|The Flight Fantastic|
|Wednesday, July 18, 2012|
Lebanon aviator to reunite WWII plane with veteran
By KEN BECK
On a scorching Fourth of July morning Duncan Cameron labors in a cavernous garage, meticulously bringing an olive-drab 1940s Stinson L-5 Sentinel back to life.
He had the flying machine disassembled to the last screw 14 months ago when he discovered it had seen duty during World War II in the Pacific.
“Before that it was just another plane. Then I found out it was an Iwo Jima plane,” said the 55-year-old Southwest Airlines pilot, who realized he was holding a piece of history—a Marine observation plane used during the bloody Battle of Iwo Jima in early 1945.
Digging through the archives at the National Museum for the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., Cameron scrutinized copious records related to the 12 members of Marine Observation Squadron 5. The paper trail eventually led him to Merton P. Hanson, a 91-year-old Iowa resident, who flew the plane.“I got a hit doing an Internet search on his name and found he was a member of the Kiwanis Club in Des Moines, Iowa,” Cameron recalled. “I called his phone number, and his wife Jeanne answered. When I asked to speak to him, she told me, ‘He’s busy.’ When I told her I was restoring a plane he flew at Iwo Jima, she yelled. ‘Merton, come to the phone!’”
While Cameron was introducing himself to Hanson, the World War II pilot’s wife was pulling out his military log book.
Meanwhile, his wife was reading his logs and relaying what dates he flew it on,” Cameron said.
“To know this plane was his long before me is incredible, and this absolutely puts it in the conflict at Iwo Jima. To have a piece of Marine Corps history that was in that battle is quite amazing. The detective work was as interesting as restoring the plane.”
Cameron, also a professional guitar player who once picked in the country music bands The Amazing Rhythm Aces and Sawyer Brown, immediately recognized he had a national treasure on his hands.
But he also understood he had found a living national treasure, the man who flew the machine. A native of Blooming Prairie, Minn., Merton P. Hanson enlisted in the Navy on June 2, 1942.
“I did my flight training and was then commissioned into the Marine Corps. I went through dive bombing training and was transferred into the grasshopper squadron—that was what we called the observation squadron,” Hanson said during a phone interview from his home in Johnston, Iowa.
The former war pilot has seen pictures of the plane that served as his substitute when his normal aircraft was not available.
“It’s looking good. Duncan has done a nice job and is so thorough,” Hanson said. “He’s turned out to be the most wonderful guy I’ve met in a long time. My wife and I enjoy him and look at him as a second son.”
The pilot-to-pilot relationship spurred Hanson into digging through his logbook and old records but he testifies that Cameron knows more about his squadron than he does.
“All of the pilots are gone but one in Omaha and me. I had lost track of most of their children, but he found some of them. There was one woman in New York, and her father was gone (deceased). Through Duncan she contacted me and wanted to talk to someone who was in the war with her father, so she came out here two weeks ago and stayed three or four days, and I got to review some history with her. This has put me in contact with some very fine people,” Hanson said.
Cameron met the World War II veteran last year, and Hanson, long retired after a 30-year career as a geneticist with Pioneer Poultry in Des Moines, shared some tales of the fight on that 8-mile-square island, about 650 miles south of Tokyo, Japan, where 22,000 Japanese and 6,000 Marines died between Feb. 19 and March 26, 1945.
“When this plane is ready, the idea is to let Mert fly the airplane,” said Cameron, who is working eight to 10 hours a day on the Stinson, a model nicknamed “The Flying Jeep.”
The veteran awaits: “Oh, I’m definitely ready to fly it again,” Hanson said. “Duncan came up here with a replica, and this time it will be the real one. I think it will be quite a feat.”
Cameron added, “Mert will fly it this summer. I’ll take it up to Des Moines. Only one other guy in his squadron is still surviving. He lives in Omaha, and we plan to fly it over there and call him and tell him we’re at the airport. This man flew it, too.”
Cameron has possessed the Stinson for 3½ half years and previously restored a similar type Marine airplane. About 200 of the L-5 Stinsons (3,590 were built) remain airworthy. This two-seater stands 7 feet and 11 inches high, bears a 34-foot wingspan and stretches lengthwise 24 feet and an inch. With a fuselage of steel tubing with fabric, its wings and tail are constructed from wood.
The plane lay stashed in an Atlanta garage for 40 years. A friend of Cameron’s bought it and gave it to him as a “wedding-present joke.” The seller had purchased the aircraft from the Civil Air Patrol, which had used the plane for beach patrol in the 1950s.
“From a military standpoint these were considered disposable. This is highly rare. Most of those planes were smashed, but this one made it back to the States and Quantico,” said Cameron, who’s reviving the plane in his spacious garage.
“Every day I’m not flying, I’m home finishing this plane. It’s substantially done. This weekend we could run the engine for the first time. There’s just little detail stuff here and there,” he said.
“This is kind of a Holy Grail, and I cherry-picked so that the best parts are in this plane. There are no shortcuts here. It’s so detail-oriented that not many people will look at it and get the level of detail that is there. I feel obligated to do it right,” said Cameron, whose father was an aerospace engineer.
“This is the childhood culmination of the kid who built models. This is a 12 inches-to-the-foot-scale model as my Dad told me,” he smiled.
Born in New York, growing up across the U.S., he graduated from high school in Los Angeles. His first love he says was “probably flying.”
“I remember wartime pilot friends of my Dad, and I remember at 4 or 5 wanting to fly. At 6 or 7, I started taking guitar lessons. I was a shy kid and practiced a lot. Next thing I knew I was in bands making money.”
While a member of The Amazing Rhythm Aces from 1977 to 1981, he taught banjo lessons to a pilot in exchange for flying lessons. Then he became a studio session player in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he continued to fly and log hours, which led to a flying gig with Northwest Air Link.
Cameron said he was an out-of-work pilot when he enlisted for a 14½-year gig as a member of Sawyer Brown. Living in the Lebanon area since 1993, he joined Southwest Airlines eight years ago. He has 20,000 hours of flying time behind his belt.
Assisting him on the rebuild is mechanic and fabric guy Tom Westfall of Clinton, Ark., who said, “This plane speaks for itself. This has been a harder plane to restore than one that is factory fresh. We aim to make it look like it’s been seven months since it was in combat.
“See that patch? Bullet hole. A bullet came in through the instrument panel and came out here,” he said, pointing to the patch on the opposite side. “They tried to kill these guys inside a ‘paper’ plane.”
Cameron can hardly wait to complete his grand obsession.
“Basically what I’m going for is when this plane came out of light maintenance, right after the battle in April of ’45. What changed the dimension of this experience was Mert—meeting one of my heroes. I’m just a steward of history here,” said the aviator, who by his fingertips has reached through time to bring back an amazing machine that helps tell part of the saga of America’s greatest generation.