LOWER TOWNSHIP — Dan Mullin had a curt answer when somebody at Naval Air Station Wildwood questioned the effectiveness of the tail guns on the B-17 bomber.
“We won the war,” said Mullin, 94, of Ocean City.
That was the short answer Monday as the World War II veteran, who flew bombers in World War II during missions in North Africa, Italy and Romania, logging 35 missions and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross during 400 air hours under fire, came to NASW to see the B-17 bomber “Yankee Lady.’’
The bomber is at the air station through Wednesday as part of NASW’s American Pride Days. The event includes lectures, live music and museum tours of vintage military aircraft.
There was also a longer answer. Mullin said they had no fighter planes protecting them on most of their missions, but the bomber was well fortified with its own .50-caliber machine guns.
“I only saw fighter planes once, and that’s when we bombed the railroads in Rome,” Mullin said. “We took an awful lacing at times.”
Norm Ellickson, the crew chief for the Yankee Air Museum, the group that fully restored the Yankee Lady as a living history museum, said that early in the war there were few fighter escorts. Mullin did his required 35 missions all in 1943, between April and November, before finishing the war training bomber pilots.
Ellickson said early in the war four of five members of the bomber crews did not make their required 35 missions before being wounded, killed or becoming a prisoner of war.
“If a captain was 21 years old, he was the old man,” Ellickson said.
As the war progressed, there were more fighter escorts, and more machines guns were added to the bombers. They also began flying in formations of 12 with a total of 144 guns to pick off enemy fighters.
“After that, the Nazis would try to pick off stragglers. If you lost an engine, you’d drop 10 mph and fall out of formation,” Ellickson said.
It sometimes didn’t matter. The B-17s were legendary for making it back to base with major damage, including wings, nose gear and tails all shot up. As long as two of the four engines were operating, the plane could keep going.
“There were guys who made it back on one engine, but they were descending the whole way,” Ellickson said.
Mullin, who lives in the Wesley Manor retirement home, did his 35 missions and then spent 18 months training young pilots on B-17s and B-29s. The U.S. Army Air Corps captain actually flew the B-24 Liberator in the war from an air base in Benghazi, Libya.
The Yankee Lady, one of only 10 of the B-17s still flying out of 12,731 produced, drew a large crowd Monday in spite of the rain. The Yankee Lady was completed with only two weeks left in World War II and never saw action, though it was featured in the 1970 Hollywood movie “Tora! Tora Tora!”
Ellickson said old bomber pilots show up pretty much wherever the Yankee Lady goes, though there are fewer of them, and they are getting older. He said the reactions vary.
“I’ve had a lot of guys come up and touch the airplane and literally walk away crying. Sometimes, they’ll stand back and won’t go near it. Their last flight on one was bailing out over Germany and becoming a prisoner of war. I had one guy walk up with his wife of 60 years and said, ‘I flew these,’ and his wife didn’t even know it,” Ellickson said.
Mullin sat under the plane telling stories as 90 high school students from Williamstown visited the museum. He said he did his part to win the war but had no desire to make a career of it. He instead became a salesman of boilers and heating equipment.
“I could have had a job with an airline, but I really didn’t have any desire to fly anymore,” Mullin said.
After all, by then, America had won the war.
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