Donald A. Stevens worked at shaping sheet metal into structural parts for airplanes at the Glenn L. Martin Co. factory in Baltimore. Each day, he left work wondering what it would be like to fly a fully assembled aircraft.
So one day, at age 21, Stevens and a co-worker, who wondered the same, showed up at the Army Air Forces recruiting station and enlisted into the Aviation Cadet Program.
“All the way along, I didn’t know if I was going to make it from one phase to the next: preflight, primary flying, basic flying and advanced flying,” Stevens says. “At primary flying school, the instructor knew in about six hours whether you had the coordination to fly.”
In the end, Stevens passed with flying colors and, by late June 1944, he and his crew picked up a brand-new B-17 Flying Fortress in Savannah, Ga.
Six days later, they touched down in Italy, having taken the long way in order to refuel. There were stops in New Hampshire, Newfoundland, the Azores, Africa and finally Foggia, Italy.
Getting there, it turned out, was the easy part.
Stevens and the nine fellow crew members flew a total of 35 bombing missions, but none was more challenging than the one on Aug. 19, 1944.
“The most exciting mission was over the Ploesti oil refinery in Romania,” he recalls. “It was my seventh mission, and we were the last bomber group in. It happened on my birthday. … We were on the bombing run, and I was co-pilot that day observing off my right wingtip and saw four anti-aircraft shells go off.
“We continued on the bombing run, and I saw a second group of four anti-aircraft shells go off at the same altitude, only closer this time. I was hoping that we could drop our 500-pound bombs and get out of there. We were flying at 26,000 feet, and once we dropped the bombs, our plane would pick up speed and get out of the range of the anti-aircraft guns.”
No such luck.
“We took a direct hit on our No. 3 engine. Following that, we lost the superchargers on engines No. 1 and No. 2. That slowed the pressure of fuel going into those engines.”
Donald A. Stevens, 92
Hometown: Village of McGraw, Cortland County
Branch: Army Air Forces
War zone: Europe
Years of service: Active duty, 1942-45; Air Force Reserve, 1945-70
Ranks: Active duty, first lieutenant; Air Force Reserve, lieutenant colonel
Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, seven Air Medals, numerous campaign ribbons
Specialty: B-17 pilot
Creeping along in last place, Stevens’ B-17 arrived over the oil refinery and managed to drop its payload.
With that accomplished, the crew faced the challenge of returning to Italy.
“We slowly lost altitude with our one good engine and became vulnerable to enemy fire, but four (P-51) Mustang fighters escorted us into Yugoslavia, which was more or less friendly territory.”
Then the escorts broke away, and there were more difficulties. The B-17’s instruments were out of commission.
“We were in the clouds and couldn’t tell if our plane was level or not and we were dropping. We were at 3,000 feet, and the enemy started shooting at us. We headed over the Adriatic Sea to get out of range and thought we would have to ditch the plane.
“We called air-sea rescue, but at the last minute, we spotted our base. We were flying at 500 feet, and our gas tanks were reading empty.”
Still, they were not home-free.
“Our flight engineer told us we couldn’t land because we only had one wheel down. So we did a 360-degree turn over the end the of the runway – not knowing if we’d have enough fuel – and when we came in for the landing, the engineer was still cranking the tail wheel down.”
Incredibly, the plane landed safely. Mechanics who repaired the aircraft later told Stevens that the fuel tanks were bone-dry.
“We must have landed on fumes,” he says.
Coming home last, Stevens found out, reaped an unlikely honor. He and his crew would go down in history as the last Allied bomber to drop bombs on Ploesti, the strategic oil refinery that had fueled the German war machine.
“Russian ground forces moved in after our bombing run and took over the refinery.”
After the war, Stevens got married and graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering. Soon after, he joined Alliance Tool Corp. as one of 60 workers and advanced to become a partner in the company.
The company, with seven divisions and 1,400 employees in 1979, was purchased by Gleason Works. In 1981, Stevens retired.
“It was a dream deal,” he says of the sale. “I always tell people I was born at the right time. The war came along, and instead of being drafted, I enlisted, and after the war, there was all kinds of work, and you could be successful.
“The world needed everything.”