In September 1944, just nine days before his 23rd birthday, 1st Lt. Don Nicholson boarded the B-17 bomber known as “Little Chum” for a run over Germany. It was his 26th mission navigating the plane referred to as the "flying fortress."
German anti-aircraft guns struck the plane about 100 miles outside of Berlin. The pilot was killed, and Nicholson and the rest of the crew were taken prisoner. He was held in northern Germany until the summer of 1945.
Nicholson says his ordeal started with a massive explosion in one of the plane’s four engines.
"I think I had my back to the area, because I felt tingling in the back of my neck," he said as he stood on the tarmac at Lambert Airport in the shadow created by the wings of the "Memphis Belle, " a restored B-17 bomber named for the legendary aircraft. "And I reached back there and there was no blood, so I don’t know what it was, but I think it was some Plexiglas. I often looked down when I was flying before from 25,000 feet and wondering if I had the guts to jump out of an airplane at that altitude, or any altitude really, but when the time comes, you don’t hesitate. There’s no second thoughts."
Nicholson knows he’d come close to tragedy on many other missions.
"We were on a mission to Munich and we got our radio operator seriously wounded. I know I was back trying to help him, and I think that was one of the lasting memories. When the shells exploded, boy, it’d make your plane jump. One time we had 70 holes in our plane coming back from a mission. We had a tire shot out one time, and that made for a rough landing because it’s only got single tires on each side."
Sitting in his old seat in the nose of the "Memphis Belle" on the short flight from Spirit Airport in Chesterfield to Lambert, he found himself able to recall some good times, as well.
“A crew came back, and they had completed their 25th mission, and they were buzzing the field and buzzing all the areas, and they were shooting flares, and they set the wheat field on fire and we all had to pay for it. But it was worth their celebration, because they had made it.”
Nicholson’s a captain now. Yesterday’s flight was the first time he had boarded a B-17 since his capture. He didn’t hesitate to take the chance, even if it was a little harder to crawl into the nose where the navigator sat.
And watching the world go by on a clear fall day was an experience he’d never had in combat.
“In England, we most always had to fly and take off in the bank of clouds, ‘cause they had so many clouds. And then we’d have to climb about five or six thousand feet to get above the clouds, and then our group would form. We had flares, different-colored flares, and the lead plane shot the flares and then you formed on him. And we circled and circled and circled and got to altitude.”
Nicholson married his sweetheart Betty June shortly after his return to the States. She was with him on the flight yesterday, and called it an “eerie” experience to be aboard the type of craft where her husband of 67 years nearly lost his life.
“I have always been proud of him, to think that he has been through all of this and still is able to be so loyal and so proud of his country, and that he has tried to do, and was happy to do, whatever he had to do to keep this country safe and also helping England at the same time."
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann