Eric's Heroes: The B-17 pilot who is a living link to history

Dick Nelms speaks at the Museum of Flight (KOMO Photo)

MERCER ISLAND, Wash. -- There is a home at the tip of Mercer Island with a flag waving in front. And there is a man inside who's eyes, chiseled out of blue ice, have looked down and unleashed hell on earth from 10,000 feet.

His weathered, time hardened hands helped guide civilization away from the brink. There are pictures lying about, of just a boy, really -- undersized and bright -- who had no choice but to come of age just as the world was coming unglued many, many years ago.

"I got the application and put it in front of my mother at breakfast for three months - every morning," says Dick Nelms. "She would not sign it. She said: 'I think I'd be signing your death warrant.' At that time, flying was kind of dangerous. it wasn't like today at all. And, I finally got exasperated and I stood up and I said, 'Mom, look at me. 5-7-and-a-half, 135 pounds. I'm going to be drafted. What chance am I going to have on the ground?' She looked at me, and she, she signed it."

There are clues in the home of Dick Nelms about the defining chapters of his life: a model plane, Stars and Stripes, a belt buckle, some bits of steel and ribbon.

He was a pilot. He flew B-17 bombers. He served 35 missions -- mostly over Germany.

This man, 95-years old, sharp and humble, is the real deal.

"I found a way of handling fear, of keeping it under control, and it never became part of me," he said. "So, I can tell stories about seeing things get shot down and not have it bother me.... 10 percent courage, 90 percent denial. I would talk myself out of it."

He did recall one harrowing event:

"One time especially, when a shell burst right in front of us -- an 88 probably -- and the plane bounces through it, you hear the flak making holes in the airplane," he said. "My mind -- your mind becomes your enemy up there. My mind said, 'a second later I'd be on my way down.' I said, 'isn't it great it went off when it did? Everything's OK.' They're both true, but you select the one that's going to keep you under control."

Once a week, Dick -- who still drives -- makes his way to the Museum of Flight, where he stands in front of a perfectly restored B-17, and meets people.

"We gave Hitler more than he could handle," he said to one onlooker.

One man was particularly interested in meeting him:

"I was only 6 years old in 1944, so you saved my ass," he said.

Dick replied: "Well, maybe. Well, the infantry had a little to do with it too, you know..."

He explains to anyone who's interested that they weren't heroes, it was part of their job. He recalls what it felt like to fly bombing raids over Europe, with casualty rates around 50 percent. What it was like flying through buzzing Messerschmitts. To get to Berlin, where 2,000 anti-aircraft guns waited.

"They started firing at us, and we were in constant flak for almost a half-hour if you can believe that," he said. "We came back from Berlin one day with 300 holes in the aircraft... I saw five planes go down from groups up ahead, and here I'm flying formation... I looked it up later on and we lost 68 airplanes on that one mission.

"One of 'em burst up here about 11 o'clock; couldn't have been more than 100 feet, because we immediately went through lower part of the concussion. I leaned over and said, 'you missed me!' I knew that yelling that wasn't going to shorten the war, but still, I was tired of feeling like a wood duck in a carnival shooting gallery."

Nelms is a treasure because he remembers what it looked like and smelled like up there, what it was to be young and scared and unbelievably courageous.

The other day at the museum, there was pep in his step, and he went out to see the old plane that he used to know. He climbed in, like he did in the old days, found a place to sit down. The prop turned, and the wheels rolled, and for a 95-year old man, the lines of time got all crossed up.

"When I feel him push the throttles forward, that's a thrill," he says. "Where it pushes you back... the acceleration... and then you feel the runway, and then you don't feel anything. You're free; you're in the air. You're in a different dimension. You've been freed from Earth."

I asked if it brought back memories.

"Oh yeah, I should be over there," he said, motioning to the pilot seat.

When asked what was the most overriding feeling of being up in the plane again:

"Oh, that I'm not getting shot at."

For the old pilot, there was no giddiness up there, just a kind of wistful, knowing satisfaction. Men who've done what Dick Nelms has done don't get giddy. He will tell you that there were thousands like him, pillars that the whole world leaned against.

But not now. Now there are just a precious few men with eyes chiseled from blue ice, who looked down and unleashed hell on Earth from 10,000 feet.

Thank God for them.

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