Tom McKeown Jr., left, looks on as his father, Tom McKeown Sr., points out memoribilia from his military service in World War II. The Port Angeles men, both of whom served in the U.S. Marine Corps, will ride aboard a vintage B-17 bomber aircraft during a visit by the Wings of Freedom on Wednesday at William R. Fairchild International Airport in Port Angeles. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

WWII veterans to fly in historic planes during Wings of Freedom Tour in Port Angeles

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to update the years the tour has visited Port Angeles.

PORT ANGELES — Tom McKeown Sr. never flew in a heavy bomber during World War II.

The 95-year-old Port Angeles man was busy fighting on the front lines in the Battle of Edson’s Ridge at Guadalcanal as a Marine.

McKeown will get his chance to fly in a vintage warbird when he and other veterans of World War II take a VIP flight in a B-17 during the Wings of Freedom Tour.

“I think it’s just really cool that they’re giving all the World War II vets a ride on those things,” said Tom McKeown Jr., a retired Marine corporal who fought in the Vietnam War.

“I don’t know how many are left in the county.”

The Wings of Freedom Tour will feature a B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell and P-51 Mustang fighter in a two-day display in Port Angeles.

The classic bombers and fighter are expected to land at William R. Fairchild International Airport at about noon Wednesday.

Public tours and paid flights will be offered, with special events on the tarmac Wednesday afternoon and evening.

“It will be a nice trip,” said McKeown Sr., a former teacher, pilot and decorated veteran.

The planes will be on display at the airport or in the skies above Port Angeles through Friday as part of the Collings Foundation’s 110-city nationwide living history display.

The cost to enter the display is $15 for adults and $5 for children 12 and younger.

Area coordinator Alan Barnard said the theme for this year’s Wings of Freedom stop is “Salute to Veterans.”

James Laxson of Sequim will feel right at home on the special flight that Barnard arranged.

The 98-year-old retired Air Force major flew the B-17 and B-24 as a flight instructor during World War II.

Laxson said he preferred the B-17 for its stability and durability, but combat orders placed him in a B-24.

“The whole thing will be an exciting adventure,” Laxson said of Wednesday’s scheduled flight.

Half-hour flights on the B-17 or B-24 are available for $450 per person. Flight training on the P-51 fighter is $2,200 for 30 minutes or $3,200 for an hour. Paid flights are tax-deductible.

Tom McKeown Sr. recalled seeing low-flying Japanese “Betty” bombers during the Guadalcanal campaign, the first major allied victory in the Pacific theater.

“When they’d open the gates up, you could see the bomb come out,” he said.

“It must have been about 1,500 feet, something like that. You could actually watch the bombs come out.”

Both McKeowns joined the Marines when they were 19 — Tom Sr. in 1940 and Tom Jr. in 1968.

Tom McKeown Jr. enlisted as a volunteer and rose to the rank of corporal in just nine months.

“He was in combat,” his father said. “Same outfit I was in.”

After Vietnam, the younger McKeown remembered the look on his late mother’s face when he told Betty McKeown that he was joining the Marines.

“It was not a nice look,” he said.

Tom McKeown Sr. is a lifelong member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Marine Corps League and Disabled American Veterans organizations.

Tom McKeown Jr., who lives in Sequim, will accompany his father on the VIP flight.

“It will be very interesting,” he said. “I’ve never flown in anything that old.”

Wings of Freedom previously stopped in Port Angeles in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.

The Port of Port Angeles, which operates the airport, is hosting an expanded array of events Wednesday to coincide with this year’s display.

Scheduled events include a no-host barbecue and a vintage car show on the tarmac.

The band Fat Chance will perform in an adjacent hangar from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

For information on the Wings of Freedom Tour, click on the Collings Foundation website at www.cfdn.org.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

 

Aviation buffs examine a B-17 bomber during the Wings of Freedom visit to Port Angeles in June 2015. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)