MANATEE -- Three extraordinary World War II veterans whose lives were touched by the B-29 bomber gathered Friday to visit "Fifi," the last superfortress still flying.
Retired Lt. Col. George E. Hardy, 90, of Sarasota flew the P-51 fighter plane when he was a 19-year-old lieutenant in World War II. During the Korean War, he flew the B-29 bomber. As a Tuskegee Airman, he was a black aviation pioneer, who felt racial prejudice within his own ranks. But he experienced change, too, as the military integrated. During the Vietnam War, he supervised black and white airmen alike, and flew 70 combat missions before returning to the U.S. in 1971.
Russell Gachkenbach, 92, of Clearwater, served as a navigator on the B-29 "Necessary Evil," one of the B-29s that accompanied the Enola Gay on its mission over Hiroshima in 1945.
With his personal camera, Gachkenbach snapped a photo of the mushroom cloud, a sight that inspired dread.
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"The return flight was different. It was quiet. We didn't know what to believe," Gachkenbach said. "We were some of the first to see an atomic bomb blast."
The third World War II vet who gathered Friday at Rectrix Aerodrome Center, 1234 Clyde Jones Drive, was Harlan Twible, 93, of Manatee County, a survivor from the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945.
The Indianapolis had just delivered the atomic bomb to Tinian that was later dropped on Hiroshima, when it was attacked.
Two torpedoes hit the Indianapolis, one knocking off the bow and the other hitting midship.
"After the bow went, it really wasn't a ship anymore. We didn't have to jump. We fell into the water," Twible said.
Twible was one of 900 men who made it into the water, and one of only 317 who survived five nights and four days bobbing in the ocean before being rescued.
"It was God's will that I survived," Twible said, recalling the terrible ordeal of shipmates being killed by sharks and dying of exposure.
"I did what I knew I had to do not because I was courageous, but because that is what the military taught me to do," said Twible, who was an ensign serving as the officer on deck when the heavy cruiser was attacked.
Twible's daughter, Susan Lestock, said she didn't hear much from her father about the Indianapolis when she was growing up.
But she later learned that her father encouraged his shipmates and prayed with them in the water every day. When a rescue plane arrived, Twible signaled with a mirror in Morse code.
"They signaled back you're going too fast, slow down," Lestock said.
Twible opened up long ago about the Indianapolis.
"It's the kids who need to know," he said.
Friday, World War II and aviation buffs gathered around the three veterans to have their photos made and to pepper them with questions.
"It's been heart-warming to know that we have been recognized. For so many years, no one knew that African-American pilots flew in World War II," Hardy said.
The only coverage that the Red Tails, P-51 pilots like Hardy received was in the black press in the United States, he said.
In 1945, Hardy was assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, where he flew 21 combat missions over Germany.
The Fifi and four other World War II aircraft are part of the Commemorative Air Force AirPower History Tour visiting Rectrix Aerodrome Center through Sunday.
Hardy has been working with the Rise Above Traveling Exhibit mobile theater, America's tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen during the tour this week.
"They are glad to meet me and listen to some of the stories I can tell," Hardy said of the experience.
Phil Pardon of Kansas City is touring with the Fifi, one of 169 World War II aircraft owned by the Commemorative Air Force.
He called the Fifi the queen of the collection.
The other aircraft visiting the Bradenton-Sarasota area through Sunday are a C-45, T-6 Texan, PT-13 Stearman and a T-34 Mentor. Visitors can tour the aircraft and purchase rides on some of them.
For more information, visit commemorativeairforce.org.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.