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Published: Friday, 5/11/2001

Living history bridges a gap

Fifth graders on a visit to the Seneca County Airport are dwarfed by the renovated B-17 Flying Fortress. Fifth graders on a visit to the Seneca County Airport are dwarfed by the renovated B-17 Flying Fortress.

TIFFIN - On his back underneath the B-17 bomber, Dan Tomczak gingerly hoisted himself into its ball turret, settling into a tight semicircle with his arms and feet above his head.

There, he assumed the position of a World War II ball turret gunner.

“You'd be in there up to eight hours,” he told a group of wide-eyed students gathered around the plane's underbelly. “It'd be 50 degrees below zero. The only thing you had to keep you warm was your electric underwear.”

Staring at the bubble-shaped compartment, Brandon Freundner was impressed.

“Can you believe a grown-up can fit inside there?” the Sycamore School fifth-grader asked a classmate.

“It didn't matter how comfortable you were,” Mr. Tomczak told the students. “Everybody had a job to do.”

Nearly 700 fifth-grade students from across Seneca County got a hands-on history lesson yesterday at the Seneca County Airport.

They looked curiously inside the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” legendary for its bombing raids on Germany and Japan, and toured a C-47, used to transport troops, cargo, and paratroopers during the war.

They watched with glee as the B-17 rumbled above the runway, dropping “candy parachutes” the students made in class - a take-off on the candy and gum that pilots dropped into West Berlin during a Soviet blockade in 1948-49.

And they listened intently as decorated pilots told their stories of duty, combat, and sacrifice, lining up afterward to collect autographs from the elderly veterans.

“This is great for the kids,” said Mr. Tomczak, a member of the Yankee Air Force of Belleville, Mich., which owns the renovated B-17. “They really get to experience what their grandparents went through. Their stories - they won't be around in 10 more years. Now's the time to talk to them.”

The students heard from a group of several World War II veterans, including Charles McGee of the Tuskegee Airmen, Lt. Frank Speer, a P-51 ace, and Gail Halvorsen, who gained fame as the “Candy Bomber'' during the Berlin airlift, which foiled the Soviet blockade.

Speaking in one of the airport's hangars, Mr. Halvorsen told the students that the children of West Berlin taught him an important lesson about freedom. They craved the gum and candy he dropped to them, but even more, they craved freedom and were willing to sacrifice for it, he said.

“They knew what was important,” he said. “They had been through Hitler. It was a nightmare. They knew about Stalin. He was as bad or worse. Those kids in Berlin taught me ... don't trade principles for pleasure.”

Paul Hershner, an Air Force bombardier who flew 25 missions over Germany with the 303rd Bomb Group, signed B-17 photos for the students while sitting at a card table in front of the gleaming silver plane. Mr. Hershner, who lives in Columbus, said he and other World War II veterans know that time is running out for them to pass their experiences on to the children of the 21st century.

“We need contact with the youth, because they're going to carry the ball,” he said. “It's like Tom Brokaw said: There were 16 million of us, and now we're down to 6 million or so. And we're dying at the rate of 1,000 a month.”

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