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Stanley J. Novak: B-17 bomber ball turret 'belly gunner' over WWII Germany (part one)

Interviews with Veterans

Series: Stanley J. Novak | Story 1

(Note: This is the 31st article in a continuing series about local military veterans and their service to our great country. The articles may contain graphic content. Reader discretion is advised.)

Stanley J. Novak passed away late last year at the age of 98. He lived an extraordinary life, and I'm honored to (much too briefly) tell the story of this heroic Tehachapian.

Stanley was born on May 13, 1923, in the town of Natrona, Pennsylvania, situated along the Allegheny River not far from Pittsburgh. He was one of 14 children, several of whom were born in Poland, from where both his parents had emigrated.

Life was difficult, even tragic, for Stanley and his family. Several of his siblings (about whom we have no details) had died very young in Poland. Although his father, Emile, was a farmer and reasonably well off, he lost everything during the Great Depression-his farm, his finances, everything. Then he lost his life: Walking home one day from work in 1936 (he had managed to find employment of some kind), he was murdered by the railroad tracks for his paycheck.

Stanley, barely a teenager now, and his brothers, did all they could to support and care for their mother and their sisters. In 1935, he had gone to work for the National Relief Association, his typical remuneration consisting of five pounds each of flour and fruit, and, on occasion, 10 pounds of beans. He and his family lived in the Polish community in Natrona, Stanley attending a local Polish school through 5th grade, when he transferred to a regular public school (here he repeated 5th grade due to his initial problems learning English).

In 1936, Stanley, good son that he was, and believing he had a "burden" to help his mother, dropped out of school. He joined the depression's Civilian Conservation Corps, which paid him $30 a month, most of which he sent home to his mother. With the CCC, he was stationed at Camp Redbird in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and worked on road construction. In 1938, he was promoted to the "fire tower," an observation post on Sugar Loaf Mountain.

From 1939 into 1941, he tried his hand at a number of odd jobs to help support his mother and family; these took the peripatetic Stanley from one town to another as far away as Colorado. In 1941, he even went to work for a time in Canada, where it was somewhat easier for Americans to find employment (Canada, part of the British Empire, was at war, so many Canadian young men were now serving in the military).

By late 1941, Stanley had returned to Natrona, where he took a job in a steel plant. As he recalled in a fascinating memoir written very late in life for his grandson: "I worked through the summer and winter helping my mom. I noticed fewer and fewer guys around [the Japanese, of course, had struck Pearl Harbor on December 7th, bringing America abruptly into World War II]. Things were getting easier for my mom [and] my older brothers were all in the service. So on November 2nd [1942] I enlisted in the Army Air Forces."

Boot camp was in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Stanley took part in guarding the shoreline against German U-boats ("I never saw one, not even a warship.") Following boot camp, he shipped out to Chicago for Radio Operator's School; several months later he was off again, this time to Buckley Field, Colorado, for gunnery training. "I completed gunnery training and shipped out to Del Rio, Texas, for advanced gunnery training, shooting at targets towed by an airplane. I completed the course. I was now a full fledged aerial gunner and radio operator."

From there, it was off to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and, in December 1943, he and his fellow soldiers were loaded aboard a Liberty ship for transfer to England. "Our convoy had 125 ships. We started across the North Atlantic, first to Greenland, then on to the Azores. During our trip we were constantly chased by German wolfpack submarines. Each night they would attack. Lord, how the sky would light up with ships being blown out of the water. Man, I was so scared that I never went below deck the entire 28 days it took to cross. I tied myself to a hatch door during the night so I wasn't washed overboard, and that is where I stayed until we docked in Liverpool, England."

In his memoir, Stanley recorded his initial impression of the English people: "My first impression of [them] was that they were anemic-so pale that they looked like ghosts. I soon found out why-no sun on that island, nothing but rain and fog! I left Liverpool and headed for Ipswich, a large port town with an air base on the English Channel, 22 miles across the channel from France. This was going to be my home for [sometime]."

Stanley's first night in England was "scary." (And, no doubt, many nights after that were "scary" as well!) The Luftwaffe (German Air Force), it seems, was very active over his air base near Ipswich: "German planes came over-a bombing attack every night. They bombed our [base]. Their fighter planes would strafe our tents and what aircraft they could find. We had not received any of our aircraft yet, but were expecting them any day. The Germans knew this so they figured to tear up the landing strip so our planes couldn't come in."

By March 1944, the first planes to reach the air base outside Ipswich were P-47 "Thunderbolt" and P-51 "Mustang" fighters. Hence, it was no surprise that Stanley and his Army Air Forces mates figured they were about to become fighter pilots. As matters turned out, however, these planes were to be their fighter escorts and, a week later, their aircraft finally arrived-"big, beautiful"-and, today, legendary-B-17 "Flying Fortress" four-engine heavy bombers, each boasting a typical crew of 10 men and all assigned to the AAF's illustrious Eighth Air Force. (Note: More than 12,000 B-17s were built by Boeing from 1936-45, and they dropped more than 640,000 tons of bombs on Germany and its occupied territories during WWII; while many were shot down by German fighters or ground defenses, the B-17 was a stoutly constructed aircraft, thus many more managed to return safely to base with severe damage.)

Note: In part two, you will experience in graphic detail Stanley's harrowing missions over Germany as a B-17 ball turret gunner. Stay tuned!

The Loop newspaper is publishing a series of veterans interviews to honor our local heroes. If you are a veteran, or know of a veteran who would like to take part in this series, please call The Loop office at (661) 822-8188.