World War II dreams soar

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June 03--STOCKTON -- "Bombs away!"

That was the battle cry Thursday afternoon over a Valley farm field as eight aficionados of World War II aircraft got the thrill of a lifetime during a mock bombing mission aboard the B-24 Liberator named Witchcraft visiting Stockton Metropolitan Airport.

The eight "cadets" -- who actually got to fire 50-caliber machine guns and drop dummy bombs from the belly of one of only two B-24s still flying -- hailed from as far away as New York, West Virginia and Michigan.

The seven men and one woman each paid $3,900 for the opportunity to spend two days living the life of an Army Air Corps airman, wearing their own authentic flight suits, being yelled at by sergeants, eating Spam off metal trays and loading their own ordnance onto the B-24.

Included in their two-day B-24 Liberator Bomber Crew Camp:

-- A history lesson about WWII heavy bombers and their roles in both Europe and the Pacific.

-- Orientation on the manned positions aboard the B-24 Liberator.

-- Learning the operations of a ball turret with twin 50-caliber machine guns.

-- Target practice with carbines, pistols and the venerable M1 Garand rifle.

-- Preflight briefing, suiting up and preparing for their mission.

"They let you do all sorts of things you wouldn't normally get to do," said Joe Osentoski, 47, of Marysville, Mich., the youngest member of the cadet crew but the most experienced. Osentoski also came to Stockton in 2009 and 2010, which covers all three years that the fantasy program has been in operation.

"Each year is a whole different experience," Osentoski said.

Of course, the highlight of the crew's experience was the 90-minute flight and bombing raid itself, carried out over an undisclosed private site "for safety. We don't want to attract looky-loos," said "make-believe Sgt. Ken "Red" Terpstra, 32, dressed in period fatigues.

Terpstra works with Taigh Ramey, 48, the Stockton entrepreneur who first had the idea for a bomber fantasy camp back in high school when his father, a B-29 navigator during WWII, gave him a gun turret.

Ramey has been collecting and restoring WWII memorabilia, especially aircraft-related relics, ever since. Through his business, Vintage Aircraft, located on the southwest edge of Stockton Metro, Ramey brings historic planes back to life, offers tours and flights, and hosts bimonthly warbirds meetings featuring discussions led by WWII veterans.

"I like to make this equipment operational. Then we put it in the aircraft as well. I like to give people a glimpse of life as it was for our greatest generation," Ramey said.

With that in mind, Ramey is working toward turning his large collection into a functioning museum open to the public.

He also hopes to offer the Bomber Crew Camp more than once a year. He is working to fully restore a twin-engine Beech C-45H used by the Navy from 1943 to the late 1960s.

The Liberator Bomber Crew Camp is made possible because the Stow, Mass.-based Collings Foundation that owns and operates the B-24 and other WWII-era aircraft believes in what Ramey is doing. The foundation made the plane available to him.

A portion of the fees the cadets paid for the bomber camp will go to the nonprofit organization to continue its Wings of Freedom Tour that brings living-history events to airports around the nation.

A three-day tour open to the public concludes at noon today at Top Gun Aviation, 6100 S. Lindbergh St.

The B-24 Liberator will be joined by a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and a North American B-25 Mitchell.

Contact reporter Joe Goldeen at (209) 546-8278 or jgoldeen@recordnet.com. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/goldeenblog.

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