- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2000

Mild-mannered World War II bomber pilot Barney Nolan is not the type of crusty vet who gripes about today's military and wishes for the good old days.

He is honest, however, about his 33 missions over Europe in 1944.

"I buried that whole experience for 44 years," the Alexandria, Va., resident says evenly. "I hated it. I hated every minute of it.

"Think about having a mindset where all you can think about is how you're going to survive from one mission to the next.

"You make friends, and they don't come back."

Yet, at the recent reunion for the 8th Bomber Command, 487th Bomb Group ("The Gentlemen From Hell") at the Radisson Old Town in Alexandria, there was Mr. Nolan coordinating the entire weekend event. It brought out 280 people from all over the nation.

Highlighting the weekend was Bob Morgan, pilot of the famous B-17 Flying Fortress, "The Memphis Belle." Mr. Morgan's crew was the first in World War II to survive a full tour of 25 missions over Nazi territory, boosting U.S. morale in 1943. (The Allies had been losing 80 percent of its bombers over enemy territory.)

The 80-year-old Mr. Morgan stood before a mostly geriatric audience some in electric wheelchairs that packed one of the hotel's meeting rooms.

As he spoke nonchalantly of his missions, some eyes were literally glistening. This was their war. Scores of people came up to him for autographs or just to stand next to him.

"I just did my job like anyone else," says the bespectacled Asheville, N.C., resident over and over to well-wishers.

Mr. Morgan also showed video clips of two films about "The Memphis Belle": William Wyler's 1944 documentary and a 1990 full-length feature film. The latter's combat scenes pleased Mr. Morgan but not the Hollywood depiction of the 327th Bombardment Squadron as heavy drinking hell-raisers who brought women aboard the plane for illicit activity.

"That was not our crew," Mr. Morgan says.

He, however, praised the film "Saving Private Ryan." Mr. Nolan agreed, noting that the film's graphic, bloody depiction of the landing on D-Day was true to life. He should know: Mr. Nolan, too, flew on D-Day.

"I was not motivated by Pearl Harbor; I wanted to fly airplanes," says Mr. Nolan, 77.

"It's not an original thought on my part," says Mr. Nolan, "but I've read extensively about it: As [British historian] John Keegan said, the reason we did it was because the other guys did it.

"I had no obsessive patriotic feelings about what I was doing, that I was maybe going to give my life for my country or this cause. But I was there, and I did it."

Mr. Nolan's candor is refreshing. The native of Queens, N.Y., was mixing colors at a textile plant when he volunteered for the war at the "young and naive" age of 21.

His time with the 487th ran from May to September 1944. Mr. Nolan flew the B-24 Liberator on 11 missions over targets in France and Belgium and also on D-Day. He flew the B-17 Flying Fortress for 11 missions deep into Germany, to attack cities like Berlin and Dusseldorf.

The B-17 performed better in combat because it flew higher comfortably and it was "easier to fly in formation," Mr. Nolan says, adding with a smile that "raging debates" exist among veterans over the best planes.

A tall, bushy-browed man who bears a passing resemblance to Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Mr. Nolan sits in the sun room of his home in Carlisle Towers with his wife, Sunny.

Active members of Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, the couple celebrates 55 years of marriage in December.

Mr. Nolan stayed in the Air Force for 22 years. He went to work for NASA until retiring in 1981, though he continued as an independent consultant until 1984.

While volunteering as a docent for the National Air and Space Museum, he found a book, "One Last Look," that showed the instrument panel of a B-24 and his old runway. It also contained an interview with his navigator, F.W. Nelson.

"I thought, 'Frank, that really isn't the way it happened,' " Mr. Nolan says as Mrs. Nolan laughs.

The book reopened a whole chunk of life that Mr. Nolan had buried. He wrote a letter to his children about his service. He turned the reminiscences into an unpublished book.

"My dad landed on Normandy, and now he's not around for me to ask all those questions," says Jeanie Thompson, a friend of the Nolans'. "Barney is my hero."

In 1988, Mr. and Mrs. Nolan went to Lavenham, England, the site of the base where the American bombers took off.

Mr. Nolan had not even told his wife that on one of his missions his aircraft was hit over the coast of Belgium. Mr. Nolan and his crew survived the July 1944 ordeal by making an emergency landing in England.

"I began to learn things that I hadn't known before," says Mrs. Nolan, a native of Charleston, S.C. "He had found those months so distasteful, yet when we got into this rental car and started driving along, he began to talk about the beauty of England.

"He got so excited and started describing the flowers and the village and the people, and it was like a homecoming."

Not only that, but the Nolans met up with Roland Brinkley, one of two boys whose mother did Mr. Nolan's laundry while he was stationed in Lavenham.

They discovered that the runways were still intact, though the airfield no longer operates. (The control tower still stands, but the other buildings have been razed.)

"We drove on the air base and found our way to the old east-west runway, and I couldn't resist," Mr. Nolan says, "I drove the length of the runway back.

"So many of us have gone back on different occasions."

And Mr. Nolan continues to go back, so to speak, visiting schools and talking to young people about his experience. As much as he tries to stress the history of the 487th, people's questions come from a different perspective.

"I'm finding a total disconnect from the history," he says, somewhat bewildered. "They don't even know about World War II; it's a cultural thing. They want to know more about me."

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