A lifetime ago, they slipped across narrow bomb-bay catwalks and through cramped cabins with ease.
Now their steps were measured, their turns slow. They were a pair of grandfathers, two survivors standing inside another.
Charles “Sam” Cole and Jerry Obermeyer calmly looked around the cramped interior of the B-17 Flying Fortress, at once familiar and yet foreign.
“It was much bigger then because I was much smaller and more agile,” Obermeyer said.
Wide-eyed children and parents squeezed past them Friday in the radio operator compartment of the B-17 sitting on the University Park Airport tarmac.
To the men, there was nothing exotic or mysterious about the rivets, cables and sheet metal curving over their heads. They practically knew every inch of the aircraft, inside and out, by heart.
In a world aflame with war, they first met the plane that forged their friendship.
Seven decades later, in a bomber aptly named “Sentimental Journey,” they continued their reunion.
Cole, 96, and Obermeyer, 92, have been on their own journeys since they served together during World War II as Army Air Force master sergeants and maintenance crew chiefs in the same B-17 squadron in the Pacific Theater.
They finished the war separately, then pursued different paths. Cole retired from the Air Force after 20 years, worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and became an electrician. Obermeyer was a mechanical engineer for 58 years, visiting several countries during his career.
Over the years, they kept in touch via letters and Christmas cards. But not since 1943 had they seen each other — until Friday.
Obermeyer decided to travel from Georgetown, Texas, to State College to visit Patricia and Dennis Mathisen, his sister and brother-in-law, and attend a wedding. He told Cole, who lives in Warrensville near Williamsport.
Suddenly, a gulf dwindled to a modest drive. Sue Heyler volunteered to drive her beloved uncle down.
How could she not?
“He’s been so excited,” she said. “He’s been talking about it for weeks.”
By chance, “Sentimental Journey” was in town, on tour from its home in Arizona. For two veteran airmen, it exerted an irresistible pull.
But first, they reunited at the Mathisens’ home in Ferguson Township.
Over lunch, they caught up — not so much about their lives, the fodder of their correspondence, but their experiences in Australia and in Papua New Guinea pushing the Japanese out of the South Pacific.
“And he remembered something, and I remembered something, each one fueling the other’s memory,” Obermeyer said.
“You think about (the war) a lot, but to talk with each other, it’s more interesting,” Cole said.
Then it was time to greet another old friend.
They had known each other since B-17 training in Bangor, Maine, in 1941. Before that, Cole and Obermeyer had finished basic training and aircraft mechanic school at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois before their next stop at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
At Langley, they joined the new 403rd Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group, 5th Air Force. After Pearl Harbor, the 43rd shipped out on an ocean liner to Australia to relieve the battered 19th Bomb Group driven out of the Philippines.
They wound up defending Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in 1942, servicing B-17s as they flew around-the-clock missions against Japanese warships. The Battle of the Coral Sea quelled the threat of Australia being invaded.
From one jungle base to another, up Papua New Guinea’s northern coast, the 43rd chased its enemy. Eventually, Obermeyer and Cole parted ways. Obermeyer returned stateside to a B-24 Liberator bomber training school in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was in charge of ground maintenance.
Cole flew 160 missions in 141 days as a top turret gunner, crew chief and flight engineer on a B-17 christened “Miss Em,” the personal aircraft of Lt. Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, commander of the 8th Army during the Philippines campaign from 1944 to 1945.
On board “Miss Em,” Cole mostly undertook photo reconnaissance flights. One circled around the bombardment and retaking of Corregidor island, which had fallen early in the war after a lengthy siege.
At University Park Airport, the two men once again walked up to a majestic bird, its four Wright Cyclone radial engines pointed skyward.
Their B-17s were E and F models, painted olive drab instead of the silvery bare metal of “Sentimental Journey,” lacking the jutting chin turret of the restored G variant.
But those were trivial differences. Before them was the real deal: an honest-to-goodness Flying Fort, one of a few dozen left, a link to their youth, a symbol of their service.
Wearing their World War II veteran caps, they walked around the bomber, at every turn reminders of their wartime expertise.
There were the oil-streaked superchargers on the engine cowlings. There were the massive tires containing brakes that constantly needed to be replaced or refitted.
A glance, a lingering gaze, triggered memories.
“One of the weak spots on this plane, and on the B-24 to some degree, was the electrical system, which was fed by generators that were always going out,” Obermeyer said, minutes before another recollection: “Many of the ground crews slept right by the plane, under the wings.”
Cole, who earned his civilian pilot’s license after the war, recalled helping out his tired B-17 pilot on several occasions while returning to base.
“After the mission was over, he went back to the crew, and I got the seat for a couple of hours,” he said. “That was real fun, watching the propellers turn.”
Together again, they once more appreciated a champion heavyweight fighter.
“The B-24 was nice, but somehow, I like the 17 better because it was more durable,” Obermeyer said. “It was robust and it would stand a lot more abuse than a 24, a lot more punishment. I liked that, for the sake of the crews that flew in them.
“If you got a 24 shot up, it didn’t usually come home.”
He sat in the terminal, sinking into a sofa, one reunion over and another just begun. Outside, the B-17 sparkled, as inviting as ever, but that visit was over.
Ahead waited a weekend of relaxing and reminiscing.
“He’s looking good. So am I,” Cole said. “I’m feeling great.”
For a little bit, they had been back in the 403rd, stuck in the tropics, the heat so strong it could turn a wrench into a branding iron in 15 minutes.
For one afternoon, they were young again, the fate of the world in their hands.
“Not too many of us left,” Cole said, walking away from his past, side by side with an agreeing friend.
“No, not too many.”