Growing Up to Become a B-17 Co-Pilot
2013-08-04 by Robbin Laird
In a follow up interview with Gordon Stephenson, the brother of the co-pilot of the B-17 remembered in the French ceremony at the end of June, I had a chance to talk about his brother, growing up to become a pilot and what it felt like when getting the news from Europe about his brother’s fate.
Question: Could you tell us about your family and growing up in the Midwest before the war?
Stephenson: We grew up on a farm outside of Ottumwa, Iowa, If you remember the program MASH, you remember Radar on MASH and “He was from Ottumwa,” he said. He wasn’t, but that was in the program.
We grew up on a large dairy farm. We milked about 50 head of cows every night and every morning, bottled our own milk, and delivered it in town. My brother was 10 years older than me, so he was more involved with the farm activities than me.
He graduated from high school in 1937. He was a National Honor Society student. He was the kind of person that liked to be around people, and worked hard. We moved to town in 1939. He went to college at Iowa State University, and he enrolled in a program to teach students how to fly.
The war was looming. A lot of the students felt that sooner or later they were going to be in combat somewhere. He wanted to fly. He learned to fly in a preflight training course, and then went into flying while he was in college. That was about 1940.
Question:: How big was your family?
Stephenson: There were three children in the family. Both my sister and brother were older. My brother was majoring in agricultural education when he went to Iowa State. He participated in a number of activities there, and was an outstanding student for the two, 2 ½ years at the university. Then he left school in early 1942, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
He was first sent to Santa Anna California where he immediately contracted scarlet fever. He remained in quarantine for several weeks before transferring to Luke Field outside Phoenix, Arizona where he received his wings in the second graduating class at Luke. He was then transferred to multi engine planes (bombers) and trained at places like Walla Walla, Washington, Pierre, South Dakota and Salina, Kansas.
After that they flew over to Europe. That would’ve been in mid-1942.
Question: So that put your brother in the initial group manning the 8th Air Force?
Stephenson: I believe so. At Santa Anna, he was told they needed people in bombers, so they put him there and he loved it. He fell in love with the B-17.
He flew over in quite a group of planes – eight to ten planes flew from the US to England.
He really enjoyed his time as a B-17 crew member, but unfortunately was shot down on his sixth mission over France. That was not unusual for the time. What was unusual was that he survived.
Question: I would like to turn from your brother to you and your family. What did you hear about your brother and when did you find out that he was missing in action?
Stephenson: We learned pretty quickly, about July 8, 1943, we learned that he was missing in action. My mother opened the door to get the telegram. It was very tough on her. We were Lutherans, and my mother was quite religious. My father was too but not outwardly so. But that evening, Dad said the Lord’s Prayer at the dinner table. I was around 12 at the time, and took it as would a 12 year old, who admired his brother.
When he came home on leave, and before he went overseas, he gave me asset of wings and some officer’s trousers. I’d wear them with great pride.
Question: What happened next for your brother?
Stephenson: We learned later that when the plane crashed, the German soldiers separated the officers from the enlisted men. My brother was very upset with this, but had little choice in the matter. He was then shipped to Stalag Luft III which was a Luftwaffe run prisoner of war camp northeast of Berlin.
(Note: The camp is best known for two famous prisoner escapes that took place there by tunneling, which were depicted in the films The Great Escape (1963) and The Wooden Horse (1950), and the books by former prisoners Paul Brickhill and Eric Williams from which these films were adapted.)
When the Russians advanced into Poland and East Germany, the prisoners, including my brother, were forcibly moved to Moosburg.
So when the Russians started advancing into East Germany, the Germans took all the prisoners out and lined them up and told them to take everything they could carry and to start walking. They walked for about two or three days during the winter and snow. They would hold up at night in churches, buildings, places like that. On the third day, they put them in cattle cars and arrived at Moosburg.
My brother and his fellow prisoners were liberated by Patton’s Army in May 1945.
We made a special request through the Red Cross to get him back early, because our Father was dying of cancer. It was a tough reunion for us, for Dad passed away six weeks after my brother returned.
Question:: If your brother was anything like my Father, he rarely wished to discuss the war until almost the end of his life.
Stephenson: My brother was like that as well. I will tell you one incident though that was quite rewarding. My wife and I had moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. My brother had come to visit with us, and wanted to return to Luke Field. He was there during a Thanksgiving holiday and we went to Luke Field during the Thanksgiving weekend.
We went to the front gate where you had to register, and I told them who he was and when he was there in 1942, and oh my goodness! They had guys coming out from behind desks and everywhere to hear the guy that was here before those guys were born.
There weren’t any planes flying that day, but they took us out on the flight line of F-16s.
My brother said: “There’s no way he would know anything about those airplanes,” but they took us all to the flight line. And then there were a couple of buildings and barracks and things that were still there that when he was there, and he reminisced about his time there.
But the people at the base were really interested. They registered him and they wrote up a little article about the visit.
A couple of days later I drove him back out there when they were flying, we stood off the north end of the runway and watched the F-16s come up just go almost straight up in the air, and tears came to his eyes and he said “There’s no way I could climb in an AT-6 and do anything like that,” but he really enjoyed watching the kids fly.
Question: I would imagine that training as a pilot in the run up to World War II had its own logic and excitement.
Stephenson: It did. My brother told me about what it was like training to become a pilot in that period of time. He told me that being the in Army Air Corps, you felt like you were better than anybody else. “And they were very arrogant and cocky,” he said. They’d go to bed and they carried pistols, and he said, “Everybody was lying in bed and nobody wanted to turn out the light, so the guys just pulled their pistols and shot out the bulbs.”
“We’d do crazy things.”
When they would be out flying the AT-6 over the highway going from Phoenix up to Las Vegas through a number of towns out there, “we would come down, they’d swoop over those cars right on the highway.”
Sometimes the cars would leave the highway.
So they’d come right at them and dive up in the air. “Crazy things, he said,” which you wouldn’t have a chance to do anything like that now, you’d be removed.
He once told me about his solo qualification flight where he flew over the Grand Canyon and just south of Las Vegas and then back over into a section of California and then back to Luke Field.
Question: What did he say about the crash landing of the B-17 in France?
Stephenson: The skill of the pilot in landing the plane on one engine into the water in low tide was amazing. He mentioned to me as well the fate of the bombardier, who was apparently a real crazy guy. But he was apparently a great bombardier.
When they crash landed, he was thrown through the front of the B-17 straight through the plastic nose of the airplane. He was injured but my brother was not able to talk with him as the Germans separated the officers from the enlisted men as I mentioned earlier.
Question: How did you come to get involved with the celebration in France to honor the B-17 crew?
Stephenson: My brother had been contacted by a French enthusiast about the B-17s in France, a Dr. Gouraud, who wanted to meet him.
Dr. Gouraud had been recording crash sites, recording where pilots and crew had bailed out, and the activities of the underground that worked to rescue them.
Dr. Gouraud identified my brother’s plane and identified the crew and made it known to everybody who they were so they could honor them.
He sent a picture in probably ’98 to my brother of the plane exposed above the water at low tide with the barricades and things around it.
My brother declined to travel to France. He was not in bad health, but I believe he did not want to relive the experience. Our son was living in Europe so when we went to visit him, we then went down from Holland to France to meet Dr. Gouraud. He and his wife took us to their house, where outside was a large American flag, and he then took us later to the crash site.
A few years later, I came back and talked with two of the residents of the village who witnessed the crash, including Annie whom I mentioned in my speech at the ceremony. You will remember that I told the story about my previous interview with her and how I got on the cell phone and called my brother.
It was really exciting because her eyes just got so big, and then she started shedding a few tears.
But like I said in my talk, it was closure for her because she was so afraid that all of those men had been shot by the Nazis.
She had witnessed the crash when she was only 12. She was so happy to know that they all lived, and when she heard the voice of one of them, that just really closed the book for her.
For a Sleeping Dogs production featuring Gary Sinise which tells the story of another B-17 World War II veteran, please see the following:
For earlier pieces on the ceremony and the B-17 story see the following:
To help keep the B-17 flying: