For the first time since World War II, a local veteran flew in the same type of plane he navigated over the hostile skies of Europe in 1944 as he boarded the famous Memphis Belle B-17 Flying Fortress on display in Kansas City.
The plane, which is available for public flights and tours Saturday and Sunday at the Charles B. Wheeler Airport in Kansas City, is the aircraft used in the filming of “Memphis Belle” and although it never saw combat, it is an authentic B-17 constructed in 1945.
During a preview flight on Monday, Jake Simonitsch, a 95-year-old veteran who lives in Independence, said, “It was the biggest thrill I’ve had since World War II.”
“I enjoyed it. It’s just too bad it was so gosh darn noisy that you couldn’t carry on a conversation,” Simonitsch joked. “The ride was great. It was just like the old days.”
Simonitsch was a B-17 navigator during the darkest days of the war. He reported for B-17 training Sept. 4, 1943 at Ephrata Army Airfield in Washington. A few weeks later, he arrived in Greenock, Scotland, and a few days after that he was stationed with the 390th Bomb Group.
“I was the navigator. I logged where we were and what time and kept our air speed up,” Simonitsch said. “The dials would do it too, but it’s a human thing. You don’t know how wind-blown you are from the dials on the airplane, but a navigator can tell you’ve gone 25 miles and you’re windblown 25 miles. That is your biggest thing.”
His first mission on Dec. 11, 1943, was a raid against the submarine sub pens in Emden, Germany, where his group lost five B-17s. He would continue to fly 18 missions through hostile airspace for the next four months. His last mission was on March 8, 1944, where three B-17’s, including his, were lost to fighter aircraft.
“A pilot in the airplane adjacent ours was shot up,” Simonitsch said. “It was time to get out of the airplane and the pilot got out of the window of the B-17 and was on the wing reaching back into the plane to get his parachute. We saw him pull the parachute through the window and the next thing he was gone.”
His group received word about the missing pilot while they were inside the walls of a German prisoner of war camp.
“He was found by the Germans on the beach and they didn’t know whether he couldn’t open his chute or what,” Simonitsch said. “When word got back to us in prison, the guys from his group would tell us the stories, we felt kind of sick about that, because he had a youngster back in the United States and his wife was expecting.”
Captuted at Magdeburg, he would spend the next 14 months in the prison camp Stalag Luft in Barth, Germany.
“We got 18 combat missions in from England over Germany, and then the Germans got me for the next 14 months,” he said.
After he was liberated in April 1945, he returned to the U.S. He went to school under the GI Bill and became a member of the Air Force Reserve. He flew eight missions over Korea before the cease-fire was declared. He then worked as part of a refueling squadron for several years.
His next assignment was at nearby Whiteman Air Force Base where he was assigned to the Minuteman Missile Wing and was awarded the Missileman Badge.
Simonitsch described being able to relive those moments in flight above Kansas City in the historic aircraft as “spectacular.” The Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit organization who leases and maintains the plane, will offer free tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Charles B. Wheeler Airport in downtown Kansas City.
The foundation also offers 45-minute flights aboard the Memphis Belle B-17 Flying Fortress for $450. For more information or to book a flight call 918-340-0243. More information on the Liberty Foundation is available at libertyfoundation.org.