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Bomber restoration work lands reunion

Urbana project attracts attention of national group.

A project to restore a historic B-17 bomber in Urbana has led to an unexpected partnership between a local group of volunteers and members of a famed bomber group with members spread across the country.

The two organizations will host a reunion in Urbana on Aug. 17 that will honor the 401st Bomb Group, allowing the group’s remaining survivors to get their hands on a plane that will bring back decades-old memories.

When it eventually flies, the restored bomber will be a living tribute to the history of the 401st. In turn, members of the bomb group are doing their part to help the local project move forward, donating thousands of dollars toward the effort.

A group of volunteers has spent the last several years restoring the “Champaign Lady” a B-17 Flying Fortress that, once complete, will be one of only about a dozen of the remaining aircraft that will be able to fly.

The volunteers were trying to decide how to decorate the aircraft when they settled on an “S” within a black triangle, along with an “L” underneath in black lettering. The “S” was meant to honor Jerry Shiffer, a local business owner and pilot who had made the project possible before he died in a plane crash in 2005, said Randy Kemp, project manager of the restoration. The “L” was meant to honor Leah Shiffer, Jerry’s widow who has continued to support the project.

They had selected the colors of the 401st, but it wasn’t until Kemp met up with Rick Kaufman, of Iowa, at an air show in Michigan in 2008 that the two groups became aware of each other and began forming a connection.

“We realized we’re building their airplane for our own reasons,” Kemp said.

Kaufman, who now serves as vice president for the 401st Association, said he likely wouldn’t be here without the B-17. Kaufman’s father was a B-17 pilot in World War II and during his second mission to Germany, returned as one of only two survivors.

“I’m lucky to be here because of the sturdiness of that airplane,” Kaufman said.

Typically, the 401st has a reunion every two years. But this may be the last chance many of the group’s remaining veterans will have to see their colors on a place that will eventually fly, so they are making a special trip to Dayton and Urbana to visit the Champaign Aviation Museum where the project is taking place.

“For us to think sometime in the future we’ll actually be able to see a plane flying with the colors of the 401st, it’s just thrilling beyond belief,” Kaufman said.

The 401st Association, which is made up mostly of the remaining veterans and their families, could send as many as 120 members to the reunion, said Dale Anderson, a resident of Alaska who serves as president of the 401st.

They’ll receive a warm welcome on their arrival, Kemp said, including an escort through downtown Urbana and recognition from local veterans organizations, as well as a possible salute from the Urbana Fire Division’s ladder trucks. The reunion will also include a luncheon, guest speakers and a chance for area residents to meet with some of the original members of the 401st. The veterans will also sign a panel of the aircraft that will be installed on the plane.

But the highlight will be a chance for the veterans to get a chance to see the plane that bears their colors.

“In the long run, it’s going to be a lasting legacy for all the veterans who served in the 401st Bomb Group,” Anderson said.

The two groups are linked in other ways as well. Knowing that such a major restoration is costly, members of the 401st have already donated about $13,000 to the project.

“We view this as a long-term relationship and will continue to support the project with donations of both labor and money,” Anderson said. “That said, it takes a great deal of money to complete a project like this, and there will be on going fund drives for both the museum and Champaign Lady.”

The Champaign Aviation Museum already has numerous displays helping explain the history of flight, but it is also becoming a home to celebrate the history of the 401st, said Jean Hightower, a Sunbury, Ohio, woman who serves as a member of the board of directors for the 401st.

Other museums display memorabilia from several bomb groups, Hightower said, but the Champaign County Museum will serve as a sort of home for the 401st, she said. Memorabilia that will be displayed in the museum could include historic photos, medals and scrapbooks containing stories of the group’s missions.

“They’re stories people haven’t seen before,” Hightower said.

Just the sight of the Champaign Lady will be a lasting memory for the members of the 401st, Kaufman, said, particularly the veterans who served and will be seeing the plane for the first time.

“There’s going to be a million stories, and it will do a lot of good for a lot of people,” Kaufman said.

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