MANASSAS, Va. (July 9, 2015) -- A woman in a neon yellow safety vest and dark sunglasses warned the chattering crowd of what was about to happen: smoke and noise. Hold on to your hats and cameras, she advised, because the engines will create a serious backdraft. Propellers roared to life. People clutched hats to their heads and coughed on oily smoke as the vintage military planes warmed up for their test flight.
The Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia hosted four World War II era bombers as part of the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover test flight, May 7, in preparation for a flight over Washington, D.C., the following day to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe, or V-E Day. Veterans and their Family members, as well as members of the public, were invited to view the test flight. A few lucky people were even allowed to ride in the planes for the flight.
Urban Rahoi, a 96-year-old pilot from Alaska, was one of the lucky few. That's right, Rahoi is still a working pilot, but flying in one of the old bombers was a treat for the former Army captain, who flew with the Army Air Corps' 15th Air Force, 463rd Bomb Group in 1944.
Rahoi, spry and enthusiastic, was all smiles as he answered questions before the test flight. He flew five missions while stationed in Italy, and claims he was never afraid.
"Let's look at it this way: If I live, I'll live. If I'm meant to die, I'll die. So I just went out and never was scared or anything," Rahoi said.
Rahoi was stationed overseas for a year and half, at the request of a general, who wanted him to help keep the other pilots in order. After V-E Day, Rahoi was in Italy for about more six months.
"We took the B-17s and converted them to passenger planes and hauled people from Italy over to Casablanca. And so part of my job was to keep the pilots straight," he said.
Rahoi said he believes having the flyover is great, because it shows that people still remember what happened during World War II, and why the Soldiers were fighting.
Four planes were exhibited during the test flight: a B-24 Liberator, two B-17 Flying Fortresses, and one B-29 Superfortress, the last B-29 still actively flying.
Guests were allowed to explore inside the planes after the test flight and subsequent cool down.
"I'm excited [about the flyover] because I feel that it's important that we keep alive that we fought a great war to save democracy," another veteran, Bob Vaucher, told a crowd of reporters on the flight line while awaiting takeoff.
Vaucher wore a black ball cap sporting the word "Superfortress" to keep the relentless sun out of his eyes. A retired lieutenant colonel, Vaucher flew B-29s - four-propeller heavy bombers - during his service with the Army Air Corps during World War. His very first mission, June 5, 1944, in the skies over Japan, was just a day before D-Day in Europe.
"I led the largest in-land bombing mission in World War II over Yokohama," Vaucher said. "And in one mission we wiped out [the city]. We had 452 B-29s on that mission, and you might wonder how we felt when the atomic bomb was dropped. Two days after we all got pictures of what happened at Hiroshima, we looked at these pictures and we couldn't believe that one airplane had done all the damage that we did with 450 airplanes."
Vaucher's mission to Yokohama destroyed 7 square miles, using hundreds of planes and bombs, while the atom bomb destroyed 4 square miles in one fell swoop, he recalled. "It was almost unbelievable that this happened."
Vaucher flew 117 missions total, but one was particularly harrowing. He was leading a bomb group to a target and took on heavy anti-aircraft fire, making his plane shake heavily while several other planes in the group were shot down. Once they landed at Iwo Jima, after the Marines had taken it, Vaucher and his crew counted 400 bullet holes before they gave up counting all together.
"I hope [the Japanese] understand what happened and that it will never happen again if we live like we're living now," and continue to communicate with one another, Vaucher said.
Of course, some of the most dangerous missions veterans experienced didn't always end with landing safely in a friendly area. Karnig Thomasian, an animated 91 year-old formerly with the 20th Air Force in the China-Burma-India theater, was a gunner on an early version of the B-29. He flew three missions, and the third, which he refers to as the "Rangoon Disaster," would be the most traumatic.
The mission began poorly.
"The bombardiers found out there was a mixed load of 500 to 1,000 pound bombs with no fuses. No fuses because in order to bomb a bridge you have to have the bomb burst on impact, and 1,000 pounders was the only armament that would destroy the bridge. The 500s were useless," Thomasian explained. "Our commander, after hearing the complaints from the head bombardier, told him you either go on the mission or you're court martialed. So we went."
Originally, Thomasian and his crew were supposed to bomb a bridge in Thailand, but had to move to a second target because of cloud cover interference. They moved on to target railway yards in Rangoon, Burma.
"Dropped the bombs. Moments later, everything turned red," he said. "Our plane flipped; what had happened was that the bombs hit each other in the air, as the bombardiers knew would happen, and blew the whole formation up, to the point that four planes went down directly on the target, including us, and one was destroyed immediately. Just blew up, so it must have been right under them."
Only one plane from that group was able to return to base.
Thomasian and several others from the front of the plane were able to parachute out of the firestorm. Thomasian was the only person from the rear of the plane to make it out. The pilot stayed with the plane as it crashed, in attempt to stabilize their descent and give as many crewmembers a chance to escape as possible.
"But he couldn't do anything, everything was shot up. Three engines [failing], the bomb bay was in fire," Thomasian recalled.
Thomasian and the other escapees were able to land safely just a little ways outside of the city, but their safety was short lived. Japanese soldiers came by soon after they landed and took them prisoner.
"They interrogated us, they beat us … and finally after three days [the plane's crew)] met each other and found out who survived, who didn't," Thomasian said.
The prisoners were then moved to a former British prison with 12-foot concrete walls, where the "flyboys" were put in solitary confinement for almost two months. A Chinese prisoner, who used to feed the men in solitary, would doll out an extra scoop of rice when the Japanese guards weren't looking. "He had a soul about him that was so compassionate," Thomasian said.
"At which time they interrogated us almost every day. Finally, the war was starting to turn, or I don't know what motivated them, but they took us out and put us into a regular compound, which was to us, a great relief, because we could cook our own rice. It was a big deal," Thomasian said.
The prisoners were transferred to the regular compound around February 1945. Thomasian became the barber for the prisoners, making a blade out of things he found around the compound. The prisoners would joke about going out on dates when they came to get a haircut. A British soldier imprisoned with Thomasian would mock their captors when they weren't paying attention.
"If the [Japanese] ever saw him … they would kill him. But he was a big, tough son of a gun, but a funny guy," Thomasian said.
The Japanese eventually announced they would be moving the prisoners to a different location. Those who couldn't walk were given the option to stay behind. Thomasian, who had developed gangrene in a sore on his leg, opted to stay at the compound, because he knew if he could not keep up, he would be killed. Shortly after the Japanese left, British Gurkah soldiers liberated the prison.
"The first white man to come was a British newsman. Tall guy … healthy as hell, rosy cheeks, and we looked so pale and awful, it was the first time I noticed our deterioration. Because it was so obvious, wow did that hit us," Thomasian recalled. After that, British soldiers arrived in force.
They painted notice on the roof of the prison to let friendly bombers know the Japanese had left, but Thomasian said the first wave of planes bombed the prison anyway.
"Fortunately, [they] missed us and hit the outer wall. So quickly [the British] got up on the next roof and [wrote] 'extract digit,' I said what the hell is extract digit? They waved their wings, they understood it: Take [your] finger out of your butt," he said. The British planes then came back with parachute drops of food and supplies until they could extract the prisoners.
When Thomasian and the other prisoners were brought to Calcutta over the river, they were encouraged to eat handfuls of vitamins to aid their recovery.
He said maintaining a positive attitude and a sense of humor kept him and his fellow survivors alive.
"In all these crazy moments, there are moments where you have to laugh. Which really keeps you going," Thomasian said. "And to survive in prison, I think one of the chief things is that you have to decide whether you're going to capitulate and just go back into yourself and die, or you're 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.'"
FEARLESS IN LIFE
Every veteran has a story to tell, and remembering the things that they have been through is important on personal as well as historic levels. The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover event and the test flight bring those stories to the forefront of the public's mind.
Rahoi, Vaucher and Thomasian all shared one message: Tenacity. Having a positive attitude, even in the darkest of times, will help get you through life.
"You have to take note of what your situation is," Thomasian said, "And you have to say, 'Hey look, I can cope with this.'"