A rare B-17 Flying Fortress offers a glimpse into the World War II era

Pilot David Lyon and Mae Krier, a Rosie the Riveter,  stand by the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Pilot David Lyon and Mae Krier, a Rosie the Riveter, stand by the B-17 Flying Fortress. PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILP STEIN

Philadelphia >> To climb aboard the Madras Maiden, a B-17 Flying Fortress, is to step back in history to World War II when its sister B-17s flew missions over Nazi Germany, dropping deadly bombs.

For Mae Krier, of Levittown, it was a dream come true. Krier was a real life Rosie the Riveter, who worked on the B-17s at the Boeing plant in Seattle, starting when she was just 17.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for 74 years,” said Krier, who had never been inside an actual B-17, although she had worked on many planes between 1943 to 1945, earning 98 cents an hour. “This is my dream,” she said, as the propellers began to spin to take the B-17 down the runway.

Krier, who grew up in North Dakota and came to Seattle with her sister to work after the war started, met her late husband Norman Krier at a dance.

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“I met a sailor on the dance floor and we danced our way through life,” she said. “We had a good time.” She added that they had danced the jitterbug.

“I think some men were jealous of their wives working with other men but that didn’t last long,” said Krier, about her days assembling airplanes. Sometimes, her male coworkers “played tricks on us…but we got wise to that. Sometimes, we were better than they were but they’d never admit that.”

Someone once asked her if she went back to the kitchen after the war and she joked, “And the bedroom. That’s where all these Baby Boomers come from.”

“I’m just so proud of what we did,” said Krier. “I just think it’s a shame we never got credit for what we did. A Gold Star mother would lose a son but she wouldn’t stop working because she didn’t want another mother to lose a son because he didn’t have the equipment he needed.”

Her husband had worked at Westinghouse at Trenton, N.J. and “he was lucky. He had a job to come back to after the war.”

During the war the Navy transferred her husband to another naval base and she found work with the Army Engineers, she said. At that job there were Italian prisoners of war, who did the heavy lifting for the women, she said. The Italians “just wanted the war to be over just like we did. They just wanted to go home.”

After the war there were a lot of strikes and labor disruptions, she said. She and Norm had very little money and those were tough times but they were able to buy a house in Morrisville, before they moved to Levittown. They were married nearly 70 years before he passed away and raised two children. Krier has four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and three great- great grandchildren. A great-great granddaughter is named Rosie in honor of Krier’s Rosie the Riveter past.

David Lyon, who pilots the Madras Maiden, and Ron Gausse with the nonprofit Liberty Foundation were on hand at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport on Monday to give tours of the plane to area journalists. The mission of the organization is to educate people about World War II and to honor veterans, he said.

Without the women who worked in the factories making airplanes, tires, ammunition, vehicles and other war materiel, “needed to go into combat and be successful” the war could not have been won, said Lyon.

Many young people graduate high school with little knowledge about American history or what happened in World War II, how people sacrificed for our freedom, he said. The B-17 is a hand’s on historical artifact and “one of the most iconic aircraft of World War II.”

Visiting the plane is “a way to touch history,” he said.

“You cannot write a book of fiction from the stories they told when they came back,” said Gausse. “They built the greatest country anyone has ever known.”

With air combat “there are no battlefields to visit,” said Lyon. “As soon as the battle is over, it disappears.”

Don Brooks began the foundation to honor his father, Elton Brooks, who was a tail gunner on a B-17 named Liberty Belle. Their original B-17 was named Liberty Belle but it had a fire about six years ago and landed in a field near Aurora, Ill. The foundation is currently rebuilding it, along with a B-17 that was discovered in a lake in northern Canada. Meanwhile, they lease the Madras Maiden from Madras, Ore. Company Erickson Inc. The Madras Maiden, one of 12 remaining B-17s that can still fly, never flew in the war. After the war it was based on Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and was used for research into radar systems, Lyon said. It was sold and in the 1960s used to ship fruits and vegetables from the Bahamas to Florida, then it flew on missions to spray fire ants in Florida and Texas, before it was acquired by the late Dr. William D. “Doc” Hospers, 79, an orthopedic surgeon and retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, who restored it as a museum, said Lyon.

Some 12,736 B-17s were built during the war years and 4,337 were lost in combat. The plane was known as one of the best planes at surviving combat and the metal flak shot up and at bringing the aviators safely back to their bases.

“At high, high altitudes it was a very cold environment,” said Lyon.

Gausse said, “A lot of men froze to death” aboard the unheated plane.

“Pieces of metal were whizzing through from enemy bullets, having to jump out of the airplane at high altitude over enemy territory, these are all things that the men survived. It had to be horrific. It’s hard to imagine what they went through…Words sometimes aren’t enough.”

The Madras Maiden is fitted with all the mechanisms she would have carried in WWII, including 50-caliber machine guns and a vintage radio. While the planes, which carried a 10-person crew, appear large on the exterior inside the space was cramped, especially in the cockpit and nose gunner seats, which are reached through a narrow walkway that extends across the bomb bay. Sometime the bombardier would need to kick a stuck bomb to dislodge it while balancing on the metal strip some 25,000 feet in the air with the hatches open and wind buffeting him, said Gausse. There is also a tiny, separate door toward the rear of the plane for the tail gunner to enter a small area.

The B-17s carried several different size bombs, Gausse said. In the bomb bay, two five-hundred pound bombs were on display.

“The bombs they used depended on the target,” he said. If the target was a wooden building where the enemy was making aircraft parts they used incendiaries to set the building on fire. The biggest bomb it could carry was a 4,000-pound “block buster” that would be the only bomb the plane would carry for a particular mission and it would be mounted below the plane, rather than in the bomb bay.

IF YOU GO

The B-17 will be open for the public to tour or fly on Aug. 26-27 at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, Atlantic Aviation FBO, 9800 Ashton Road, Philadelphia. Flights are $450; or $410 if a member of the Liberty Foundation. For information, call (918) 340-0243.