- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - On D-Day, June 6, 1944, as Allied troops were storming the beaches of Normandy during World War II, the crew of a “C” model B-25 Mitchell bomber dipped low to the water over Lake Greenwood and crashed during a training run.

The plane was raised from the lake in 1983, and since has had a sometimes glorious but mostly ignominious fate. It was restored once and served as a centerpiece of several reunions of the famous World War II Doolittle Raiders.

But it deteriorated while bouncing from owner to owner. Now that the bomber - one of seven B-25C Mitchells still in existence - is being restored again, its owners want to give the piece of S.C. history a permanent home.

The plane, once known as “Skunkie,” is being housed in Hangar Y1 at Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport. A team of volunteers, armed with $20,000 in grants from the Richland County Conservation Commission and small donations from supporters, is about halfway through a second restoration intended to make the bomber museum worthy.

“We’re trying to make it look just like the ones that sat on the flight line at the old Columbia Air Base, because it sat on that flight line,” said Ken Berry, president of the S.C. Historic Aviation Foundation, which owns the bomber and is leading the restoration.

The work is being done in a non-descript hangar near Owens Field terminal. It’s a 70-foot by 70-foot standard hangar packed with not only the bomber, but a wide array of other military and aviation artifacts.

The group hopes to one day open a museum and learning center at the downtown general-aviation airport.

“We need something about six times bigger,” Berry said.

B-25s were medium-sized, two-engine bombers that flew throughout World War II. They were used for bombing and strafing soldier strongholds from Europe to the Pacific.

Most famously, Col. Jimmy Doolittle led a raid on Tokyo with the planes, loading 16 of the usually land-based bombers on an aircraft carrier and bombing Japan shortly after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Raiders volunteered for what many considered a suicide mission in 1942 at Columbia Army Air Base - now Columbia Metropolitan Airport - which was the largest B-25 training base in the nation.

In addition to the Columbia training base, satellite bases were located in Greenville, Charleston, Myrtle Beach and smaller cities throughout the state. Skunkie was on temporary assignment to Greenville Army Air Base when it crashed into Lake Greenwood.

Of the 1,660 “C” model B-25s that were built, most came to South Carolina and Columbia Air Base. And 268 men died in training accidents in the state.

At one point, the South Carolina Historic Aviation Foundation had considered restoring the plane to flying condition as a traveling tribute to all those planes and pilots. But its fragile condition made it more viable as a static display.

“But when it was done, there wouldn’t have been one part on that plane that would have been original,” said Scott Lineberry, a foundation board member. “And it would have cost more than a million dollars.”

The B-25 was brought to Columbia from Greenwood and restored to its present state in 1992 at a cost of $30,000.

Although it is not directly related to the Doolittle Raid, the names of Doolittle’s crew were painted below the cockpit. It became the centerpiece of the Doolittle Raiders’ 50th anniversary celebration, held in Columbia in 1992, as well as subsequent reunions.

The funds were raised by Don McElveen of Columbia, founding partner of the CMK Engineering firm, and John Rainey, a Camden attorney and political activist, as a way to honor the Raiders. McElveen and Rainey later deeded the plane to the city of Columbia after a plan to display it at the South Carolina State Museum didn’t work out.

In 2007, the city gave the plane to the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, which had organized the Doolittle reunions and held annual festivals honoring the military. Those festivals included vintage aircraft. Later, Celebrate Freedom’s focus changed from World War II to the Vietnam War, and the plane found its way to the historic aviation foundation.

Now the foundation often gives tours to school groups and hosts weddings and other functions at the hangar. With a new facility, the foundation could have room to display other donated aircraft as well as the B-25C and existing artifacts.

The center would be geared mostly toward teaching children about the history of aviation in the state, Berry said, to stimulate their interests in both history and aviation.

“A lot of kids come to the airport fence and can’t get in,” he said. “We’re trying to get them in.”


Information from: The State, https://www.thestate.com

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