Carl Gustafson was holding court.
The 93-year-old Corvallis resident was acting as a local host for the Wings of Freedom Tour, a barnstorming collection of restored World War II aircraft that was scheduled to fly into the Corvallis Municipal Airport on Wednesday afternoon for the start of a three-day visit.
The planes were running late and the temperatures were running into the upper 90s, but nobody seemed to mind as Gustafson, a decorated veteran who flew 27 missions over Europe as a nose gunner on a B-24 Liberator, occupied a lawn chair in a patch of shade and regaled an admiring audience with tales of his service with the Eighth Air Force during the war.
“At the Battle of the Bulge, we were doing a little bombing of the krauts to get ’em out of France,” Gustafson said. “I had a 10-man crew. I’m the only man left of that crew now.”
Suddenly, the full-throated roar of a big piston engine could be heard in the sky. Gustafson’s ears perked up as his head swung around toward the source of the sound.
“I hear something — that sounds like a P-51,” he said. “That’s a rare bird.”
Sure enough, a silvery P-51 Mustang fighter was streaking in for a landing, drawing the full attention of the 50 or so people of all ages who turned out on a sizzling afternoon to catch a glimpse of history less than a week after the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
One by one, the rest of the squadron came lumbering out of the sky: a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, a type of fighter plane made famous by Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers; and three bombers, a North American B-25 Mitchell, a Consolidated B-24J Liberator and a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
Brizz Meddings, who drove up from Noti for the fly-in, had a pair of high-powered binoculars around his neck as he waited for the planes to arrive.
“I flew on the 17 last year,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes. It was fantastic, a lifetime bucket-list thing.”
Though far too young to have fought in World War II himself, Meddings said he has the utmost respect for those who did.
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“I’ve done my homework,” he said. “I’ve read a lot about what those boys did and were up against.”
Chris Goldfinger, an Oregon State University geologist who’s also a pilot, was one of a number of volunteers on hand to pamper the vintage aircraft during their Corvallis stay.
A project of the nonprofit Collings Foundation, Wings of Freedom is a mobile living history exhibit that has been touring the country since 1989. Goldfinger has been involved with it since 1992.
“I’m a pilot, so I got into it because of the aircraft, but the value of it is really as a ‘greatest generation’ tour,” he said. “There’s not many of these guys left.”
At age 92, Hank Chrostowski is one of those guys who’s still around. A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, he was one of 10 residents of Stoneybrook Assisted Living who came out on Wednesday to see the fly-in.
Chrostowski said seeing and hearing the old aircraft brought back memories of World War II, when he served as a boatswain’s mate aboard a Navy oil tanker. Though he was assigned to the American theater of operations, he said his ship still needed an armed escort because the oil it carried made it a high-value target.
“I served from Iceland all the way to the tip of South America,” Chrostowski said.
“We were getting ready to go through the (Panama) Canal for the invasion of Japan when the war ended,” he added. “I got lucky.”
Lucky in more ways than one. Chrostowski had five brothers who served in World War II and three who served in the Korean War. All of them, he said, came home alive.
Bob Gawley of Mesa, Arizona, was visiting in the area when he heard about the fly-in and decided to see it for himself. He was glad he did.
“It’s neat to see these old planes, particularly in a year when we’re remembering World II and Normandy,” he said. “We have generations coming up who have no clue. We need to be reminded that a lot of people lost their lives saving a lot of people.”