Art Lacey & his crew of filling station attendants at the Bomber Gas Station; Milwaukie, Oregon
Art Lacey was a crazy sumbitch. You have to understand that from the beginning or this story will make no sense, not that it will anyway. Still, it's something you should know.
Art was celebrating his birthday in 1947, had knocked back a few, and, from out of nowhere, proclaimed he was going to slap a B-17 bomber on top of his gas station. A friend of his told him he was crazy, which, of course, was true but made no never mind and was all the provocation Art needed to prove him wrong.
So, Art turned to his friend, Bob, and asked him if he had any money on him. How much you need, asked Bob. About $15,000, said Art, pulling a number out of his butt. Sure, said Bob, I got that on me. Now, it may seem odd to you that folks would be carrying tens of thousands of bucks on their person but it was perfectly normal in post-war Portland, which was a wide open town, hip deep in vice of every kind.
Some sober people of sound mind may ask why, exactly why, would you want to put a bomber on top of your gas station? Maybe you are one such curious person, so let me explain you the answer: Because this is America, that's why. If you want to hoist a bomber above your place of business, that's what you will damned well do. Why do I even have to even explain this to you? You should know this. Stop interrupting me, for Pete's sake, and let me tell the story. Sheesh!
America built 12,731 B-17s during the war, which, even allowing for the terrific attrition they suffered in ferocious aerial combat, about 4750 aircraft destroyed, left the brand spanking new United States Air Force with thousands of B-17s it did not need parked at air bases all over the country. Art found a field in Oklahoma, Altus Air Force Base, full of idle B-17s where he charmed the officer in charge into selling him one for $13,000, a considerable discount from its original price of $238,329 and who knows how many cents. The officer told him to show up with his co-pilot and he could fly it away, just like that. This was before gun control and background checks and waiting periods and whatnot. You could just buy a bomber and do what you wanted with it.
The first problem was that Art did not have a co-pilot, but that was quickly fixed by dressing up a mannequin like a flier and planting it in the right seat. The second problem was that Art didn't really know how to fly a four engine bomber. He could fly a single engine plane, which was a fine beginning, but usually you had to work up to a four engine aircraft with months of multi-engine training. But, really, one engine, two engine, three engines, four. What's the difference? Can't we all be brothers? Let's fly!
Consequently, Art thought it prudent to practice a little bit first before he flew off with the Flying Fortress into the wild blue yonder. So, he did some taxiing, flew a few touch and goes, you know, to limber up. It all seemed to go well until the landing gear malfunctioned and would not go down. Art belly landed the B-17 on the runway, skidding off into the turf and a parked B-17, trashing both aircraft.
Art took the walk of shame back to the terminal where he confessed to the officer that he did not actually know how to fly a B-17 and had just killed two of them. Could he have another, please?
The officer gave Art a long look and asked his secretary if she had typed up the big of sale yet. No, she said. Well, said the officer, this looks like a case of wind damage. We have some terrible wind here in Oklahoma, just terrible. You can have this other bomber for $1500.
Really, it was all the same to the Air Force. The surplus bombers were all headed to the razor blade factory anyway. What difference did it make if one of them went into the smelter clean or crumpled?
The second B-17 they gave Art, a G model, was a beaut, fresh from the factory with only fifty flying hours on it, much better than the war-weary first bomber he trashed. Art was chastened by his lack of a co-pilot, so he called three friends to come help him. None of them were pilots, though one had worked on B-17s as a crew chief, so four is greater than one, what's the problem? Let's fly this bad bird home!
Gas was a problem. Art had spent all his money on bombers. He couldn't buy any gas but there was plenty of gas trapped in the two bombers he ruined if he only had a siphon pump to get it. The local fire department had the pumps and did the necessary siphoning out of the goodness of their hearts, a case of whiskey lubricating the deal, a particularly precious commodity in a dry state like Oklahoma, where Prohibition had stubbornly lingered on past its time.
Art and his buddies flew the B-17G to Palm Springs, CA, where he refueled it with a bum check. By the time it took for the check to reach his bank, he covered it. From Palm Springs, they flew on to Klamath Falls, OR, just over the California state line. They followed the Sierra Nevada mountains of California north until they were blinded by a snowstorm and got lost.
Art worked his way down through the storm, narrowly missing a mountain in the process. Art saw a break in the clouds and dived down through it to spot a small town. He buzzed the town, looking for road signs to tell him where he was. People came running the hell out into the streets in nightgowns, thinking he was in distress and going to land on main street. Finally, they spotted a building with Fall River Mills painted on its roof, found it on the map, oriented themselves, and headed home, landing finally at Troutdale, OR, just east of Portland.
There, they dismantled it and loaded it on trucks for transport to the Portland suburb of Milwaukie, where Art had his gas station. Unfortunately, even broken up into bits the bomber was too big to carry on the highway. It took up the whole road. Art could not get the permits. It went through the State Highway Department all the way up to Governor Snell, but no go.
So, Art went anyway, as you knew he would, driving his four truck convoy in the middle of the night. He hired a couple teenagers, who rode motorcycles as funeral escorts, to act as decoys. Should any pesky cops appear, they were to speed off on a side road to lure them away in a chase. It proved unnecessary as no cops appeared or else decided to turn a blind eye to the endeavor, as any red-blooded patriot would.
The town officials awoke to find they had been hornswoggled and came down on Art like a ton of bricks for illegal this and that, but the local paper mounted a heroic counterattack on them for Disgracing This Great Nation of Ours With Their Shocking Lack Of Patriotism In Opposing This Memorial To Our Noble Veterans Of The Great World War II. The pencil neck bureaucrats at town hall folded before the pubic outcry like a wet newspaper and issued a token fine of ten bucks.
And that's how Art Lacey opened the forty pump Bomber Gas Station on July 5, 1947, on McLoughlin Boulevard, Highway 99E, in Milwaukie, Oregon, one of the biggest filling stations in America. There are about eleven intact B-17s left and the Milwaukie Bomber is one of them, proudly adorning the city for decades.
There it stood for sixty-five years. The gas station closed in 1991. It wasn't worth replacing the underground fuel tanks. But, you can still buy a Bomber Burger at the Bomber Restaurant next door. Art passed away in 2000 at the age of 87.
Unfortunately, the Oregon weather, birds, and vandals took their toll on the Milwaukie Bomber. Birds are probably the worst of them as their droppings are particularly corrosive to aluminum. Birds simply have no respect for vintage aircraft.
So, they have taken the noble aircraft down to restore it. The airplane has been moved by the B-17 Alliance to a hangar on McNary Field in Salem, Oregon. Even with all the money in the world, it would take at least ten years to restore it. With some luck, it may even fly again.