‘Its wings floated crazily down’
A World War II story of three brothers from Harris
By MaryHelen Swanson
“I remember the engineer calling out the hits in the wing of our ship and then over the interphone came the report that the radio operator Dodge, William H., had been hit. This was called in by the waist gunner (Sergeant Harvey C. Stark).
“Sgt. Dodge immediately called back on the interphone and said ‘I’m not hit bad, I’ll be alright.’
“That’s the last any of us heard as the interphone was immediately shot out. Both wings and all four engines were on fire at this time so the pilot turned on the alarm for the bail out.
“I heard nothing of Stark all during the attack. I have no other information to tell except I did see the ship explode and saw no chutes or bodies leave the ship at that time.”
The story of the brothers Stark, North Branch High School graduates, has a strange twist of fate in it, and is brought to our attention by a family member who has provided the North Branch American Legion with memorabilia that will be on display next weekend at County Market.
As the Legion conducts a fundraiser at the store, selling hot dogs and brats, Commander Jim Johnson asked if the Post Review would like to share the brothers’ story.
The weather condition was “smooth – good visibility” as the 9-man Army Air Corps took off in a B-17 (Flying Fortress) bomber late morning September 11, 1944.
At about noon, shortly after the crew of the B-17 dropped their bombs on the target, the number four engine was hit and disabled by flak.
Two Minnesota brothers, raised in Harris, were on that plane as it dropped behind the formation and was attacked by enemy fighter planes.
How could it be that two brothers were on the same plane during war time?
Sgt. Russel L. Stark, Class of 1941, and Sgt. Harvey C. Stark, Class of 1943, had both enlisted in the Army Air Corps in January 1943 and were sent to England in July 1944.
Their older brother Lorrie M. Stark had been the last to enlist and was still in gunnery school.
On Sept. 11, Harvey, a waist gunner, was to be involved in a bombing mission over Europe. Another crew member was sick that day, so Russell, a tail gunner, volunteered to take his place, thinking it would be fun to fly on the same mission with his brother.
When the plane in which the Stark brothers were flying was hit, it fell out of formation and was attacked violently by the Germans. All four engines were hit and rendered useless and caught fire, along with the wings.
The communication system was shot out.
The pilot turned on the alarm for the crew to bail. Stories vary, but it seems five crew members left the plane alive.
Five members were captured over the course of the next few days, some immediately, others after several days, and eventually ended up in German prisoner of war camps.
Two were reported dead, although, testimony by survivors notes that the Germans told each individually that all the others were dead.
The third brother
Lorrie Stark was at the time going through the School of Flexible Gunnery at Harlington, Texas, and when his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Stark, of Minneapolis at the time, learned of the deaths of their sons Harvey and Russell, they soon received a letter from the Secretary of War with the directive that Lorrie was to be taken out of school.
The War Dept. wrote: “To lose two sons in this war is a supreme contribution to the war effort and a sole surviving son shall be assigned a permanent duty in the U.S. in recognition of family sacrifice to the war.”
Lorrie did not wish to protest the decision because of his parents, but in documents it was noted that he really wanted to go on to gunnery school because he knew both of his brothers like their jobs and he always wanted to fly.
Lorrie was assigned to a desk job stateside.
A funeral service was held at the Harris Covenant Church in November 1948 as a reburial for Harvey Stark and memorial for Russell, whose remains were never found, although the family received letters up to 1948 that the military was still searching for him, he being considered MIA.
In October of 1946, The Starks were notified by letter of the location of the burial of Russell. It said he was interred in the US Military Cemetery at St. Vold located 23 miles east of Metz, France, and that the cemetery was “under the constant care and supervision of United States military personnel.”
Russell was 21 at time of death and Harvey was 19.
Both were awarded the Purple Heart and Air medals posthumously.
There are grave stones for Russell and Harvey Stark at a small cemetery near Harris, Russel’s remains were transferred from the grave at St. Vold.
See for yourself
Larry Stark, Lorrie’s son, has provided memorabilia to the NB American Legion for the display Memorial Day weekend.
It contains such things as his uncles’ Purple Hearts and Air Medals, letters from the War department and even from President Truman and full copies of debriefing statements of survivors after they had been released from the prison camps. It also includes the funeral service article for the two brothers that was in the 1948 North Branch Review.
If you take the time to read some of those survivors’ statements you will read how Sgt. Evorhart woke up on the ground, and did not have his chute. He noted that he was surrounded by Germans and taken to a hospital where he spent 12 weeks before being taken to the prison camp. The German interrogation officer told him all the crew was dead.
And a Sgt. Teigland notes, “On the way down I noticed our ship had exploded because burning pieces were falling all around me. We were picked up immediately, so we had no opportunity to inspect what was left of the ship.”
One testimony speaks of a waist gunner who was repeatedly hit in the head and body and returned to his gun after twice being shot away from it. The third time he was shot away from it he was not able to return, he said, he was last seen laying on the floor bleeding about the face and head.
“He made the supreme sacrifice willingly and with utter disregard for his own safety.”
It was the bombardier of another aircraft in the group that made the notation about that No. 3 ship which he observed “to explode and its wings floated crazily down.”