Sixty-four years ago, lethal competition swirled through the skies 20,000 feet above Northern Europe, an aerial campaign waged in 40-below temperatures that would’ve frozen an NFC North quarterback stiff.
“We were just kids,” quipped Andy Anzanos, 84, a World War II veteran. “It wasn’t ever going to bother you, boy.”
At age 18, Anzanos first understood strife in terms of yardage.
Standing a crisp 5’ 4”, the son of Greek immigrants played guard and running back for Lew Wallace High School’s 1941 state title football team, in Gary, Ind.
“My coach was ashamed of me,” Anzanos laughed. “He listed me at 135 pounds, but I was really 127.”
One year after Pearl Harbor, to the day, his class was offered their diplomas a semester early if they enlisted.
To Anzanos, that signature represented an escape hatch from the Harbor Belt’s steel mills — and another fear he’d later pen in a memoir.
“I had been elected president of the Boys’ Club and was dreading getting up in front of the coming assembly,” Anzanos wrote. “I would rather go to combat.”
Anzanos got his wish.
Over a half-century later on Tucson International Airport’s tarmac, I prepped to fly with Anzanos aboard a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber nearly identical to the one on which he earned four Air Medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
The gridiron may shape young men, but combat carves them.
Anzanos’ related his football stories with a sly grin. Telling me how he once stitched a German ME-109 and its pilot with .50 caliber bullets, required a hard swallow.
Over Augsburg, Germany, Anzanos’ B-17 rode flank in the 390th Bomb Group’s formation. Their lead ship fell earthward, streaming under enemy fire. A Nazi pilot spotted his “Fort” assuming the point, and spiraled in for the kill.
Anzano swiveled his guns overhead and fired. Pieces of German fuselage, and airman, rained down on his bomber.
No timeouts. No massage tubs, no staff physiologists to follow Anziano’s 10-hour missions that featured frozen rations instead of Muscle Milk — just a shot of Scotch after debriefing. Maybe a three-day pass to London, to chase girls.
“Generally, you were so tired that you got as much rest as you could,” Anzanos said.
It was a different world, drifting, lumbering a few thousand feet over Tucson on the refurbished Liberty Belle, whose sexy nose art takes the sky to promote aviation heritage.
Anzanos pointed out how you could jab a screwdriver through the B-17’s thin aluminum skin, straight into the drafty olive interior, where bullets once passed through other Forts like ghosts, creating ghosts.
After leaving the Army Air Corps as a tech sergeant, Anzanos pursued an aeronautics career, and retired here to help build and maintain Tucson’s 309th air maintenance wing museum.
For a minute during our short flight, the former football “hero” gazed serene out a fuselage opening, from which a machine gun poked toward the desert.
I can’t guess what he remembered at the moment. I’m not sure I want to.
Take a flight on the Liberty Belle B-17 this weekend, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Prices vary, contact Scott Maher at 918-340-0243.