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The B-25 In My Dad's Backyard

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 5, 2023 3:01 am

The B-25 In My Dad's Backyard

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 5, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Wally Soplata tells the story of his eccentric union carpenter father who collected rare and vintage WWII aircraft for pennies on the dime.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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So grab your headphones, raise your tray table and relax with iHeart Radio and Southwest Airlines. And we return to our American stories and up next a story that's one of a kind. In the early 1950s through 70s, a son of penniless Czech immigrants somehow managed to amass an arsenal of military aircraft, albeit unflyable, in his own backyard. His name was Walter Ciplata. Here to tell his story is Wally Ciplata, Walter's son and the author of The B-25 in the Backyard.

Here's our own Monty Montgomery with a story. Our story begins in the home state of the Wright Brothers, Ohio. Here's Wally Ciplata on the eccentric airplane collector that was his father. Even as a young boy, I realized my father was different. As a result, the way we lived was different, but though we had airplanes parked near our house, it wasn't anything I paid much attention to in my early years. The planes didn't fly or do anything.

Days, months, sometimes years would go by, the planes doing nothing sitting in the same spot. For many reasons, this is an improbable story that never would have happened in the hands of any other person than the gifted eccentric who was my father. The Great Depression financially devastated his family when my father was six years old and things only got worse when dad's abusive and alcoholic father abandoned him and his family when he was eight years old.

Later, to help support a struggling family, dad was forced to go to work at early age and thus was unable to attend high school. Despite such harsh and difficult times, there was one interest that fascinated my father and bought him great happiness as a young man. Airplanes. It's been said that model airplanes that kids like my father made back then were the equivalent to what video games became to more recent generations of children. Adding to his fascination with airplanes, the major events that occurred during his childhood, such as Charles Lindbergh being the first to fly across the Atlantic, made front page headlines exciting people of all nations.

Unfortunately, a house fire was yet another hardship for my father to endure. Not only did my father and his family lose their home, but almost all the model airplanes he spent countless hours building were lost in the fire. It is devotion to aircraft and the history was unshaken by the loss.

He would soon turn to a collection of real airplanes that would become his lifelong passion. There's various versions of this joke about airplanes. What is it that makes airplanes fly? Is it the lift of the wings or the power of the engine or the skill of the pilot?

And the answer to the joke is no, it's none of those things. What makes airplanes fly is money. Sometimes a lot of money. Going back to the beginning of World War II, one thing you did not need money for was to join the Army Air Corps and become a pilot. Serving the military wasn't meant to be for him.

Dad had a serious speech problem with a stutter. The draft board informed my father he was completely unqualified to serve in the US military. That put a big monkey on Dad's back, especially with his older brother, George, serving in the Army and coming home from the Philippines as a war hero. Still, Dad did what he could and worked in a Cleveland factory making aircraft fuel pumps during the war. When the war ended, he, like so many working to build aircraft and aircraft components, suddenly found themselves without a job. So it was after the war that he got into the scrap metal business working to recycle the large aircraft engines coming out of their crates. He was occasionally able to purchase an engine now and then and eventually his first few aircraft. He started with an American Eagle biplane. Next, he got an airplane that's a single engine trainer called the Valtee BT-15 trainer.

He's a propeller playing with one engine. In 1951, he purchased his first Navy Corsair, a fighter plane formed by the Navy, operated off aircraft carriers in World War II. Dad paid $100 for his first Corsair. He paid $500 for the second one and $200 for the third. So for a total price of $800, he had three Corsairs.

Five of Corsairs today, you can look at spending somewhere around two and a half million dollars, plus or minus, but you know, certainly not the kind of numbers we're talking about. Dad eventually got hired for a construction career as a union carpenter, which for him was a big break and with a little extra money in his wallet, he set his sights on bigger aircraft. But a big frustration with Dad was that he was always out of money. He had five kids and you know, Dad was often unemployed during the winter months.

Over many, many years, if you could find a day when he had more than $50 in his wallet or $1,000 in the bank, those were some really good days. If there's one thing the Great Depression taught him, it was the value of being self efficient and being able to improvise with the things you do have when you can't afford what you don't have. The best example of Dad's self-sufficient aptitude involves his need for a crane to assemble the aircraft after towing them home. He could not afford a crane, so instead he used a variety of items from some junked trucks and junked airplanes to build his own boom truck lift that we all refer to affectionately as the boom tractor.

Without spending 50 bucks, if even that. And always thinking of controlling cost, Dad never kept the battery in it. Instead, we mooched off the family Suburban and borrowed its battery on the days we used the tractor. Yet more penny-pinching to the extreme, the tractor sometimes ran the Suburban battery dead. But Dad refused to buy a battery charger.

Instead, we put the dead battery back in the Suburban, get the vehicle rolling downhill, and then pop the clutch to start the Suburban's engine and then let the Suburban's engine generator recharge the battery. What he really wanted to do if he had more money was to go out to Arizona. Arizona is a state where there were giant aircraft boneyards.

Most military aircraft in World War II ended up being scrapped in Arizona and you could buy airplanes basically for their value in brat metal. But he didn't have the money to go there. And in those days, nobody had credit cards.

So if you didn't have the money, you just couldn't do it. But he still dreamed of Arizona. I called it the airplane land of milk and honey. He talked about it all the time and Dad would show me photographs of the boneyards where they were melting these airplanes down.

And as far as the eye can see, miles and miles of airplanes lined up, all to be melted down and destroyed. Closest he got to it doing that he bought a junked school bus. He bought the bus for about $100 at a salvage yard. It was a 1945 school bus made by the White Burger Company. It had the typical rush from being in Ohio. You could tell a few kids had played in that bus.

It was a beater. So Dad was going to make a camper out of it and like stories of West, go out West Arizona and hunt for some airplanes. But he never could get to Arizona. So the bus sat in Ohio and then a good friend of his from then had took over and now become a magnesium plant and he called my dad. He said, Walter, I don't know what's going on here.

He was shocked. He got some really rare unusual engines in a scrap pit. This guy, Mike, the scrap man said, I don't I don't think I should scrap these engines. They're pretty rare engines and so he sold a whole lot of about 10 inches to my father for like $100. Dad didn't have a truck.

So what do you do? He takes the school bus and gets a torch and he cut the seam along the rear wall. It's where there's the standard emergency exit at the back of the school bus, but he's like it's not wide enough. So he gets a torch and he cuts the metal so he can bend the both sides of the door open to make the bus wider to fit those engines in his bus. And that's how I get those into his rear end of his home with still all of them in his school bus. That was the first trip of the bus getting these very, very rare engines and Dad realized, hey, I can holst up with this thing. Some strange things happen. And you've been listening to Wally Soplata tell the story of his father, Walter's passion, almost obsession for airplanes.

The story of the B-25 in the backyard continues here on Our American Stories. With stories from OutTV and HearTV, then kick back with nature scenes from Music Choice Relax and Jam All June with I Heart Radio's Songs of the Summer Radio. Discover new shows and movies for free, no strings attached. Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. Want to get away but still listen to your favorite radio stations and podcasts?

Then listen up. I Heart Radio is now the onboard music partner on select Southwest flights. That means you can jam out to your favorite local radio station, even if you're flying coast to coast. Check out expertly curated stations that are perfect for kids and adults. Available on most domestic Southwest flights and perfect for a full nonstop or those pesky minutes between a movie ending and your plane touching down.

So grab your headphones, raise your tray table and relax with I Heart Radio and Southwest Airlines. With backyard barbecues and summer get togethers coming in hot, it's the perfect time to upgrade your entertainment setup. Whether it's outdoor movies on the big screen or sharing on your favorite soccer team with friends, you can get a 65 inch Vizio V Series 4K Smart TV for just $398 at Walmart.

With its big screen, crystal clear picture and built-in apps like I Heart Radio to play all your favorite music, radio and podcasts, this is the perfect TV for gatherings big or small. Get yours at Walmart today. And we return to our American stories and the story of Walter Ciplata, an eccentric airplane collector as told by his son, Wally. When we last left off, we were learning about the motivations of Walter and the school bus he bought to take mostly un-flyable decommissioned weapons of war into his own backyard.

Let's return to Wally, who's about to tell one heck of a story about the school bus's finest moment. Though dad had gone on to become a carpenter when he was laid off, he wasn't gonna sit around and do nothing. While he still had contacts in the scrap metal business, he bids on a jet airplane in Boston, Massachusetts, the Cutlass Jet. It's at a base called South Weymouth Naval Air Station, and it's a jet fighter plane that's being sold for scrap.

The scrap paperwork tells that its acquisition cost and date was in excess of $1 million. And dad says, oh, what the heck? I probably won't win, but he offers a bid of $200 for the jet fighter plane. And a few weeks later, he's kind of surprised in the mail that he is the highest bidder.

And he's really kind of nervous. It's 600 miles away. He has yet to haul an airplane more than about 40, 50 miles. And he studies more about this jet airplane.

It's quite big. It's a Navy airplane, which means it's heavy because it's gonna operate from aircraft carriers. He does not have a truck, and he doesn't have a lot of money. So this is really the school bus's big story. So he drives it to the Navy base, gets there just fine, and the Navy people, of course, think, oh, he's using the bus as his camper while he stayed here to work on this jet he just purchased. Little did they know that dad's gonna do more cutting with the torch, and he plans to cut the rest of the back wall of the bus off and stuff the fuselage of this Navy jet inside the bus for its trip home. This, of course, raises the eyebrows of the civil servants working at the disposal yard. So they call in the Navy brass and say, you know, what's going on here? My dad honestly remembered him retelling the story when he got back that he was really afraid that they would just lock him up as a lunatic. I mean, you're gonna do what? You're gonna haul this jet airplane inside your school bus. It just doesn't make any sense, but he explains it.

It's all I got. I mean, they even ask him some questions like, hey, when's the rest of your crew coming? You know, they of course expect a scrapyard crew with a, and dad understood they kind of expected he'd show up with a big flatbed 18 wheeler semi truck, but he hasn't got a crew. He hasn't got the truck.

He's just got the school bus. And there's another issue. Rightly so, the military has become concerned about letting go of their combat airplanes. In theory, you could buy a jet airplane and maybe sell to some foreign country that then decides to use our own weapon against us. Very valid concern. And so they came up with some rules about demilitarization about this time. They said no part of the airplane can be bigger than four feet in length.

Basically you've gotta chop it up and destroy it before it leaves the space. He wants to display this jet in his kind of private museum in his backyard. In just about time, he really thinks he's going to get locked up as a nutcase and he's the office, some of the senior brass come to visit with him and he sees they've got wings on their chest. These guys are aviators and dad later say he goes, I don't know why I did it, but I took my airplane scrapbook with me and I ran the bus and got the scrapbook and started showing them photographs of the planes he had. The Air Race Corsair that won the 1947 Cleveland National Air Races. Another Corsair from the Akron Naval Air Station. It turned out some of the officers had flown Corsairs. Oh my gosh, you've got Corsairs. A great Navy aircraft.

Good for you. They go, maybe this guy's really not a nutcase. He's actually got airplanes and he's displaying them. They said, what do you charge the public?

He said, I don't charge anything. People just come over and look at the planes anytime they want and I really like to save this colors. So they're like, well, we're we're going to look. We don't know what to do and then so they let dad go look at the airplane and they're not sure whether to give the okay in any of this.

They said, go ahead and start working out. Look at see what you think. My father didn't get to go to high school, but he's a very smart man. A lot of genius inside that man's head. So he called on the plane and he comes back to the brass and he says, I've got an idea here and they go.

What is it? He said, well, I understand you don't want the airplane to fly again. I get that but I want to take my torch and I'm going to cut chunks out of the wing and I'm going to hacksaw some parts out of the fuselage and I'm going to make the airplane structurally very weak.

It'll be strong enough to stand up together on display in my yard, but if somebody tried to fly, we wouldn't be able to take the stress of flight and the airplane would break up in flight. And so the officer said, well, we got some airplane mechanics on base and we'll have them inspect the airplane when you're done and if they concur that the airplane can't fly again, then we'll let you keep it in one piece. And sure enough, we got the airplane inspected. The Navy mechanics assured the officer said, yeah, this airplane can never fly again.

It'll come apart. This is a flaw that has weakened it to the point that it's not going to fly ever. And so with that, they let that keep the airplane. But the next challenge, of course, the big challenge is getting this thing home. They advised Dad they were worried about, besides the jet going in the bus, they said, you know, it's really going to be very heavy, you know, for that school bus to carry all this weight. And Dad kind of thought about that.

He said, well, that means I have to make another trip to Boston. So no, so finally I got a photo of this, by the way, just so we don't think I'm crazy. I got photographs of this. There's a crane, I'm looking at it right now, holding up the bus. It's being pushed inside the school bus.

It doesn't exactly fit. It's, Dad cut a slot through the roof for the cable of the crane to hold the airplane up. It kept getting stuck. And finally, somebody got the idea to get a bulldozer and push from behind and have Dad sit in the driver's seat, hold the brakes and block the tires and push the thing in with a bulldozer. And I said earlier that it's kind of a good thing the bus came from Ohio and there was a lot of rust because basically the body right where the wall joins the floor, it just said I've had enough and it split out and ripped apart, which caused the Navy guys to name it the Banana Bus. And as Dad described it, he's in the driver's seat. There's the sound of the bulldozer. There's screeching metal and popping and all kinds of bad sounds and the nose is coming forward and forward closer to him and closer to him and it finally dawns and then if this thing's something that goes cock eye one side or the other, it could crush me to death up here in the driver's seat.

It got out of alignment, but it went okay and finally they got the thing all the way in and the very nose of the jet is right up against the driver's seat. As they're getting ready to go, Dad learns that the Navy personnel have been gambling a little bit and placing bets on whether he'll make it or not. So he's heard this going on for a couple days and as he's about to drive away, he asked one of the guys says, hey, what's the highest bet thus far? You know how many guys think I'll make it? And the guy laughed and said, oh, nobody thinks you're going to make it.

But the highest bet is 50 miles. He didn't make it home okay. He said, man, I should have taken their money. You know, I bet I mean not making it and I made it, but he didn't come home entirely unscathed as he pointed out to us. He got arrested like eight times.

The biggest mistake he made was to drive the school bus on the New York State Thruway and it might have been later in Pennsylvania. He told a fun story. He said a cop pulled him over and you know it took the sight of this airplane in the bus and the one officer said, well, I'm not going to call you into the station and dad goes, why not? He goes, if I make a call to the station that I've got a guy with a jet airplane in the school bus, they'll think I'm drinking.

So I'm not saying anything and so I was surprised to hear that. That's the story my father told and just the whole bold movement to get this jet fighter plane home under such you know difficult conditions gave dad a really strong sense of confidence. Hey, if I could do that, I got away with a big airplane in a big way.

It really was a turning point for him to just really get a lot of confidence that nothing can stop me. And it gave Walter the confidence to get bigger planes, including a B-25 bomber called Wild Cargo that, unlike many of the other planes Walter would put in his backyard, eventually flew again. But what does Wally, his son, think about his father's obsession with all things aviation? Only in America could Walter Asaplata, the son of penniless Czech immigrants, single-handedly accomplished so much in an obsessive mission to safe historic aircraft, particularly from World War II. The most stunning and sobering aspect of his collection was the fact that if he had not saved these treasures, it was all but certain that most, if not all of them, would have been cut up for scrap metal. He alone, on a shoestring budget of a carpenter raising five children, had taken on this Herculean endeavor in a way that no one before him or after him could ever hope to duplicate. And great job as always by Monty Montgomery on the piece and a special thanks to Wally Asaplata. And by the way, the book is the B-25 in the backyard and you can find it on Amazon or any place where books are sold.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-05 04:34:11 / 2023-06-05 04:44:20 / 10

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