Joe Nemeth was reunited last weekend with the airplane that nearly became his coffin.
|Joe Nemeth poses with memorabilia from World War II Wednesday in his home in Bowling Green. (Shane Hughes/Sentinel-Tribune)
It was a more enjoyable experience than you might expect.
Nemeth, now 88, joined the Army Air Corps at age 17 with dreams of being a pilot. It was an otherworldly goal, like wanting to become an astronaut, with air travel hardly as common in the 1940s as it is today.
"I always wanted to fly - just being in the air, with the noise and the glamor involved. It was so new," he said.
His aspirations were hardly unique, though, and Nemeth was told it would be months before he made it through the backlog of others with the same dreams of piloting their own airplane during World War II, then in full swing.
But what is a tragedy for some can open doors for others. While training at flight school, Nemeth learned that 45 B-17 bombers, the plane that was a driving engine of the war effort, were shot down over Germany, and a chance to take to the skies presented itself.
While the Army would obviously need 45 new pilots, each airplane carried with it another nine gunners. With the opportunity to join the war effort sooner, Nemeth took a step forward to volunteer for the post that would put him into the action.
"They guaranteed we would be flying in three months," he said.
After training in Arizona and joining the other members of his 730th squadron in Gulfport, Miss., they flew to Deopham Green air base in England in November 1944.
Nemeth's first mission that would come in January was one of the most frightening experiences of his life, perhaps only second to the last mission, which would nearly cut his life short.
As a waist gunner, he was stationed in the central area of his B-17 with a 50-caliber machine gun on either side, the most dangerous position in the aircraft, he said.
"I was scared for my life when I saw those (bullet) holes popping up on the aluminum.
"I said, 'What am I doing here? I volunteered for this? I must be crazy.'"
Nemeth fought through a dozen missions no worse for the wear, but he wasn't as lucky during his 13th.
While bombing an airfield in Handorf, Germany, his exposed position in the airplane caught up with him.
Nemeth can't recall the entire run, or even landing on the ground afterward. What stuck with him, though, was the injury that later earned him a Purple Heart.
"All my lines were cut and I was bleeding to death," he said. "I looked down and saw the big hole in the airplane, another hole in the top, and it just felt like somebody took a baseball bat and hit me on the side."
There was extensive damage to his arm, and Nemeth laid on the floor unable to move. When he didn't check in via radio after the bombing run, the pilot sent the radio operator to check on him.
At age 23, Cecil McDonald was the "old man of the crew." He went to the back to find his bloodied companion, reacting quickly to attach an oxygen line to his face and a tourniquet to his arm.
"The radio operator saved my life," Nemeth said.
"That's all I remember. I don't even remember landing."
He awoke in a hospital to learn that the injury would keep him from returning to action. While it was good news, he was also disappointed.
Nemeth began to weep. He felt like he was abandoning his crew, who would go on to survive a fiery crash landing without him the very next mission.
After shipping back on the Queen Mary, spending some nights in a bunk and others sleeping on the deck, Nemeth returned home to Pennsylvania, went back to school and became a teacher, first of science and math at a secondary school. He eventually became head of the reading center at Bowling Green State University until he retired in 1985.
He even achieved his dream of becoming a pilot by taking lessons at BGSU, albeit a bit after he had originally planned.
The same runway where he learned to fly became the site of his emotional reunion last weekend with the plane he nearly died in.
Nemeth planned to visit the air fair to see one of the last B-17s still in working order, as the Yankee Lady was scheduled to appear from Ypsilanti, Mich. But even on the day of the event, he was skeptical of an opportunity to fly in one again when he learned the B-17 would be offering paid flights.
A little pressure from his wife, Ellie, was enough to get him on board, but what really made the experience special was that Nemeth shared it with his son, Mike, and grandsons, Cole and Myles.
Ellie mentioned to the air fair announcer the unique circumstances surrounding the flight, and a crowd cheered for Joe. What's more, they surrounded the B-17 when it landed, showering him with applause upon his exit.
"It was such an exhilarating moment for me," he said. I never dreamed that 68 years later, I would have this tremendous emotion, flying in a B-17. But what really capped it off was my son and my grandchildren. Who would've ever thought that would happen to me?
"The capstone of it was that my son and my grandsons will remember this occasion the rest of their lives. It's an honor really for me to fly with them and have my wife witness it."