GRANITE FALLS, MINN. – As he settles into the captain’s left seat and wraps his big mitts around the controls of the B-25 bomber, Ernest “Hod” Hutson throws back his head and laughs.
“I feel like a kid again,” he says, a smile creasing his face.
Hutson, a farm boy from Wisconsin, flew 58 World War II combat missions in bombers just like this when he was 22 years old, piloting his craft through solid walls of flak, bombing railroad yards and bridges in the Balkans and naval targets in the Mediterranean.
He won a chestful of medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, came home from the war and became a legend in Midwestern aviation, teaching hundreds of people to fly and pioneering the crop dusting business. He wound up settling in Grafton, N.D., whose airport, Hutson Field, is named for him.
Now, at age 95, Hutson is taking to the sky again on a beautiful, sunny April morning — 73 years to the day from his last combat flight, as the war in Europe was ending in 1945.
Nearly 10,000 sturdy B-25 bombers rolled from American factories during the war. With twin 14-cylinder engines putting out 1,650 horsepower each, they were lightweight and powerful — skyborne hot rods packing six 500-pound bombs in their bellies.
American kids barely old enough to shave flew these aircraft all over the world. Now fewer than 150 B-25s remain, and only about 35 fly regularly.
Paper Doll is one of them. It’s among more than a dozen meticulously restored military planes at the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum, an impressive, sprawling installation created in this Minnesota River Valley town by Ron and Diane Fagen in honor of Ron’s late father, Ray, a GI who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
While the planes are a big draw, the museum also includes dozens of fascinating exhibits ranging from homefront war rationing to Lakota code talkers. A major new installation gives a somber, brutal account of the deaths of millions of Jews and others who perished in the Holocaust. The museum also includes thousands of artifacts, from Tommy guns and flamethrowers to Gen. Omar Bradley’s personal jeep.
Inside ‘Paper Doll’
On this day, the Fagens have invited Hutson to take a flight in Paper Doll as they prep their fleet for an upcoming air show on June 16.
Hutson won’t actually fly the “ship,” as pilots call their aircraft. Evan Fagen, Ron and Diane’s son, will sit in the left seat. Hutson will take a passenger seat farther back in the narrow fuselage, which can accommodate eight crew members.
The old pilot has done well just to wriggle inside. The plane has no door to walk through; crew and passengers enter through a hatch in the belly, ducking beneath the plane and clambering up a metal ladder into the tightly packed interior.
With assists from above and below, Hutson makes it inside and takes his seat, fastening the heavy, webbed-canvas seat belt as Fagen and his co-pilot go through their preflight checklist.
Soon, the Wright Cyclone engines roar to life and the aircraft bucks and shakes as it strains against the brakes, eager to get underway. The plane’s ability to make quick takeoffs is why Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle chose B-25s for his famous Doolittle Raid on Japan, launching the bombers from aircraft carriers to make the first strike on Japan’s homeland after Pearl Harbor.
“We’re all set. Here we go,” the captain’s voice comes over the intercom. Brakes released and throttles open, the plane gathers speed rapidly. In about 5 seconds, Paper Doll is in the air and gaining altitude over the Minnesota River Valley.
The six passengers — including Hutson’s son, Don, and his daughter, Margie Evers — peer past side-mounted machine guns for a view of the rolling farmland below. The plane feels smooth and steady. After a few minutes, the captain announces that he’s going to exercise the bomb bay doors: “It may get a little drafty back there,” he warns.
The engines are loud, but not oppressive. Their healthy, rhythmic roar feels like reassurance that the veteran machine is doing the job it was designed for.
After half an hour, the pilots bring Paper Doll in for a landing. A quick bounce, a chirp of the tires, and she’s down.
The B-25 was a good plane, a pilot’s plane, Hutson says after Paper Doll rolls to a stop.
“I liked [flying] it very much,” he says. “I felt so at home with it.” With a grin, he adds, “One thing for sure. It’s noisy, like it always was.”
Evan Fagen is thrilled to have taken this war hero for a ride.
“To be in a plane with a guy who flew in the war is amazing,” said Fagen, who pilots all the museum’s warbirds. “Flying now is nothing. These guys — they were getting shot at, they had terrible weather and bad landing fields.”
‘The good stuff’ endures
Hutson flew his wartime missions out of Corsica, a Mediterranean island between France and Italy that was the birthplace of Napoleon. Stationed on Corsica at the same time, in a different squadron, was a B-25 bombardier named Joseph Heller, who turned his wartime experience into “Catch-22,” the classic novel of military madness.
Hutson said his service wasn’t like that. He wrote his own short memoir of his experience living in tents with other air crewmen under an ancient cork tree. The cork tree community included “Mort” from Arkansas, “Pappy” from Utah, “Lank” from Minneapolis and “Keb” from North Carolina.
Hutson tells how they heated their tents with aviation gas, fried their eggs on slabs of armor plate, took in stray puppies and played no-limit poker. They occasionally were sent to the south of France for R&R. There, on the beach at Cannes, “I made my first acquaintance with a bikini,” Hutson recalled with a smile.
For their service, Uncle Sam paid B-25 captains the sum of $400 a month. In Hutson’s case, that worked out to about $62 every time he put his life on the line.
And sometimes they didn’t come back. On one mission, Hutson’s ship, Double-O-Nine, was shot full of holes, lost one of its engines and caught fire. The other crews thought it was a goner. But Hutson’s men were able to put out the fire, and Hutson limped his plane back to land with one engine.
On the same mission, Hutson’s buddy Earl Remmel was hit and went into a spin. Remmel was able to regain control of his ship, allowing his crew to bail out. He could have dumped his bombs on a peaceful Italian village, lightening his load and giving him a slim chance of climbing over the mountains. Instead, Remmel and his co-pilot kept their bombs onboard and crashed into a mountainside, sparing the village.
“Now, they have a celebration honoring him for saving their village,” Hutson said.
Hutson’s wartime contemporaries are passing quickly from the scene. According to the National WW II Museum, fewer than 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served during the war — about 3 percent — are still living.
Looking back seven decades later, Hutson said the whole experience sometimes feels like he was hitching up a plow horse in Wisconsin one day and piloting a bomber over Italy the next.
“Some things are vivid, some aren’t,” he said. “Mostly, I remember the good stuff.”