Holding a shiny, hand-painted model of a B-17 bomber up against the powdery blue sky Friday, Mesa resident Stanton Rickey looked back more than six decades to when he piloted the real thing in a bloody war.
The 88-year-old World War II veteran had very vivid memories of when he and a crew of nine younger men flew far behind the German enemy line.
Standing beside a new friend from an old era, Rickey put his hand on the shoulder of 77-year-old Kurt Hauber, who was 11 years old and watching from the ground in Bavaria when the veteran pilot and countless other Americans and Germans were shot down.
Hauber said he never forgot that day. Decades later, he relied on his nephew, 42-year-old Ludwig Hauber, to communicate with Rickey on the grounds of Mesa’s Falcon Field during a reunion of sorts.
The uncle and nephew traveled from Germany to reunite Rickey with parts of his crashed plane, after a years-long search for the pilot using a serial number Ludwig Hauber discovered on a Browning .50-caliber machine gun. The death-dealing weapon from the downed bomber that once tore German aircraft apart, now had brought the small group together.
Ludwig Hauber said his uncle sparked an interest in him to search for lost war planes from a very early age.
“He always would tell me about this great battle that took place over him in the sky,” said the younger Hauber.
Near their family farm and deep inside of a forest, Hauber said he and his uncle discovered the first parts of the wreckage in 2005.
Hauber, who is a member of a club in Germany that searches for lost planes, used the serial number on the machine gun to track down the tail number of the plane. An e-mail eventually reached Rickey, who said he was enlivened by the more than half-century-old discovery.
Rickey, who spent close to a year as a prisoner of war, corresponded for years with his new friends until the fateful reunion with parts of his bomber.
Hauber said he was drawn to the discovery by his uncle’s stories, but he remains an avid seeker of lost warbirds because of the meaning behind it all.
“There are so many with no name, no grave,” he said. “My father was forced into the Army when he was 16, and when he came home, so many of his friends were lost.”
Rickey said he, too, could relate to the loss of war — vivid in his mind’s eye.
On July 18, 1944, Rickey received orders to strike a jet plane manufacturing site in Bavaria that was building what was known as one of the most devastating warplanes, the Messerschmitt Me-262, the first jet fighter used by Germany in World War II.
High over the skies of Memmigen, Germany, deep in Bavaria, a group of fewer than 30 B-17 bombers tackled bad weather and anti-aircraft fire before they were met by 200 enemy fighter planes.
Then Army 1st Lt. Rickey said he relied on training when he found himself tremendously outnumbered by German planes, and watching countrymen fall from the sky all around him.
“We were trained to the point we knew what to expect,” said Rickey, who was the oldest on board — at just 23.
His crew of 10 was riddled down to half with most of the survivors wounded. The five men that gave their lives over Bavaria joined countless others as 14 of the 26 Flying Fortresses were lost during the battle.
Rickey said he knew starting out on the fateful mission that there were no guarantees .
“I always adopted a fatalistic attitude,” he said 65 years later, holding a twisted, rusty piece of the original fuselage. “I flew 27 missions, and on my 27th, I was shot down.”
Rickey spoke steadily, remembering, each word deliberate, as he recounted his last moments aboard the plummeting bomber, alone, after ordering his crew to bail.
“What happened of course happened pretty fast... We lost airplanes in a matter of minutes,” he said. “Twelve bombers went on” to bomb the target.
On Friday, Rickey stood with the elder Hauber beside a B-25H bomber reminiscing the lumbering giant he flew during the war. The two prepared for a different type of flight, which all but assured a safe return to Mesa’s Falcon Field.
Jack Fedor, a retired commercial pilot and executive director of Warbirds Unlimited Foundation, Inc., which owns the B-25H, primed the propellers for a ride in Rickey’s honor.
Fedor said his nonprofit educational foundation works to educate the public about WWII aviation history — including the living kind.
“We exist to honor WWII veterans,” he said of his group that learned of Rickey’s reunion with parts of his bomber and volunteered to take him for a ride in the restored warbird. “This is exactly what we’re all about.”