Photo by Aaron Ricca.
An airplane that helped the U.S. win World War II is in Kingman this weekend, and two locals who had a first row seat in the action told their stories.
Vivian Stout, 95, and Elmer Eckstrom, 92, have tales from two perspectives of the flight line. They both paid a visit to the “Aluminum Overcast,” A B-17 “Flying Fortess” that has been touring the country and landed shortly before noon Thursday. Both we’re ecstatic when they walked onto the tarmac and touched the airplane for the first time in decades.
Stout is Kingman’s ‘Rosie the Riveter’. She moved with her family to Los Angeles from Texas during the Great Depression. They set up a cleaning business in West Hollywood, catering to the glitz and glamour of the Southern California scene. In 1941, Stout was 22 and teaching ballroom dancing when history took a sharp turn.
“All the men suddenly went to war and business slowed down,” she said.
She saw an ad for riveters at a McDonnell Douglas factory in Santa Monica and went for it. She had no idea what she was getting into.
“I’d never even held a hammer much less a drill,’ she said. “The only thing I knew was dancing.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, worries that L.A. might be the next logical target led to heightened security. Stout had to get a security clearance and would spend the next few years going through pat downs and lunch box searches on her way into the factory.
“There was camouflage netting and the building were very inconspicuous,” she said. “You wouldn’t even know it was there.”
She dealt with blackout drills and the rationing of gas, food and nylon (for parachutes).
“Getting your hands on a pair of nylon stockings was a treat,” she said.
The shifts were busy and monotonous. Stout would be on one side of an aluminum airplane wall with a rivet gun while another woman would be on the other with a bucking tool.
“You wouldn’t even see the other person for hours,” she said.
Stout said she’s always been terrified of flying. She eventually got promoted cockpit inspector, where as a prank, some of her co-workers took advantage of that fear. While she was inside a cockpit, a few of them stood on a wing and began rocking the airplane.
“I thought we we’re moving,” she said. “I came out screaming and they all laughed.”
She had no hard feelings. She didn’t think of her job as heroic but knew it was important to build good airplanes. One of her cousins was killed on the U.S.S. Arizona. The women had to support each other, especially for those with husbands fighting overseas. As more women began to receive death notices, a more serious tone set in.
“They brought the war much closer to home,” she said.
The war ended and the women all got pink slips.
“There was a lot of crying,” Stouts said. “We all thought ‘What are we going to do now?’”
She made a few friends during her time at the B-17 factory but never stayed in touch. Everyone went their separate ways.
B 17 Soars Over Kingman
When the men came back from the war, she started teaching dancing again, even opening her own studio on the Sunset Strip with her first husband, Lee. She worked for North American Airline and Hughes Aircraft a few years before retiring from her position as the director of an Alzheimer’s care facility in California.
Her son in law, Steve Mooring, brought the family to Arizona in 2013. Stout plans to visit the “Aluminum Overcast” this weekend. It’ll be the first time since World War II she’s touched a B-17.
“I just want to see it one more time,” she said.
She showed up Thursday, shared some stories and stood for a picture with Ecskstrom. She didn’t go on the flight, but was glad to take a walk and look at some of the rivets she may have installed.
“It really brings back memories,” she said. “I’m glad I got out here.”
Eckstrom was living in Gary, Indiana when he was drafted into the Army at age 18. He spent four months as an infantryman before passing an Army Air Corps flight exam. He was a second lieutenant by age 19.
“Everything I touched is exactly what they needed,” he said.
Eckstrom and his crew never got any combat time, mainly because the tides of war kept shifting. They were first based in Florida for B-17 training. They were due for a transfer to England, but the order was cancelled days before they left.
At the time, the U.S. Army Air Corps was shifting their main air-power platform to the B-29 Superfortress. The airplanes were stretched thin throughout the Pacific campaign. Eckstrom said a B-29 crash during a storm at their Florida training site made his military leaders even more apprehensive about sending more crews to fight.
“We knew some of the guys that died in that crash,” Eckstrom said. “We even trained some of them.”
By the time a deployment began to materialize, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The war was over.
Although Eckstrom never made it overseas, danger wasn’t far from home.
Eckstrom and crew were flying a B-17 on what seemed a routine night flight across the Gulf of Mexico when two of their four engines failed. The crew could see flames spewing from the engines and immediately shifted to emergency flight preparations. The aircraft couldn’t make radio contact with shore patrols and the weather made visibility difficult.
The crew performed professionally, eventually landing the aircraft. Due to a communication mix-up between duty shifts, Eckstrom landed to find an irate air base commander who thought the crew might be playing a prank.
“He said ‘If this is a joke, you guys have had it,’” Eckstrom said. “I told him ‘I thought we had already had it.’”
Ground crews surveyed the airplane and along with the commander, saw the damaged engines. The angry Air Corps major realized the situation could’ve been worse and immediately apologized.
“The major said ‘You did a great job landing that thing,’” Eckstrom said.
Eckstrom got certified to fly single engine aircraft during his 11 years in the military. He moved to Arizona with his wife Kathleen in the 70s. They we’re married 67 years until her death at 88-years-old.
He didn’t let some minor health issues stop him from taking his first flight in nearly 53 years Thursday.
“I’m really interested (in going), he said in a Wednesday interview. “This is a really neat thing to offer the community.”
He wasted no time crawling into the rear of the craft, where he watched through a cabin window Kingman circle underneath from 1,000 feet in the air.
“It’s a little bit loud and bumpy back here,” he said during the flight as he pointed at the cockpit. “I liked it better up there.”
Tours and flights continue today through 5 p.m. Saturday. For EAA members the flight cost is $435. Non-members pay $475 (includes a one-year membership). Ground tours are $10 for individuals, age 8 and under free, $20 for families. Veterans and active military are free.