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Finding comfort in history: Veterans connect through World War II plane ride

By by Dianna Wray
April 1, 2011 at 8:02 p.m.
Updated March 31, 2011 at 11:01 p.m.

Iraq war veteran Spc. Brett Rheinschmidt gazes up at one of the wings of the Collings Liberator, a restored Consolidated B-24J Liberator, before climbing aboard to fly from Houston Executive Airport to Victoria Regional Airport during Friday's Wings of Freedom Event. On one side of the plane, behind Rheinschmidt, is painted a list of the dedicated crew, lead crews, plane sponsors and DFC members. The other side has paintings of a witch and bombs with the number 130 to represent the 130 missions that Witchcraft, the plane, completed during WWII.

The engines thrummed and the hulking body of "Witchcraft," a 67-year-old B-24J Liberator, shuddered steadily as it thundered down the runway.

Strapped in where soldiers from World War II once sat, Spc. Brett Rheinschmidt grinned and pointed a finger out the open windows at the ground rushing by below.

Rheinschmidt was one of handful of local veterans who got the chance to ride on the World War II-era aircraft as it made its way to Victoria as part of the Wings of Freedom Air Show on Friday.

Before the flight, Rheinschmidt could barely contain his excitement. He and fellow Iraqi war veteran Cpl. Sabastian Vasquez circled the plane, examining the propeller blades and the bombs strapped inside the bomb bay.

Neither of them could sleep the night before.

"It's always been one of my childhood dreams to fly on one of these big old planes, and having been in the service, now you can really understand it, what it was like," Rheinschmidt said.

There was a lurch as more than 35,000 pounds of aluminum and metal jerked from the ground into the air.

Behind him, long black hair blowing, Vasquez laughingly reminded everyone to keep doing "combat breathing."

"It's basically yoga, but just take a deep breath in for four seconds, hold it and exhale, and it'll calm you down," Vasquez said, raising his voice to be heard over the roar of the engines.

Vasquez served three tours in Iraq. He was part of the first invasion of Fallujah. His battalion was one of the first to Saddam Hussein's palace.

Rheinschmidt was injured during his tour of Iraq, but he was there the day American soldiers discovered Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in Tikrit, Iraq.

Since serving, both men say they've had their struggles in dealing with what they saw and experienced in war. Sometimes it has been difficult to leave the house,

Rheinschmidt said. Sometimes it's hard to go into crowds, Vasquez noted.

Getting an idea about what other veterans experienced is helpful, both agreed. It reminds them they aren't alone, Rheinschmidt said.

Witchcraft is the last operational B-24 in existence. The plane was built in 1944 in Fort Worth, one of more than 18,000 of the aircraft made to drop bombs behind enemy lines.

The aircraft was designed to fly high altitudes and long distances for specialized bombing missions, but its hulking size made it vulnerable to attack.

More than 5,000 of the planes were lost in combat, about three to four planes a day, each with 10 soldiers inside it, flight engineer Derick Ward said.

Sitting in the belly of the aircraft, it was easy to imagine what it must have been like, what it must have taken to climb aboard one of these things and face fear, face bullets, face the very real possibility of death, Vasquez said.

"We've done some things, been through some really difficult experiences, but I can't hold a candle to that," Vasquez said.

Jim Pooley, a Vietnam veteran, grinned talking about the plane.

"It's an honor, a real honor to see what it was like for those guys," Pooley said. Once the plane was in the air, he clambered carefully to the cockpit, peering out at the horizon just over the shoulders of the pilots.

"It's really something, isn't it," Pooley said, gesturing at the sapphire blue sky rimmed with white clouds on the horizon.

A buzzer went off, the signal that it was OK to move around the plane.

Rheinschmidt took his cane and clambered eagerly to the gunner's turret, a glass bubble at the tail end of the plane.

Vasquez took hold of a machine gun pretending to aim it at the green countryside rushing by below.

The war experienced by Rheinschmidt and Vasquez is different from what Pooley experienced and a far cry from what soldiers in World War II saw, but they still share the common bond - being a part of history.

Seeing and feeling what it was like to be on the bomber strengthened that feeling, all agreed.

Witchcraft landed in Victoria with a jolt. Pooley climbed out of the plane, and stood back to admire the craft, green-painted aluminum sides gleaming in the sun.

Rheinschmidt and Vasquez stood alongside it, bright-eyed and smiling.

"Doing stuff like this, it's kind of therapeutic ... we're able to share these experiences with other veterans, to see stuff like this, it helps to know you're not the only one out there," Rheinschmidt said.

Vasquez nodded.

"We're all connected," he said.



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