Lee Dotson of Soldotna was not afraid of dying when the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he was riding in took off from the Kodiak airport Tuesday. Mostly because he knew the chances of a fighter aircraft strafing the plane with machine gun bullets were slim to none. Neither would there be clouds of flak, filling the air with shrapnel.
The last time he left the ground in a B-24 there was good reason to fear for his life: It was more than 55 years ago and he was on a daytime bombing raid over German-occupied Europe. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.
"Every day. Every day I worried I might not make it back," he said, staring at the 3-foot square hole in the side of the plane where he stood half a century ago, .50 caliber machine gun in hand.
Dotson was the right-side engineer/ gunner on the Conquest Cavalier, part of the 445th Bomb Group of the 8th Army Air Force stationed in Tibenham, England. Besides defending the heavy bomber against German fighters, he was responsible for maintenance on his side of the plane.
Dotson was joined on the trip to Kodiak and back by Glenn Schrader of Kenai, another World War II veteran. Schrader took the flight on the Liberator's companion, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Both planes are owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, which tours the nation each year in them. The planes will be at the Kenai Municipal Airport, near the control tower, until late this afternoon
"The only problem was that I was in the radio room, and there was no roof," Schrader said with a smile after the flight. "There was a circle there six, seven feet across you could stick your head out. I wasn't too keen on that."
Schrader never made it into the air during the war. A training exercise in mid-1942 laid him up for nearly two years.
"After the war, I used my benefits to become a private pilot. I've owned a few planes, of course nothing this size," he said, gesturing to the two heavy bombers.
Schrader and Dotson flew to Kodiak, via Anchorage, on Era Aviation's Convair. The differences were immediate. On the commercial aircraft, the flight attendant said, "don't smoke in the lavatory." On the World War II bomber, the pilot said, "don't step on the bomb bay doors."
After the bomber left the ground, Dotson walked around the belly turret to the starboard waist gunner's position, a place he stood for 29 missions over Europe.
On one mission over Berlin, Dotson manned the belly turret.
"Once was enough," he said. "I probably couldn't even get my head in there now."
At 26, Dotson was the oldest member of the Conquest Cavalier's crew. Some were 18 or 19 years old, the pilot 21.
The crew -- those that weren't killed -- stayed together for most of their 30 missions. Their third mission was the one they nearly didn't come back from.
"That was the worst ever," Dotson said. "They shot flak at us, lobbed rockets on us.
"We lost half of the tail and flew with a lot of damage. Our pilot was a big Swede; he was a tremendous pilot. He brought us home by brute force."
The damage was so bad -- the plane ran on two of its four engines, half the tail gone -- the crew had to jettison everything it could to make the plane lighter, even the plane's navigator, who was killed on the mission.
"He's buried in the North Sea. I say 'buried,'" Dotson said, his voice trailing off.
The plane crash landed, with only two of its three wheels down, just over the white cliffs of Dover. Dotson spent a month recovering from his injuries as the Conquest Cavalier was repaired.
He had white-hot shrapnel from a German 20 mm cannon shell tear through his left leg, requiring a skin graft. More shrapnel left gouge marks in his manganese and steel flak jacket, bruising his torso.
During the one-hour flight into Kenai, Dotson went from the bombardier perch at the nose of the B-24 to the tail-gunner's position.
"I had a heck of a time going through that bomb bay," he said with a smile. "When I was young, I'd just shoot right through there."
The gantry between the racks of dummy bombs in the bomb bay is less than a foot wide at the bottom, tapering up -- just enough, apparently -- to allow Dotson passage.
He said he toured the plane last year when the Collings Foundation visited Kenai, but he didn't buy a ride in it.
"I've spent all kinds of time in them," he said. "I knew what they flew like."
One gets the feeling that Dotson would climb back in a B-24 today and defend America again, if he had to.
"I've always been a staunch American," he said. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere, fight for anyone else, except America."
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