By Mike Weland and Skye Dimmitt
One of the last B-25 bombers that saw active combat during World War II landed at Coeur d’Alene’s Pappy Boyington Field this morning, and it’ll be on display and available for crawl-throughs and even flights between now and Sunday.
“Maid in the Shade,” an aircraft lovingly maintained and taken on summer tours across the U.S. and Canada by crews of volunteers of the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force based in Mesa, flew 15 bombing missions over Corsica in 1944.
Mike Mueller is one of those volunteers, and to see him light up when sharing his wealth of knowledge about the B-25 in general Maid in the Shade in particular, especially when a child listens, is to see a man happy with his lot in life.
“I never got to serve or fly, but I’ve loved planes since I was a kid,” the flying crew member said. After retiring in the Seattle area, be decided to follow that love, and he became a volunteer docent at a local air museum. He held the post for a few years when he was “drafted” into the Commemorative Air Force and packed his family and moved to Arizona.
“She rolled out of the plant in Kansas City in 1943, was accepted into the service in 1944 in Great Falls, Montana, a city Maid in the Shade and crew recently visited, then flown to Africa via South America, then to Italy, where she joined the 319th Bombardment Group,” Mike began, his enthusiasm infectious even though his sole audience just after landing was a trio of journalists.
After her service, she, like many other B-25s, flew fire suppression and myriad other tasks before she was brought into the Commemorative Air Force and restored almost to the condition she was in the war, her guns mounted, the places for the six crew members restored.
About 10,000 B-25s were built and saw service in the war, one of the prime components of FDR’s vaunted “Lend Lease” program that shipped American steel and technology to the front long before America was ready to send her youth.
B-25s flew with distinction in the Air Forces of every allied nation, the “sports car” of bombers that was smaller, faster and more agile than her bigger counterparts. With a cruising speed of 200 miles per hour, a 4,000 pound bomb load and mounting 14 guns, the crews of six made history that is still remembered.
In the early months after the United States declared war after the day that lives in infamy, the losses of men and materiel mounted in defeat after defeat, setback after setback.
As much for morale as anything else, a daring plan was put together to put 16 B-25s on the aircraft carrier U.S. Hornet, to steam to within 500 miles of Japan, just at the edge of her range, and send them to firebomb military targets in Tokyo.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who flew the first bomber off the flight deck, the raid had little strategic value. Seeing his squadron crashing one after the other before his own bomber ran out of fumes and he had to bail out over China, Doolittle initially expected to be court martialed for his “failure,” not realizing that though all crashed, 77 of the 80 crew members survived, with 15 aircraft reaching China and one crashing near Vladivostok, Russia.
Eight men were captured by the Japanese and later executed, but most made it home … eventually, and the feat sent the morale of the U.S. soaring while letting Japan know it wasn’t invulnerable. James Doolittle was jumped two ranks to brigadier general and bestowed with the Medal of honor.
The last crew member on that April, 1942, flight died two years ago at the age of 103, and next to seeing kids and passing on a piece of heroic history too rapidly fading in the dim mists of time, the biggest thrill Mike gets is when those men, and women, who flew the B-25 during the war come aboard and reminisce.
On the bulkhead in the navigation bay amidship are the signatures of many who experienced flying in a B-25 during war; the men who typically crewed the combat missions, the women who flew them for airfield to airfield to get them where needed.
Two of the names etched on that “wall” are men who flew off the USS Hornet to proved that the Japanese weren’t as invincible as they seemed, a raid that turned the tide of war.
About 35 B-25s are still flying, and Maid in the Shade is one of, if not the, last of those proud planes to have faced the flak and fighter escorts and the heat of battle.
She’ll be open to the public for tours and crawl-throughs (it’s amazing that grown men scrambled to their posts in the fore and aft gun turrets through spaces barely big enough for an eight-year-old boy, but they did) from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. just off the main terminal at the Coeur d’Alene Airport, and will relocate Friday through Sunday, when it will be open for flights from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and afternoon tours from 2 to 6 p.m. Cost of the flights, are $325 to $500, depending on where you sit, and those who book for Sunday will get an extended flight, as the crew does a flyover in Spokane.
Tours are $10 per person and $20 for a family of four, though Mike confesses that he and most of his fellow volunteers aren’t particularly adept at counting members of families.
All the proceeds go toward maintenance and upkeep of the aircraft and to keep them on tour year in and year out, and donations are welcome.
To learn more including the rest of this year’s touring schedule, visit www.azcaf.org.