MANASSAS, Va., May 7, 2015 – Military veterans and their families, and aviation officials gathered at the Manassas Regional Airport here today for a test flight of World War II-era bombers in preparation for the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover tomorrow above the Washington National Mall at 12:10 p.m.
The flyover will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe, known as V-E Day.
The day’s events began mid-morning with a press conference led by Manassas Mayor Henry J. Parrish II, who welcomed attendees and acknowledged the service of the veterans present. Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a World War II fighter pilot, also spoke during the conference.
‘Engage the Enemy and Win’
“I got to do what every fighter pilot in the world wants to do: engage the enemy and win,” Anderson said. Anderson, who was based in Leiston, England, with the 357th Fighter Group, flew 116 missions during two combat tours. He returned to the United States after the war as a major, and went on to serve in the Air Force. His comments set the tone for the day: triumph and remembrance.
After the press conference, the crowd gathered outside on the tarmac to watch a B-24 Liberator, two B-17 Flying Fortresses, and one B-29 Superfortress warm up their engines and take off. Engines roared to life, propellers blurred, and the smell of oil wafted over to the onlookers as the planes prepared for flight. Several guests and veterans were able to go for a ride in the bombers as part of the test.
The veterans that remained on the ground were available to speak with the press while the test flight was making its rounds.
B-29 Gunner Tells His Story
Karnig Thomasian, 91 years old, was a B-29 gunner in the China India Burma Theater in 1944. He was part of the U.S. Army Air Forces 20th Air Force, and was shot down and taken prisoner during one of his missions.
The bombardiers on his crew discovered that they had a mixed load of bombs for the flight, which would make the plane unstable, and they asked not to perform the mission. Thomasian said the commander threatened them with court martial, so they flew anyway. Their primary target, a bridge in Thailand, was covered in clouds and they couldn’t see well enough to hit the target. They moved onto a secondary target: Rangoon, Burma.
“[We] dropped the bombs, moments later, everything turned red. Our plane flipped, and what had happened was the bombs hit each other in the air and the bombardiers knew what happened. Blew the whole formation up, to the point that four planes went down directly on the target, including us, and one [plane] was destroyed immediately,” Thomasian said.
Only one plane made it back to base, he said.
Thomasian and part of the crew were able to parachute to safety before their plane crashed, but that safety was short lived. The Japanese captured them and took them to a prison camp. Thomasian was isolated in solitary confinement, interrogated and beaten during his time in the prison. Eventually, the camp was liberated by the British.
Recalling Difficult Circumstances
“But in all these crazy moments, there are these moments you have to laugh, which really keeps you going,” Thomasian said, describing a British prisoner, who mocked their captors to boost morale.
“To survive in prison, I think one of the chief things is you have to decide whether you’re going to capitulate and just go back into yourself and die, or are you going to say, ‘Hey, I’m living, I’m breathing, I’m going to go on and succeed and I’m getting out of here.’ And so, I participated in just about everything I could do.”
Thomasian was still imprisoned on V-E Day, but he remembers being very excited when he heard the news.
“It just makes you feel great, because now they can really hone in and get us out of there,” he said.
Urban Rahoi was a captain in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1944. The 96-year-old, who is still flying planes from his home in Alaska, never feared much about the war. He thought if he was meant to die, then he’d die, and it wasn’t anything to worry over. Rahoi, part of the 15th Air Force, 463rd Bomb Group, was based in Algiers, Algeria, and flew five missions during the war. After V-E Day, he helped convert B-17s into passenger planes before returning to America.
He is excited about the flyover event because it helps bring this part of history to life.
“The fact that somebody remembers it, what we did and [what] it was for” made him feel good, Rahoi said.
Honoring the ‘Greatest Generation’
The flyover’s purpose is to honor the “Greatest Generation” and the veterans that served during World War II. John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, said the event had captured the imagination of the entire Washington, D.C., area.
Cudahy estimates that 400 veterans will be at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., tomorrow for the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. He added that the planes participating in tomorrow’s flyover will be available for viewing at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, Virginia, on May 9.
The first plane in the flyover will appear over the south side of the National Mall at approximately 12:10 p.m. Eastern time, and will fly at a minimum of 1,000 feet from west to east along Independence Avenue.
In the event of rain, the flyover will be moved to May 9.