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An unforgotten legacy: WWII bombers help vets reconnect with history

FARGO-On Feb. 23, 1945, World War II was reaching its end. The weather was clear enough to fly and John Henry O'Keefe was to lead 18 planes in an air strike along the border between Austria and Italy.

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Roy Nolte, a World War II veteran, speaks to a pilot of the B-25J bomber before boarding the plane for a ride at Hector International Airport on Monday, June 22, 2015 in Fargo, N.D. Nolte flew the same model 70 years ago when he was a member of the air corps. Nick Wagner / The Forum

FARGO-On Feb. 23, 1945, World War II was reaching its end. The weather was clear enough to fly and John Henry O'Keefe was to lead 18 planes in an air strike along the border between Austria and Italy.

The 25-year-old Grand Forks native had completed about 50 air missions before this. His bomb squadron, the 445th, was known for impeccable accuracy.

But as the group approached the mountainous Brenner Pass just after 2:30 p.m. that day, it was unaware that Adolf Hitler was at a nearby German compound called "Eagle's Nest."

Most records show that Lt. Lonnie Harvel was a bombardier in the war, meaning he usually sat in the middle of the plane and dropped bombs during attacks. But on this day, Harvel was in the nose of O'Keefe's B-25, sitting in the gunner's seat, which is protected mostly by a glass shield.

The squadron encountered heavy fire. A large piece of shrapnel tore through the front of O'Keefe's bomber, killing Harvel, and his plane took a serious hit to its left wing.

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The group completed its mission flawlessly. As he led the group 350 miles back, O'Keefe's vision was blocked by blood that had spattered up from the cockpit.

He would later tell his family that he looked over his left shoulder and watched a plane slightly behind him to guide the squadron about 350 miles to safety.

"Not sure how O'Keefe did it," wrote World War II Sgt. Bardard Seegmiller in a report about the mission. "Blood was all over and any glass left around the shattered cockpit was covered in it."

Lt. Harvel was the only man killed on that mission.

O'Keefe would earn the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for heroism while flying, for his efforts that day.

Like most veterans, he returned home and quickly started a family. He opened a furniture store, which he later sold to run what community members called "some burger shop," better known today as McDonald's.

His granddaughter, Katie O'Keefe-Hale, said he rarely talked about his time in the war.

"I think he was so accurate [in airstrike missions] because he knew if he wasn't he could hurt innocent people," she said. "But he was going to do his duty and he was going to do it good."

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Later this week, O'Keefe-Hale will help her father and uncle reconnect with her grandfather's history in the war. Tim, her father, and Bill, her uncle, will be flying in a B-25, one of two World War II-era planes on display for tours and flights through Sunday at the Fargo Air Museum.

After O'Keefe's death in 1998, O'Keefe-Hale looked through his personal items from the war and found dog tags belonging to a man named John V. Davies.

Davies wasn't part of the 445th and O'Keefe-Hale said her grandfather never talked about him, "but knowing my grandfather ... I have to believe this person meant something to him."

She has spent nearly two decades looking for anyone who might know Davies, but has never found a relative or even completely identified the owner of the tags.

O'Keefe-Hale recently learned that lost dog tags are the property of the U.S. government, so she said she plans to turn them in to the Department of Defense.

Her grandfather's time in the war motivates O'Keefe-Hale's search, she said, and although sad to give up the search, she hopes they'll make it back to Davies' family.

"I know how proud we are of my grandfather, not just because of this but the individual he was," she said. "And anyone who [has] fought for our freedom, I'd like to honor. You know, it's not mine, it's theirs."

Historic planes in Fargo through Sunday

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The Fargo Air Museum welcomed two World War II-era bombers this week and will offer flights and tours of the planes through Sunday.

One of the bombers, a B-25 named "Maid in the Shade," popped and rattled as it chugged through the sky in a test flight Monday. Riders could stand up and look around the plane and out the windows as it slowly rocked back and forth over downtown Fargo.

The ride is bumpy on wind days, but both planes are entirely safe, complete with seat belts and emergency exits.

The B-25 was stationed at Corsica, an island off the coast of Italy, and flew 15 missions over Italy and Yugoslavia, said Flight Crew Loadmaster Mitch Counce.

It took 28 years to restore the bomber, said Loadmaster Bill Croutch. Some of those charged with restoring it didn't live to see it fly, he said.

The other plane, a B-17 called "Sentimental Journey," is one of fewer than 10 of its kind still in flying condition.

Croutch said volunteering with the planes is his way of helping a part of history live on.

"We do this mainly for what the airplane represents," Croutch said. "The airplane belongs to the people that flew it."

The planes are both from the Arizona air base of the Commemorative Air Force.

A flight costs between $395 and $850, depending on the plane and seat, and lasts for about 45 minutes.

A tour on one of the bombers costs $15 for an individual and $30 for families. Museum members get $5 off.

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