This article was first published in the September 2006 issue of Active Aging.
By Nancy D. Borst
They have been called the Greatest Generation – those who answered their nation’s call to defend freedom in World War II. Today, members of this generation are again answering a call, this time to restore a piece of the history they lived, as volunteers restoring the last B-29 bomber capable of returning to the skies.
“Doc” was one of a squadron named after the characters in Snow White. It returned to its birthplace – Boeing Wichita – in 2000. It was built in Wichita in 1944, one of more than 1,600 B-29s built by Boeing during the war.
For the past six years, a group of dedicated volunteers have painstakingly worked to restore the plane. Thanks to their efforts, “Doc” will make its public debut at McConnell’s Air Force Base’s annual Open House Sept. 9-10. Here are the stories of three of these dedicated volunteers.
Connie Palacioz: a “Rosie” returns
Connie Palacioz of Newton was a young girl of 18 when she took a job at Boeing in 1943. She went on to become what history has dubbed a “Rosie the Riveter,” the moniker given to women who helped build airplanes used in World War II, many of whom worked as riveters.
“I was very interested in ‘Doc’ because I was a riveter and I riveted the nose sections of most of the planes (built in Wichita),” she said. She worked at Boeing until the war ended in 1945. “My first day, they were taking out the B-17 and were going to begin building the B-29. We built, 1,600 of them.”
She remembers riding a bus from Newton to Wichita and going through training.
“They had a school on Waco to train us. When I got to the school, the instructor said why don’t you try riveting? In two weeks, he said I was ready to go to the plant,” she recalled. “I worked almost every day, 10-12 hours. In the department were 330 workers. We were in charge of building only the pilots’ section. The skin was already on it. We just riveted it.”
There were some rough times. When a woman asked for help, men would refuse. They would say, “If you’re here earning as we are, you get it,” Palacioz recalled. But after a month or so, the men became kinder.
“The day I got to the plant, the lead man told me, you know, we don’t have anybody to work with you. We only have one person that’s a ‘bucker,'” Palacioz said. (A bucker works inside the plane, opposite the riveter.) No one would work with the woman because she was black. “I said I didn’t mind working with her because I was of Mexican descent and I known what discrimination is.”
Together, the women became one of the best rivet-bucker teams according to their supervisors, Palacioz said. She remembers the day the plant completed its 1,000 B-29.
“We all put $1 bills on it. It was a big celebration.”
Her primary role for the past six years has been cleaning and identifying parts.
“The ones that we could use again, we would put to the side. We would polish them later,” she said. “First we cleaned all the fuselage. It looks like a plane now. It’s just amazing. I never thought I would see it that way.”
“All I did was rivet,” she said of her work 60 years ago. “The others tell me, ‘Connie, your job is just as important as any other.’ So many things have changed – the motors, the wiring – but the rivets are the same. They say most of them are the original ones.”
Charlie Cupp: hands-on history
Charlie Cupp of Derby may have worked on “Doc” during his career at Boeing.
“I don’t know for sure because I was in the machine shop, then I went to engine build up, then sub-assembly of small parts,” he said. “There’s a great possibility. I could have built up the engines’ small parts.”
Among the volunteer restoration crew, Cupp, 88, is admired for his stamina and dedication. “I go five days a week. I usually spend five hours,” he said. “When I got the chance, I took it. I’m glad I did. I hate that it’s taken so long but that’s par for the course.”
He, too, has worked on the project since its beginning in 2000 and has a special connection to the B-29.
“I had a brother in one of the first B-29s that went over to India,” he said. “I had three brothers in the war. I worked for Boeing until I retired in 1983. It (the B-29) affected my family. The B-29 played a great part in the bombing of Japan and the closing of the war.” All of his brothers returned home safely from the war. He, too, has been working on parts for “Doc.”
“It’s challenging because so many parts don’t have numbers on them and were taken off the plane without any identification, so there’s no way of knowing (what they were). Sometimes it took me as long as six or seven months to identify something.”
The plane was transferred to China Lake Naval Weapons Center in California in 1956 for use as a ballistic target for air combat training, where miraculously it was never hit by a missile. Veteran B-29 combat pilot Tony Mazzolini of Ohio rescued the plane from the desert in 1987. It had escaped the fate of other B-29s, which were destroyed by the government.
For Cupp, the restoration project has given him the opportunity to literally touch history.
“Just to have my hands on a B-29 that my kid brother could have had something to do with,” he said when asked what his most meaningful memory will be. “He was a sheet metal mechanic. He took care of all the bullet holes.” (“Doc” had a few bullet holes, he said, adding, “They didn’t entirely miss it.”)
“Each piece that I handle, that’s part of the airplane and part of history,” he said.
Ervin Berger: model builder, history buff
Ervin Berger of Peabody said his daughter brought him to his role as a volunteer in the “Doc” restoration.
“She was working at Boeing and brought us down,” he said. “I did work for Boeing for 42 years (starting in 1951). I didn’t work on the B-29.”
Berger signed on at Boeing when his attempt to enlist in the armed forces failed.
“I’m a history buff. My library here is nothing but military history. I have just liked the military ever since I was a kid,” he said. “When I was 18, I tried to enlist. They wouldn’t take me, so I decided I’d build planes.”
Two of his brothers – Don and Wilbur – also have volunteered on the project. Together they were part of a team that worked to rebuild the plane’s tail.
“We rebuilt the horizontal stabilizer from scratch. We took it apart completely,” he said. “What we needed new, we made. They got us drawings and (Boeing’s) tooling did some of the parts.
“On the vertical stabilizer, it had been cut off. They brought those in with the plane (to Wichita). Then we put it together. They found another one they thought looked better but the one they traded for had more corrosion than the one we had.” So, they cleaned it up and made it work, too.
Berger said building the two tail stabilizers will be his best memory of the project.
“They’re looking real good. You might call them tail feathers. The horizontal has elevators that go up and down. The vertical has a rudder that makes you turn.”
Once restored, he said the plane will require a crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and two observers where the side gunners used to be, to watch for engine problems. The plane is powered by four massive 2,200 horsepower, turbocharged radial piston engines.
“When it goes over to the Air Force, they will polish it,” said Berger. “A couple of Boeing guys came in and wanted to work a couple of months ago. They used to polish Air Force One. They wanted to polish ‘Doc’.”
Berger never imagined he’d get this opportunity.
“When I was a boy, I built models all the time. I still do,” he said.
To the skies again
The goal always has been to see the massive Superfortress take to the skies again, though additional funding will be needed to complete the restoration. These volunteers hope and pray they will be there to see that dream come to fruition.
Berger said, “When it goes up, I’m going to try to be there.”
Cupp hopes a way is found to keep “Doc” in Wichita forever, as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made by so many for freedom.
“That’s the main thing – that the next generation knows the truth, that it (the war) did happen,” he said.
When the plane makes its debut at McConnell, Palacioz will be there in her blue coveralls and red bandanna (the outfits worn by Rosies), answering questions about what it was like to build the massive bombers.
“I just hope the Lord gives me life – I want to be there when they finish it,” she said. “I’d like to see it fly.”
Nancy D. Borst is a freelance writer and editor. She owns NDB Desktop Publishing in Goddard, Kansas, which is celebrating its 20th year of creating award-winning communications, marketing and publicity for businesses, publications and individuals.
She was honored this year as a 25-year member of the National Federation of Press Women. Her work consistently wins awards in the annual communications contest of Kansas Professional Communicators. Recently her writing also was recognized with Gold and Silver awards in the 15th Annual National Mature Media Awards, the nation’s largest annual awards program to recognize the best advertising, marketing and educational materials produced for older adults.
She has been published in several regional publications as well as Presbyterians Today, a national magazine. She is a regular contributor to Kansas Traveler, a quarterly state-wide publication; Active Aging, a monthly publication for seniors in south central Kansas, and Kansas Senior Times, a monthly publication for seniors across central and western Kansas. She also is the editor of Kansas Lions News, a quarterly publication for all Kansas members of Lions Clubs International.
Borst, a life-long Kansan, has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from the University of Kansas. She is a member of the Wichita Independent Business Association. You may reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.