“Aluminum Overcast” is 22 graceful tons of World War II, warming up on the runway at Lunken Airport. Each 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone engine starts with a breathy pop like a cherry bomb in a mailbox, then settles to an idle that could drown out a swarm of dirt bikes. 

The Boeing B-17 bomber has four engines, each as big as a pickup truck—all probably made in Cincinnati at least 70 years ago. From my radioman seat just behind the bomb bay, I can look past racks of dummy 500-pound bombs (“Greetings, Adolph!”), then into the sunlit cockpit where the pilot is slowly easing the throttles forward to build takeoff speed. I start to wonder how many 70-year-old engines we need to stay in the air, but then the engines spool up and the whole 74-foot airplane begins to tremble and buck like a racehorse in the gate on Derby Day, flooding the cabin with the smell of horsepower, steel, old leather and history.

How many men sat in this same seat before a mission and prayed, ached for home or trembled along with their airplane as they considered all the ways the cold hand of death could tap them on the shoulder? Machine-gunned by enemy fighters? Gutted by razor-sharp flak? Trapped in a burning plane as it corkscrews into a crater? Free-falling through the sky in a tangled parachute? Lost in the cold ocean?

What was it like in those gun turrets, sealed in a bubble, dangling like bait for the circling swastika sharks?

“Aluminum Overcast” leaped off the Lunken runway like an unleashed hawk and leveled off to follow the coffee-brown Ohio River east. The passengers were encouraged to explore. Behind me, wind blasted through the open side doors, where crew members once defended their bomber with .50 cal. machine guns, bundled like arctic explorers in layers of leather and wool. They wore oxygen masks as the air thinned and temperatures dropped to 30 below zero at 30,000 feet. A careless uncovered touch of the airplane’s aluminum skin could strip away flesh.

A narrow catwalk through the bomb bay led to the cockpit, where there was a small hatch to the nose. I climbed down and took a seat where the bombardier and navigator would have been stationed, surrounded by a spectacular greenhouse of glass. More big machine guns bristled from the front, sides and top. The river and quilted hills rolled by below us like a dream of flying.

Back in the cockpit, Herb Heilbrun, 94, was wearing his uniform, seated right behind the pilot’s seat where he flew 35 missions in B-17s over Europe. I shouted above the engines to ask him what it was like to fly through flak and enemy fighters, surrounded by his own machineguns ripping through belts of cartridges as big as cigars. He smiled. “It was a beautiful sound,” he replied. It was the sound of a B-17 in combat, laying down a deadly curtain of fire.

The crews loved their rugged B-17s. They painted pinups and cartoons on their noses and named them “Shady Lady,” “Hitler’s Headache” and “Bronx Bomber.”

But like the men who flew them, the airplanes that made it home after the war get scarcer every year. So Heilbrun never misses a flight when a B-17 comes to town. He has amazing souvenirs from his combat missions: his rubber oxygen mask, a Distinguished Flying Cross awarded for bringing a crippled plane and crew home safely; pieces of shrapnel that were swept out of his flak-riddled plane.

“The cockpit turns into a chapel pretty fast,” he says. “Seconds turn into minutes when they throw that stuff up at you.”

His collection of memories is even more impressive. He’s still as sharp as the business end of a bullet, and nimble enough to negotiate the cramped tangle of bruising steel inside a B-17 Flying Fortress.

Heilbrun’s amazing stories of flak-storms, fighter attacks and nine-hour missions are told in Legacy of Courage: True Stories of Honor Flight Veterans. 

I helped write the book with Cheryl Popp, director of Honor Flight Tri-State, a great organization that takes veterans to Washington, D.C. to see their memorials before they run out of time. But it’s not my story. It belongs to the men and women who served their country in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It’s their story of sacrifice, heroism, heartbreak and victory—a legacy that Americans are too soon forgetting.

The veterans haven’t forgotten. With each Honor Flight, they remember their friends and finally get the appreciation they deserve. Surrounded by other men who speak the same language of war, they often open up and share experiences they have kept locked away for 70 years. And those are some of the stories preserved like time capsules in Legacy of Courage.

Ken Glass flew Avenger torpedo bombers in combat off the deck of the legendary USS Hornet in the Pacific, then came home to a career as a professor at Miami University, determined to live in a way that honored the friends he lost. “When I got home I went back to school and finished my masters, then my doctorate. I got all As. My experience in the Navy changed everything. When you get out you realized you just do the best you can.”

John Sullivan was a Marine captain who led men through the bloody, brutal butchery that was the Battle of Okinawa. He saw his men wounded and killed and had to write letters home to their parents. “In many ways it was a magnificent experience. It was hard. Tragic. Awful. But it did something to me that stayed with me for my whole life. I never regretted joining the Marine Corps.”

Frank Busse was awarded a Bronze Star for taking out a machine gun nest at the Battle of the Bulge. When the war ended, he led a team that recovered and identified the remains of 50,000 American soldiers missing in Europe. Many were re-buried in places such as the Military Cemetery near Florence, Italy. Families were given a choice: ship the body home, or let them stay where they fought and died. 

Heilbrun speaks for the veterans when he says, “We came back after the war and never really thought we were anything special. But on Honor Flight day you can really feel the respect of the younger generation. Unless you are a veteran you cannot describe what it feels like to be honored like this. It is so emotional. We’re brothers. It’s that simple. Any man who puts himself in harm’s way to protect our country is my brother.

“The war was the greatest experience and thrill I’ve ever known. I was glad to come home, but there was a bit of sadness mixed in. Some small part of me will always remain there.”

Some small part of America will always remain there, too—at Normandy, Guadalcanal, Anzio and 70 acres of grass and white crosses near Florence, Italy.