Texas Raiders and the Greatest Generation
This post has 2 parts: 1. Ray Zuker as a B-17 pilot during WWII and 2. Ray’s son Fred Zuker as a B-17 passenger during Wings over Dallas in 2019. Also look for the 1b. part where Ray Zuker participated in an airshow with the B-17 Texas Raiders in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The B-17 Lady Lightnin’ and my Father’s Time as its Pilot.
As I read the account of the B-17 that crashed in Connecticut on October 2, 2019, with seven dead and six survivors, my heart fell. It has been a decades-long dream of mine to fly in a B-17 like the one my dad flew in WWII.
Dad was a veteran of WWII as a senior pilot in the Eighth Air Force. He flew out of East Anglia in England as a member of the 486th Bombardment Group (Heavy). His unit was in Sudbury, which is about thirty miles from Cambridge. Dad began his service there in a B-24 Liberator, that he and his crew had flown from Florida to England, the European Theater of Operations. They transitioned to B-17G type aircraft. The B-24 was named Lady Lightnin’ and the B-17 was Lady Lightnin’ II.
When dad and his crew of ten (including the Ground Crew Chief) arrived in England, they knew they had to complete twenty-five combat missions to be eligible to cycle back to the US. Even at that relatively late date in the war, few of those combat aircrews completed that many missions. The casualty rate among US bomber aircrews in Europe exceeded that of all the Marines in WWII. No mission flown by the Eighth Air Force was ever turned back due to enemy resistance. But the losses suffered, especially in the early days of the Eighth Air Force campaign of daylight precision bombing without fighter escort to and from the targets, was horrific. (Martin Caidin (1960, ebook: 1980), Black Thursday: The Story of the Schweinfurt Raid.)
Dad and his crew, along with the other aircrews operating at that time, had relatively little challenge from German fighters. Their greatest threat came from the anti-aircraft batteries that the Germans had concentrated around the industrial targets inside Germany. The gunners knew in advance the direction and likely targets of the bomber formations and prepared to fill the air with exploding steel (flak) when the bombers were in range. They did so with deadly effect.
Through a combination of luck, crew competence, and courage, Dad and his crew completed their twenty-five-mission requirement. Dad returned to the states to complete his enlistment by training copilots to replace those who were lost to combat or other disasters and those who were able to return to the states.
Dad’s story is captured in his WWII memoir The Dark Angel Turned Away that he and I wrote together in 1987. The book was not immediately published, but we made thirty copies of the manuscript. These Dad gave to family members and the survivors of his crew.
Included in the book are two accounts, both his and mine, of the trip we made to England in 1988. The trip to England was made possible by a conference that I attended at Cambridge University. The highlight of the trip was a visit Dad and I made to Sudbury with a stop at Station 179, Sudbury, Suffolk. There we talked to a fellow who maintains a museum in his home of the air base of those days, Roley Anderson. I included this story along with information on Dad’s life after the war in the version of The Dark Angel Turned Away, published on Amazon as both a Kindle ebook and a paperback in 2019.
Ray Zuker and the B-17 Texas Raiders in Knoxville, Tennessee
In the original manuscript, Dad described in detail the time in 1982 when he and Mother were living in Knoxville, Tennessee, that he worked with local organizers to bring the B-17G to Knoxville for tours and flights under the auspices of the then-named Confederate Air Force, which was later renamed the Commemorative Air Force. The mission of the CAF to preserve and maintain in flying condition as many of the warbirds from WWII as possible thrilled him and the Knoxville group. Their efforts resulted in the B-17G named Texas Raiders flying to Knoxville for tours and flights.
Dad was a member of the CAF. The CAF aircrew that flew Texas Raiders to Knoxville knew that Dad was a B-17 pilot in the war. When dad went up in Texas Raiders, he sat in the right-hand seat of the co-pilot. They let him take the controls, and after landing, they let him taxi the plane back to its place on the airport tarmac. Dad said that flying the plane was easy but the taxiing “…wasn’t so smooth.” But he made it. He said he “…managed to park her with minimal embarrassment to me and no damage to the aircraft.”
Fred Zuker takes a ride in the B-17 Texas Raiders
The opportunity to fulfill my dream of flying in a B-17 came true when I read about the Wings Over Dallas WWII Air Show that was coming to town in late October. As I read the literature about the show, I discovered that the CAF was presenting the program and that flights would be available on some of the warbirds. I read with a rush that a B-17G would be there by the name of Texas Raiders. Yes, the very plane my dad flew in 1982 would be available for me to take my long-awaited flight on a Flying Fortress. I signed on immediately.
When the day arrived, I was at the tent to sign in early. The weather was cool and breezy. Perfect conditions for a tough old war bird-like Texas Raiders. Dad mentioned many times that the weather in England was often inclement for flying. Instrument flying was a required part of the training for the pilots. Many, often fatal, mishaps were at least partly the result of challenging weather conditions. Unfriendly English weather was just one of the many dangers that threatened these aircrews in addition to enemy attack.
There were eight passengers and three crew members assigned to Texas Raiders for the flight. They gave us earplugs to protect us from the harsh sounds of the four unmufflered 1200 horsepower, supercharged Wright Cyclone engines when they cranked them up. I was determined to record that engine sound as they started them for our ride. I was not disappointed. That sound is unlike any other motor vehicle sound I have heard over the years. It is not the sound of highly tuned engines running with the smoothness of silk. This sound is harsh, deep, and staccato–like these great engines are clearing their throats to let out a huge grunt as they gather themselves for flight.
We taxied out to the main runway as other air show aircraft came and went overhead. We turned on to the runway; the pilot put the throttles down; and we began our roll. I was reminded of what Dad said about the first time he took off in Lady Lightnin’ fully loaded for combat. He had the engines wound up as tight as they could go, full throttle. He released the brakes, and nothing happened. She didn’t move. Slowly she began to roll, and the wild vibration subsided. They slowly gained speed as the end of the runway approached, and finally, Dad told us, the controls began to respond. At this point, he carefully lifted off. He said there wasn’t a hiccup on the intercom as all the guys were probably busy saying whatever incantation they could think of to help their bird into the air.
Texas Raiders took off effortlessly. We were quickly airborne and did our turn around the field and then over the neighborhood for about thirty
minutes. The ride was chilly for me sitting near the waist windows with the 50 caliber machine guns locked into position across the opening. I thought of what it must have been like at 25,000 feet, wearing an ill-fitting oxygen mask with the temperature at 30 degrees below zero. These planes were built for business but there was no business class on board.
We made a beautiful, smooth landing and taxied back to Texas Raiders’ slot on the air show viewing area. All of us passengers were giving big thumbs up to the crew for a great ride. I hung around and made my way to the flight deck to get a view of what Dad saw all the way to and from their targets in 1944.
My takeaway from our flight was amazement that these crewmen climbed aboard these aircraft knowing all the possibilities of what could go wrong and went about the business of taking destruction to the German war machine. It was their job and they did it the best way they could. So many never returned. Those who did climbed out of their aircraft surveyed the damage that so often was the result of their forays and went about the business of preparing themselves to do it all over again.
It was especially meaningful to me because I knew my dad’s spirit was inside this aircraft. He had been there and exulted that he got to fly again like he did when he was 21 years old, fighting for his country, his life, and the lives of his crew. As a youngster, I would see the Christmas cards Dad received from his crew. They referred to him as “Skipper.” I thought that was weird.
After flying in Texas Raiders, I have a better understanding of how those men thought of Dad as the captain of their fates. He was indeed the skipper and brought them safely back to port time after time. That kind of heroism from all those thousands who did these incredibly dangerous jobs will forever be a source of pride for our country and a source of strength as we face our own challenges in a world that is changing all the time. It is right that we remember and honor those who served and sacrificed. And it is right to honor those who are serving now.
Thanks, Texas Raiders, for a trip I will never forget
R. Fred Zuker, November 2019