Shot down near Vienna: A Derby veteran remembers

Harry Stater, 93, stands outside his home in Derby. Stater was a ball turret gunner in a B-24 bomber that crash-landed in Yugoslavia during World War II.
Harry Stater, 93, stands outside his home in Derby. Stater was a ball turret gunner in a B-24 bomber that crash-landed in Yugoslavia during World War II. The Wichita Eagle

The first thing Harry Stater makes clear, when a visitor comes knocking, is: “I’m no hero.”

“OK?” he says. “I’m not. I didn’t do anything.”

Maybe so.

In 23 bombing missions over Europe during World War II, Harry was a B-24 ball turret gunner who never fired a shot from his machine guns.

But some good stories are simple: They tell of ordinary men who do their best when the best is sorely needed.

Larry Stater regards his dad as someone noble, because of the war, and what happened after.

We’ll start with the war.

Depth perception

“I was born in Mount Vernon, Mo., in 1923,” Harry said.

He’s 93 now, and lives alone in Derby. He’s got no big plans for Veterans Day.

“I tried to enlist as soon as the war started. They said they didn’t need me just then. ‘Wait for the draft,’ they said.

“So when they drafted me in 1943, they sent me to Fort Leavenworth and asked what I wanted to do. I said the Marines.

“Then they did some tests and said, ‘You have good depth perception.’ So they put me in the Army Air Corps.”

‘Wait for the draft,’ they said.

Harry Stater, World War II veteran

He and his crew learned how to bomb targets from B-24 bombers. They traveled to train: Kansas. Georgia. Texas. Virginia. Harry learned to fire a machine gun backward out of a ball turret on the underside of a B-24.

They flew to Europe by way of Maine, then Gander Bay, Newfoundland; then Marrakech in French Morocco, then Tunis in Tunisia, then Italy.

From Spinazzolla, Italy, they flew their second bombing mission, in October 1943, over German military war targets near Vienna, Austria.

Harry saw smoke from anti-aircraft shells exploding in the air near their B-24. “A couple of our engines were shot out from the anti-aircraft,” he said.

That cut their power, which meant they were descending at a time when they had to fly back over the snow-capped Alps to get home.

“We got so low we ended up flying between two peaks,” Harry said.

It was too much for the B-24. They lost altitude and eventually crash-landed somewhere in what was then called Yugoslavia.

“We crawled out of that plane and saw that we’d landed wheels-up, which was quite a sight to itself,” Harry said. “And I never saw so many people, all crowded around us.”

They were armed men, but Harry’s suspense didn’t last long.

“They were partisan fighters, and they were all for the U.S. They took care of us, fed us, and after about a week over there, they put us on a little boat, and we made our way back to Italy.”

More missions

Surviving a shoot-down meant you got another plane, and flew more missions. Harry and his crew flew 21 more.

‘Wait for the draft,’ they said.

Harry Stater, World War II veteran

“Sometimes the smoke from the anti-aircraft was really thick. I saw other planes go down; they looked like a little toy airplane might look if someone just threw it. At times I thought I’d never make it home.

“One time we got buzzed by a German fighter, a Messershmitt ME109, and that made a heck of a sound when the machine guns fired. But the last I saw of that ME-109, there was an American P-38 fighter after him.”

Was he ever scared?

“Only on every mission I flew,” he said.

They bombed Germany, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia. They dropped fragmentation bombs on ground troops, and heavy bombs on factories or military targets.

They flew their last mission on May 1, 1945, just before the war ended.

War trauma

“I had some emotional problems; it was hard to keep food down, and sometimes I’d throw up.

“I tried to go to college, on the GI Bill, but after nearly a year I realized I could not sit still in the classes and listen to lectures. I was so nervous. So I quit.

“War wasn’t a pleasant deal then. No war is pleasant, for that matter. It’s a shame we have to kill each other to prove something.”

He scrounged for jobs, drove a cab for a while, went to Wichita one day to visit friends – and ended up working for Boeing for three decades.

He married a smart girl from Wellington, Jane Merrill Henderson, who loved him deeply and helped him recover from his war traumas. “A family helps with that.”

War wasn’t a pleasant deal then.

Harry Stater, World War II veteran

He had five children with Jane, including Larry, his oldest son here in Wichita.

“But you never know what’s going to happen.”

On Aug. 29, 1973, 30 years after he started flying bombing missions, he heard a thud in his bedroom.

He ran in, picked up Jane, and put her on the bed. He called police. They called an ambulance. But she died in that room; a heart attack, at age 42.

And what did he do after that?

“So we live as best we can,” he said.

“Here one day, gone the next.”

A good person, good dad

That cryptic answer, with almost no information or emotion in it, is classic Harry Stater, his son said.

“He would not tell us what happened to him in the war,” Larry Stater said. “Or that it bothered him. We knew he’d been shot down. We knew he’d been rescued by freedom fighters. But that was it.”

“But here’s what we knew about him: My dad has always been a good person, well liked by everyone he ever met.

“He worked for Boeing for 33 years, served at the VFW for many years. And though he worked all the time, he was still concerned with all us kids.

“He was a good dad. Our mother died at a young age, and he had to bring the younger ones up by himself, while he was working. That was not easy.

It about killed him, losing her.

Larry Stater, veteran’s son

“It about killed him, losing her,” he said. “That’s the first time I ever saw my dad cry. It was not just a few tears. It was all-out crying.

“He did his best by the kids, raising them alone.

“He never talked down to us. He tried to teach us as much as he knew. He taught us to be honest and truthful.

“He did a pretty good job. We got nobody in jail, nobody in trouble; most everybody has a family.”

Harry Stater, who served his country, and was by his own account not a hero, lives alone in Derby, in an assisted living facility.

He has five children, 10 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren.

He did his best to do right by all those kids – and all the rest of us, Larry Stater said.

“I don’t know how much better a man can be than he is.”

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl