For the first time in slightly more than 67 years, Laurence Dennis soon will have the gift of returning to a job he last worked in November 1943 on what now is considered a relic from World War II.
At noon on Friday, Dennis, 92, of Sterling, Ill., will be at the radio controls and wearing the headphones on the B-17 bomber, Sentimental Journey, as it takes flight from the Commemorative Air Force Museum's Arizona Wing at Mesa's Falcon Field. Four of Dennis' family members, his daughter, Marla Hori, grandsons Seiji and Yoshi Hori, all of Chicago, and his girlfriend, Judy Warner, will be on board with him for the 45-minute flight over east Mesa, the Superstition Mountains and nearby lakes.
The flight originally was scheduled for noon on Saturday, but due to Saturday’s weather forecast involving 30 mph winds and heavy crosswinds, the planes at the Commemorative Air Force Museum’s Arizona Wing will be grounded then.
Dennis, who was a tech sergeant on a B-17 bomber with the Army Air Force's 407th Squadron in the 92nd Bombardment Group from September 1942 to November 1943, flew on 23 raids during the European Campaign of World War II. His plane was shot down twice, and the second time, he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans and lived at the Stalag XVII-B camp in Austria for 18 months, until they were liberated in May 1945.
Dennis and Warner vacationed in Arizona last year when he got to see Sentimental Journey at Falcon Field, but he did not get to fly on the plane then because maintenance was being performed on it. So, this past Christmas, his family gave him a ticket for a 45-minute special flight where he won't get shot at and the plane won't be dropping bombs.
"I want to do it just for old time's sake," said Dennis, a retired sales representative from Keystone Steel and Wire, who now travels and plays golf. "After I saw the plane last year, I wanted to take a ride on a B-17 again. Now, my family will be on it, and they'll get to see what I did during the war. I'm looking forward to it. It should be more pleasurable this time."
As a radio operator, Dennis also had to open a compartment door to the bomb bay to make sure all five bombs were released. When some still were stuck in the hatch, Dennis had to walk along a narrow catwalk and balance the bombs so the bombardier could release them.
The odds of completing 25 bombing missions was 1 in 3. More than 26,000 crewmen were killed during bombing missions in World War II, according to information from the Commemorative Air Force Museum's Arizona Wing. Dennis, a recipient of two Purple Hearts, was wounded on his first and 13th raids and was hit with flak that smashed through the glass of the ball turret where he was sitting. He also was a member of a crew that had to ditch its B-17 twice after anti-aircraft artillery from the Germans disabled the plane to the point it couldn't return to its base.
The dates and details are etched in Dennis' mind like the hum of a B-17 engine and whir off his tongue like an 8mm film set on fast forward.
The first time the crew had to ditch the plane was on Sept. 6, 1943 into the waters of the English Channel while attempting to return from a raid in Stuttgart, Germany. One of the plane's four engines was knocked out by anti-aircraft gunfire and after they parachuted from the plane, they floated six miles off the French coast for 14 hours before troops from a British destroyer picked them up.
"I had sent out an S.O.S., and the British came right back and answered me," Dennis said. "When they picked us up at 2 a.m., they gave us warm clothes and a cup of tea and a shot of rum."
Then, two months later during the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 1943, the crew tried to fly the plane to Sweden after it developed engine trouble over Norway.
"We didn't want to fly the plane back over the North Sea in November and ditch it there," Dennis said. "Those waters would've been really cold, so we all agreed to try to make it to Sweden. The plane was shaking like a Model A Ford. It had the shimmies. We didn't see them coming, but German fighter planes came upon us, surrounded us and shot up the right wing. We all bailed out of the plane."
When the crew of nine parachuted to the ground in Knaben, Norway, where the target had been a mining complex, they were taken in by a Norwegian family who hid them in a barn and fed them for about 10 days. The Germans later discovered them and took them as prisoners of war.
For the next 18 months, Dennis said the worst thing about being held prisoner was the mental duress troops suffered, but he said he was fortunate because the prisoners were given one meal a day, four letter forms and four postcards to write to home. But, the mail often took three months to get to its destination, he said.
In April, as the Germans realized they were losing the war, they ordered prisoners in Stalag XVII-B to make a two-week, 150-mile forced march to a small encampment near the town of Braunau, Austria. On May 3, 1945, the U.S. 13th Armored and 80th Infantry Divisions encountered and freed the prisoners.
Dennis still tears up when thinking about his wartime experiences, but said he was proud to serve his country.
"The United States is the best country in the world," he said. "I was lucky."
While wearing the headphones on Saturday's flight, Dennis will get to communicate with the pilot, checking on the speed and altitude of the plane.
But does he plan to give any orders to the pilot?
"I'd like him to do a diving turn to get out of the flak," Dennis said, "so we could head for home."