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Airman recalls lucky flights over Germany

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Richard Paul Dawson and his crew flew a B-17 bomber on nine missions over France and Germany during World War II -- missions considered successful, in part, because each time the crew returned alive.

When the ninth flight was done, so was the crew. They had flown 30 missions, including 21 in a B-24 bomber. They'd completed their quota. Now they could go home.

Their replacements weren't so fortunate.

``They crashed on the first trip,'' said Dawson, a retired U.S. Air Force gunner and radio operator. ``They didn't even land it one time. They didn't complete one mission. ... I always like to tell people that if I had flown one more mission in that B-17, we would've been in the same place in the formation that the new crew was. And I would've forever been 20 years old.''

Instead, Dawson, 81, of Oklahoma City, walked away. So did his crew, members of the 835th Bomb Squadron, 486th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, based in England. At least three others from his crew are still alive.

``It was very unusual to survive 30 missions,'' said retired navigator Bill Lewis, 82, of Tulsa. ``When we got over there in April of '44, it was still rare for crews to finish. When we were on our way over, we ran into a crew on their way back, and they painted a pretty bleak picture.

``We pretty much figured we were headed for a suicide mission. But then it got better.''

To an extent, the skies were growing safer as more and more enemy planes fell, he said. But providence played a big role, too.

``We were lucky,'' Lewis said. ``You better believe it. I think I'm the luckiest guy that ever lived.''

Of the 30 missions, Dawson said, one of the most memorable was on D-Day. The crew was ordered to destroy gun emplacements ahead of the Allied invasion, but cloudy skies scrapped the mission.

``Even though we did not drop our bombs, we had a perfect view of everything ... and the amazing number of paratroopers and gliders and guns from the Navy firing on the coast and the landing craft unloading soldiers. Awesome can't describe it.''

For most of the crew members, the war ended with their final flight Aug. 27, 1944 -- though Lewis flew at least twice more with a different crew before going home.

Sept. 5, 1944, their old B-17 took to the sky for the last time, Lewis said. While in formation, another squadron plane veered into it.

``They both went down,'' Lewis said. ``One person from each plane survived.''

The wreckage fell onto a French farm, Lewis said. When the Germans were driven out, the farmer covered the plane with earth.

``It stayed buried for nearly 60 years,'' Dawson said.

In 2002, amateur French archaeologists recovered the wrecked plane. Lewis realized it was his old craft when a photo of the remains, including the tail number, appeared in a veterans' newsletter. He and Dawson began corresponding with the leader of the French team.

About a year ago, Dawson was given two fragments of his old plane -- a corroded piece of metal that used to be part of a wing and part of a wooden armrest. He treasures them both.

``I think it's pretty remarkable that after all these years, I have a couple pieces of that B-17, the one I flew my last nine missions in, in my house,'' he said. ``These parts helped me stay in the air.''
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