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WWII pilot makes Wings of Freedom Tour soar

Deane and Mary Rose Barnes wait to board one of the only remaining B-17s still in flying condition. Barnes was a lead pilot in World War II, flying 29 missions in B-17s. Last Friday’s flight will be his last, but was the first time his wife had been able to fly with him. - Photo by James Mange
Deane and Mary Rose Barnes wait to board one of the only remaining B-17s still in flying condition. Barnes was a lead pilot in World War II, flying 29 missions in B-17s. Last Friday’s flight will be his last, but was the first time his wife had been able to fly with him.
— image credit: Photo by James Mange

With an empty weight of more than 18 tons and a wing span of over 100 feet, the B-17 Flying Fortress is still an impressive aircraft. Compared to a certain average sized 88-year-old man, it’s not much.

Deane L. Barnes of Kent, visited the Wings of Freedom Tour at its Bremerton stop last week and made history come alive. Barnes piloted one of the planes in 29 bombing missions over occupied Europe during World War II, including one on D-Day. He graduated from the Army Air Cadets in April of 1943, and made his first combat run in December of that year with the Hell’s Angels, officially known as the 303rd Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force.

Barnes brought his memories from Molesworth Air Force Base to Bremerton to make one final flight. Barnes and his wife, Mary Rose, were able to fly to Olympia on the B-17 when the tour moved on Friday afternoon. The couple’s daughter, Barbara Ann Stier of Poulsbo arranged the trip with the Collings Foundation, sponsors of the tour, and the event couldn’t have been better scripted. Not only was it two days before Father’s Day, Barnes was the personification of everything the tour tries to be.

“We’re delighted to have him with us,” said Mac McCauley, a pilot with the tour. “That’s what we’re all about really. Getting the veterans out and honoring them again.”

The B-17’s, along with the B-24 Liberator heavy bomber and the B-25 medium bomber that were also part of the tour, were famous for their ability to accomplish the mission even if they sustained damage from enemy planes and anti-aircraft fire. Barnes knows the reputation is well earned. Barnes’ plane was hit many times during his service, and losing an engine wasn’t uncommon.

Once Barnes lost two engines and had to make an emergency landing on the coast after just skimming back across the English Channel. “I’d put in an SOS,” Barnes said, “and as we were coming in we flew over a rescue ship coming out for us. It made us feel good to know they were there.”

Another hair-raising experience was caused by a flat tire on the landing gear. “The guy in the belly turret called out that they’d just shot out our left tire,” Barnes explained. “So, I brought it in with the left wing tip up. I figured I could put it down on the right tire and slow us down a little before putting the left tire down. But the gunner was turned around facing the back, and he had the wrong tire.” Landing on the blowout jerked the plane to the right, but Barnes was able to keep it under control and steer it unto an adjacent taxi-way. Miraculously, the only damage to the craft or crew was the one flat tire.

One of the most satisfying landings Barnes ever made was when one of his navigators completed the last flight in his tour of duty. Barnes proudly showed a photo of the navigator on his knees shaking his hand, thanking Barnes for getting him back to England alive. Many of their colleagues didn’t make it home alive, and many others spent years in German prisoner of war camps.

“I didn’t become close friends with anybody,” Barnes said, “because I knew they could be gone.”

Many of the U.S. losses came on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Barnes flew support for Operation Overlord. “That was a mess,” Barnes said. “We got by pretty good at 29,000 feet, but on the ground and in the water, they took a pounding.”

Barnes started his tour sailing to England on the Queen Elizabeth as a Lieutenant, but he returned home in a battered B-17 as a Captain. Flying the crippled craft home was an adventure of it’s own. At a refueling stop in Iceland, the ground crew had to put 24 quarts of oil in the plane. “I told the guy not to turn in his report until after we were gone,” Barnes said. “If they knew how bad it was, they’d have grounded me.” But nothing would keep Barnes from making it back to the states, and he took on another 40 quarts in Canada before finally touching down in for the final time in Nebraska.

Many of the planes were scrapped for their raw aluminum after the war, and only nine B-17’s remain in flying condition in the country.

“I am absolutely thrilled that I went,” Barnes told his daughter after the trip to Olympia, “but I don’t want to go again.”

Barnes and his wife spent most of the 30 minute flight sitting on the floor, because the pilots wanted the Captain as close to the cockpit as possible. “It was the same as it used to be, except I had to have help getting in. Everything looked pretty much like it used to.”

Barnes’ business-as-usual attitude seemed to be part of the coping mechanism that served him so well during his raise to flight leader. As he approached the plane at the Bremerton Airport he seemed to automatically adopt a certain detachment, and it was easy to see that he was still a man who could do whatever it took to get a job done.

“I know that Dad could not stop talking about the flight on Saturday,” Stier said, “but he was very quiet on Friday after the flight. I can not know the memories that were going through his mind. I do hope and pray it was healing for him.”

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