Aug. 19, 1921 — March 10, 2019
Donald A. Stevens, who went from building airplanes in a Baltimore factory to flying them in heroic missions during World War II, died last Sunday in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga. He was 97.
Born in McGraw in Cortland County, he graduated from McGraw Central High School, then worked shaping sheet metal for airplanes at the Glenn L. Martin Co., which later merged to form Lockheed Martin.
At age 21, Mr. Stevens enlisted in the Army Air Forces' Aviation Cadet Program. He went on to pilot a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II in Europe, undertaking 35 bombing missions and earning a chest full of medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.
On his 23rd birthday, he and his crew were sent to bomb the Ploiești oil fields in Romania, which supplied fuel to Nazi Germany. Attacked by enemy fighters, they took a direct hit to an engine, but managed to complete their assignment before making a dangerous and difficult return to Italy, where they landed with empty fuel tanks.
Mr. Stevens described it as his "most exciting mission" in a 2014 Buffalo News interview.
He then served in the Air Force Reserve from 1945 to 1970, earning the rank of lieutenant colonel.
After the war, Mr. Stevens returned to McGraw and married his high school sweetheart, Elva Russell. He went on to graduate from Rochester Institute of Technology with a mechanical engineering degree and worked as a tool engineer at Alliance Tool and Die in Rochester until his retirement in 1984.
He and his wife had a daughter, Diane Dye, whom he championed.
"When I decided to major in art, people said, 'What's she going to do with that?' " his daughter related by phone Saturday. "And he said, 'Anything she wants.' "
A snowbird who split time between Gowanda and Crystal Springs, Fla., Mr. Stevens was a Mason, a Shriner and a member of United Methodist churches in Greece, N.Y. and Crystal River, Fla.
He gave up golfing at age 81, not because he was too old, but because he had gotten his first hole-in-one and wanted to go out on top. He continued driving until last summer.
Mr. Stevens was most gratified by his family and was close with his daughter, who drove back and forth with him to Florida each year. A history buff, he would seek out side trips to notable sites such as Andersonville National Cemetery and Plains, Ga., along the way. He had done the same when he was stationed in Italy and on family vacations.
Looking back on his life and career in 2014, he described it to a News reporter as "a dream deal."
"I always tell people I was born at the right time," he said.
His wife died in 2013.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.
There will be no prior visitation. Burial will be in Florida National Cemetery, Bushnell, Fla.