June 10--From thousands of feet above Germany, Sgt. Taffe Simon saw the flashes and black smoke and heard loud anti-aircraft explosions all around him as he rode beneath a B-17 Flying Fortress.
He had a seat in the ball turret on the underside of the bomber that took America into World War II against the Nazis. Simon was in his early 20s when he took aim at German fighter planes.
He said he had no fear when he first entered the war in 1942.
"You're young and eager. You're not scared," Simon said.
But the big German anti-aircraft guns boomed from below. On missions during daylight hours over railroads, factories and other Nazi targets, he was a target for the enemy on the ground.
"Then I saw the flak. And I was scared."
A north Oklahoma City resident since he was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in 1946, Simon said he can still recall those first bombing raids as he sat in the gunner's seat in the glass turret. It was his job to try to keep the German fighter planes at bay, swiveling a machine gun as fighters came from all sides.
"Trying to shoot down another airplane in the air is really hard to do," Simon said.
Simon said on his first bombing raids on a B-17, the more experienced crew members prepared him for the hostile skies.
"They told me when you see the flak you're safe. It's when you don't see it that you're done."
One of the legendary aircraft, this one with a special link to another historic B-17, is coming to Oklahoma City. This one was restored and used to portray the Memphis Belle in the 1990 movie of the same name. It will land at Wiley Post Airport and be available for the public to see on the ground or in the air.
Those interested can fly on the plane for $450 each from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and June 15 at the airport, 5915 Phillip J. Rhoads Ave. Tours of the plane will be available as well when it is on the ground.
The B-17 coming to Oklahoma City was one of 13,000 built during World War II. The original Memphis Belle is now at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. The replica is one of only nine that are still flying today.
This B-17 never flew on bombing missions; instead it was used for years fighting forest fires in the Pacific Northwest after the war ended, said Scott Maher, spokesman for the nonprofit Liberty Foundation. The plane is on a nationwide tour to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the last bombing mission of the real Memphis Belle. It was restored by a previous owner before it was used in the movie and is making 50 stops this year in cities throughout the country, Maher said.
Simon served in the 8th Air Force's 445th Bomb Group and 700th Bomb Squadron. He later was assigned as a tail gunner on a newer bomber, the B-24 Liberator, with the turret in the rear, a better place to fire at enemy fighter planes, he said. He flew 30 missions on the B-24.
Simon's wife, Ingrid, is the former owner of Ingrid's Kitchen, a popular Oklahoma City German restaurant. She escaped from East Germany in 1960.
"He bombed my house," she said, smiling.
She was not really joking.
On March 1, 1943, she was born in an apartment building in Berlin that was partly destroyed when it was hit in an American bombing raid. Taffe was flying on the same mission over a Berlin factory the day she was born.
On March 24, 1945, Simon was on a bomber that was hit by flak over Germany, and the pilot made it to Holland and landed in an area that had just been occupied by British and Canadian troops. With parts from British airplanes, the crew made their own repairs and flew back to safety, he said.
In a room full of war memorabilia in north Oklahoma City, Simon has a small replica of the feared German .88-caliber anti-aircraft gun that hit his plane.
Maher said that as more American World War II veterans die each year, the B-17 that continues to fly today is on a new mission, one to preserve the stories of courage, Maher said.
"The B-17 was the workhorse of World War II," Maher said. "It was our heavy bomber."
The U.S. Army Air Forces lost 5,000 B-17s in World War II combat, he said. The planes usually flew with 10-man crews.
"Our goal is to honor our veterans, preserve aviation history and teach young people the price of freedom," Maher said.
To make a flight reservation, call (918) 340-0243.
Copyright 2014 - The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City