As war relics go, the 18-foot gray wing section might not impress folks touring the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, Ga.
It’s not eye-catching like the “City of Savannah,” a silver B-17 Flying Fortress lovingly being restored indoors by volunteers.
Nor is it mesmerizing like the bronze bust of actor Jimmy Stewart, an American icon and B-24 pilot during World War II.
Yet if that wing section could talk, what stories it would tell.
Those were the words of its donor, Charlie Haskett, a folksy 79-year-old retiree I profiled in the Bradenton Herald on Nov. 4, 2001.
He’s gone now, but his words came to life last month when my wife and I visited the museum and saw the remnant of a distant war that was a defining part of Haskett’s life and his generation.
The wing section, which bears a plaque of his engraved likeness in leather helmet, goggles and bomber jacket, stopped me in my tracks.
It came from Haskett’s crippled Flying Fortress, “Lindy Lou,” which exploded over Liege, Belgium, on Christmas Eve 1944.
It was just the eighth mission for the 19-year-old tailgunner from Bedford, Ind. His last, too.
“That wing didn’t bring us home, but it held us up,” Haskett recalled almost a decade ago. “I never dreamed I’d be bringing it back here.”
An incredible journey it was, too.
Almost 57 years after Haskett’s shootdown, his odyssey resumed when he read a story with photos in an Air Force periodical about a honey bee farm in Liege, Belgium.
The farmer had fashioned a roof for his beehive colony out of the wing section of an old B-17.
Haskett recognized it.
It was part of the Lindy Lou’s right wing.
Perhaps sensing his last chance to revisit old wartime ghosts, Haskett took his wife, Wilma, and a daughter, Janice, on an extraordinary trip to Europe in August 2001.
First they visited his old air base at Lavenham, England, home of the 487th Bomb Group.
Then the Hasketts continued onto Belgium to return to the town he parachuted into and gaze at the wing section one last time.
Liege gave him a hero’s welcome -- and more.
When Haskett met the honey bee farmer’s granddaughter, she showed him the wing section and then made a magnanimous gesture that brought the old B-17 veteran to tears.
It is yours, Anne-Marie Rousselle told him.
“I was overwhelmed,” Haskett said. “It was emotional just seeing it for the first time, putting my hands on it.”
Mathilde and Marcel Schmetz were there.
They run a war museum in Clermont, Belgium, and helped ship Haskett’s precious cargo to America.
“It’s only a wing, but you could see it meant so much to him,” Mathilde Schmetz said. “It’s like part of him and there is history to it.”
A history that was seared into Haskett’s soul.
The Lindy Lou was part of an armada of 2,000 bombers on a huge mission during the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s desperate final thrust of World War II. Haskett’s squadron’s target was a Luftwaffe air base in Babenhausen, Germany.
They never made it.
The Luftwaffe counterattack exacted a terrible toll.
Eleven of the 13 bombers in Haskett’s squadron went down, including his own.
His pilot and two other crewmen were dead, both left engines were on fire and it was still carrying a payload of 16,000 pounds.
The Lindy Lou was a ticking time bomb.
“Our top turret gunner said, ‘Hit the silk boys. She’s burning like hell,’” Haskett recalled.
He bailed out at 18,000 feet, but having never jumped before, he didn’t pop his chute until 2,000 feet and landed hard, breaking an ankle.
“Left a pretty good impression of my rear end in Belgium,” Haskett joked.
Using a tree limb as a crutch, Haskett evaded capture for three days. Army Rangers found him and took him to an old inn that doubled as an aid station.
Medics had no painkiller for Haskett’s ankle, but the innkeeper gave him the next best thing: cognac, and plenty of it.
“I slept like a baby,” he said.
Haskett was also befriended by the innkeeper’s daughter, 11-year-old Janine Gillet, who wanted to know one thing before he was transported to a hospital in England, where his war would end.
“She asked me, ‘Have you killed many Bosch (Germans)?’ I said, ‘Probably quite a few,’” he told her.
The little girl gave him a hug and a kiss.
They embraced again that halcyon August day in Belgium a decade ago -- an old warrior and a white-haired grandmother.
“Seeing her again and everything they did to show their appreciation was unbelievable,” Haskett said.
“Every time we tried to give them something, it was, ‘No, we owe you.’ They wouldn’t take a penny.”
Money can’t buy what those people had given Haskett.
That 18-foot wing section of a long gone B-17 was a touchstone from another time for Haskett.
It is also a reminder of his generation’s sacrifice on this Memorial Day.
Mannix About Manatee, by columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee County. Please call Vin Mannix at 745-7055, write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL. 34206 or e-mail him at email@example.com. Please include a phone number for verification purposes.