Tommy Carr has had a passion for aviation and model plane building since he was a child growing up in Tupelo.
Carr, 72, estimates the number of planes he’s constructed from kits to be in the hundreds. He especially enjoys building models of the jet fighters and bombers that flew during World War II.
Those models, however, don’t have the personal attachment Carr has for his latest project. Sitting on a drafting table in Carr ‘s Bristow Acres home is a replica of a plane that carried the Tupelo name and a native son to bombing raids over German-occupied Europe.
The Tupelo Lass, a B-24 Liberator bomber piloted by Tupeloan Jake Epting, flew numerous missions with the U.S. Army Air Corps. It was involved in the Aug. 1, 1943, raid of Hitler’s oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania – the largest aerial assault ever at that time.
Carr devoted hundreds of man-hours to recreating the Lass. The project and its Tupelo connection allowed him to rediscover a part of aviation and WWII history.
“It’s just amazing. I can’t believe I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “I read everything I could get my hands on about airplanes and World War II. It never turned up anywhere until just now.”
Building the Lass
Carr in his younger days had dreams of becoming a military pilot. He said he almost received an appointment to the Air Force Academy, but it was rejected when a physical revealed he didn’t have the depth perception to fly a plane.
“That’s what I really wanted to do,” said Carr, who eventually served in the U.S. Army between 1958-62. “Once they told me that, I kind of lost interest in the flying part. But I stayed an airplane nut all my life.”
Patrick Scott, who also grew up in Tupelo, encouraged his friend to use his model-building skills to recreate the Lass. Scott, who now resides in Merritt Island, Fla., purchased the B-24 kit Carr used for the project.
Carr said he knew of Epting, the decorated airman whose family home was about 200 yards from Carr’s childhood home on North Gloster Street. For Scott, “Little Jake” Epting was a boyhood hero who made a daring flight over Tupelo before going to Europe.
“Jake buzzed the town in 1943 before he was deployed,” said Scott, 70, in a telephone interview. “He came down Main Street at treetop level with a B-24 bomber. Then he and his navigator, Ed Weir, went to Ed’s hometown in Texas and buzzed that town, too.”
According to Carr, the usual B-24 had a wingspan of 110 feet and fuselage of about 68 feet long. The Tupelo Lass he built has a 48-1/2 inch wingspan and fuselage of 33 1/2 inches.
Carr divided his time working on the Lass in a workroom inside his home and a shop next to the house. Even though he used parts from the kit to build the Lass, he handmade some of the features, like the propellers.
For the plane’s dark green cover, he used tissue paper similar to what’s used for gift wrapping. The cover is so fragile, Carr said, a fingertip touch could poke a hole in the plane.
“I put nine coats of clear lacquer on it, “ he said. “When I get down to that point, I have to get out of this room to do it because of the fumes, and that’s what slows you down a lot. Out there in my shop, if it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s 120 in the shop. That’s where I did the covering and the lacquering. Everything else I did on the work table. “
When building a plane, Carr said he pays attention to precise details to make it look exactly like the original. To get an idea of how the Lass looked, Carr viewed photos of it in various publications, including a 1999 Lee County Neighbors article about Epting and the Tupelo Lass and a copy of Ed Weir’s biography, “Down to Two Feet Altitude,” by James A. Wells.
The Lass markings and artwork included a panda (mascot of the 409th Bombardment Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Group) on the left side of the nose, a pin-up girl and the Tupelo Lass name on the right of the nose, and the names of the crew members where they were positioned in the plane. Carr said he painted everything except the stars and the letters, which were decals.
Writing the crew names, including Epting’s on the left side of the cockpit, in tiny letters was not an easy task.
“My eyes are not what they used to be,” Carr said. “I should’ve done this about 10 years ago when my eyes were a little better. But I got it all on there.”
After finishing his model and comparing it to the photos of the Lass, Carr was pleased with the finished product. After thinking about it, Carr figured he put between 300 and 400 hours into the project.
“I guess if you sit down without any interruptions and work on it everyday, it would take, I guess, three months,” he said. “As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much like the original.”
Going to the museum
Carr’s Tupelo Lass will have a permanent home in the Tupelo Veterans Museum, which is adjacent to the Oren Dunn City Museum at Ballard Park. Many of Carr’s airplanes are already on display there.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Tony Lute, Veterans Museum curator, of Carr’s Lass. “It’s been almost a year in the making.”
The presentation of the Tupelo Lass to the museum is scheduled for Labor Day. Carr and Scott, who is coming to Tupelo this weekend, will take part in the ceremony.
Lute said the Tupelo Lass will receive special treatment.
“Right now, Pierce Cabinet Shop is building a case for it,” he said. “It’s going to be a first-class thing all the way instead of hanging from the ceiling like the rest of the planes.”
For Carr, the project has given him a better knowledge and a greater appreciation of Jake Epting, the Tupelo Lass and their service during World War II. He hopes others will feel the same way too when they see the Tupelo Lass on display.
“I can’t believe as much as I’ve read and fooled with this kind of thing that people are just now finding out about it,” he said. “I’m glad there are people still interested in it.”
Contact Neighbors Editor Bobby Pepper at (662) 678-1592.
Bobby Pepper/NEMS Daily Journal