Relic of 8th Air Force Plane Leaves Penn College for Final Tour of Duty in Savannah

Published 11.03.1999


The Eager Beaver saw a lot of action in its time, but the B-17's original pilot has convinced Pennsylvania College of Technology officials that what is left of the World War II bomber a decorated nosepiece owned by Penn College should make its final home at the Mighty 8th Air Force Heritage Museum.

Retired Air Force Col. Marlen E. Reber spoke recently of the Eager Beaver as if remembering a long-lost friend. The two were first acquainted on Aug. 25, 1942, when the war-bound pilot left America from Westover Air Force Base, Massachusetts, with the "brand new" Boeing B-17 bomber that was destined to be among the first to bomb Germany in World War II.

It took 12 hours to cross the Atlantic and just weeks to prepare for its first combat mission, over Occupied France, in November. On Jan. 27, 1943, it made history as the first 8th Air Force plane to bomb Germany. It went on to fly more combat missions than any other B-17 in the European Theatre of operations. In all, Col. Reber recalls, the plane flew 45 combat missions. The longest one, with Col. Reber at the controls, was on March 6, 1943; it lasted eight hours and 15 minutes.

Hollywood immortalized the bomber and others (Col. Reber said there were a total of 60 fighting B-17s) in movies like "Twelve O'Clock High." In fact, in one scene from this American classic featuring leading man Gregory Peck as Gen. Armstrong, Col. Reber the real man, not an actor can be seen flying the plane beside the famous actor.

The Eager Beaver was capable of flying within five feet of other planes and was the first to be equipped with forward firing machine guns. Col. Reber said, "It was so successful in bagging German fighters that the B-17G evolved and all subsequent B-17s had forward firing guns."

The retired bomber pilot, who also served later in Korea and Vietnam, recalls that the Eager Beaver, "always performed well. It never suffered an abort never had to turn back due to failure." He remembers a few times when extensive repairs were required, including a patch below the cockpit (which still can be seen on the remaining nosepiece) where it was hit by a German bullet but even the navigator survived. The bomber seemed to its pilot to be truly charmed and it became the only known survivor of WW II to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.

It was then-First Lt. Reber who dubbed the B-17 the Eager Beaver. He identified with the term as a description of one who "wants to do everything" and is ready to move front and center when called upon to serve. He recalls that he paid a Sgt. Lee Kessler, of Ohio, $5 to paint a beaver on each side of the plane's nose before he first flew it across the Atlantic in 1942.

Over the years, the Eager Beaver's artwork was repainted; but today all that remains is its decorated nosepiece, depicting a cartoon-like beaver along with bombs painted to represent each raid and the Gold Cross Distinguished Flying Medal awarded to Col. Reber. The nosepiece has been enshrined for years in a display case in the entrance lobby of Penn College's Lumley Aviation Center, a $5 million instructional facility one of the nation's finest at the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville.

How did the historically significant World War II relic end up in a college display case?

Following its retirement from war duty, the bomber was sold by the government in 1946 to Williamsport Technical Institute for $350. It was to be used as an instructional tool for students, including returning war veterans, who were training for work as civilian airframe and powerplant maintenance technicians.

For a number of years, students enrolled at the former Williamsport Technical Institute and Williamsport Area Community College (forerunners of today's Penn College) had the opportunity to learn their skills on the WWII-era plane. Eventually, the workings of the plane became outdated and were no longer useful for instruction; most of the plane was scrapped in 1952. But the faculty and students held on to the Eager Beaver's nosepiece thrilled to enjoy a connection with military history.

After Penn College built its Aviation Center in 1992, the nosepiece became a focal point in the building's main reception area. It served as a symbol of tradition and history for an instructional program focused on the application of new and emerging technologies. Parting with the relic is bittersweet for faculty and staff who understand its significance.

The significance of the Eager Beaver also was long appreciated by Col. Reber's son, Steve. He had listened to a lifetime of stories from his father. As an adult, his dream became to locate the plane that had been separated from its pilot and his father since World War II. A business contact with ties to the Williamsport area heard of Steve Reber's quest to find the plane and connected him with Penn College.

The discovery set the wheels in motion for the Eager Beaver's next mission. In October 1998, Col. Reber, his wife, Ginger, Steve, and Steve's young son, Matthew, traveled to the Lumley Aviation Center.

A career officer, Col. Reber, a native of Lykens, now residing in Punta Gorda, FL, maintained strong ties to the 306th Bomb Group. During a bomb group reunion in December 1998, he met the executive director of The Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum and told of his reconnection with the Eager Beaver. Discussions immediately began regarding the future of the decorated nosepiece. In fact, Col. Reber left the reunion with the signatures of 110 members of the 306th on a request for Penn College to move the piece to the Savannah, Ga., museum.

Penn College President Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour said she was proud to honor the request.

"We know it was the right thing the patriotic thing to do. Still, the aviation faculty and staff will miss the Eager Beaver. It has been with us for a long time and it truly means a lot to us. But Col. Reber's connection with the plane is so strong that he was able to convince us that what is left of that historic bomber belongs in a place where he and others, who really understand its historic significance, can enjoy it."

If all systems are go and the mission stays on schedule, the Eager Beaver at least its decorated nosepiece and display case is set to arrive in Savannah later this month. Museum manager, Dr. Barry Buxton, said the piece will go on "permanent display to the public in memory of the thousands who died in the 8th Air Force. Hundreds of school children from all over the world visit the museum daily."

The Mighty 8th Air Force Heritage Museum is a history and aviation museum that promotes understanding and appreciation of the contributions of the men and women who have served in the Air Forces of the United States. It is located 15 minutes from downtown Savannah at exit 18 off Interstate 95. It is open daily and also can be visited online.

Pennsylvania College of Technology is an affiliate of The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) located in Williamsport, PA. It was established as a Penn State "special mission campus," focused on applied technology, in 1989. Prior to that, it had been established as Williamsport Technical Institute (1941) and Williamsport Area Community College (1965), following decades of operation in the Williamsport Area School District (1914) as one of the nation's first adult training schools. Today, Penn College is Pennsylvania's premier technical college offering bachelor and associate degrees and certificates in nearly 100 career areas.

As part of its School of Transportation Technology, Penn College offers four aviation-related degrees a B.S. in aviation maintenance technology, associate degrees in aviation technology and avionics (aviation electronics) technology, and a certificate in aviation maintenance technician certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada. Penn College is one of only three dual-certified programs in the United States.

Penn College also is home to the world's only authorized Textron Lycoming Service School, serving the company's customers and employees from around the globe. The College participates in Experimental Aircraft Association training seminars and is an FAA-certified repair station for Piper Aircraft. Among its instructional fleet is an A-6E Navy bomber, received as part of a $20 million federal government donation of equipment, training aids and simulators.

Penn College's main campus is located at One College Avenue, Williamsport, PA. The College's Web site address is Toll-free phone number is 1-800-367-9222.