The last time Willard Hunzeker flew in a B-24, it was 1945. World War II was nearing its end, and the 22-year-old navigator was on his 33rd and final mission.
On Friday, more than 70 years after that flight, 95-year-old Hunzeker was surprised by friends with the opportunity to fly in the last fully-operational B-24J Liberator in the world.
“At 95, it’s going to be a little different than 22,” he said. “I hope the body can stand it.”
Hunzeker knew that the Collings Foundation was flying him to Omaha’s Eppley Airfield to look at WWII-era aircraft. He only learned that he would get to ride in one as they were preparing the plane for takeoff.
“It’s bringing back memories,” Hunzeker said before the flight. “I don’t excite very easily.” The excitement eventually got to him, and he needed a handkerchief. “I flew 33 missions in one of these.”
After he was deployed to England in 1944, he was sent all over Europe – including Germany and France.
He grew up in Humboldt, Nebraska on the family farm. Before deploying to Europe, he was stationed in Liberal, Kansas. He would occasionally take a plane and circle over his home. “I can still see my father and mother and sister waving from down below,” he said.
Since alcohol was prohibited in Kansas, the pilots would fly to cities that allowed alcohol, and they would come back with cases of it. “It got to be so much trouble,” he said. “When you landed, you had to carry it to your barracks, so we quit.”
Tom Massie, 69, is a neighbour of Hunzeker and his best friend in Wahoo. He was in Omaha, helping with the surprise. “It just about makes me cry,” Massie said before Hunzeker found out about the flight. “He’s a wonderful man.”
The two became close after Hunzeker’s wife died. Massie began talking to Hunzeker about his time in the military.
After being discharged from service, Hunzeker entered the education profession, eventually becoming superintendent of Wahoo Public Schools.
A volunteer asked Hunzeker how the crew went to the bathroom while on a mission. “There were tubes connected to the outside of the plane,” he said. “It’s not quite American Airlines.”
The flight was provided free-of-charge by the Collings Foundation. They also have a B-17 Flying Fortress and a P-51 Mustang on display. The public can pay to walk through the planes or take the 20-minute flight between Lincoln and Omaha.
Michael Dober is a volunteer coordinator with the Collings Foundation. He said that providing the free flights to veterans brings him joy. “When I see the look on that guy’s face,” Dober said, “that’s worth all the money in the world.”