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A Purple Heart recipient takes a special flight

Avery Schneider
Roy Phillips looks on while riding aboard the Madras Maiden, a World War II B-17 bomber, during a special preview flight Monday. Phillips, who served in World War II with an anti-aircraft gun unit, is a Purple Heart recipient.

A Niagara County man, who is a World War II veteran and Purple Heart honoree, was a special guest aboard a B-17 that flew over the Buffalo area Monday. He is just one of the veterans that the Liberty Foundation, which has brought the Madras Maiden to Buffalo, works to honor in their annual tour of U.S. cities.

Royalton resident Roy Phillips, 92, was an invited guest of the newspaper Lockport Union Sun & Journal, one of the media outlets whose representatives flew aboard the B-17 during a preview flight.

"Wonderful," he said. "Wonderful trip! A lifetime trip I thought I'd never be able to make."

Phillips served as part of an anti-aircraft crew whose unit had arrived at Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, one day after the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He explained his crew was defending a bridge on the Rhine River when most of it was wiped out by German air attacks.

"We were strafed by all kinds of planes," he said. "I was on a gun crew of 12 men. They wiped out our gun crew. Three men were killed, three were critically wounded and three men slightly wounded."

Yet Phillips had his mind on the countless men who flew the B-17s, recalling seeing thousands of the "Flying Fortresses" pass above him in combat.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
B-17 Flying Fortress, the "Madras Maiden"

"I was thinking about those guys in those planes," he said. "They didn't have much room in those planes. They were heroes... more heroes than I was, I think. A lot of them didn't come back."

Indeed, the odds were more in favor of not returning from a given mission, according to members of the Liberty Foundation. Jim Lawrence, a veteran who flew single-seat fighter planes and served in Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, told WBFO that the odds of survival by a B-17 crew during a mission were about 20 percent.

And yet, he added, they embarked on their missions. He, too, lost many peers over the years in the line of duty.

"You learn to accept sometimes, rather than understand, that fate is the hunter," Lawrence said. "You don't understand why one got shot down and you flew the same mission the day before and you came back. 

At that moment, Lawrence began showing emotion as he finished his point.

"Yeah, it can be challenging."

Raising awareness and appreciation for the nation's veterans is the mission of the Liberty Foundation. They will host tours of the Madras Maiden on August 12 and 13, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days, at Prior Aviation. Those willing to pay a $450-per-person fee will be able to fly aboard the B-17 during morning runs, while ground tours will be available during the afternoon hours. The ground tours are at no cost to the visitor, though donations will be accepted.

Phillips, when asked what he hopes the public will take away from next weekend's opportunity, said he hopes people simply remember them.

"We were the Greatest Generation," he said with pride. "And I feel, maybe I shouldn't say this, that I think the kids today are really spoiled."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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