BRADENTON — The photos around Ed Price’s office are glimpses into the life’s work of a beloved statesman.
“Wonderful memories,” said Price, 91, scanning rows of framed photos of presidents, governors and legislators in the company of the former state senator.
One photo, though, evokes more poignant remembrances.
It shows a flight of silver B-17s from the famed Eighth Air Force on a bombing mission over Hitler’s Fortress Europe during World War II.
The pilot was Ed Price.
“An experience like no other,” he said. Price flew 26 missions in 1945 and hopes to share some of those experiences at the 33rd reunion of the Florida Chapter of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, today through Monday at the Marriott Courtyard Riverfront Hotel.
About 50 surviving members of the “Mighty Eighth” are expected, sadly a dwindling number.
“It is getting less and less,” said Philadelphia native Bill Uphoff, 89, a former B-17 pilot and air traffic controller living in Jupiter. “The fact is, we’re all reaching our final years here.”
“It’s scary, unbelievable. It seems like yesterday,” said Dick Hollander, 84, a former B-17 pilot from Loretta, Tenn., and career dentist who retired to Bradenton. “Fortunately, some fellows are still kicking.”
What they went through they can never forget, and it forged an everlasting bond among them.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Hollander said. “You have a feeling of love for them.”
That emotion resonated with Price.
“A great comradeship develops among a crew,” he said. “You become a family.”
A sentiment that applies to the men he’ll see at the reunion.
“You went through the same thing, just at different bases,” he said.
Price was 23 when the former Sarasota High quarterback got his wings. His crew was mostly teen-agers.
“My ball turret gunner was 17 and needed a waiver from his folks,” he said.
The first B-17 they flew into combat was the oldest plane in the 381st Bomb Group, based in Ridgewell, England.
It was nicknamed, “Mizpah,” from Genesis 31:49.
“The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent from one another,” the devout Price recited. “It meant a lot to us. Believe me, when you’re in combat and getting shot at every day, you turn to God in a very real way.”
The Eighth Air Force was the spearhead of the allied war effort in Europe, suffering 47,000 casualties, including 26,000 dead from 1943 to 1945 while mounting massive daylight raids on Germany from bases in England.
Price witnessed much death in the sky.
“It was not unusual to see a plane explode in mid-air, and if you happened to be back in formation, everything came through the formation that came out of that plane — including body parts,” he said.
“You’d come home at night to quonset huts, look down the barracks and there’d be empty beds. Friends who’d been there that morning were not coming back.”
Price and his crew had their share of close calls during missions that took seven to nine hours of precision flying.
During one air raid on Stuttgart, Germany, an engine caught fire and Price told the crew to prepare to bail out.
Waist gunner Robert Herr recalled in his memoirs that one of the crew jumped, but he convinced others to hang on while Price tried to save the plane.
“I remember fire coming out of the open cowl flap, but Ed did some miraculous thing and the fire blew itself out,” Herr wrote. “Ed was the best, the original ‘Mr. Cool.’ We were able to get back to base. The crew chief said another 30 seconds would’ve put the fire through the firewall. Wow!”
Herr, from Atoka, Tenn., is only one of three men still alive from that crew.
Co-pilot Grady Thompson, from Brownwood, Texas, is the other.
The third is Price.
He calls them and writes them every year, especially at Christmas. He does the same for his deceased crewmembers’ widows.
“Good friends. Tight friends,” Price said, gazing at a grainy photo of comrades crouched around him near the tail of a B-17.
“I think a lot about them with a great deal of warmth. Men I got close to and are no longer around.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, Fla. 34206 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a phone number for verification.