On August 25, 1944, Larry Stevens and the rest of his Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber crew completed their 35th mission over Nazi-occupied Europe. Since April 25, 1944, they had bombed targets in France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.
As part of the Eighth Air Force, they had flown from bases in England, Russia, and Italy. They bombed submarine pens, airfields, V-1 and V-2 rocket factories, dropped supplies to French Resistance fighters, and flew over Normandy on D-Day. Stevens was just 20 years old when his war ended.
Joining the Air Force
Like most Americans, Larry Stevens’s war started on December 7, 1941. He was then a sophomore at Alhambra High School in southern California. He did his bit as an air-raid warden—admonishing his neighbors to turn their lights out in case of air raids. On the night of February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled an oil terminal on the coast near Santa Barbara. In Los Angeles, air raid sirens and searchlights pierced the night sky and Stevens ran from door to door to ensure that the lights were off.
In April 1943, Stevens, now a high school senior, joined two friends in enlisting in the U.S. Army. They were given a month to put their affairs in order and used the time to arrange with their teachers to let them graduate early.
On May 10, Stevens boarded a bus for a staging area near San Bernardino, where the recruits were given uniforms, inoculations, and an IQ test. Then they were asked what branch of the Army they were most interested in. Stevens had taken photography classes in school, so he elected the air force; perhaps he could become an aerial reconnaissance photographer.
He soon found himself on a train to Atlantic City, New Jersey, home of the Army Air Forces Training Command (AAFTC), where new personnel received basic training and were introduced to such subjects as indoctrination into the air force, pilot and aircrew training, and technical training.
The AAFTC lacked enough barracks for the thousands of new recruits, so many were housed in the Claridge and other hotels on the famous boardwalk. But it was no vacation. Stevens remembers that his NCO was from the South and a man of few words, about 20 of them, “all curse words that he used to put a sentence together.”
Six days a week the new men hiked some 13 miles through the streets of the city, singing Air Corps songs. Their destination was a city dump where they practiced close-order drill and marksmanship.
Tailgunner in a B-17
When Stevens was asked if he wanted to be an airplane gunner, he jumped at the chance, but that evening, August 18, 1943, he saw the headlines in the paper: “Sixty B-17’s lost over Schweinfurt and Regensburg.” Then he wasn’t so sure, but it was too late to change his mind.
He was soon on a train again, this time heading west for armament school at Lowry Army Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado. There he learned, among other things, aerial gunnery and how to field strip and reassemble a .50-caliber machine gun while blindfolded and wearing gloves. He also practiced aircraft recognition.
From Lowry the new gunners were sent to gunnery school in Fort Meyers, Florida. In addition to more training, the troops shot skeet twice a day. It was pleasant duty but was punctuated by sadness when Stevens received a letter from his mother informing him that his older brother Ernie had been killed in action at Messina, Sicily.
In December 1943, Stevens joined his 10-man B-17 bomber crew. He was assigned to be the tail gunner and he took to it right away. Everyone else was close enough to other crewmen for conversation—at least over the interphone; the noise from the engines blotted out normal conversation. The tail gunner was all alone.
He would rest on his knees and sit on a bicycle seat that could take part of his weight. He had a good view of the sky behind the plane, but there were a few blind spots. At altitude he would breathe from an oxygen mask and wear a fleece-lined full body suit that was heated with wires connected to the plane’s electrical system. His parachute was always close at hand.
The crew practiced flying in a B-17, cross training in each other’s jobs (Stevens also learned to operate the radio), and the important work of getting to know each other. On March 31, 1944, the crew boarded the liner Queen Elizabeth in her wartime gray livery and sailed for England along a zigzag course to elude U-boats. Among the other military passengers on board was world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Lewis. Although technically in the Army, Lewis was in the Special Services division and put on boxing exhibitions to entertain the troops and raise money for charities.
After docking in Scotland, the flyboys took a train to their airfield near the tiny (population 50) rural village of Horham, England, about 80 miles northeast of London, to become a part of the Eighth Air Force. RAF Horham was the home of the 13th Combat Bombardment Wing, 95th Bombardment Group, 3rd Bomb Division. RAF Horham’s U.S. Air Force designation was Station 119; about 3,000 Americans were based there.
Upon entering their headquarters quonset hut for the first time, Larry and the other men noticed 40 wallets on the counter of the orderly room. When they inquired about the wallets, they were told, “You’re their replacements. We lost four crews yesterday. Welcome to the real world.”
After this sober greeting, the men settled in. The hut was Spartan. It had room for two enlisted crews of six men each; the officers bunked elsewhere. There was a pot-bellied iron stove in the center of the room for heat and for boiling water to make tea. Each bunk was topped by a straw mattress covered with canvas. There were no sheets or pillowcases, just scratchy Army-issued wool blankets.
Larry and the other new men soon learned that the Eighth Air Force was spread across 45 different bomber airfields in Britain and divided into three bomb divisions. The 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions flew B-17s, while the 2nd Division flew the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Each division contained 15 groups, and each group had four squadrons of seven to 12 planes each. Five or six of these were available for flying at any one time. Three squadrons could put 20 planes in the air at a time. Sixty planes became a “wing.” The fourth squadron stood down for maintenance.
After a few days at RAF Horham, the new crews were scheduled to take a familiarization flight around the country. They were to use an old B-17F called Patches because it had been patched up so often following previous missions. As the new men assembled by the runway, they heard a loud explosion in the thick clouds above. As they watched, the broken sections of two B-17s, having collided in the thick clouds above, crashed in front of them; 15 men were lost. The familiarization flight was cancelled.
Full House Over France
On April 25, 1944, Stevens flew his first combat mission—over Dijon, France. The crew was awakened at 1:45 am, went to the latrine, had breakfast, and assembled in the smoke-filled briefing room where a blanket covered a large map of Europe.
The blanket was removed, and the men were shown their primary target along with secondary targets and the routes they would take. The revelation of the day’s target was always met with groans and gripes. After the briefing, the gunners collected their .50-caliber machine guns from armament, where they had been cleaned and oiled. They were then driven to their planes, and the guns were mounted before takeoff. This was the routine for every mission.
Because there were so many airfields in Great Britain at the time and because the skies were almost always cloudy, each plane flew in a tight spiral over its own airfield to gain altitude and reach clear skies above. Then they would seek out the other planes in their group (each group had unique tail marking for identification) and join the wing in formation while heading for the target.
Stevens’s plane flew tail’s ass Charlie—the last plane in the “wing.” There was light flak, but no enemy fighters appeared. The first mission to Dijon was a success; that mission logged eight hours and 45 minutes in the air. On landing, the men were given a shot of scotch and went through a thorough debriefing—what kind of flak and enemy fighters were encountered, what were the weather conditions like, any mechanical problems to the target and back, etc. Stevens told his interviewer that he had seen a lone, unmarked B-17 in the distance at their same course and speed. He then learned that the Germans often flew captured B-17s to radio to the ground the altitude and speed of the bombing formations to alert their gunners below and fighters above.