EUGENE — Inclement weather that grounded a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber flight Monday afternoon may have been a sign of good luck for Oregon State University graduate Alton “Andy” Andrews, a World War II bombardier.
After all, the 95-year-old Andrews, who lives in Santa Clara, California, had to bail out of two B-17s during the war — once over England and again over the Bavarian Alps, landing him in a German prisoner of war camp near the Baltic Sea for 10 months.
“They taught us to hold off opening our parachute as long as possible if we were over enemy territory,” Andrews said. “Over the Alps, I could see the rocky peaks through cloud openings and delayed opening the chute as long as possible.”
Andrews was scheduled to take a 30-minute flight on the Madras Maiden, a restored B-17 that came off the assembly line in October 1944. The Maiden never saw action in Europe or Japan, but played a major role in research projects for the development of radar systems that would allow aircraft to complete their missions in bad weather conditions.
“We were following the war in the Pacific pretty closely and I was thinking I was going to end up over there,” he recalled. “Thankfully, they dropped the bomb and ended that.”
Andrews was joined Monday by fellow WWII pilot Price Roop, a 93-year-old Texas native who trained fighter pilots and made a hop or two as a B-17 copilot into South America.
After the war, Andrews returned to Oregon and enrolled at Oregon State, where he earned a degree in engineering and went on to a career in highway construction.
Roop enrolled at the University or Oregon and became a high school math and science teacher who spent 20 years with the Harrisburg school system, along with stints in La Grande and at Sheldon High in Eugene.
Rain approaching slushy snow and a low cloud cover grounded the Madras Maiden after a short trip from Portland. The stop in Eugene is part of a nine-month tour of the United States sponsored by the Liberty Foundation.
This weekend, members of the public can take 30-minute flights from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Mahlon Sweet Airport. Cost is $450 for non-members and $400 for members of the Foundation, whose goal is educating the public about the B-17, World War II and members of the Greatest Generation that served.
The Madras Maiden is part of the Erickson Collection, an aviation museum in Madras.
Andrews grew up near Elkton and was an electrician working at the Portland shipyards when he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942.
“My friend and I could have gotten deferrals because of our work at the shipyards,” he said. “I joined because of what the Japs did to us (at Pearl Harbor).”
Andrews had hoped to become a pilot “but washed out” and became a bombardier.
“Everyone wanted to be a pilot, but there were more applicants than where were training spots available,” he said.
Andrews trained in Texas and then headed to Europe as part of the 381st Bomb Group that flew 297 missions during the war and dropped 22,000 tons of bombs.
His fellow crew mates could not agree on a mascot for the plane, but Andrews said they told the crew chief they would have one after their next mission.
“He’s still waiting,” Andrews said with a grin. “We got hit over France, but our pilot was able to get us to England before we had to bail out. I landed in a ditch filled with water, but never got hurt.”
While recovering, Andrews watched as German-made V1 and V2 rockets pummeled London.
Andrews said Germans held rail stations in France and the B-17s were bombing the German trains filled with armaments. German anti-aircraft fire struck one of the B-17’s four 1,200-horsepower engines and Andrews said the pilot could not stop the engine's erratic shaking.
“The Germans had expert anti-aircraft marksmen,” Andrews said.
In all, Andrews flew 10 missions before ending up a prisoner-of-war after bailing out over the Alps.
“I saw a farmer with a pitchfork when I landed near a forest of small trees. I was loose for about 10 days before they got me,” Andrews recalled. “We were not mistreated. The Germans treated officers well. Red Cross food boxes were a real treat. Guys would quit talking about women and start talking about food when they showed up.”
Andrews kept busy by melting the metal lids from canned beef food rations and using the solder to craft military insignias, such as wings from various air corps units. He has them mounted in a frame at his home. He also compiled a list of his fellow POWs' favorite hometown restaurants.
Although his flight was scrubbed, Andrews did climb into the Madras Maiden and gave reporters and photographers a lesson in how planes like it operated 70 years ago.
Jerry Ritter, a volunteer with the Liberty Foundation, said this is the first time the Madras Maiden has been in the mid-valley. He said that although it never carried a bomb payload, the aircraft was one of the “Pathfinder” units that was outfitted with a “Mickey Radar” system that allowed pilots to bomb through heavy overcast cloud cover.
“They were important because they could lead a bomber group over the correct target,” Ritter said.
Ritter said the Liberty Foundation’s work is important since 500 to 1,000 WWII veterans are passing away daily.
Fellow Liberty Foundation volunteer Donald Keller said there are about a dozen B-17s in flying condition worldwide.
He said it costs between $2,000 and $2,500 per hour to operate the Madras Maiden.
A volunteer for about 30 years, Keller said, “We came because of the airplane and stayed because of the people.”
He said the flights helped family members connect with each other.
Keller said that the veterans often need help getting to the plane and into it, but once inside, “they’re 19 or 20 again, and all of a sudden, you don’t need to help them. They know right where to grab onto.”
In the early stages of the war, the B-17s averaged six missions before being shot down, Keller said.