As the bomber known as Sentimental Journey 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 wind nearly blows his hat off.
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 one of several of their World War II aircraft, including a twin engine B-25 Mitchell, a Stearman trainer biplane, and Sentimental Journey, one of only a few operational B-17G Flying Fortresses in the world.
“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.
He said he has recorded video interviews with 27 World War II veterans. He sends free DVD copies to the veterans and to the Library of Congress for its Veterans Oral History Program.
Cook said it’s important to preserve the testimony of aging veterans, whose 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 in World War II as part of the “Forgotten 500,” a group of Air Force men on a B-17 bombing mission who were shot down over Nazi-occupied Serbia.
“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 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?”