating turrets out there."

The commitment – and money -- needed to keep Miss Mitchell flying is well known to Jim Lauria, the Wing's longtime executive officer. "It's very difficult," he said. And expensive. The Wing, he said, recently spent $14,238 – he knows the amount, to the dollar – to restore the bomber's front hatch steps.

Finding parts can, at times, be beyond tedious. Sometimes, it boils down to luck. The bomber's BC375 radio transmitter, as an example, literally showed up at the hangar's front door. "A guy came in with a pickup truck-full of radio parts, and all of them were junk except for this BC375. [He said], 'I'm clearing out my garage, you want any radio parts?'" said Lauria. "I looked at it, and I went, 'Yeah, I'll take it all.' Took everything, so I could get that BC375."

The push for authenticity has its rewards.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in April 2017, Miss Mitchell lumbered down the runway at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio – the last of 11 aging B-25s to take to the sky to honor the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid.

Before the flight, Miss Mitchell's crew had posed for pictures with Dick Cole, the lone surviving member from the legendary bombing raid. General David Goldfein, the U.S. Air Force's chief of staff, had likewise stood beside the plane's iconic nose art – a woman in a red bathing suit with flowing blond hair.

Miss Mitchell meanwhile had its own anniversary to celebrate – April, 2017 also marked the 25th anniversary of the plane's return to the sky.

Miss Mitchell's connection to the Doolittle Raiders was significant. When Doolittle died at the age of 96, Miss Mitchell was the only B-25 to fly over Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. during the burial service for the fallen general. The bomber, which was up on jacks for maintenance when Doolittle died, was rushed back into the air for the ceremony.

"The mechanics got going. [The] next day, Tuesday, the airplane was off the jacks, washed, polished," recalled Kent Smith, the Wing Leader at the time. "To me, that's been our finest hour."

At the funeral site, the crowd – which included many of the remaining Doolittle Raiders -- cheered when Miss Mitchell suddenly swooped over their heads.

The year before Doolittle's funeral, Miss Mitchell had made another important, but much shorter flight. In April, 1992 it had lifted off from its home base for a 20-minute test run that ended at St. Paul's Holman Field. The flight signaled that the plane's restoration was near complete. It came three years after its engines were re-started and five years after its wings had been re-attached.

The smashed champagne bottle used to christen the re-born bomber still sits in its hangar.

Now the Wing's resident expert on the plane's mechanics, Larry Utter remembers first seeing Miss Mitchell in the late 1980s. "No wings, no tail, no nose, no gear doors," he said. "The interior was gutted, and no flight deck."

With the restoration mostly complete, he was also there the day of the first flight. "We were all cheering and jumping up and down, and crying," he said.

Like most World War II aircraft that are still flying, Miss Mitchell had a jagged history. The plane, a J-model, was built at a North American plant in Kansas City in the later stages of the war, and never left the United States. After having been used as a trainer for a decade, it was put into storage in Arizona in 1957. Less than a year later, the Air Force dropped it from its inventory, and the plane was sold for a reported $1,760.

In the ensuing years, according to Wing records, the plane bounced from owner to owner and from airfield to airfield in Minnesota and then Wisconsin. It slid into decay, and spent most of the 1960s and 1970s sitting idle.

The plane, though, would eventually find new life. The Wing called a special meeting in April 1979 to internally discuss the "serious nature" of taking on the restoration. After the go-ahead, the plane was given a special pink airworthiness certificate – good for 10 days – so it could make the flight from Wisconsin back to Minnesota in October 1980 for the project to begin.

The plane's name was changed to "Miss Mitchell", honoring a B-25 with the same name that had fought with distinction in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. The late Ray Ostlie, the crew chief on the original Miss Mitchell, now has a memorial bench outside the hangar where the plane is kept.

A new still-in-the-box Norden bombsight was donated, and an authentic Bendix top turret and Bell M-7 tail turret were found and refurbished.

Photo courtesy of Mike Kaszuba

Ray Kowalik, who did the nose art on the original Miss Mitchell when it served in the Mediterranean, came back to recreate the artwork on its restored namesake.

Even the new nose art on Miss Mitchell had a link to the past – Ray Kowalik, who did the nose art on the original Miss Mitchell when it served in the Mediterranean, came back to recreate the artwork on its restored namesake.

In an unusual move the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, which typically recognized the restoration of historic buildings in the state, gave the Wing an award in 1989 for the project.

Today the job of keeping Miss Mitchell flying has fallen to a new generation of mechanics and warbird enthusiasts at the Wing. "I pinch myself – and it's almost weekly," said Mark Manske, a mechanic on Miss Mitchell.

As a boy, Manske once had 63 model airplanes in his bedroom. "To grow up and idolize warbirds and stuff, and then to find yourself working on them, being part of a team, that's pretty awesome," he said. "I'm pretty darn lucky."

 

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