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Memories of war make a heavy payload

A pair of refurbished World War II bombers revived the era for a former Army Air Corps pilot who survived night raids, the Luftwaffe and a crash.

By CHASE SQUIRES
Published March 9, 2004

[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
People came early Monday to see a pair of World War II bombers at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. A group of visitors waits outside a B-25 as the crew gets it ready. The two bombers will be at the airport until 1 p.m. today.

ZEPHYRHILLS - A couple of retired World War II bombers took Jim Rossman's memories sky high Monday.

For a while anyway, the 81-year-old retired insurance salesman from Ridge Manor was back in the air over Germany, where he flew 30 missions in a B-24 heavy bomber during the war, surviving nighttime raids, a crash landing and the German Luftwaffe.

"I don't know how we did it," Rossman said, thinking back on the war. "I guess we were young."

Rossman visited Monday during a three-day exhibit brought to town by the nonprofit Collings Foundation. The organization flew in to the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport on Sunday. The B-24 and B-25 bombers remain on display until 1 p.m. today.

Before stepping on board a restored version of the airplane he flew as pilot and co-pilot, Rossman recalled the early days of WWII when he was a teenager in Tampa.

"When Pearl Harbor hit, I was on a train coming home from Georgia," he said. "I went down and tried to volunteer for the Navy. I was turned down."

The Navy didn't like something about his legs, Rossman said.

"I was 17 or 18. I considered myself a world-class driver, so I went to the Army Air Corps," he said.

At 6 feet tall, Rossman said he weighed less than 140 pounds, not quite enough for the Air Corps, later the Army Air Forces. So he downed as many bananas and milkshakes as he could, and he made the cut.

Rossman recalled life in a bomber group, making daylight raids over Germany.

German fighters would hover over the target, waiting just out of the bombers' gun range, then dive in at the right moment, strafing the lumbering craft.

"You'd see that plane coming in at you, firing those guns, you knew you were in for it," Rossman said.

Touring the visiting airplane Monday, it was obvious the plane's thin metal skin offered little protection against a fighter's guns, or the antiaircraft fire from below.

The pilots who flew Rossman's airplane before him had welded extra metal armor inside the cockpit.

"I was always real careful, real conservative," Rossman said. "I guess I still am."

He was aboard when the plane crash-landed on a tiny English runway. He was in the cockpit in a nighttime raid, focusing on keeping in a tight formation without running into another bomber, when German pilots attacked over the English Channel.

Climbing over the narrow catwalks in the bomb bay, Rossman pointed out the cramped cockpit.

"That's where the navigator would sit, and there's where we would sit," he said. "Not a lot of room."

Rossman made his final bombing run on May 30, 1944, a week before D-Day.

He came back to the States, finished his tour, and thought about getting into commercial aviation. When the airlines weren't interested in such a young-looking pilot, Rossman got into the insurance business.

Jim Harley is one of the airplanes' volunteer crew, crisscrossing the country for most of the year. At 32, he has given up his job as a commercial artist in Akron, Ohio, sold his house and gone into the sky.

"I just love everything about it, meeting the veterans, teaching the kids, it's living history. It's addictive," Harley said. "I really don't have a home anymore."

The B-24 on display flew for the British Royal Air Force in the South Pacific. While most of the surviving B-24s were scrapped after the war, the one visiting Zephyrhills was sent to India, where it was eventually abandoned. A collector returned it to England in the 1980s, and it was bought by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation and is now believed to be the only flying B-24 in the country.

The B-25 joining it was a trainer in the United States and survived the war unscathed. Both aircraft have been fully restored.

The airplanes are on display from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. Admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children. And 15- to 30-minute flights are available for $300-$400 per person. The foundation's Web site is at www.collingsfoundation.org

[Last modified March 9, 2004, 01:35:32]


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