Herb Tollefson spent 25 of his 95 years helping transform a pre-World War II Army Air Corps bomber from a “pile of corroded metal” into something that looks ready for takeoff at McChord Air Field.
Today “you’d go out there and you’d think that plane could almost fly,” said retired Lt. Col. Warren Foltz of Puyallup, who asked Tollefson to work on the B-18 in 1986 when Foltz was the McChord Air Museum’s first director.
But the plane, once a source only of pride for Tollefson, has turned into a wedge between him and the museum he helped launch as a volunteer almost 30 years ago.
Tollefson, a World War II veteran and Parkland resident, is at odds with the museum administration over how to display the B-18. He wants it under a cover to guard it from the elements. It sits outdoors on a hilltop with other retired aircraft that illustrate Air Force history in the South Sound.
Tollefson’s campaign to protect the plane grew so disruptive in recent years that Joint Base Lewis-McChord officials took the unusual step of banning him from the museum maintenance hangar where some of his lifelong friends continue to work.
Base officials say Tollefson made other volunteers feel uncomfortable between 2011 and 2013 when he sought to persuade museum director Raymond Jordan to cover the B-18. Jordan declined to be interviewed for this story.
Some volunteers told the Air Force they were ready to quit because of what they perceived as Tollefson’s divisiveness in the hangar, Air Force officials wrote in a statement to The News Tribune.
Officers believed Tollefson’s family supported their decision to restrict the veteran’s access. At one point, Tollefson’s son encouraged officers to write a letter to his dad explaining their decision.
The letter officially banning him from the maintenance hangar, however, used stern language that stung Tollefson and his family.
“This action is being taken because of your repeated harassment of the museum staff and volunteers. You have been repeatedly warned by the museum staff that your behavior is disruptive,” reads an April 2013 letter signed by base Commander Col. Charles Hodges.
The commander’s letter says violating the order could trigger six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Tollefson and his friends call that threat a form of harassment against a longtime museum volunteer.
“I think somebody went overboard on the punishment,” said Carl Schuler, 91, of Graham, a friend of Tollefson’s who continues to volunteer at the museum. “I’d take him back tomorrow if I had the authority, but I don’t.”
RESTORING AN ‘EYESORE’
Tollefson, a former McChord civilian mechanic, said he doesn’t understand why the base is forbidding him from visiting the hangar. He wants to make a case that the B-18 is being mishandled under Jordan’s management.
“All my life I’ve been around McChord and it’s difficult not to say something in my defense,” Tollefson said.
None of the other 14 historic planes displayed on McChord’s Heritage Hill are covered by structures. The Air Force says it protects them with durable paint, washes them at least twice a year and inspects them weekly.
Tollefson’s affection for the B-18 goes back to 1986 when Foltz faced a choice about whether the Air Force should scrap it or give the new museum’s volunteers a chance to restore it.
“It was an eyesore,” Foltz , 76, remembered.
Tollefson and friends made a pledge to Foltz that they’d make it look like new. Foltz got them space to work by vouching they would not give up on the plane.
Most of the volunteers were former enlisted airmen who had a knack for finding parts as “scrounge artists” at McChord. Tollefson spent four years in the war repairing damaged bombers and knew his way around the air field.
“If they quit, I’ll be the first to kick their butts out,” Foltz remembered telling Air Force staff.
About 20 men worked on the plane consistently over the years. Tollefson’s late wife, Eve, would bring them cookies every Wednesday.
They’d visit Tacoma Screw, Boeing and local glass companies to ask for materials they could use. The News Tribune wrote about the project in 1986 and again in 1987. Tollefson kept the clips.
In the 1990s, Tollefson and his partners would make trips out of state to the crash sites of aircraft similar to the B-18. They’d scan the wreckage for usable parts while dodging shifty characters in the woods of Oregon, Schuler remembered.
Volunteers weren’t content just to make the plane presentable. They spent time making the bomb bay doors and other features work.
Today, just nine of the 20 men considered members of the B-18 restoration team are still alive.
CUT OFF FROM PROJECT
Letters exchanged over a four-year period between Air Force officials and Tollefson’s family show officers asking him to limit his visits to volunteer work areas.
In 2011, Tollefson wanted Air Force leaders to reconsider Jordan as the museum’s director.
Tensions escalated in late 2012. At one point, Tollefson said Jordan had him escorted by military police away from the hangar. At various points Tollefson threatened legal action.
In early 2013, Air Force Lt. Col. Marvin Fisher wrote an email to Tollefson’s son, Steve. It said the veteran would not be allowed to visit the maintenance hangar anymore.
The message describes the discomfort volunteers felt because of the public feud between Tollefson and Jordan.
“I truly have nothing but the utmost respect for your father, what he sacrificed for our great country, and all the time he spent working on the B-18 and I’m sure other projects,” Fisher wrote.
But Tollefson “needs to trust in the next generation of volunteers to take care of the B-18, and all of the other aircraft,” Fisher wrote. “The leadership in this wing is happy with the job Mr. Jordan has done, and plans to continue to support him.”
A HURTFUL LETTER
Steve Tollefson seemed relieved when he replied to Fisher, thanking the officer for clearly explaining the situation.
“I think that this letter should be official and legally binding. My dad will then have no further ‘confusion or hope on probation vs. permanent banning.’ Just getting it in writing is a big first step for my father to understand the process,” Steve Tollefson wrote.
Two months later, the base handed down Hodges’ letter with the threat of prosecution. It was a provost marshal form letter, not the respectful message that Fisher had given to Steve Tollefson.
It hurt the elder Tollefson. He felt he was punished without a chance to defend himself.
“They’ve never, never written to me to tell me what I did wrong,” he said.
He and his friends still put the plane first in their thoughts. It’s their legacy at McChord. They think it should be covered.
“Over the years they spent just religiously working on this plane, I’d hate to think of something happening to it,” Foltz said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646