Brunswick veteran, 87: Airshow ride ‘the best day of my life’

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BRUNSWICK — The original B-25 Mitchell Bomber “Panchito” flew combat missions out of Okinawa, dropping bombs on Japan in World War II.

A restored B-25, renamed “Panchito” in that plane’s honor, flew a group of reporters and a Korean War veteran out of Brunswick Executive Airport on Friday, Sept. 4, part of the weekend-long Great State of Maine Airshow.

George McConnon, 87, of Sandy Ridge Road, the airshow’s “honorary veteran,” stood on the tarmac of the former naval air station Friday morning, looking out at the shiny body of the B-25.

“This is the best day of my life,” McConnon declared.

Thursday had been the best day of his life, he said, after he met the pilot and crew of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.

“But now today is the best day of my life,” he said.

B-25 Bomber Forecaster Short from Sun Media on Vimeo.

McConnon had never been in a military plane before; in Korea, he operated a Sherman tank.

He was drafted into the Army in 1951, at 25 years old and without a driver’s license.

“But they stuck me driving a tank,” he said.

McConnon is the commander of the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit that represents more than 1.3 million disabled war veterans nationwide. He has post traumatic stress disorder from his days in Korea.

“It wasn’t until I started talking to (other veterans) that I even realized I had PTSD,” he wrote in a news release earlier in the week for the DAV.

“Back then I was more afraid to face myself than I was of sticking my head out of the tank’s turret … and that is no way to live life,” he said.

Just after 9 a.m. Friday, the B-25’s owner and pilot, Larry Kelley, of Alabama, popped out of the hatch and greeted the civilian crew.

This plane played a special role in American history, he said, when the country felt defenseless after Pearl Harbor.

Seeing the B-25s in the news hitting mainland Japan in the Doolittle Raid of Tokyo was “a big psychological boost,” Kelley said. “We proved to the Japanese we could strike the homeland.”

The crew of “Panchito” was based in Okinawa, and flew in combat missions over Japan. Of its six crew members, the pilot was the oldest at 22. The youngest were two 19-year-old twins, Bill and Bob Miller.

When the war was over, the U.S. military lined up all of their bombers in the South Pacific wingtip to wingtip, and blew them up.

“Why?” Kelley asked in his southern drawl. “Because the war was over. There was never going to be another war.”

Today’s Panchito was built in 1944, and was used for live combat training stateside.

It didn’t get destroyed when the war was over, but put in “mothballs,” Kelley said. It was taken out of storage to be used by the National Guard in Alabama, and eventually ended up spraying pesticides over orange groves in Florida.

It was later sold to an airplane museum in South Florida that eventually went out of business. Kelley bought it in 1997.

The bottom of the plane was so rusted out, he said, “you could push your hand through it.”

Now, Kelley flies the B-25 at more than 20 airshows a year, to bring awareness to the DAV, McConnon’s organization.

He said he was up until midnight Thursday fixing some broken bolts to get Panchito ready to fly.

“When I grow up, I want to be just like you,” McConnon told him.

Kelley ushered McConnon and the rest of the crew up a hatch and into the tiny cockpit.

Strapped in and looking up through the turret, McConnon said, “this kind of reminds me of being in a tank.”

Take-off was rough: the bomb bay rattled and the engines screamed, fumes filling the body of the aircraft with a burnt-rubber haze.

But the plane leveled off at 1,000 feet, and the engines calmed down.

As the bomber banked left, Mt. Washington rose in the morning fog. The islands of Casco Bay stretched out into the open ocean on the horizon.

McConnon sat under the turret, looking past the pilot’s heads to the sky.

“I’m just going to sit still … no white knuckles, no nothing,” he said. “This is something to write home about.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

George McConnon, 87, of Brunswick, is head of the local Disabled American Veterans chapter. He flew in a B-25 Friday, Sept. 4 as the Great State of Maine Airshow’s “honorary veteran.”

This B-25 Mitchell Bomber, built for training purposes in 1944, was re-named “Panchito” in honor of a B-25 that flew combat missions out of Okinawa. It is in Brunswick for the Great State of Maine Airshow.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.