I'm taking a different approach with this post. Rather than a formal narrative of facts discovered through research on the web, I'm sharing my experience of making a new friend.
This friendship isn't a typical one, although, I'm not really sure what a typical friendship is. I'm 40 years old. My new friend is 98. I live in Minnesota. He lives in Florida. Despite the fact, we both live near large bodies of water. One fresh and one salty (the water, not us).
We've never actually met face to face. Rather we were connected by chance.
On a beautiful February day earlier this year, I was at a ski resort in Wisconsin watching our youngest son compete in his fifth snowboard competition of the season. While warming up in the chalet, I decided to test the small resorts free WiFi on my phone and see if I could come up with any interesting research results about the Basic Flying School at Greenville, MS.
After a few strategic Google searches, I came across a result that was atypical as compared to the usual results. The article was an interesting mix of Major League Baseball and a WWII pilot, Mr. Joseph Stern.
Why was this article so intriguing to me? As a child, I spent many summers playing Little League baseball. I looked forward to it each summer until I was about 14 years old when I threw in the towel. While I enjoyed the game, I wasn't a stellar player and the game was getting more competitive than I felt I was suited for.
As for aviation, I was surrounded by it as a child. My dad was a corporate pilot for more than 30 years. I was fortunate to have been able to ride "shotgun" a number of times with him on some of his shorter trips, and even a few longer trips to exotic places like Altoona, PA, and tropical places like Naples, FL.
Aviation and baseball merged for me on one particular occasion where my dad "buzzed" the ball field. While I was intently covering right field, he made a low pass in a Cessna Citation (the field just so happened to be "close" to final approach). My maternal grandmother happened to be in the stands at the time and shouted, "Hey Jordan! There goes your dad!" For whatever reason, I was embarrassed. Not embarrassed that my dad buzzed the field. Rather, that grandma was hollering at me from across the field in front of so many strangers.
I went on to spend a short time in the Air Force, then left for a job in the civilian world for a company that manufactures general aviation aircraft. About 6 years ago I became very involved in WWII aviation with the Commemorative Air Force. Needless to say, the article struck a chord with me.
While intently reading the article back at the ski resort, I had completely forgotten about my numb fingers and toes and was enamored with this tale of Joseph Stern and his journey to Army Air Forces wings and serving his country during WWII.
To my surprise, the article had been written relatively recently (2016). I decided to see if I might be able to connect with the author, Mr. Steven Goldleaf, to see if he might be able to shed some light on where I might find this Joseph Stern he wrote of.
I was able to find Mr. Goldleaf's contact info and fired off an email to him from the chalet. Based on my success rate in hearing back from people I've contacted in support of my research, I wasn't too optimistic that I'd hear back from him. Remarkably, I had a reply in my inbox less than 5 minutes later stating that he has "dinner with Joe every Monday night" and he'd have Joe get in touch with me. Needless to say, I went back out on the slopes excited and hopeful.
Later that evening after dinner and retiring to our hotel room, I received an email notification from this websites "Share a Story" form. Shockingly, it was from Joseph Stern himself! His comment was quite straightforward,
"I was an aviation cadet student at Greenville in May & June 1943. I have a logbook with G,A,A,F, entries."
Steven sent a few additional emails with cell phone pictures of a few of Joe's wartime photographs, along with a few pictures of Joe's logbook entries from pilot training. Joe and I also emailed a few more times before finally connecting on the phone.
Our first phone conversation was 41 minutes long. It turns out, that has been one of our shortest conversations. A typical conversation with Joe lasts about an hour. All the while, he openly shares his experiences as a child, as an airman during the war, and life after the war. No holds barred. He frequently concludes his anecdotes with "that's another story". Indeed these are HIS stories that he is so willingly sharing with me in my quest to document his and other Greenville Flyers' experiences.
For being 98 years old, his memory is quite remarkable. While providing the names of many of his classmates, he also recalls their hometown, how their parents made a living, and other memorable experiences they shared together. Although, it turns out that some of his memories require "freshening up".
Without getting into the specifics, I asked Joe about a particular incident that occurred in 1944. Joe chuckled a bit, asked me how I found out about it, and provided a few limited details. Remarkably, he almost immediately recalled it occurred on a Sunday. When I checked the date out, it indeed occurred on a Sunday.
Our conversation turned to other life experiences for the next 25 minutes or so, but he circled back to the incident saying "Let me give you the story of what happened. Now it's coming back to me." He continued to provide me with details of this incident that occurred 76 years ago. While I have no way of knowing if all that he told me was true, it all seemed plausible. Maybe I'll share this incident in some later post, but that's another story.
During the conversation mentioned in the preceding text, Joe also shared with me a loss he suffered shortly after the war. While this loss was not the loss of a person, it was a loss of his past. His life experiences during the war.
While at Stuttgart Army Flying School (AFS), Stuttgart, Arkansas, Joe purchased a "classbook" (much like a high school yearbook) commemorating his pilot training class. Class 43-H. After the war, he returned to Brooklyn and lived in an apartment building with other family. A younger girl cousin found his classbook and decided she wanted to memorialize her hero cousin and clipped the photos of him from the pages of the book. Joe never saw those photos again and discarded the book years later since his photos were no longer included. This was the topic of my recent post, A Request for Help - Stuttgart Class 43-H Classbook.
I made a commitment to Joe to try to find a copy of his long lost classbook. Whether an original hard copy, or digital scan, I would do my best to find it. After reaching out to a number of resources, I made contact with The Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie in Stuttgart, Arkansas. Fortunately, they have a collection of classbooks for many of the classes that earned their wings at Stuttgart AFS. Museum intern Jesse Walsh committed to reviewing their collection to see if they had Class 43-H in their collection. After a week of anxious and impatient waiting, I received the call from Jesse that I was hoping for. She found it. And she found Joe's photos.
cadets sprawled out on the floor looking over a map, with Joe showing the others how to plan a cross country flight (below).
I recently sent Joe a digital copy of the classbook (if not obvious by now, at the age of 98 Joe is a regular user of modern technology). We spoke a few days after I sent it and he kindly thanked me for finding it. After a few exchanges of words of appreciation, he once again shifted to helping me. He frequently asks how he can help with this research. What information he might be able to provide. Who he can recall that was at Greenville with him. After reviewing the classbook, he recalled a gentleman named Warren E. Davis who was also at Greenville. He was sure to share that even after just receiving this piece of his past that he hadn't seen in over 70 years.
While our conversations were initially focused on me quizzing Joe on his wartime experiences, they have changed to us chatting about various aspects of both of our lives. From learning about each others accomplishments. To boasting about our families. Rather than researcher and subject, we are simply friends sharing conversation.
Interestingly, the article that led me to Joe was titled "My Newest Friend". It seems Joe has a knack for making new friends.