When hundreds of aviation enthusiasts descend on Addison Airport this weekend for Cavanaugh Flight Museum’s Warbirds over Addison event, Bob Schrader will be offering tours of his old de Havilland Caribou hoping the old bird can also help heal a few old wounds.
The museum’s collection of flying historic and military aircraft is the largest in the southwest United States. WWII, Korean War and Vietnam-era airplanes and helicopters comprise most of the collection. The DHC-4 Caribou, a cargo aircraft specifically designed for takeoff and landing on short runways, was put into service in 1963. Schrader was on board as crew chief for the initial journey from the United States to Vietnam.
“I still have memories from the war just like anybody else,” he said while seated in the crew chief’s seat in the cargo bay. He remembers one emergency airlift when a critically injured 9-year-old Vietnamese boy died in his arms. He remembers hearing over the radio, the crash of one of his previous Caribous. The entire crew died.
"And then I sat there and thought I'm a lucky 20-year-old kid. And my second thought was why would God save me?"
It’s a question he could never fully answer. But years later the South Dakota native went looking for this particular airplane: tail number 24149. He flew countless miles in it, helped transport troops, living and dead. And now the Caribou, fully restored and part of the collection at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, is visited by Schrader at least twice a year. He serves as a tour guide to visitors, can point out the dozens of repaired bullet holes, and can tell the story of the wooden floors, that for some soldiers are still too difficult to see.
“The good soldiers would sit along here,” he said pointing to the fold-down seats near the back of the airplane. “The wounded would sit up front to keep all the blood in one corner. And the good soldiers would sit right here with their feet right next to the body bags.”
"For a good soldier then to get off the airplane and forget his buddies in the body bags and stay focused on the war, is a very emotional experience for them."
And that’s why Schrader has returned to Addison. As the Caribou sits on the tarmac this weekend, along with dozens of other aircraft at the Warbirds Over Addison event, an old crew chief hopes his old plane can help other soldiers with their memories - face them - and let their demons go.
"They all have a story. Whether they were pilots or crew or not, they all have a story associated with the airplanes,” said Doug Jeanes, executive director of the Cavanaugh Flight Museum. “It's a very emotional and rewarding time to see a vet come back and get reacquainted with an airplane or even an event from their time at war.”
"There's no doubt in my mind that this Caribou has helped people resolve their issues form the Vietnam War, hundreds of people. There's no denying it,” said Schrader. “They go through their story and understand that it's OK. Get the healing process going with their family and then be able to enjoy the wonderful life we have to enjoy."
"There's hundreds of vets that have come in here, did their crying, and have left. And years later I see them again and they are moving on and enjoying life,” said Schrader. "So then come back in here and relive that and start the healing process, that's what it's all about."
And for airplane buffs, that's part of the value of an old piece of aluminum: not forgetting the past but physically touching it and finding at least some peace.
“You either heal yourself or you learn how to live with it,” said Schrader.
Veterans, and the rest of the general public, are invited to join in that quest this weekend.
The Warbirds over Addison event is Saturday and Sunday May 13-14 from 10am to 4pm at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum at Addison Airport.