Along the Coast: World War II planes bring back memories for navigator

(l-r) World War II veterans John Bury, Frank Bonfiglio, Richard Stransky, Bill Schwartz and Arthur Pion gather at Boca Raton Airport for the Collings Foundation’s annual Wings of Freedom tour. The airport hosted several restored planes, including a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (background) on which Bury flew as lead navigator. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Rich Pollack

It’s been more than 70 years since John Bury sat in the navigator’s seat of a B-17 Flying Fortress as it dropped bombs over Nazi Germany while dodging antiaircraft fire during World War II.

But memories come back quickly when Bury visits the Boca Raton Airport during the annual Wings of Freedom tour, which this year brought three fully restored World War II planes — including the B-17 — to South Florida.

“The good memories come back, and other memories come back when I tell people about the bad missions,” said Bury, of Highland Beach, who at 97 is one of a rapidly dwindling number of WW II veterans in the area. “They come back vividly.”

ABOVE: Bury talks with schoolchildren.

Bury was one of a handful of WWII veterans who shared their stories with about 300 schoolchildren last month during the Wings of Freedom tour’s three-day visit. He periodically volunteers to talk about his experiences as a navigator on the B-17, on which he flew 28 missions.

In addition to getting a chance to see and tour the Flying Fortress, those who came to the airport had a chance to see a fully restored replica of the B-24 Liberator and a restored P-51C Mustang.

The tour, put on annually since 1989 by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation, is designed to support what it calls “living history” and to help younger generations learn more about World War II and the sacrifices people made then.

For at least 15 years the tour has stopped in Boca Raton, attracting military history buffs as well as veterans from several eras. It is also a popular destination for school field trips.

“This is a really strong stop for us because of the big veteran presence,” said Jamie Mitchell, the Collings Foundation’s tour coordinator. “There are still a few World War II veterans here who flew these planes in combat.”

Airport Director Clara Bennett said giving students a chance to meet with veterans is one of the reasons the airport hosts the Wings of Freedom tour year after year and invites students to join in a welcoming ceremony that involves city leaders and Boca Raton Airport Authority board members.

“We feel we have a responsibility to provide the veterans an opportunity to interact with the students,” she said. “It’s a chance for history to be passed down to the next generation.”

Bennett said the tour also is an opportunity to explain the role the airport played in the war, when it served as an Army Air Corps radar training facility.

For Bury, one of the few World War II veterans at the ceremony who actually flew in a class of the planes on display, the tour offered an opportunity to tell stories that few others are left to share.

“I’m still amazed that this plane was able to get me through combat safely,” he says.

There were times, he recalls, when that almost didn’t happen. The majority of the missions he flew came under attack, and during one flight the enemy shot out two of the plane’s four engines.

Bury recalls another time when a piece of shrapnel came through the window in the front of the plane where he sat as lead navigator.

“Just a few more inches and I wouldn’t be here to tell the story,” he says.

Bury was discharged from the Army Air Corps in September 1945 and married his wife, Shirley, now 90, in 1947. He went on to become a vice president of marketing for Purolator Filters before moving to Florida 36 years ago.

The father of four children, Bury says he never discussed his war days with the family until 1990, when he put together a few photos and words and handed them out.

“We never talked about it,” he says. “We never brought it up and they never asked.”

Now Bury is making up for lost time. He enjoys telling the stories to children and serving as an unofficial tour guide for those wanting to know more about the aircraft they’re seeing.

“When they ask questions, you know they’re listening,” he says. 

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