Douglas Aircraft Company

I never thought that at 51 years old, I would be saying “goodbye for now” to my dad, Al Spencer. Dad was 83 years old when he went to be with the Lord on December 12, 2007, but he never seemed like he was 83. Now, I can’t believe he has been gone 15 long years. Dad told me once that after you reach 18, you never feel any older. I’m sure there are people who would disagree with that statement, but I believe that it is statements like that made by people who truly believe it, that allow them to stay young. Dad always seemed young to me…right up until he left us. Even after surgery and a very long, drawn out recovery, he still seemed young, or maybe young at heart. He loved to tease his girls and the grandchildren, who loved to run past his chair to see if they were quick enough to get by before Grandpa could swat them. Mostly they were too slow, but they were delighted when they got away with it. Dad was always making jokes, and it really made his day when he could make people laugh. He loved having a house filled with joy.

My dad lived an amazing life. He was raised on a farm in the Holyoke, Minnesota area. He went on a number of trips with his older brother, looking for work in the depression years, and then went to California to work for Douglas Aircraft. It really seems that it was this move that would bring him to his World War II destiny. After spending time building planes for Douglas Aircraft Company, the Army Air Forces saw in my dad, that he would be the perfect Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner on a B-17 crew, and that was how he spent his wartime service, stationed in Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England. While he never really spoke about it, my mom, Collene Spencer and sisters, Cheryl Masterson, Caryl Reed, Alena Stevens, Allyn Hadlock, and I have always been so proud of him and his service.

Dad traveled to other countries, but in his opinion, the United States was the best country in the whole world, although I’m sure he would have loved to have seen Israel. Dad took our family on yearly vacations…every year, without fail, so we could see what a wonderful country we lived in. My mom, sisters, and I were treated to so many places, with the Black Hills being one of his favorites. He loved the beauty of the area, but more importantly, he loved the patriotism of the area. After his passing, when my husband Bob and I went to the Black Hills for our annual trip to the area, I always felt like I could hear my dad’s echo telling us about the area, and how proud he was to be an American. I like to think of him there, because it was one of the places where he was the happiest.

Dad loved God, family, and country. He was a true Christian, and wonderful husband and dad, and he was a true patriot. He was raised in church, and he and our mom raised their girls in the church. We know who we are, and we know that our God loves us, just like He loves our parents. Now that our parents live in Heaven, I know that they are watching over us and we try to live lives that we know will make them proud. We all miss then terribly, but we know that they are in our future now, and not in our past. We look forward to seeing them again soon. We love you both Dad and Mom, and we wish you were still here.

My dad, Allen Spencer, went to work for Douglas Aircraft Company on May 19, 1942. He was a young man of just 18 years. Dad wasn’t with Douglas Aircraft Company for very long, because of World War II, and his enlistment in the Army Air Force on March 12, 1943. Nevertheless, the job my dad had while he was at Douglas Aircraft Company would play a big part in his future military assignment as a flight engineer on a B-17 Bomber during World War II, stationed at RAF Great Ashfield in Suffolk, England. Because of Dad’s job there, I have always had an interest in Douglas Aircraft Company.

While people might think they don’t know much about Douglas Aircraft Company, they really do, just under a different name. The Douglas Aircraft Company was an American aerospace manufacturer based in Southern California. It was founded in 1921 by Donald Wills Douglas Sr and later merged with McDonnell Aircraft in 1967 to form McDonnell Douglas. With that merger, Douglas Aircraft Company ceased to exist. The name McDonnell Douglas might be a bit more familiar to people, but it was really when McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997 that the company became a household name. Everyone has heard of Boeing Aircraft Company.

While Douglas Aircraft Company no longer exists, they made great strides in the aerospace industry during their time in business. One early claim to fame was the first circumnavigation of the world by air in Douglas airplanes in 1924. That was just 21 years after the first powered flight, taken by the Wright Brothers. That may sound like a long time, but to go from the rickety-looking plane the Wright Brothers flew, to something that was capable of making the flight around the world in just 21 years is truly outstanding. The circumnavigation mission was first presented to Douglas Aircraft Company in 1923, when the US Army Air Service, interested in carrying out a mission to circumnavigate the Earth for the first time by aircraft, approached Douglas Aircraft Company to present it to them. The mission was called “World Flight.” Donald Douglas proposed a modified Douglas DT to meet the Army’s needs. The two-place, open cockpit DT biplane torpedo bomber had previously been produced for the US Navy. The DTs were taken from the assembly lines at the company’s manufacturing plants in Rock Island, Illinois, and Dayton, Ohio, to be modified.

Four of these modified aircraft left Seattle, Washington, on April 6, 1924, flying west, and two of these returned there on September 28 to great fanfare. Unfortunately, one plane had been lost under fog conditions, and another was forced down over the Atlantic and sank. The DWC prototype was then rechristened and joined the other two in completing the North American leg of the flight. With the success of this flight, the Army Air Service ordered six similar aircraft as observation aircraft.

In 1934, Douglas produced a commercial twin-engined transport plane, the Douglas DC-2, which was followed by the famous DC-3 in 1936. The wide range of aircraft produced by Douglas included airliners, light and medium bombers, fighter aircraft, transports, reconnaissance aircraft, and experimental aircraft. While these were all important types of aircraft, it would really be the work they did during World War II, that really put them on the map in my opinion. With so many young men heading off to war, the women really stepped up at this time and built many of the World War II planes. During that time, Douglas joined the BVD (Boeing-Vega-Douglas) consortium to produce the B-17 Flying Fortress. As far as I’m concerned, that was one of the greatest planes every produced. I suppose that sounds odd, considering that it was so long ago, but for its time, the B-17 was and really still is legendary. And while I don’t know if my dad had a part in building the B-17 Bomber, I know that he repaired them and knew them inside and out. I am proud of the work my dad did on the airplanes he helped to build, and proud of his time with Douglas Aircraft Company.

There is something about getting a brand new car that is so exciting. It’s never been used by anyone else. That’s kind of how my dad felt about the B-17G Bomber that he and his crew were assigned. It was brand new. They were to be the first crew to fly her. I’m sure they weren’t the last, since their plane survived the time they were in it. But I don’t really know if the plane continued to fly in war times. The B-17 bombers had a strange history, and I’m sure many people wouldn’t have felt like it was going to be a very safe plane since the early prototypes didn’t fly well. That is probably a fact that I’m sure my grandparents were thankful not to have known, and hopefully my dad didn’t know either. Still, the early models that crashed were built in the mid 1930’s and the B-17G version, which came out in the mid 1940’s, was the final and by far the best version.

I am thankful that it was the final version that carried my dad on his missions, and even more thankful that his plane brought him back every time…even though they flew through many hazardous missions. My dad was so proud of his plane, and he believed that it would bring him safely home again. He could seen why the plane was called The Flying Fortress and The Super Dread, because it could come home even after taking some damage, provided the damage left the fuselage in one piece, of course.

In my dad’s letters, he described the beautiful plane to his family. Dad could see the beauty in the planes, of course, because he had worked for Douglas Aircraft Company, building planes. So, the intricacies and the strength of the B-17G Bomber made sense to him, where they were probably lost on my grandmother. I took my dad out to the airport the August before he passed away, and he got one last chance to go through the B-17G bomber. He was still highly impressed with the plane, and all it could do. He told me where he was stationed on the plane, and what his duties were, and what a wonderful plane it was. I could still see the look of wonder on his face…almost like that of a little boy with his first toy car or plane. As we went through the plane, I could see why my dad was so impressed with it.

Dad went on to tell his family about how smoothly the plane flew, and how impressed the crew was. He also wanted them all to know that this was a plane that would keep him safe and bring him home. It was very important to him that his family not worry. My dad knew that “not worrying” would be difficult, but he wanted to encourage them and let them know that God would take care of him and bring him back safely. Dad did return from World War II, of course, and he was unscathed. He had experienced things he never expected to experience, and sadly, he really never much enjoyed flying after that time, but he was always in awe of the B-17G Bomber.

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