For North Fort Myers resident Bob Strong, it was like taking a trip back in time.
Strong, a World War II veteran, and his family joined the national Wings of Freedom tour on the inbound flight to Page Field in Fort Myers last Monday to commemorate his service.
Strong, 92, flew in from Venice in the last fully restored B-24J Liberator in the world, an aircraft similar to the one he flew in during WWII, but with a few differences.
"I'm flying in an army model; it's not quite the same but it's pretty close," Strong said. "They were built to their specifications."
The trip was part of the tour that showcased some of the airplanes used during that time while paying tribute to those who served.
"The tour is in honor of World War II veterans, and we like to have veterans and their families join the crew on the tour as we move from one city to the next," said Hunter Chaney of the Collings Foundation, the non-profit group that runs the tour.
Strong served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater from November 1943 through July 1944, flying more than 900 hours of combat flight in a PB4Y-1, the Navy's version of a B-24, where he performed reconnaissance, photography missions for intelligence, escorts for battleship groups and patrols, and even sank a Japanese ship.
In December, almost 70 years later, Strong was finally recognized by the Navy with 11 awards, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses and nine air medals.
Terry Murphy, Bob's son-in-law, said it was the press attention Strong got for his receiving his honors that got the attention of Chaney and the foundation.
"Someone sent him the article about Bob and they e-mailed me to see if Bob would like a couple passes to the show," Terry said. "He offered a seat from Venice to Page Field and he thought that would be great."
Bob, Carol and Terry Murphy, Bob's daughter and son-in-law, were on the flight. Strong said it won't feel quite the same 70 years later.
"I don't think I could start the engines anymore. It's been so long I'm trying to review what I could do, but there's nothing I can think of," Strong said. "I can walk from one end of the plane to the next and that's about all."
The B-24J Liberator, along with the vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, which served as heavy bombers, and a North American P-51 Mustang, which flew escort on their missions, were part of a unique display of WWII aircraft.
The aircraft are part of the Wings of Freedom tour, which since 1989 has gone around the country to an average of 110 cities and 35 states annually "as a flying tribute to the crews who flew and maintained them, the workers who built them, the soldiers, sailors and airmen they helped protect; and the citizens that share the freedom that they helped preserve," Chaney said.
During its stay, people toured the aircraft inside and out.
"This is a unique educational history tour of World War II aircraft. It's like walking into a time machine," Chaney said. "When you're in these aircraft, you're seeing something straight out of 1945."
People even flew in the B-17 and B-24 for 30 minutes for $425 per person, usually offered before and after the ground tours. The P-51 offers "stick time" starting at $2,200.
"It's one thing to read about history like this. When you're flying in it, it transports you to a completely different level of understanding of history," Chaney said.
The B-17 and B-24 were key components of the American effort during the war from 1942 to 1945, while the P-51 Mustang was known as the bombers "Little Friend" - saving countless crews from attacking axis fighters, Chaney said.
For Strong and the few members of his crew that remain, it's an exciting time for them to finally get the recognition they deserve.
"They're all excited about this. We figured we'd never get anything from this," Strong said.