Harold Stevens made the planes fly for USAF

Conclusion. Continued from last month

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

Harold Stevens, one of the last survivors of the North Louisiana sawmill era of the 1920s and 30s, distinguished himself in the classroom, as well as earning All-State honors as a superb basketball star at Trout-Good Pine High School in LaSalle Parish. The bulk of the games he played in were played on dirt courts, out of doors. Because of his basketball prowess, the coach from Louisiana State Normal College at Natchitoches offered him a full athletic scholarship to switch allegiance from the T-GP Red Devils to the LSN Purple Demons.

Harold attended two semesters in 1938-39 as World War II loomed on the horizon. Reading the handwriting on the wall, he and his older brother decided to join the U.S. Army Air Corps rather than wait to be called in the impending draft that was inducting young men he knew every month. He didn't want any of the foot-slogging in the U.S. Army which is where draftees invariably ended up, and that's the reason the Stevens brothers ended up at Barksdale Army Air Base in Bossier City, Louisiana, where he underwent Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (A.I.T.). After Basic, he was sent to Chanute Air Corps Base at Champagne, Illinois for further airplane mechanics training. Then it was back to Louisiana and Barksdale again where he and other mechanics worked to get aircraft ready to be ferried overseas to England. They had a mandate to have them airworthy in no more than 2-3 days to make the long oceanic flight to the British Isles.

In the two years he was stationed at Barksdale he worked on just about every type of plane being manufactured by various plants all over the US. He worked on P-38s, P-40s, C-47s, and put each one through a rigid pre-flight check, doing essentially everything mechanical to an airplane except fly it.

In June of 1943 he was transferred to Lake Charles Air Force Base (This was before it was renamed in honor of Brig. General Claire Lee Chennault from Waterproof, Louisiana). He was there for three months, and in September 1943 Harold's whole group was transferred to Laurel, Mississippi, where they became a support group for another series of Louisiana maneuvers which was readying the invasion forces for D-Day, June 6, 1944. These operations lasted for two months.

In November 1943 his group was flown to a New York airport and then bussed to Fort Dix, N.J., which was a super busy embarkation port for troops bound for the European theatre during WWII.

Stevens and his group were loaded on an old French ship which had seen better seafaring days, and helped make up a 30-ship convoy headed for England along with many other service groups. It took two weeks to get to Southampton, England because the convoy was constantly zigging and zagging to avoid U-boat attacks.

There were so many Americans, Canadians, Australians, plus airplanes, armament and logistical supplies in England by January of 1944, that someone said it was a wonder the island didn't sink.

Harold Stevens' group was broken into groups of 12 men per Quonset hut on the base with their tasks consisting primarily of loading 500-pound bombs on flight groups of A-26s, which were hastily re-designed versions of the original B-26 medium bombers which Doolittle's Raiders used to bomb Tokyo. The A-26 groups each contained 32 planes, each with one pilot, no co-pilot, and one navigator per four planes. Harold and all the other ordnance crews had steadily performed their maintenance and bomb-loading chores when all of a sudden six months later it was D-Day.

One of the events that helped alter Harold's perspective was the loss of so many fast friends he made at the Southampton aerodrome. He had one buddy in particular from Moultrie, Georgia who was very religious. He never went to the NCO clubs or into town to any of the brothels like most of the men did. In one of the last conversations they had he told Harold, "Steve, even if I amass enough points to get shipped home, I'm going to stay here until we achieve victory."

He was a waist gunner on an A-26, and on the day the war ended his plane got shot down, with witnesses stating that there were no parachutes seen bailing out of the flaming aircraft as it headed downward.

Harold got to ride the ocean liner, the Queen Elizabeth home along with 15,000 other servicemen. They ate like royalty. It took 20 days to get overseas, but only five days to get back to New York. He said there were ticker tape parades and literally hundreds of thousands of people, and confetti by the ton in the welcoming parades.

After Harold made it back to LaSalle Parish, he noticed everything had changed, and his whole outlook on life had too, dramatically. He no longer wanted to go back to college, because he'd been out five years, and all he wanted to do was get a job of some sort and eke out a living.