Monday, April 7, 2014

After 70 Years, Man and Machine Reunite

When Ludwid Havlak walked into the hanger at Skyline Aviation Monday, March 31, at San Angelo Regional Airport he appeared to be your typical West Texas farmhand. Born to Czech immigrants and raised in Rowena, just a few miles east of San Angelo, Havlak grew up in the cotton fields with his father working the family plot. But when war broke out in the 1940s, Havlak made the decision to enlist rather than wait to be drafted, so he headed down to the recruiters office and joined the Army Air Corps. After boot camp and training as a radar operator, Havlak headed to the Pacific first as a ball turret gunner in a B-24 Liberator. "I flew in high altitude missions at first and thank god I got out of there," Havlak said with a chuckle. "I climbed down into that thing and on the first mission and a flash and explosion went off right next to me and I said to myself 'This is not for me.'" Havlak flew five missions in that position.

Eventually, Havlak was reassigned to his original position on the radar after one of the crews lost a man. He went on to fly 38 more missions, over 600 combat hours, on bombing runs over the islands of the South Pacific. "I could have quit at 35, but I told them I wasn't going to quit, not until they had somebody else to take my place," Havlak said. "I flew three extra missions I didn't have to and thank god it worked out." April 1945 would be the last time Havlak set foot on a B-24. But now, almost 70 years later, Havlak, now 92, would have one more chance to reunite with the machine that carried him through hell and back thanks to the Collings Foundation, an educational organization that has restored several WWII-era planes including a B-24 Liberator. Three planes, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a P-51 Mustang and a B-24 Liberator were on display at our local airport, and Havlak wanted to come and pay homage.

For being 92-years-old, Ludwig Havlak moves around as if he was 30 years younger. His step was a bit slower perhaps, his voice feeble, but his memory, tack sharp. As he walked across the tarmac passing the B-17 and P-51 without a second glance he began recalling his first combat mission. "It was April 17, 1944 and I was strapped down in that ball turret with nothing but my guns out in front of me and I was hanging out there by myself with all those flashes and smoke around me," Havlak said. "And I'll be honest with you, I was ready to go home right then." I asked him if he had served on any other aircraft during the war and in his Czech accent he said, "Oh no, that was the only one, just the B-24." His pace began to quicken, eyes fixed as he approached the parked bomber. And as if he was talking to himself he muttered, "and I'm going to over there and kiss that baby."

As Havlak neared the plane he put out an outstretched hand and lightly touched the olive green fuselage feeling the rivets of the side panels glide under his fingertips. He leaned in close and carefully pressed his weathered lips on the side of the aircraft and said, "This is it, this my plane." Now, I don't if it was the sting of the hot wind blowing around and the heat radiating up from the ground or past memories of his time in the service, but I thought I detected a few tears welling up in his eyes. He continued to walk the length of the aircraft never taking his hand off of it, followed by a few his his children that were there to witness the reunion. They began to ask questions about the plane, where he sat and and what his role on each mission was. Without hesitation Havlak began rattling off answers as if he had just landed from one of those missions. It was an awesome moment to witness, one I'll never forget.

After making a lap around the bomber and answering a few more questions Havlak asked in an almost boyish tone, "Can I go inside?" To the credit of the Collings Foundation, inside tours of the planes were free to WWII veterans, so Havlak crawled through the tiny hatch opening at the rear of the plane and made his way to the side gunner position he would have taken if his craft had been attacked by Japanese fighters. I tried to quickly follow after him but because of my large frame it took a minute to negotiate the narrow ladder into the plane with all of my camera gear. I'm convinced that all of the crew members that served on a B-24 were no taller than 5'9" and weighing a 120lbs. soaking wet.

Havlak posed for a few photos for his family and then they joined us in the plane. It was a tight squeeze, but Havlak began explaining all the bells and whistles of the aircraft, showed where the radar unit and his seat would have been all the while gingerly stepping around components of the plane with the ease of a 20-year-old. After about 20 minutes, Havlak exited the craft though one of the open bomb bay doors. Havlak stood back from the plane a few feet and looked at it with admiring eyes before saying, "She was a good aircraft flown by an amazing crew. We went through a lot of scary moments, but fortunately everything came out alright. I'll never forget that time in my life for as long as I live."

And history will never forget you, Mr. Havlak.

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