Confessions of an Airshow Announcer
A Greatest Generation Story
August 1, 2020
In three decades of air display announcing, I've been privileged to interview many members of what journalist Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation." This has included members of the Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group), Doolittle Raiders, Tuskegee Airmen, WASPs, aces, Medal of Honor winners, and veterans of the Berlin Airlift.
Added to that, I've called over 200 types of aircraft in shows, from the Pietenpol Air Camper to the Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter. Antiques, classics, modern hardware, vintage airliners, aerobatic birds, even a Zeppelin, have graced the skies for my mic. Each, of course, has a story to tell, sometimes historical, other times personal.
Of what we call warbirds, the bomber I've announced in shows the most is the North American B-25 Mitchell. Ten of them. The first was at Planes of Fame-East at FCM, an old firebomber, painted like a wartime veteran named Mitch the Witch. A B-25J, 44-86747, she started life as a North American, Kansas City built B-25J-30NC, delivered at Fairfax Field, on 22 June 1945. The Fairfax facility produced 6608 B-25s from January 1942 until August 1945, plus the equivalent of another 947 aircraft in spare parts. At one point, ten bombers were delivered per day. Much of the work was done by the Fisher Body Division of General Motors in Memphis, which produced subassemblies, which were then sent to Kansas City. When '747 was delivered, it cost the tax payer $116,752.
With the war in Europe over and the conflict in the Pacific almost over, '747 bounced around Army Air Force storage bases in Kansas and Texas until it was activated in October 1949, and flown to Brookley Field, Alabama, for conversion to a TB-25J trainer. It was then assigned to Headquarters Command at Andrews AFB, Maryland. In 1956, it was further modified to a TB-25N. It remained primarily at Andrews until stuck off charge in January 1959 and flown to the bone yard at Davis-Monthan, Arizona. At this time, it had flown over 6100 hours.
In June 1959, it was sold to an air tanker operator in Alaska for $2205.00 and registered N8163H. It served as an air tanker until 1979, when it was ferried to Chino, CA. Restored to externally correct military configuration, other than lacking a dorsal turret, it was painted as a wartime B-25D-25NC, 42-87293 called Mitch the Witch that had served with the 17th Recon Squadron, 71st Recon Group, 5th Air Force. The original Mitch had survived over 190 missions, 92 of them piloted by Captain Bert Sill.
In July 1990, Nat J. Hovious (1924-2010), of Vicksburg, MS, visited us at Eden Prairie. He had been one of the WWII pilots to fly the original Mitch. He and his twin brother Fred had flown with the 17th Recon Squadron in the latter days of 1945. We welcomed Nat and his wife Lucy to Planes of Fame and both were able to sit in the cockpit of our Mitch. As he wrote in a thank you letter, "...all the planes and more especially MITCH THE WITCH brought back many fond and sad memories..." One of those sad memories had been watching his twin brother Fred, flying co-pilot on another 17th Recon Squadron B-25, being shot down and killed on 22 April 1945 over Formosa.
In May 1992, for our annual Memorial Day Weekend show at Planes of Fame, we hosted six members of the Doolittle Raiders and three B-25s. Bill Bower (pilot aircraft 10), Tom Griffin (navigator aircraft 9), Harry McCool (navigator aircraft 4), Jack Sims (co-pilot aircraft 14), Carl Wildner (navigator aircraft 2), and Roy Stork (co-pilot aircraft 10), originally from Frost, Minnesota, near Blue Earth on the Iowa border, formed a panel to describe the preparations, trip aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, and the raid on Japan.
At Oshkosh that year, a Planes of Fame crew and N8163H attended, one of nine B-25s for the 50th Anniversary Doolittle Salute. It was at Oshkosh, that another wartime Mitch pilot visited the "new" Mitch. Bert Sill.
The World War II B-25D-NC, 42-87293, was a Kansas City built bomber assigned in November 1943 to the 17th Recon Squadron and flown to the Southwest Pacific theater in January 1944 by Lieutenant Bert Sill and his crew. Initially, they were based in Dobordura, New Guinea, to fly tactical recon missions. Missions were flown over the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, Biak, the Admiralties, and the Philippines. Bert later became the unit's Operations Officer.
On 25 February 1944, Sill and his mates were credited with shooting down an Imperial Japanese Army Mitsubishi Ki. 21 "Sally" twin-engine medium bomber near Kavieng, New Ireland. They later shot down a Kawasaki Ki. 48 "Lily" light bomber. Many low-level missions in support of ground troops followed. By November 1944, Mitch had 94 missions and 550 combat hours. North American Field Rep Jack Fox recommended sending Mitch and her crew home for a War Bond tour. This did not happen, and 42-87293, continued to serve until it was declared surplus on 6 September 1945. Like many aircraft that served so well, it was later scrapped.
Bert Sill's visit to '747 was the highlight of Oshkosh 1992 for us. In addition to the Doolittle Raiders, here was the pilot who named and flew the original Mitch on 92 of her missions, credited with shooting down two Japanese bombers, and sinking five Japanese ships. Bert sat in the cockpit, signed the pinup girl's leg, and flew a "mission" with Tim and Randy. He later wrote to me, "Words just can't express the overwhelming feelings I felt when I saw Mitch sitting on the parking ramp!!!" I corresponded with Bert until he died on 1 July 1993. His wife Jan, wrote later that being able to see an aircraft painted like his old airplane, sit in the cockpit, and go for a flight meant the world to him.
In an amazing coincidence, on 16 April 2020, Sue and I received a phone call from Bert's son Richard. He had been going through his father's files and found my correspondence and a history of the wartime Mitch I had researched and sent to Bert. Being much more computer savvy than yours truly, he'd found my phone number on the Internet. Sue and I chatted with Rick for quite a while. He emailed me copies of NBC war correspondent Curly Vadeboncoeur's May 1944 dispatches relating to the 17th Recon Squadron. Primary sources are of great value in piecing together history.
Across the years, the stories Tom Brokaw called those of "The Greatest Generation" still resonate. I've been lucky. I've been at the right place at the right time to hear some of these stories. One of my goals as an airshow announcer and aviation historian is to make sure those stories keep being told.