A few years ago, I photographed an article for HOUR Detroit magazine; I pitched the idea of bringing four WWII Vets up in a B-17 for the first time in over 60 years. The idea came to me after meeting Bill Rosnyai and three of his Flyboy buddies. I was surprised at how excited they were about the prospect of flying in a B-17 again. In my past experiences, WWII Vets, like my Grandfather, wouldn’t talk much about the War and might emotionally drift off while I attempted to interview them. This time was completely different however. ”Could we climb around the plane?” asked Burt Miner, a former pilot. They were beyond excited. A week later, I got a call from Burt asking if he could FLY THE PLANE! I was hesitant to answer; the production of this piece was complicated already. I had facilitated a free flight worth several thousand dollars, and I didn’t want to push it too far. ”I can ask Burt, but I can’t guarantee anything,” I said. He responded saying, “I don’t want to land the damned thing, I just want to take her for a few turns if possible.” I laughed and promised I would check into it for him.
The day of the flight/shoot arrived, and as we stepped out onto the tarmac, the Yankee Lady loomed above me, and instantly, the guys wanted in. The crew agreed to let Burt and Bob Stauffer get a few minutes to fly the plane. The next hour was one of the greatest of my life. I watched these WWII Vets transport themselves back to a time that they had nearly forgotten. They were spry, lively, and full of life. Burt was about to haul his 84 year old body into the nose hatch of the plane when I reminded him that he may not be as nimble as he once was. It seemed he had forgotten his age.
Six years have gone by since the shoot, and we still have lunch together every two weeks. The group has grown from four to 23 informal members and I have been granted “honorary flyboy status” complete with the call-sign “Sparkplug.” They seem to think this was all my doing: the growth of the group and the notoriety that came after the stunning article was released in HOUR, accompanied by a display in New York City and winning a Gold Ozzie Award as well as a Fox news story. I was only exploring a curiosity and trying to find some closure from my grandfather’s death. This experience ignitied something else in me though. My goal became to photograph as many WWII Vets as I could to hopefully spark a conversation between a younger generation and the still living WWII Vets that we have so much to learn from. I truly hope we can learn the lesson and live our lives as well as they have.
My Grandfather passed away in 1999. He didn’t know that a National WWII Memorial was being built, and he always felt slighted that his generations’ contribution had been forgotten. He joined the Navy on December 8, 1941, and I never quite understood why. September 10, 2011, I was on the roof of the World Trade Center photographing a client. 9/11 was my Pearl Harbor, and I suddenly understood my Grandfather in a whole new way.
As a board member of Honor Flight MIchigan, I helped facilitate trips for around 1800 WWII Vets taking them from MIchigan to Washington DC, free of charge, to see their memorial. I documented all of the trips I went on, and this has been my way of thanking my Grandfather and his entire generation. Yesterday was Veterans Day. Please thank a Vet the next time you have the chance.
The flight on the Yankee Lady will forever be etched in my mind. It instantly transported these four vets back to their youth. I had never seen anything like it in my life.
www.HonorFlightMichigan.com has information about the planned WWII Memorial in Royal Oak.
Check out www.BradZiegler.com to see additional images of vets.