Inside the combat gallery at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, Alvin Lewis and James Zographos sat and admired the exhibit’s
centerpiece — a massive, almost fully restored World War II-era bomber.
Memories nearly 7 decades old flew through their minds Thursday afternoon as the 88-year-old Lewis and 93-year-old Zographos shared some of their experiences flying missions over Germany and France in B-17 Flying Fortresses nearly identical to the museum’s plane.
With 28 other World War II veterans who served with the 388th Bombardment Group — part of the 8th Air Force — the men gathered in Savannah this week as part of the unit’s 63rd annual reunion.
“It’s always the best,” said Zographos, who lives in Westborough, Mass. “It’s great to get together and see these guys and their friends and family every year.”
This year, the group chose Savannah for the reunion specifically to see the Mighty 8th’s B-17, dubbed the City of Savannah in honor of the 5,000th plane to be processed through what is now Hunter Army Airfield during World War II, said Henry Curvat, the 388th Bombardment Group Association’s president.
“For us to be able to come here and see this, it’s a great honor,” Curvat said. “For so many of the original members to see this B-17 and for this museum to honor them by placing the high bar H (the 388th’s unit symbol) on the plane is wonderful.”
The original City of Savannah, like Zographos and Lewis, was assigned to the 388th Bomb Group and flew missions out of Station 136 in Knettishall, England, during the war.
Zographos, who is the oldest remaining member of the group, flew more than 50 missions as a bombardier between March 1944 and March 1945.
After flying his first 30 missions, Zographos was sent home. About 30 days later he was back at Station 136.
“I went home then I volunteered and went back and did 20 more (missions),” he said. “I can’t explain that. I can’t explain a lot of things. People ask why I went back, they ask, ‘Were you ever afraid?’ I can’t answer that.”
Like Zographos, Lewis, of Dayton, Ohio, doesn’t articulate what led him to the war.
The day after he turned 18 in 1942, Lewis enlisted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, the next year he began flying in B-17s and by February 1945 he’d been sent to Knettishall with the 388th to serve as a waistgunner during missions in Germany.
By the end of that year Lewis had flown 13 missions and been discharged from the military.
“I was 20 years old when they sent me home,” he said. “I got home on July 4 and I turned 21 on the 21st. They discharged me in October and that was it.”
Although they didn’t fly any missions together 67 years ago, they’ve become easy friends as they’ve aged.
“He and I, like any of us, we can just sit here and talk and talk,” Zographos said.
The 30 remaining members of the 388th share a similar bond only those who fought with them can understand, Zographos said.
It may not always be easy to share their experiences, he added, but it’s important.
“We talk about the things that happened because once our group is gone — not only the 388th but all the World War II survivors — it’s going to be past history. There’s going to be nothing in the history books directly from our generation.”
Preserving and sharing the history of the members of the 388th, Curvat said, is what encouraged him to become so involved with the group.
“Through my adopted father — a close family friend, really — who flew with the 388th in World War II, I became part of this group,” Curvat said. “I’ve found spending time with these men to be infectious.
“It’s just incredible to look at what these people have done and what they went through; it’s important that we record and share that with people as less and less of these (World War II veterans) are around.”