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Honoring the past with veteran warbirds: Special flyover, tour from WWII-era plane

by Elena Johnson
| August 18, 2020 12:28 PM

Seventy-five years ago today, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies on radio, and with victory over Japan, World War II was essentially brought to an end.

This V-J (Victory over Japan) Day, North Idaho residents can experience a stronger connection to history – as veterans of WWII receive an aerial salute to their hard work.

At 9:30 a.m. today the B-25 bombardier aircraft “Maid in the Shade”, which has been stationed at the Coeur d’Alene Airport since Monday, flies a special extended route over the local area.

The route includes national cemeteries, veterans’ homes and senior living facilities as a tribute to those who have served.

The B-25 “Maid in the Shade” is herself a combat veteran and even bears a few battle scars to prove it.

“Our airplane… flew 15 missions over Italy and Yugoslavia in November [and] December 1944. So it’s a combat veteran, which is pretty rare,” said Mike Garrett, tour director and volunteer with the Arizona Commemorative Air Force.

“And the colors that it’s in – the blue tail with the number 18 on it – is the same color scheme it had when it flew.”

The fly-over is a special addition to the Coeur d’Alene stop of the Commemorative Air Force’s B-25’s tour season. The warbird, attached to the CAF’s Arizona Wing, has been parked at the airport at Resort Aviation since Monday. In addition to offering tours all week, rides are also available in the mornings today and Sunday.

Those who missed the fly-over can still appreciate the old bird through a walk-on tour, ride or by simply appreciating the view through the fence, accessible from Wyoming Avenue and Airport Road in Hayden. In fact, CAF members encourage it.

“If we didn’t sell rides and tours, we wouldn’t be able to fly the planes,” said Garrett.

Maid in the Shade underwent a 28-year restoration process. After being used as a bug-sprayer after the war, which Garrett says was a common use of warplanes – those which weren’t left to “rot” overseas or sold for their remaining fuel – the CAF gutted and restored the plane. The motto of the nonprofit Commemorative Air Force is to “Keep ‘em Flying.”

The plane had to be rebuilt to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s standards for passengers.

“We always thank our passengers for either taking a tour or flying with us,” said Garrett, “[as it] helps preserve the planes and helps honor and teach folks about why these planes are so important.”

Part of the CAF’s mission is to preserve history – through the very airplanes of WWII.

Starting with a group of ex-service pilots in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas in the late 1950s, the now-national organization collects and preserves military aircraft.

Together, the 175-plus warbirds of over 60 types are known as the CAF Ghost Squadron. All are restored to flying condition.

The CAF Airbase in Mesa, AZ, has six aircraft, including the B-25 and B-17 bombardiers which often visit Coeur d’Alene during their summer tours. Their last visit here was at the Air Expo in July 2019. In addition to tours and rides offered back in Mesa, such tours are managed and operated entirely by volunteers like Garrett and Mueller who are passionate about preserving and sharing history.

“This is my full-time job, pretty much,” joked Mike Mueller. The volunteer is the ground operations coordinator for the B-25 while it is stationed here in Coeur d’Alene. Like Garrett, his passion for the CAF has become a retirement “job”.

“[But] my reward is seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they get off the airplane.”

The CAF’s mission is to educate, inspire and honor. Maid in the Shade does this in part through touring the country, providing educational and emotional experiences while preserving the stories of the generation that fought and won WWII.

Some of those vets make a point of visiting this and other CAF aircraft, and those with a personal history with B-25s leave their mark – and their stories – behind.

“When we’re on static [tours], people can go inside the bomb bay, and the bomb bay doors are all [covered with] signatures of people who flew the planes,” Garrett says.

Fans of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo might recognize names like the late David Thatcher, Nick Cole, and Ed Sailors, who were the last three on the Doolittle Air Raid on Tokyo in April of 1942.

“Rosie the Riveter” was also scrawled onto the doors by Betty Hayes, who likely helped to build this very plane, as she did many others in Kansas City, Mo. from 1942-44. Some 30 names are inscribed in all.

“It’s really important to us to preserve these stories [and] get those names on there,” said Garrett.

“We want to honor the people that flew these aircraft, that worked on them, that built them. We want to inspire the younger people today to look to what that generation did, how they rose to the challenges of a world war where over 75 million people died.” – Mike Mueller

“The stories of people and the stories of their families about the plane are what’s most important.” – Mike Garret.

Sometimes stories are related by family members. Becky Thatcher Keller, daughter of Doolittle Raider David Thatcher, once came out to honor her father’s memory and experience the sensation of riding in a B-25 herself.

The experience is a unique one, says Mueller, who describes the B-25 as a “sports car of a bomber,” and likened it to the modern military super-plane, the A-10 warthog.

He describes flying in the B-25 as a visceral experience.

“On a commercial airline, you’re comfortable, it’s air-conditioned… On these airplanes the engines are loud. There’s but a very thin aluminum skin between you, and outside the engines smoke, there’s vibration,” he said.

“You are more one with the airplane than you are with a commercial aircraft.”

But Mueller says it’s important to remember how different the experience would have been for the men and women flying on planes like Maid in the Shade.

Although tours cruise at around 1,000 to 1,500 feet, 76 years ago they would have flown at closer to 2,600 feet in elevation, where temperatures aloft can hit 30 below zero. They could be shot at and kept busy shooting at other aircraft themselves.

“The most frequent comment I hear is, ‘Wow, it’s so small. I thought it would be bigger.’”

“They’re small, cramped airplanes. As we say in our briefing, these airplanes were not designed for comfort - they were designed to go in harm’s way.”

But the experience to go inside and even ride the B-25 is a great way to educate the young in particular about what their grandfathers and great-grandfathers may have experienced, Mueller adds.

“That’s one of the rare things about what we do is you can get up close and personal with the airplanes. You can go inside the airplanes,” said Mueller.

“We try to give them some context just to what they’re looking at.”

Flights are about 20 minutes in duration and come with a perk. Those sitting in the “jump seat” behind the cockpit can crawl into the bombardier seat, while those in the radio compartment can take turns in the tail gunner’s position during the flight.

Flights are still available today (Saturday) and Sunday. Static ground tours are available from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tours are $10 per person or $20 per family. Flights are $590 (for a jump seat) or $325 (radio compartment).

You can book seats online, check out the VJ flyover route, and find directions to the B-25 at Azcaf.org/ location/coeur-d-alene-id-tour-stop/.

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The B-25 Mitchell bombardier “Maid in the Shade flew into Coeur d’Alene airport Monday. The historic plane is visiting CDA this week during its summer tour. Photos by Mike Kincaid.

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This B-25 saw combat in WWII and has since been acquired and restored by the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit devoted to preserving historic warplanes.

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Maid in the Shade will make a special flyover of the surrounding area today at 9:30 in honor of Victory Over Japan (V-J) Day, 75 years ago today. The plane is also available for tours and rides this weekend at the airport. Courtesy photo.

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Close-up of Maid in the Shade in flight, courtesy of the CAF.

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Mike Garrett is a tour director and volunteer with the Commemorative Airforce Airbase in Mesa, Arizona. He feels it’s important to preserve and honor the stories of those who served in WWII. Courtesy photo.

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Mike Mueller is the ground operations director with the B-25 here in Coeur d’Alene and a volunteer with the Mesa CAF. He enjoys sharing pieces of history like Maid in the Shade with younger generations. Courtesy photo.