EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been corrected. The showings will take place on May 10, not May 11.
History buffs will soon have the chance to learn the story behind Tulare’s WWII-era B-17 bomber.
During a pair of showings at 4 and 6pm on May 10 at the Tulare Historical Museum, B-17 Archaeology–the group that restored the airplane to its original luster last spring–will present its recently completed documentary detailing the role Preston’s Pride played in America’s post-war nuclear bomb testing.
Tulare’s Lost History
“Those of us who’ve been a part of the restoration are excited to see it documented,” said museum director Chris Harrell. “It’s such an amazing part of history. People of Tulare have always been proud of having a B-17, but when they reintroduced what this plane stood for, the lost history, that just adds to the whole story and pride for having the plane here.”
The premier showings of the documentary are open to the public. Admission is free.
A DVD version of the documentary will be available for sale at the museum’s gift shop, and online at tularehistoricalmuseum.org once the public has had its first look.
“It’s going to be a fun evening. People have put in so much work,” Harrell said. “There will be familiar faces in the documentary. Everybody that’s had a piece to play in it are going to be excited to see this stage of it come full circle.”
Greg Stathatos, who headed both the restoration of the plane and creation of the documentary, said at least two locals involved in US atomic testing–Navy veteran Bud Sowerby of Tulare and Army veteran Don Martin of Visalia–will appear in the show. There will also be a roundtable discussion featuring Sowerby and Martin and others who participated in restoring Tulare’s B-17 and worked to produce the documentary.
“The story behind this plane and the atomic testing is just incredible,” Stathatos said. “It’s part of Tulare. It’s been there since 1958. People walk by it everyday and don’t even realize what it is.”
While the plane–known today as Preston’s Pride in honor of Tulare native Gen. Maurice Arthur “Mo” Preston–never saw action during the Second World War, it did serve in the Pacific during atomic bomb testing from 1946 to 1958. Specifically, Preston’s Pride served as a mothership for drone B-17s that flew into atomic blasts during Operation Crossroads.
“It is the largest artifact from the atomic testing in the South Pacific that still exists,” Stathatos said. “This is the only one from Operation Crossroads.”
Atomic Weapon Testing
The period of above-ground nuclear bomb testing was both an interesting and dangerous period in world history, Stathatos said.
“From 1946 to to 1958, there were 46 tests at the atolls. The bombs just kept getting bigger,” he said. “If you took the first bomb on Hiroshima every day for 19 years, you would equal the megatons of all the bombs tested in the South Pacific.”
Much of the importance of Preston’s Pride stems from the aircraft being the last one surviving from that era.
“You get an idea of why it was important for not only Tulare but the world to preserve this aircraft,” Stathatos said. “I think it’s important for us as a country to know what really went on out there. I think we can do a good thing, even better than polishing it (Preston’s Pride), by telling its story.”
Many of the military personnel who were on hand for the atomic bomb tests were there so the US government could explore the effects the explosions and subsequent radiation would have on their troops. Men like Sowerby and Martin signed agreements not to discuss how the testing affected their health, Strathatos said, and they have never received benefits stemming from their exposure to ionizing radiation.
And while Stathatos understand the need for atomic weapons testing in that era, he still wonders if our government went too far.
“I don’t want to say it was a dark period because of the veterans. I think it was necessary,” he said. “The testing afterwards, did it really have to go to 60 megatons?”
Cost of Saving Lives
The possibly dangerous exposure of US troops to radiation is evident in the documentary.
“When you watch the documentary, you’ll say, ‘Huh? They’re working with radiation in shorts and T-shirts with no gloves,’” Stathatos said. “The history is important and what it stands for. It stands for endurance. The amount of lives it saved to end the war has cost us afterwards.”
With the first documentary complete, Stathatos and B-17 Archaeology are planning a second that will detail the interior of Preston’s Pride based on information he and the group uncovered after the first film was complete.
For more information, contact the Tulare Historical Museum at 686-2074.