Godspeed: B-17 gunner revisits Britain after 70 years, dies quietly there

Godspeed: B-17 gunner revisits Britain after 70 years, dies quietly there

Boeing B-17E. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Boeing B-17E. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Boeing B-17E. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On Friday, the Star-Telegram, citing a report from the Washington Post, said that 94-year-old Melvin Rector, a U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant who served as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers in World War II, returned to Britain after 70 years, hoping to see the Royal Air Force base where he served.

He made it to Britain, but after visiting the Battle of Britain Bunker, an underground command center where fighter airplane operations were directed during D-Day, he died quietly.

According to the report:

On Rector’s long flight over the Atlantic, the pilot of his American Airlines flight summoned him to the cockpit so that the two could take a photograph together. “The flight attendant stopped us and said, ‘Mr. Rector, the captain would like to meet you,’” Susan Jowers told Florida Today.

She had become almost a daughter to Rector after serving as his guardian during a 2011 Honor Flight trip to Washington, District of Columbia, and she accompanied him on this tour.

On May 6, Rector stepped foot on British soil for the first time in 71 years. The group first visited RAF Uxbridge in the London borough of Hillingdon.

Rector toured Battle of Britain Bunker, an underground command center where fighter airplane operations were directed during D-Day. After climbing back into the sunlight, he told Jowers he felt dizzy. She grabbed one of his arms, and a stranger grabbed the other.

There, just outside the bunker where Winston Churchill famously said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” Rector died quietly.

“He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done,” Jowers said.

His daughter told Florida Today it’s how he would have liked to die.

“He couldn’t have asked for a better way to go,” she said. “It was quick and painless. He had just gotten to see two planes, and he passed away between them.”

Godspeed, Master Sgt. Rector, and thank you for your service.  We salute you and offer our condolences to your family.

Here’s video of a B-17 Flying Fortress at Felts Field in Spokane, Washington:

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