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Led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, 16 B-25s flew into the annals of history on April 18, 1942, becoming the first allied force to strike Japan in World War II. The B-25 immediately became a symbol of hope and victory for the United States.
Seventy years later, I was "the bombardier-navigator" in the nose of another B-25: "Miss Mitchell," the iconic aircraft belonging to the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAFMN) located at Fleming Field in South St. Paul.
It was a bright Sunday morning three months ago, and we were flying from Fleming to Red Wing Airport to honor Larry Mullaly. Larry is a longtime CAFMN member and, but for him, Miss Mitchell would never have left the ground after many years of meticulous restoration.
We landed and taxied up to the small terminal where Larry and many others were gathered. A former Burnsville resident, Larry has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and had to be wheeled up to his beloved aircraft for a closer view and some photos.
Then Larry and his vivacious wife, Carol, graciously consented to an interview.
Jerry: What brings you to Redwing Airport?
Larry: I now live at the VA Hospital in St. Cloud. Because of the complex medical support I need, I was allowed just one trip away from the hospital. I wanted to come here to see the B-25 and go to my hometown nearby to see my family and friends.
J: Tell me about Miss Mitchell's restoration and your work which led to the aircraft being approved for flight.
L: Other wing members did the mechanical and I did the paperwork. I went to the Paul E. Garber Smithsonian Facility in Silver Hill, Md., where they have the archives. I copied hundreds of changes to the B-25, and made sure they were all accomplished. Then I brought in the FAA to inspect and certify that the aircraft was air worthy. I finished my two-year project about the same time as the others completed their 12-year restoration in 1992. They stripped the airplane down until it was just an empty frame. They replaced or repaired parts as needed and worked every day to put it all back together.
J: Is this the original Miss Mitchell that flew 122 combat missions in Europe?
L: No, but it is an exact replica of that aircraft, down to the smallest detail. Even the nose art is authentic. It was done by Ray Kowalik, who did the painting of Miss Mitchell on the original B-25 in Italy.
J: You have hundreds of hours flying Miss Mitchell. Do any experiences rise above the others?
L: I was Randy Sohn's co-pilot on the first post-restoration flight, which was on the 50th anniversary of Doolittle's raid on Japan. I did several more check flights as pilot, and then was the B-25 instructor for the next 14 years until ALS appeared. Also, I was the pilot for the flyover of Doolittle's burial site at Arlington National Cemetery in 1993.
J: Carol, how did Larry and you meet?
Carol: I was a reserve flight attendant, and received a call that I was needed to work a flight to California. Larry was the captain. When we arrived in Sacramento, he invited the flight crew up for breakfast the next morning, and I was the only one who showed! We really enjoyed each other's company. He proposed to me on July 4th, 2003, as I was flying the B-25 on our way to Moose Lake for an air show. We were married on Jan. 11, 2004, on the Eiffel Tower.
J: How would you describe your years together?
C: They have been filled with great adventures. Larry is the most positive and creative person I have ever known. His spirit is indomitable. Even now, he is always looking to make people laugh. When asked where he wanted to go on his one trip, he joked, "Paris, France."
After an hour of "meet and greet," Larry, Carol and their entourage departed for lunch at the Sportsmans Club near picturesque Lake Pepin. Two hours later, crew chief Roby Bybee checked over the aircraft, and our flight crew of Terry Stern and Janaka Bolduc fired up the 1,850-horsepower engines.
We flew to the Sportsmans Club and made several low passes over Larry and his crowd gathered outside. Then, the CAFMN crew and Miss Mitchell bestowed the ultimate honor on Larry: bomb bay doors open for the final fly-over.
With five beautifully restored WWII airplanes, gift shop, museum and interesting members -- many of whom, such as Col. Jerry Hahn, tell engrossing stories -- the CAFMN is a historically fascinating organization. It was the first CAF wing to be activated and, as with the 79 other wings, its purpose is both to honor those who maintained and flew aircraft in WWII and to educate present and future generations.
"The CAF is also cathartic for WWII veterans," said Jim Gilmore, CAFMN B-25 flight scheduler and pilot. "Many are so moved by seeing and touching the aircraft on which they served that, after decades of silence, they tearfully open up about their horrific experiences."
Supported totally by donations, the all-volunteer wing is open year-round, Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (See www.cafmn.org for location and other details.) Admission is free and kids are welcome.
You might even get to meet "Spook" Johns, whose flying exploits and friendship with LTJG Dieter Dengler are related in two riveting books -- "Escape from Laos" and "Hero Found" -- and one excellent movie -- "Rescue Dawn" -- that chronicle Dengler's incredible escape from Laos.
Jerry Goodrich is a Prior Lake resident.