MESA – As the Flying Fortress thunders to life on the runway, Jeff Cook runs to warn visitors to avoid the danger zone. The roar of the propellers drowns out his voice and the prop wash nearly blows off his cap.
It’s a typical day at the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum in Mesa, where people like Cook keep history alive through storytelling and by maintaining the airworthiness of the museum’s vintage warplanes. Passengers can tour the museum and planes or take flight on several World War II aircraft, including a twin-engine B-25 Mitchell, a Stearman trainer biplane and Sentimental Journey, one of just a handful of operational B-17G Flying Fortresses.
“That’s really our mission, to preserve one of every type of aircraft from World War II,” said Cook, who served in the Army for 27 years and now dedicates much of his time to preserving these planes and the stories of the people who flew them.
It’s important to preserve the testimony of aging veterans, Cook said, because their numbers are rapidly dwindling. About 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2017, and 362 die each day, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, citing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Paul Moore, another Commemorative Air Force Museum guide, said veterans who visit often tell their war stories, including some they’ve never shared with loved ones. Some veterans have trouble sharing war stories with their children because the younger people can’t relate to the experience, Moore said.
Cook interviewed Moore’s father about his experience with the “Forgotten 500,” members of B-17 crews who were shot down over Nazi-occupied Serbia in 1944. The airmen, who had been sheltered by Serbian sympathizers for months, were later airlifted to safety.
“The stories are fascinating.” Moore said, “That’s why I admire Jeff and the crew here for interviewing these guys and getting the oral history.”
Moore said he brought his father to the museum when he was 85. The two of them flew in the B-17, and his father thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the nose of the bomber. He was also given the opportunity to sign his name on the bomber’s bay doors – a honor afforded any veteran who served on or helped build a B-17. His father died last year.
Jeff Cook said he never tires of seeing the Flying Fortress take off.
“Do you think anyone could?”