Joseph Houska parked his wheelchair underneath the wing.
The 92-year-old's eyes slowly moved over the American flag flying over the cockpit. The tiny bombs painted on the nose, one for each combat mission. The caricature of a witch.
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"These saved our country," said Houska, marveling at the B-24 Liberator, dubbed the "Witchcraft," Friday on a Chicago Executive Airport runway.
Also making an appearance: the "glamour queen" of WWII-era bombers, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation flew the two planes, along with a P-51 Mustang fighter, to the airstrip for a three-day visit through Sunday. It's one of the last stops in the cross-country Wings of Freedom Tour.
Houska glanced at the "Hollywood" B-17, but he lingered below the B-24 -- the last of its kind in the world still flying.
It was easy for him to make the comparisons between man and machinery. Like the prized aircraft, he knows the ranks of World War II veterans are shrinking.
"I made it," the River Grove man said. "A lot of life behind me."
He logged 22 months on a remote island -- "nothing but an airstrip" -- on the Pacific front. As a Navy mechanic, he prepared similar bombers for liftoff.
For veterans like Houska, the visit touched off memories. For onlookers, the tours through the cramped planes provided a rare window into a key Allied resource.
"For younger generations to see what they had to live through -- I can't even imagine what it would be like to be under fire in there," Bob Larson said.
The Buffalo Grove man maneuvered through the "catwalk" where crews, wearing oxygen masks, unloaded bombs from the belly of the B-17. The conditions then? Subzero temperatures, often 30,000 feet above ground.
"It's tight. It's confined," Larson said. "But that's the way it was for our heroes.
"Not only were they the greatest generation; they were the bravest generation."
Ask pilot Mac McCauley about steering the 69-year-old plane, and the Seal Beach, California, man points to its war record: never losing a crew member during 140 combat missions.
And falling back on four engines helps, too.
"Once you get it off the ground, it's very stable," McCauley said. "It's just a real pleasure and honor to be able to fly it around the country."
The foundation tapped the FAA-qualified mechanic to bring the B-17 safely to nearly 30 stops over the summer. The modern-day crew keeps it stocked with all the necessary parts for on-the-spot repairs.
"Flying this thing around the country, something breaks, you've got to fix it," McCauley said. "You can't wait for somebody to come in."
For a close-up look, admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children under 12 and free for World War II veterans. The displays run from 9 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Wheeling airport, 1020 S. Plant Road. The history-minded foundation uses the revenue to keep the planes, sometimes saved from the scrap pile, in camera-ready condition.
The soft-spoken Houska encouraged youngsters to take in the sight.
"I'm speechless," he said.