How Cincinnati played a key role in turning tide during World War II

B-25 Berlin Express
Posted at 8:34 PM, Sep 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-19 20:34:12-04

At 100 years of age, Billie Engel is revisiting an old friend.

“It’s so much smaller than I remember,” she recalls as she’s wheeled up to the B-25 Berlin Express parked on the tarmac at Lunken Airfield.

Engel once taught future B-25 mechanics the ins and outs of the B-25 hydraulic system.

“I got the respect from these men pretty fast because they knew I knew what I was talking about,” Engel said.

A Texas native, Billie Engel now calls Cincinnati her home. She recalls once teaching a class of mechanics who were just introduced to the B-25 systems — how she sat back and watched them poke around and attempt to figure the components out for some time before jumping in to show them what to do.

“They didn't know how to take them apart and put them back together and do all that sort of stuff, but I did,” she said.

The B-25 played a key role in World War II. The Doolittle Raid proved destruction from an attack wasn’t as critical as the element of surprise and the psychological impact.

“We were losing this war handily, at the beginning of 1942. And it was Jimmy Doolittle in the Doolittle Raiders. That changed that for the rest of the war,” said Tom Ewing, current pilot of the B-25 Berlin Express.

The Berlin Express is still flying today as part of EAA’s public effort to bring the aircraft’s history to communities across the country. It was brought to Cincinnati recently as part of the Cincinnati Warbirds Lunken Airport Days.

The Doolittle Raid was the brainchild of Colonel James Doolittle that involved what many thought was the impossible. The plan was to squeeze 16 B-25 bombers on the flight deck of the USS Hornet. Then once close enough to the Japanese coastline launch them one by one on a short runway in choppy seas.

“The takeoff roll on the deck was just 467 feet,” said David O'Maley Jr, President of Tri-State Warbird Museum.

He discussed how in order to lighten the aircraft certain things were taken out or replaced.

“They took out the rear guns and replaced them rumored to be black painted broomsticks,” he said.

The impossible mission was made possible in part due to some other tri-state connections.

The design of the bomber came from the creative engineering mind of Walton, Kentucky native John Leland Atwood. Then there was local Doolittle Raider and Navigator Tom Griffin who spoke about his mission during an interview with the Air Force Museum.

“We got over Tokyo, there was anti-aircraft fire everywhere. And they had pursuits up after us. But they didn't shoot any of us down. We went in, bombed we went in at rooftop level that's that made it difficult for them,” Griffin explained.

From Cincinnati, Griffin was in the number 9 plane the Whirling Dervish.

He like so many others knew the mission meant leaving the USS Hornet deck on a one-way trip. The idea was to fly as long as possible after dropping bombs in an attempt to get to Chinese air space.

“So, we just waited till our engines quit and we bailed out,” Griffin said.

With the help of the Chinese Griffin evaded capture and even flew on other missions during the war. He passed away in February of 2013.

Hydraulics instructor Billie Engel recalls the day the war ended and what downtown Cincinnati looked like at 15th and Broadway.

“We all went outside and yelling and carrying on and hugging,” she said.

The rumble of the B-25 engines vibrate you to your core and if you listen closely those engines and roar overhead tell a story, a story we should never forget.

“Using the B-25, as a lens into that history, is a great way to remember that that victory early on in the war,” said David O'Maley Jr. “It's really important to preserve their stories and their legacy so that kids can learn from it in the future.”

If you’d like to get up close and personal to some of these historic war birds and learn more about their history you can check out Tri-State Warbird Museum’s Warbird Flying Showcase. You can find out more by going to their website.

If you have a veteran story to tell in your community, email homefront@wcpo.com. You also can join the Homefront Facebook group, follow Craig McKee on Facebook and find more Homefront stories here.

Subscribe to the Homefront podcast:

Stream local news and weather anytime | FREE!