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Stanley J. Novak: B-17 bomber ball turret 'belly gunner' over WWII Germany (part 3)

Interviews with Veterans

Series: Stanley J. Novak | Story 3

WARNING: This article contains graphic content. Reader discretion is advised.

(Note: This is the continuation of our 31st article, from our April 2, 2022 issue, 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.)

(Note: As a .50 caliber ball turret gunner in a B-17 "Flying Fortress" heavy bomber, Stanley had taken part in 11 hellish combat missions against such heavily defended targets as the Ruhr Valley, Hamburg and Hanover. Then, suddenly, for reasons unexplained, his bomber unit was disbanded sometime before D-Day (June 6, 1944). Thus, Stanley's remarkable military career took the two abrupt, and very different, turns described below. Part Three also outlines his post-war struggles to support a wife and growing family, culminating in a long career at Edwards Air Force Base Leaving the Eight Air Force, Stanley was detailed to the 2216 Heavy Equipment Transportation Group-certainly an odd assignment for a man who had served with courage and distinction aboard a B-17 bomber. While no doubt grateful he would no longer have to face enemy flak and fighters, he was less than thrilled with his new assignment. In fact, he hated it. And in his memoir, he didn't mince his words:

"This chicken outfit, was loaded with cry-babies and nerds. They couldn't drive a truck even if they had mules pulling it. In all probability the mules were smarter than they were. The Commanding Officer was a former street car conductor from Portland, Oregon, who thought they should have had rails for his trucks to run on. He and I didn't hit it off. I told him if he ever left the base, he wouldn't find his way back because there were no streetcar rails. He said, 'Okay smart ass, let's see how good you are.' He gave me a truck, a pick-up order, and sent me to Birmingham for a large load-no maps, no orders, other than the invoice. And then he said, 'You have five days to get there and back. Now get your ass out of here.'

"I took off and arrived in Birmingham [late that night]. I went to the shipping clerk, who directed me over to the load. They loaded it, and I was on my way back to base. On the third day, around noon, I reported to my C.O. 'Mission complete,' I said. He looked at me and said, 'What the hell are you doing here? You're supposed to be in Birmingham picking up a load.' I said,'I did, Sir. You see, I was driving a truck, not a street car.' Needless to say I was transferred to the Ninth Army, 75th Infantry Division, K Company, and sent to Camp George for training as a combat soldier. And that is how I eventually became a combat infantryman in France."

According to divisional records, the 75th Infantry Division landed at the port of Le Havre, France, in December 1944. When the Germans broke through in the Ardennes forest, at the start of the Battle of the Bulge, the division was rushed to the front and was soon taking part in defensive combat to blunt the German advance. "This was a really bad time for all of us," Stanley jotted in his memoir. "We thought the damn Germans were going to bottle us up. Never saw so many German tanks or [so much] equipment. We were led to believe that we had them on the run. Never did we expect a push like this. But the 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions, along with two armored divisions, really held ole Rundstedt [Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Supreme Commander of German forces in the Bulge] at bay, and, of course, our almighty Army Air Forces. When the weather broke, we started to push back the Germans, and things began to gel again."

Stanley and his division saw considerable action in the weeks and months that followed, eventually crossing the Rhine River in late March 1945 and, in April, cleared the approached to the German city of Dortmund. With the war coming to an end, the division was withdrawn for rest and rehabilitation, eventually assuming security and military government duties in Westphalia.

In the meantime, some weeks before Victory Europe Day (May 8, 1945), Stanley had experienced his own personal "rendezvous with destiny." We'll let him explain it (as he explained it to his grandson in his memoir): "I was blown out of a truck by artillery fire and woke up in the 9th Field Hospital. A couple days later, I ended up in Orleans, France, at a hospital outside of Paris. Several weeks later, I was sent to Marseille, to a Port Headquarters outfit and put in charge of the Hotel Regina, which was an R&R (rest and relaxation) hotel for front line officers. And there I remained until the end of the war. I was shipped back to the States and discharged on Feb. 28, 1946. I then began another life that you can hear about from your Mom and Grandma."

Stanley returned to his community in Pennsylvania, yet was unable to find serious work due to the economically depressed status of the region. So he did what so many others did in similar situations-he struck out for California.

Once firmly ensconced amidst the glorious sunshine and endless possibilities of post-war California, Stanley was hired by Standard Oil in Long Beach. One day, which was much like any other day, he happened to mislay his meal card at work, so he went off to collect another one. However, the fetching young lady in charge of handing out the cards was not to be taken in-she thought Stanley, the scoundrel, was trying to sneak a second meal card!

So what better way to resolve this little misunderstanding than . . . to take the suspicious young lady on a double date! As one might imagine the date did not go well. In fact, according to Sherri, one of Stanley's two daughters, "his date actually jumped out of the car after that first date! Both of them had been miserable." So, of course, two weeks later, Stanley and Arline double-dated again. And, this time, progress! She actually said "good night" to him.

Stanley and Arline married in August 1947-a happy marriage that would last for more than 62 years (Arline passed away in April 2010) and bring forth two daughters-Sherri born in 1948 and Trudy in 1955. Both are still living.

Meanwhile, Standard Oil's intent to send Stanley to Venezuala to work as a radio operator in the oil fields fell through due to a personnel mixup, so he took a job in Van Nuys as a hospital attendant at the Veterans' Hospital. For living quarters, he and Arline rented a converted chicken coop with an outside shower (not hot water) for $65 a month. Fortunately, several months later, they found a "cute little house" in Van Nuys.

Always striving to improve himself, Stanley was soon working at the General Motors auto plant on Van Nuys Boulevard installing engines in new Chevrolets. As a General Motors employee, he was able to purchase a new car at a 10% discount, with the caveat that he would not sell it. Yet soon thereafter, Sherri was born, and he had to sell the vehicle to help defray Arline's hospital bills; GM found out and summarily fired him.

So there he was-a new wife, a baby and no way to support them. So when a relative assured him there were opportunities in Texas, he, Arline and baby Sherri, were soon on their way to the "Lone Star" state. And, indeed, it was now (ca. 1948) that Stanley's professional life began to take a turn for the better. He found employment servicing a new invention-television sets! As Sherri recalled, "we were the first family in our neighborhood to have a television, so our home was always full of curious people!"

By the mid-1950s, Stanley had leveraged his experience in electronics to land a job at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (now the Armstrong Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base. Here he worked as a radio and navigation technician on a series of experimental flight test programs, among them the iconic X-1 and X-15 programs. Stanley loved his work, and occasionally would even drive to Edwards AFB with Neil Armstrong, the now deceased astronaut and first man to walk on the moon. He would work at NASA Dryden through several decades.

Along with cutting edge "X" programs, Stanley also loved old cars. As his second daughter, Trudy, grew older, she also developed a keen interest in old cars. Which leads to a poignant anecdote from Stanley's priceless memoir: "We scoured the desert looking for old relics. We dug up old car bodies and brought them home. On one occasion, [Trudy] packed a picnic basket and we started for the old Ridge Route Highway. After several hours she said, 'Let's have our picnic, Dad!' I said 'OK.' She started to lay out all the food on the tailgate of our pickup. To make sandwiches, in her haste to get everything right, she dropped the bologna in the dirt. No problem-she picked it up, brushed it off, made my sandwich and handed it to me, dirt and all. What could I do, so I ate it and told her it was delicious. The look on her face told me all I needed to know."

After retiring, Stanley and Arline (who had also worked for a time at Edwards AFB) settled in Tehachapi in 1988. Together they enjoyed traveling, gardening, friends and family, and antique cars-Stanley the proud owner of both a Model T and a 1931 Model A.

Stanley passed away on November 16, 2021, in a hospital in Thousand Oaks, following a bad fall from which he failed to recover. He was 98 years of age.

Stanley, you were a loyal and loving husband and father, forever fortunate to be married to a devoted wife and mother. But you were more than that, you were a man who served his country courageously in wartime, risking everything not only as a B-17 ball turret gunner but as a "grunt" infantryman in ground combat. And I'm quite sure that was a rare combination of service to our country that few have ever matched.

Stanley J. Novak, we Tehachapians salute you!

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.