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World War II aviators share stories at 'Lunch with the Legends'

  • Published
  • By John Ingle
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
It's rare today to be able to sit down with living history and pick their brains of past experiences and commitment during their military aviation careers. 

Three such individuals provided that opportunity for Sheppard AFB servicemembers and civilians March 31 during "Lunch with the Legends" at the base club. 

Marion Stegeman Hodgson, a Women Airforce Service Pilot during World War II, Michael Spiller, a B-17 Flying Fortress navigator, and Wayne Kuschel, a veteran pilot of 50 different aircraft ending in 1960, provided insight to their careers and visited with the audience during the event. 

Mrs. Stegeman Hodgson said WASPs served during World War II for one simple reason -- they were needed because the country was at war. Despite the hardships of being female aviators in a male-dominated career field, she said they did their duty of ferrying military aircraft from one place to another. 

"We weren't about to start yelling for our rights," she said. "We weren't fighting for our rights. We were fighting for our country." 

Mrs. Stegeman Hodgson shared stories of htraining days in Sweetwater, Texas, and quarrels with their male counterparts regarding their ability to serve as pilots. 

During one such anecdote she said there was a time that Army Air Corps pilots didn't like the B-26 Marauder, so the military turned to WASPs to transport the planes. She recalled a B-26 flight leader who said he wouldn't fly with women. One of her fellow WASPs was determined to exact her revenge on the short-sighted flight leader and she did so, Mrs. Stegeman Hodgson said, by 60 years of marriage. 

Mr. Spiller, a native of nearby Quanah, Texas, was a young 23-year-old second lieutenant when he earned his navigator wings. His first mission into Germany was March 22, 1944. Their target -- Berlin. 

"The crew I was flying with was flying their 25th mission. I was flying my first," he said, adding that he hoped they didn't use up all the good luck during their 24 previous missions. 

Although the mission to Berlin was dangerous, he said that wasn't the most daring part of the mission. Getting more than 3,000 aircraft off the ground was the part that concerned him. 

"Once we got in the air, we started to climb to altitude," he said, describing it as the scariest portion of the mission. "You start putting heavy bombers in the clouds (and) everyone on the crew is looking" for other aircraft. 

Mr. Spiller said the moment of the war that he was most proud of was a secret one at the time, dropping needed supplies to French resistance fighters. Once they began dropping containers to the ground, he said he could see men, women and children dodging them so as not to get hit. The result of the supply drops was perhaps the beginning of the end of German occupation of France, he said. 

"The resistance forces we dropped the supplies to was the first to free a German-held French town," he said. 

Mr. Kuschel, a retired Air Force major, began his military career as an expert machine gunner in the Army's infantry. He asked for and received a transfer to the Army Air Corps in 1943 and worked as an assistant crew chief on Maj. Gen. Carl Brandt's UC-45 Expeditor. 

Not long after, the general encouraged him to pursue a flying career, Mr. Kuschel said. He explained to the general that he didn't think he would be able to do so as his education prior to joining the military took him through the eighth grade. 

The general continued to provide encouragement until Mr. Kuschel finally agreed and was accepted into cadet flight training in 1944. He said he served as a flight engineer until he completed his college degree and was selected for pilot training in 1947. 

The takeaway for those in the audience, Mr. Kuschel said, was to earn a college degree because that's the key to achieving goals. 

In closing comments, Brig. Gen. O.G. Mannon, 82nd Training Wing commander, lauded the aviation veterans for their service and what they mean to men and women serving today. 

"They are our living bridge to the past," the general said. "They are the heroes that the Air Force of today is built on."