LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Seventy five years ago, Larry Stevens graduated Alhambra High School early so he could join the Army. In 1943, Larry was like many other young men of his age that were eager to serve their country during a dark period in history. The 1940s were a pivot point between the bitter hard times of the depression and the new awakening of a powerful country that turned all of its natural wealth and energy toward the global struggle known as World War II.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” Larry Stevens found his destiny as a tail gunner on the most famous bomber of the second world war, the B-17, know as the “Flying Fortress.” Where most crewman seldom survived beyond 12 missions, Stevens flew an incredible 35 missions over Nazi occupied Europe. At 93 years old, he confesses to forgetting some things, but remembers his journey from Alhambra to Berlin with a clarity only known to those who have survived the impossible.
Larry Stevens was born in Alhambra at the family home in 1924. Times were hard and money was tight, so most families had their children at home. How did Stevens like growing up in Alhambra?
“I was born in heaven. It was country. I woke up every morning with a blue sky, green mountains and fresh air,” he said.
There were a lot of horses around and Atlantic Boulevard was merely a dirt road bordered by pepper trees. Main Street even had a blacksmith’s shop where I got my bike repaired. We played on South Atlantic gathering pollywogs and explored the wildlands of Garvey Hills and Coyote Pass – now the intersection of Garvey and Atlantic.
After Pearl Harbor, every boy in his High School entered the service as soon as they turned 18, including Stevens. He and his two best friends rushed to Downtown Los Angeles to enlist in the Army. By May 1943, he was in basic training in New Jersey. One day while marching on the boardwalk, he spotted a young sergeant with wings on his chest and asked if he was a pilot. His friend said that he was in the Army Air Forces. “I liked the look of those wings and applied immediately for the Air Corps,” Stevens said. To qualify for the Army Air Forces, he was given a bucket of different sized nuts and bolts and told to take them all apart and put them back together again while being timed. He did well on the test and was asked if he would like to be a gunner on a bomber. “That’s for me!!” he replied, and off he went to gunnery school in Fort Myers, Florida. During gunnery school he had to disassemble and assemble a .50 caliber machine gun blindfolded and wearing gloves. With a wry smile, he confessed that the army did have some rhyme or reason for the bucket of bolts after all.
After completing gunnery school, Larry was introduced to the other nine men who made up his crew for his tour of service. These men would share the dangers ahead and would learn to act as a unit that depended on one another for survival. In March of 1944, his crew arrived in England after a five day trip on the Queen Elizabeth, which zig-zagged across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid German submarines. His new home was at a base in Horham, England. He now belong to the 95th Bomb Group, which was part of the 8th Air Force. Upon entering his squadron’s orderly room office to get his bedding assignment, he was confronted by the sight of 40 wallets on the counter. He asked, “What is with all the wallets?” He was told that he was one of their replacements. The day before four planes were lost and four planes with 10 crewmen equaled 40 wallets. The reality of what he was going to face hit him squarely that day. Still, Stevens said he was 18 and thought he was invincible.
The 8th air force suffered horrific losses in 1942 and 1943. The British bombed at night and the Americans by day. This left the American bomber forces exposed to both anti-aircraft fire from the ground known as flak, and relentless air attack by the German Luftwaffe fighter planes. The losses were so devastating to morale that a “completed tour of duty” of 25 missions was instituted in order to relieve the mental and physical strain on the crew. This gave the flight crews a number they could believe in and provided some hope for survival. By the time Stevens and his crew began their first mission, the addition of long range fighter escorts had increased the odds for survival and the mission number was raised to 35. Still the odds were not good and very few crews made it all the way to the end without being shot down.
Stevens and his crew were assigned a B-17 and as was the custom, they gave it a name. Their plane “Full House” was painted with a set of cards showing a poker full house. A typical mission day began at 3 AM with breakfast and then all the crews would assemble in a smoke filled room where a curtain would be removed from a large map marking their target for the day with a string of yarn. There would be a loud reaction from the men, especially if the target was Berlin, the heavily defended capital of Germany. The crewmen would suit up with a heated flight suit, heavy leather jump suits with fur collars and the last hope for an airman, their parachute. The armada of bombers would take off and assemble over England and then would follow a very precise route to the target.
There was little oxygen at the 25,000 ft altitude they maintained as they flew to the target. The temperatures ranged from 40 to 60 degrees below zero. Failures of oxygen systems caused immediate blackout and death would follow within minutes. Collisions with other planes in the clouds and fog added to the list of possible dangers. Stevens told me that during one mission, his plane flew off course and through the entire formation in the fog, all without hitting another plane. Another time, a direct hit by flak went through his plane without exploding it and on another mission, a fire in the oxygen system blew a column of flame forward that caused his navigator and bombardier to bail out. From his position in the tail he could see planes exploding. Sometimes the sky was filled with hundreds of parachutes.
His crew was one mission short of the 35 to go home when they were given a rest pass in London to settle their nerves. Another crew on their first mission was assigned their plane and “Full House” was shot down. There were no survivors. “Such is the luck of the draw,” said Stevens. “First mission, middle mission, last mission – it only takes one.”*
Returning home to Alhambra after being discharged from the Army, Stevens went to work with his father in his lath and plaster business. Here he met his father’s new secretary, Henrietta Ochoa and she became his wife. His father gave them the back half of his lot on Edith Street, north of Valley Boulevard, and he built a two bedroom house. He joined the Alhambra Fire Department in 1955 and retired 30 years later as a captain.
He and Henrietta now live in Temple City surrounded by mementos of a long life: a dusty pair of fireman boots, a framed collection of medals from his service and pictures of his grandchildren. As I sat and looked at the Stevenses in their living room, I could not help but reflect on the passing of one generation to another and how that profoundly affects us throughout our lives. Many people, as well as my own parents, grew up in a simpler America. They represented Americans that worked together to defeat a common enemy and then returned home to work hard and move forward with their dreams. Today, life is much more complicated. The national and global forces that shaped the lives of the Stevenses and my parents have evolved into a complexity that does more to divide us than unite. Recalling the generational stories of our parents adds richness to our lives; their accomplishments and struggles can give us hope when we despair.
Trying to explain his good fortune and looking back on his long life, Stevens said that he owes all to his parents. His father would always project a positive attitude even during the worst of the depression years where work was scarce and everyone struggled to put food on the table. When he was younger and faced a daunting problem, his father would take him aside and tell him, “You can do it, let’s solve this together.” He brought this optimism with him through the 35 missions and remembers being asked by the co-pilot after they returned safely to their base on their final mission if he ever thought they would be shot down. He said, “No, I just knew we were going to make it.” He looked at me and told me it was being positive in his thinking that has made all the difference in his life.
*It Only Takes One is a book of Larry Stevens’ memoirs of World War II available on Amazon.