Like many things designed on government contract before and since, the warbirds of World War II had their quirks. But thanks to the men and women who built them, flew them and maintained them, these airplanes played a leading role in defeating fascism.

For the second year in a row, the North Coast this week was honored by a visit from the "Wings of Freedom" tour, this time by three vintage bombers - the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator and B-25 Mitchell. Lovingly restored, each is a vibrant living history project, a tribute to our nation's darkest hours and most glorious achievements.

Thousands of these planes were manufactured - many here on the West Coast - but their numbers have dwindled to a precious few, rather like the brave young men who flew them in the war. Everybody who contributes to the survival of these national treasures deserves thanks, even those who pay a few dollars to poke around in the cramped interiors of these marvelous antiques.

To step into one of these planes is to be transported back in time to their days of adrenaline, blood and sweat, when youthful fliers fitted themselves into tiny spaces with certain knowledge that many wouldn't return to fly another mission.

It was, for example, no accident that the B-24 was sometimes called "The Flying Coffin." With only one entry and exit, virtually inaccessible to men evacuating the flight deck while wearing parachutes, the B-24 was all too often a one-way ticket over occupied Europe.

It took astonishing courage to climb aboard the B-24 and other World War II-vintage planes day after day, week after week, for flights packed with flak and enemy fighters. This bravery deserves to be recalled for as long as our great nation survives. We are fortunate indeed to have these tough old warbirds to remind us of humanity's debt to a generation that put life on the line in the cause of liberty.