This B-17 that helped win a war creates gratitude at a N.H. airport

  • Mathilde Schmetz and her husband, 84-year-old Marcel Schmetz, get their photo taken by Will French after arriving at Keene’s Dillant-Hopkins Airport on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Concord Monitor

  • The front of the B-17 that landed at Keene’s Dillant-Hopkins Airport on Sept. 25, 2017, displays swastikas and yellow bombs, signifying enemy planes shot down and missions completed. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Amanda Tharpe of New Boston and David Sleeper of Alton share a laugh while inspecting the B-17 at Keene’s Dillant-Hopkins Airport on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Philip Hilliker, 81, touches the tail gun of the B-17 he said his uncle Harley Nichols operated of during World War II. The plane was on display at Keene’s Dillant-Hopkins Airport on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

Monitor columnist
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The couple from the tiny Belgian village came to New England to see some friends.

They came to see people who had visited their museum, the one attached to their home, the one that serves as a tribute to those killed while liberating their country during World War II.

And they came to see a B-17, another friend. They came to fly in it, feel its power, use this opportunity to understand what the men endured as they flew missions in Europe during World War II.

“The purpose of this trip was to fly in the B-17,” said Mathilde Schmetz, whose grasp of English was surpassed only by her gratitude for the United States. “We’ve been here for 10 days. We leave tonight.”

She’s from Belgium and speaks French, but, in spirit, she’s as American as baseball and hot dogs. She wore a necklace and a bracelet and an angel pin, and each had a common denominator: a portion of the stars and stripes. She also had a scarf in her lap. An American flag scarf, of course.

She and her husband, 84-year-old Marcel Schmetz, were at Keene’s Dillant-Hopkins Airport on Monday to see war planes, the real McCoys from the 1940s, when we fought the Nazis. Through Wednesday, the public can go inside these planes, with tickets priced at $15 for adults, $5 for kids younger than 12.

And for $450, you’re welcome to fly in one of these babies, and that’s what the Schmetzes did on this broiling-hot late September day.

They flew in this plane, the same model as the one that crashed – shot down by the Germans – near Marcel’s farm when he was a grade-school boy in 1943.

Mathilde translated for Marcel, who speaks French but very little English. She relayed amazing details, about Marcel seeing the B-17 explode in midair, about Marcel and his father pedaling 20 miles on their bicycles to find the crash site, about the six men who died and the four who survived and were taken away by German ground forces, and about the pilot who was killed that day and whose grave was adopted by this husband and wife.

They put flowers on the man’s grave, near their home in Thimister, a town of 5,000. His name was Robert Knox. He was from Pennsylvania.

“I feel how terrible it must have been with the Germans shooting at them,” Marcel said, according to Mathilde. “We saw them flying over, escorted by little American fighters. Dogfights. We saw combat in the sky.”

So they came here, people from a country who love our country, appreciate the sacrifice Americans made during the Nazi occupation of Belgium. They are a microcosm of the Belgian population, and they showed their gratitude by building The Remember Museum 25 years ago and attaching it to their house.

“We love America,” Mathilde said. “We owe America our freedom twice, from World War I and World War II. That’s why we keep the memory alive.”

Since opening their new business, veterans and children of veterans have visited, giving the Schmetzes friends for life. Mathilde and Marcel sent about 600 Christmas cards to the states last December.

They host Americans and Americans host them, which is what happened during their trip to New England, which began 10 days ago. They saw friends at Lake Winnipesaukee.

In Hamilton, Mass., they went to the home of Gen. George Patton, and they wore bibs while eating lobsters at a restaurant in Gloucester. They kept the bibs as souvenirs.

One friend was Will French of Sterling, Mass. His father went to The Remember Museum 20 years ago with buddies from his World War II tank battalion, which fought the Germans in Belgium. French has been there too, and he and his family hosted their friends for lunch recently.

“When you meet the couple you can’t help wanting to be of some help to them,” French told me.

Glen Meyers is a National Guard aircraft mechanic at Pease Air Force Base. He visits the Schmetzes when his unit is in Germany. Mathilde serves them beer and homemade Belgian waffles. Meyers was to drive them to Logan airport on Monday for a late-night flight home.

Outside the airport’s restaurant and lobby stood the B-17, the star of the show. The nose area had emblems of three swastikas and 140 little yellow bombs, signifying planes shot down and missions completed.

The ball turret under the belly, with a circular glass enclosing, looked suitable for a contortionist only. For the gunner crammed inside, there was no way out of the claustrophobic nightmare until the plane landed.

David Sleeper of Alton, a Southwest Airlines pilot and veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, went to his knees to peek inside.

“I’m trying to imagine how someone can sit in there and for how many hours,” Sleeper told me. “You can’t do anything but pray to God and cross your fingers.”

Sleeper’s girlfriend, Amanda Tharpe of New Boston, is an air traffic controller. She stood nearby, another experienced set of aviation eyes, another individual stunned by what these men were asked to do during the war.

“It’s just insane that this was flown so many years ago, and kids were operating this,” Tharpe said. “The age group involved is amazing.”

In the back sat the tail gunner’s post, another lonely, tight place. Philip Hilliker of Keene claimed his uncle, Harley Nichols, fired the two machine guns from that same spot, in the very same B-17.

“Those babies must have gotten red-hot,” Hilliker said. “I heard if my uncle was in the rear of this plane no one was taking this plane down. He’d blow them right out of the sky.”

This is the plane Mathilde and Marcel had ridden in from Worcester, a 20-minute flight, before we met. French took their photo below the cockpit, in front of those swastikas and yellow bombs.

The couple mentioned the noise and wind, the narrowness inside, the sense of vulnerability the crew must have felt as German planes fired, trying to take them down – when a B-17 went down, near that Belgian farmhouse as Marcel watched 74 years ago, and the terror the pilot Knox must have felt when he went down with it.

“They went into the plane to win a war and had no protection,” Marcel said, his wife translating. “We are still grateful.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)