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Manassas airport hears ‘true sound of freedom’

MANASSAS REGIONAL AIRPORT, Va. (AFNS) -- There’s no mistaking the sound of four Wright Cyclone 1,200-horsepower engines pulling a B-17 Flying Fortress into the air.

The press and local dignitaries watched as two B-17s, a B-24 Liberator and the only remaining airworthy B-29 Superfortress taxied down the ramp here.

“There’s the true sound of freedom,” said one photographer.

Flyover commemorates Victory in Europe

The aircraft were rehearsing for tomorrow’s Arsenal of Democracy Flyover commemorating the allied victory in Europe during World War II.

Another man watched the display and remembered other times.

“The last time I was in that type of aircraft, someone tried to kill me,” said former Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. Merle Hancock. Hancock was based in Italy during World War II as a top turret gunner and flight engineer for 815th Bombardment Squadron, 483rd Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force.

Hancock said he came to the airport and its resident Freedom Museum to see the extraordinary gathering of planes. The aircraft will join 52 other historic World War II planes in the flyover, which will take place immediately following a ceremony at the National World War II Memorial in Washington. The first formation will fly over the Lincoln Memorial at 12:10 p.m. EDT and roughly follow Independence Avenue eastward before turning back south after passing the Capitol Building.

Hancock had flown 37 missions with the unit when his number came up on July 18, 1944, he said. The unit was bombing a German airfield when 200 German fighters pounced on the group. His plane suffered damage in the front almost immediately, but kept on flying, he said. Hancock was credited with downing three German fighters.

Time to bail out

The pilot, he said, rang the alarm that told the Airmen to bail out.

“I went to the bomb bay and opened it and the aircraft was on fire,” Hancock recalled. “That’s when I got burned.”

Four men among the 10-man aircrew died aboard the airplane while the rest were able to bail out, he said.

Hancock said he left the aircraft at 23,000 feet and almost immediately popped his parachute. He soon passed out from lack of oxygen. He woke up still in the air but headed for “the biggest tree in Germany.” He landed in the tree and as far as he knows the chute is probably still there, he said.

Captured by the enemy

Hancock said he and the rest of his surviving crew members were captured almost immediately.

He said he was questioned by the Gestapo and German military interrogators and then assigned to Stalag Luft IV in Grosstychow, Poland.

There wasn’t a lot of food and the accommodations weren’t the best, “but we made the best of it,” Hancock said.
Rations were supplemented by Red Cross packages, Hancock said.

“They were supposed to be enough rations for one man for a week,” he said. “But we had one package for four men.”
There were more than 10,000 Airmen in the camp and in February 1945, with the Soviets approaching, their German captors formed them up and started marching them west, Hancock recalled.

“There was very little food and it was very cold,” he said. “You’d get a turnip and just eat it raw. That would give you diarrhea and we had many men who just laid down on the side of the road and died.”
Liberation

Hancock estimated about 2,000 prisoners died in the 600-mile march that only ended when the British liberated the column near Cologne, Germany, in early May 1945.

“I was 155 pounds when I was captured,” he said. “I was 90 pounds when I was liberated.”

The British deloused him and his companions, Hancock said, after which he and his comrades were returned to American control.

“Believe me when I say we ate everything we could,” he said.

Hancock said he sailed on a Liberty ship out of France and docked in Norfolk, Virginia. He got out of the Army, but then re-enlisted in the Air Force. He now lives in Manassas.

Decorated veteran

Last year -- 70 years after his fateful flight -- Hancock received the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals for his actions over Germany July 18, 1944.

“I was very proud to receive these,” said Hancock as he fished the medals out of his shirt pocket. “Almost as proud as I am of my children.”

Engage

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