When I was introduced to Joe Stern in February 2020, the word 'pandemic' was merely another deposit in my vocabular vault. There for safe-keeping, should I ever need to withdraw it. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was barely familiar to me, much like the rest of the American population. As conversations between Joe and I flourished over the following months, so did COVID-19. I had never imagined a pandemic would become a reality, but I imagine guys like Joe Stern thought the same about a second world war.
As discussed in the post, The Brooklyn Flyer - Joseph Stern, Joe frequently regales me with anecdotes of his time serving in the Army Air Forces during WWII. Since our introduction, we've spoken 23 times. For the statisticians, the combined duration of those calls is 20 hours 34 minutes (but who's counting?). Those phone calls seemed to be the only avenue where we'd be able to share conversation due to the ongoing pandemic. We did discuss a meeting in passing, but the obvious health concerns at the time put the kibosh on that idea.
With the improving travel situation in May 2021, Joe was able to celebrate his 99th birthday with family visiting him at his home in Florida. 99 years. That's a significant amount of life experience. The Great Depression. World War II. The Holocaust. Children. Grandchildren. A career. Retirement. Loss of friends and loved ones. Making new friends.
Joe's visiting family and birthday milestone inspired a wild idea. An in-person meeting between two people who've shared conversation only on the phone. With his concurrence, airline tickets were promptly secured. We both had looked forward to this opportunity, but the time was right to make it happen. Not only was it a chance to further our conversations about his experiences, but it was also a step in a direction resembling life before the pandemic (there's that word again).
Joe was sure to take care of me over the entire course of my travel. While he had offered to personally pick me up from the airport should I have flown into the nearer airport, I opted for a slightly further away port of arrival to minimize connections. Nonetheless, Joe secured a ride for his guest from the airport to his home. He would have done it himself, but he prefers to not drive quite as far as that would have required.
My lodging accommodations were the best in town. Casa de Stern. I lucked out on availability as the busy season had passed just prior to my arrival. When it came time to depart, mutual friend Mr. Steven Goldleaf took time out of his busy early morning routine to get me back to the airport to return home.
When I arrived at Casa de Stern, I was not as apprehensive as I thought I might be. While we've spent more than 20 hours talking on the phone, we had never met. Approaching his front door for the first time, I couldn't help but take a moment to appreciate the situation. I was going to be spending the next three days with Joe. A WWII veteran who flew BT-13's at the same field where the BT-13 I help care for and fly was based. A pilot who served our country during one of the most significant wars in modern history. A man who I've been privileged to call my friend.
When I rang his doorbell, there was a fleeting moment of "what am I doing here?" That quickly vanished and Joe appeared in front of me. He enthusiastically greeted me and showed me into his home. I imagine the anole lizard sunbathing on the wall thought, "What are these fools grinning about?"
We spent our first day together mostly just catching up about our lives and rehashing some of his stories that he'd shared with me over the phone. While we didn't stumble upon any new revelations that day, there was a certain excitement about hearing these anecdotes first hand, looking Joe in the eyes and getting a sense of emotion that can't be shared through the phone.
That evening, Steven took Joe and I out for dinner. It was a birthday dinner for Joe. Steven was unable to take him out on his birthday due to a constant stream of visitors at Casa de Stern for the week or so prior. We shared BBQ and conversation at one of their local favorite eateries. They hadn't been out to eat for quite some time due to the ongoing pande... Well, you know. (I've overdrawn my vocabulary account with that one.)
Back at Casa de Stern, Joe and I spent some time going through his collection of photos and military documents. While most of the photos were from his time in the service, he also openly shared a few family photos with me as well. While they didn't directly show his time in the Army Air Forces/Air Force Reserve, they were a look at where he came from and a reflection of who he became after his service to our country. He described each photo in vivid detail. Recalling the situation frozen in time on paper. Bringing it to life. These photos would prove useful in jogging Joe's memory over the next few days.
In those photos are guys like: Joe Boyd, Joe's primary flying training instructor at Augustine Field, MS; Chester Miller, Rodney F. Jocelyn, and Richard E. Joslin, fellow graduates of Class 43-H at Stuttgart Army Air Field, AR, who also went on to Tyndall Field, FL, with Joe. Of course, there were photos of wife Pearl (Goodman), brother Sam, sister Ruth, younger brother Stan, parents Harry and Sarah (Herbst), and Harry's parents and siblings.
Joe reminisced about his Primary Flying Training instructor, Joe Boyd. Unfortunately, Boyd had a medical condition that prevented him from being a military pilot. As was a typical arrangement, Primary Flying Training at Augustine Field, Madison, MS, was conducted as a Contract Pilot School (CPS). As a CPS, most of the instructors were civilians, including Boyd. Joe spoke very highly of Boyd and his ability to instruct, remarking that he made a lasting impression on him and provided the foundation that led to Joe earning his wings.
Although Joe and friends Chester, Rodney, and Richard graduated from Advanced Twin-Engine Flying Training at Stuttgart, their service would take them along the single-engine aircraft route. Upon graduation, they were assigned to the Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field, FL. Service there would have them flying in a variety of capacities. These included; towing targets for student gunners in other aircraft to shoot at, flying with student gunners in the rear seat of aircraft such as the North American AT-6 shooting at targets in the Gulf of Mexico, and flying simulated attack missions in fighter aircraft (such as the Curtiss P-40 and Bell P-63) against B-17 aircraft with student gunners at different positions within the Flying Fortress.
The function Joe and his friends provided at Tyndall was as important as any during the war. Tyndall Field graduated more than 39,000 gunnery students from the time classes began at the school in February 1942 through August 1944. Undoubtedly, many of these men never made it home from war. They made the ultimate sacrifice for the defense of freedom against the Axis powers.
Joe also shared his logbook during our visit. Interestingly, there was a number of surprising (at least to me) entries of aircraft that he flew at Tyndall. Besides those mentioned above (AT-6, P-40, and P-63), Joe had flown an additional nine different models of aircraft while at Tyndall. Those include; Lockheed AT-18, Lockheed B-34, Martin AT-23, Boeing B-17, Consolidated B-24, Taylorcraft L-2B, Piper L-4B, Curtiss A-25 (Army Air Corps variant of the Navy's SB2C), and Republic P-47.
Back to the photos, of course there was Pearl. Pearl, also from Brooklyn, kept her eye on Joe even after he left to train for war. A few days after spending time together at a gathering in Brooklyn during the war, Joe received a call from Pearl. He was preparing to leave Brooklyn again and she innocently said "I just wanted to say goodbye". That call would lead to a blossoming romance between Joe and Pearl. They would get married in 1948 and remained husband and wife until her passing in 2012. Nearly 64 years by each others side. In sickness and in health.
Over the next few days Joe and I would continue to enjoy each others company and I'd continue to test his memory. With the occasional jog to his memory, some new tidbit would come to light. While looking at a photo of Joe and his classmates standing outside their barracks at Greenville, I asked him about the living arrangements within the barracks. Specifically, if it was a large open barracks with "racks" for the guys to sleep on, or if there were multiple rooms within the building. Joe explained that there were some rooms in the barracks with two guys to each room, but also a larger open area in the middle. Joe was one of the lucky ones who had a small room to share. Logically, my next question was if he recalled the name of his roommate in that room at Greenville.
Although the name of his roommate wasn't at the front of his mind, within a few minutes he recalled "Starcher". Joe admitted he couldn't recall Starcher's first name, but said it was "a plain name". With my computer in front of me on his dining room table, I began to search for Starcher while we continued to converse. Within a few minutes I had managed to identify a William L. Starcher who was an aviation cadet at Greenville in June 1943. Joe had wrapped up his Basic Flying Training at Greenville in June 1943, so this Starcher seemed like a match. When I presented that name to Joe he thought it could be his roommate, but wasn't sure.
After a few more strategic newspaper article searches, I found a photo of William L. Starcher. Prior to seeing the photo, Joe had simply described Starcher as "a fairly tall guy". After showing Joe the photo, his response was straightforward. "That's the guy."
Sadly, the newspaper article with the photo of Lieutenant William Lawson Starcher was reporting of his death. Following Basic Flying Training at Greenville, Lt Starcher had gone on to Advanced Single-Engine Flying Training at Craig Field, Selma, AL, where he received his wings and commission. From there, he was assigned to the 31st Air Transport Group. On 8 June 1944, Lt Starcher was piloting an A-20 "Havoc" and experienced problems resulting in a crash near Aldershot, Hampshire, England. All three men onboard perished. Joe hadn't kept in touch with Starcher following their time at Greenville, so he was completely unaware of his untimely death in 1944.
Equally as interesting was the first newspaper clipping that led us to finding his Basic Flying Training roommate. That clipping was captioned "Marries Aviation Cadet" and informed the community of Birmingham, AL, of the marriage of William L. Starcher and Hilda Earle McDaniels on 19 Jun 1943 in Greenville, MS. That's right, married in Greenville. Joe had no idea that his roommate had been married while they were "roomies".
It was a different time that many today likely can't comprehend. No social media on which to share their achievements. The country simply had a mission to complete. Focused on a world war. It may have just been that Starcher was a private individual, or that he was intensely focused on training for war and didn't feel the need to share his personal life with his short-term roommate at Greenville. Whatever the reason, it would stay hidden from Joe for 78 years.
Joe wasn't the only Stern family child to serve during WWII. Joe's older brother Samuel served in the US Army. Due to poor vision, Sam was not considered deployable. Confined to stateside service, he was an athlete on the base baseball team. While Joe shared photos of his older brother, he affectionately referred to a photo of Sam during his time in service as his "dogface" photo. The photo was a portrait of Sam sitting on steps in front of an unknown building, looking beyond the camera. No stripes on his sleeves. Just a dogface soldier waiting with the rest of the world for the war to end.
The most sobering moment, for me, during our visit related to the oldest photo that Joe shared from his collection. In it, a working class husband and wife sat with seven of their children. Four boys and three girls. All of the gentlemen wearing hats and the ladies in dresses. Likely wearing their best outfits and posed to capture the moment for eternity (or at least for as long as the photograph survived).
Arguably, there is little context in the photo that helps the observer determine the geographic location. One might surmise it was taken in the United States, England, or Germany, but it was not. While Joe isn't entirely sure where it was taken, he believes it was likely taken in Austria some time around 1915. Although it shows a family of nine, there is one important member of the family not shown. Joe's father. Harry Stern.
Harry Stern emigrated to the United States in 1913 to pursue a different life. His voyage across the Atlantic started at Hamburg, Germany, on 10 Nov 1913 and culminated with his arrival at the port of New York on 21 Nov 1913. While the rest of the family remained in Austria, Harry worked as a neckwear operator and saved money to send home to his family.
As Joe recalled, his father sent $300 home to his family so they could all move to the United States. After the money was sent, Harry received a letter from his family stating they weren't going to make the journey and asked if they could keep the money. That decision would prove to be a costly one. Not costly in terms of dollars. But costly in terms of lives.
Horrifically, Harry's family was decimated under the wretched hand of Adolf Hitler. The oldest of Harry's younger brothers, Leo, was living in Berlin at about the time the genocide began. Living with his wife and two children, he escaped from their home at a time he believed German soldiers coming for him (he did not believe his wife and children were in danger at that time). He survived by evading capture in the woods with another young man. Ironically, this other young man's brother also emigrated to New York and lived less than one block away from Harry (later, Joe would meet this man). When Leo emerged from hiding, he found their youngest brother who informed him of their parents murder. As the atrocities continued, so did the likely murder of Harry's family. Harry and Leo would never see or hear from the rest of their siblings again. Leo would also never see his wife and children again.
As a young Jewish man serving his country to defend our freedoms, Joe confessed that he didn't really think much of the treatment of the Jewish people in Europe. It wasn't that he didn't care, rather, it was that the magnitude of the situation wasn't fully known. He surmised that the Jewish people were likely interned in camps, much like the United States was doing with the Japanese in our country. Regardless, Joe served to the best of his abilities. Continuing to help train future aerial gunners until his time came to transition to the P-47 in preparation to go to the Pacific to support the invasion of Japan. Of course, that opportunity was revoked thanks to Oppenheimer and his colleagues.
Many more memories were shared during our visit this past June. And many memories were made. My flight home on Sunday was an early departure, so we said our goodbyes Saturday night. Walking to my suite at Casa de Stern after our goodbyes that night, I was in a bit of disbelief about what I had experienced over the last three days. A Greenville Flyer welcomed me in his home. He shared some of his most personal experiences. His personal photographs. His life. Above all else, I am just thankful to have spent time with my friend, Joe Stern.
After our many conversations, it's apparent that Joe has been affected by nearly everyone he's known and every experience he's had. He recalls them in remarkable detail, sharing with this interested fellow who contacted him out of the blue just over a year ago. We've talked on the phone since my stay at Casa de Stern. That makes 24 phones calls spanning 21 hours and 44 minutes (for any statisticians that might still be reading). More of Joe's stories will be shared here in due time.