Flying Tributes: Honoring World War II Veterans

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A photo of Raul Mendoza’s crew. Raul is pictured in the front row second from right.


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Raul Mendoza

By John Hernandez

Many young men from small towns in America joined the military and went off to fight during World War II. The Copper Corridor area was no exception. One young man, Raul C. Mendoza, a native of Hayden, Arizona was inducted into the Army Air Corps in 1943.

Mendoza was recently recognized by the Commemorative Air Force at the AirPower History Tour show at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. He received training in San Angelo, Texas as a bombardier in a B-29 and received his machine gunner training in a B-24 Liberator. He was honored as a participant and got to address the crowd at the air show sharing some of his memories as a bombardier. Mendoza still able to fit in the uniform he wore 70 years ago, posed for photos for people who stood in line to have their picture taken with him. He also got to ride in the bombardier seat of a B-29 bomber, which brought back memories of his days in the military.

Flight Officer Mendoza told the story of an incident during a training mission. One of the plane’s engines caught fire and was shooting past the waist gunner’s window towards the plane’s tail. The pilot who was also the captain of the crew put the plane into an emergency nose dive in an attempt to extinguish the flames.

The pilot’s maneuver did not work. The captain then ordered the crew to prepare to abandon the aircraft. Mendoza was ordered to the Bombay area of the plane to lead the evacuation. The crew, all wearing parachutes would have to jump out of the planes Bombay doors. As this was one of the crews’ first training missions, none of the crew had practiced parachute jumping. Realizing this, the captain instead chose to attempt to fly the plane back to their base. He was able to land the plane safely even though the engine was engulfed in flames. Emergency aid crews and fire trucks met them at the end of the runway. No one was injured.

In 1945, Raul’s crew was grouped in Nebraska with other B-29 crews preparing to fly to the Marianas Islands in the Pacific. Once there, they would begin bombing runs on Japan. On Aug. 6, 1945, another B-29, the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, effectively ending the war and allowing many Americans to return safely to their homes.

Mr. Mendoza paid special tribute to his military comrades and acquaintances from the Hayden and San Pedro neighborhoods. He said that about nine of the people he knew were either killed in combat or missing in action and never returned to Hayden from the battlefields.

He named Fernando Rabago, Guillermo Lopez, Kenny Schafer, Jesus Martinez, Junior Contreras, Norberto Martinez, S. Quesada, and K. Armenta as young men he knew that did not return. In 1946, Raul was honorably discharged and returned home to Hayden-San Pedro. He opened the Gila Furniture store in Hayden in 1948, which is still in business.

The “Memphis Belle” was the name of a World War II B-17 bomber. The B-17 was also known as the “Flying Fortress” because of its fire power. It was armed with thirteen 50-caliber M2 Browning machine guns and could carry a bomb load of 6,000 to 8,000 pounds. It was manned by a crew of ten.

The Memphis Belle was named after Captain Robert K. Morgan’s girlfriend Margaret Polke who was from Memphis. Captain Morgan was the pilot. The Memphis Belle was the first B-17 to fly 25 successful bombing missions over Europe and return with the entire crew alive. The general staff had set the completion of 25 missions as an incentive to boost morale. After completing 25 missions, the crew would be able to return home. Morale had been down due to 80 percent of the bombers being shot down during the first three months of the United States initiating bombing missions over Europe. The average life span of a B-17 crew was 14 bombing missions.

Nearly one-third of all B-17s built were lost during combat missions. After completing its 25 missions, the crew of the Memphis Belle returned to the United States and helped sell war bonds. They had flown from November 1942 until May 1943. They had survived anti-aircraft fire, attacks by German fighter planes, and five separate times had engines shot out but managed to return safely to their base.

The Liberty Foundation was formed to preserve history and share the experience of flying in a B-17 for families to better understand what these heroes went through. World War II veterans are dying off every day and to honor and preserve their stories, the Liberty Foundation has a flying museum that travels around the country.

One of their museum pieces, “The Movie” Memphis Belle is a B-17, one of only 13 that are still flying. This B-17 was one of two planes used in the movie Memphis Belle which was made in 1989. It is painted to look like the original Memphis Belle.

The movie Memphis Belle had public flights on Mar. 16 and 17 at Tucson International Airport. For those who did not want to fly, the public was also allowed to walk through the plane and see where the airmen were stationed while on their missions.

Although the media flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems, we were able to walk through the plane, talk with a couple of World War II airmen and learn about the history of the Memphis Belle. The veterans, Dick Carey and Mel Sinquefield, flew numerous bombing missions over Eastern Europe.

The Memphis Belle is painted like the original including the names of the original crew members and showing the stations they manned during the bombing missions. The picture of the girl on the front of the plane was originally done by a Corporal Tony Starcer, an artist stationed at the airfield in England. It was a copy of a “Petty Girl” painting by famous artist George Petty who did a series of pin up girls for Esquire magazine. The original crew also would have the names of their girlfriends or wives painted near their assigned positions on the plane.

Upon entering the plane, I was surprised at the tightness of the quarters. The metal side panels of the plane were thin, there was no way they could stop the bullets from a German fighter plane. They provided very little protection. The flight crew had to wear jackets to protect them from the cold and oxygen masks when they flew at high altitudes. I can’t imagine what it was like being shot at while in flight or having an engine on fire or damage to the plane that limited the chances of your plane returning safely to base.

If you would like to help support the Liberty Foundation, visit their website at LibertyFoundation.org.

May 19, 2013 will be the 70th anniversary of the Memphis Belle completing its 25th mission. It is a good day to take a moment to remember those young men that went off to war, many that never returned, and thank them for their service and sacrifice. Memorial Day is May 27.

See more photos online at http://bit.ly/Zl5Rw1.

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Raul Mendoza still works at his store in Hayden. (John Hernandez photo)


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