NORTH CANTON, Ohio — No one knows World War II like the men and women who lived it.
For a few hours Aug. 12-13, organizers of a military aviation museum in North Canton brought together some WWII veterans for a special day to reflect, remember and educate about the things they saw first hand.
Kim Kovesci, executive director of Military Aviation Preservation Society near the Akron-Canton Airport, helped coordinate a Wings of Freedom Tour stop that featured the landing of a B-17 and B-24 bomber, a P-51 Mustang, as well as rides in the B-24.
A big part of the day was education. And there’s no better way to learn than from those who lived it, Kovesci explained.
“You can talk about it, you can show them pictures of it, you can show them movies of it, but when they start that B-17 up and you see the smoke coming out of it and you feel the vibration and you hear the noise, it gives goose bumps,” he said, pointing to his arm.
Midafternoon on Aug. 12, spectators and veterans alike got to see and hear what Kovesci was talking about as they witnessed the large bomber planes land and approach the museum. With four engines each, the planes rumbled their way toward the crowd under the direction of a well-marked landing crew.
The planes were parked and let idle for a few minutes until their pilots shut off the engines and exited, allowing the public to walk onto the landing area and inspect them up close.
World War II veteran Jack Kull, 90, climbed aboard a stationary plane, much like the one he helped pilot in the war. Making his way up the steps and toward the cockpit with the aid of a walker, he recalled the plane’s features and what they did.
“It brings back memories of what I can remember, and I can remember more of then than I can remember what happened yesterday,” said Kull, of Canton.
During a lunch reception, Kovesci introduced three notable World War II veterans.
Ralph Lynn, a B-24 bomber pilot, talked about the Witchcraft plane that landed later in the day.
“Aircraft have personalities and Witchcraft has a multiple personality,” he said, adding that it’s the only restored B-24 still in flight. The plane is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, which preserves military aircraft.
True experience. Bob Withee, of Canton, flew the P-40 and P-51 while shooting down four Japanese aircraft.
He said all veterans had a common experience, no matter what part of the war they witnessed.
“(It’s) almost like a ‘been there, done that’ type of thing,” he said. “Maybe in different ways, different forms, different ships or aircrafts, but the fact that we were all there.
“Everybody has their own story of being there, what they’ve been through, thoughts of trying to get home.”
He talked about the atomic bomb mission on Japan, and how no one knew for sure what the bomb was or how dangerous it would be, because it had never been used.
“All I can say is that I’m glad that I’m home here and able to stand in front of folks talking,” he said. “There are times that … you didn’t know whether you were going to get back home or not.”
Veteran pilot Don Block flew 65 missions over Germany as a B-26 pilot. One of only a few remaining B-26 planes is being restored at the museum. He also shared his thoughts with the crowd.
Several veterans attended just to watch the landings and view the exhibit inside the MAPS museum.
Emerson Milner, a medical unit veteran from Canton, said he came to “reminisce from the old days.”
“I never rode in any of them, but I saw a lot go over,” he said.
Kovesci, who also is a naval aircraft veteran from the Vietnam War era, said society will repeat history if it doesn’t study it. As the country’s World War II veterans age, he said it’s increasingly important to remember those who remain, and all they’ve done.
“How wonderful is this that we can give these guys this tribute that they deserve,” he said. “This was ‘The Greatest Generation.'”
MAPS air museum is located at 2260 International Parkway, North Canton, Ohio. The display is open to the public. To reach them, call 330-896-6332.