WWII Planes Fly Over Grand Rapids – Some Thoughts

Bill's Blog

My wife and I drove down to the North Park Bridge to get a look at the 3 vintage WWII planes that flew over Grand Rapids to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII. We weren’t alone – I would estimate that several hundred spectators were on the bridge, with several hundred more in the immediate vicinity and many more in Riverside Park. It looked like the crowd that gathers to watch the 4th of July fireworks.

Spectators line the North Park Bridge to see the WWII vintage planes flyover

Skies were clear, temperatures were in the upper 70s and there was a gentle breeze. There were several boats and jet skis in the river.

Crowd at the Boat and Canoe Club on the River

There was quite a crowd of friendly people at the Boat and Canoe Club right on the river.

Here come the planes

Here come the planes! – right down I-96 – flying over the Veterans Home on Monroe NW. There were 3 planes and they were classics. There was a B17 – the Flying Fortress, a B25 – the famous Mitchell Bomber, the only bomber named after a person. The Milwaukee Airport is Mitchell field. Last a C47 Transport, also called a “gooney bird”. Permit me to back up a bit and tell you about my father. He was in the Army Air Corps and flew in B25s during WWII.

John Steffen is lower right

My father is lower right, holding a “Tommy Gun” (Thompson Machine Gun). As best we can guess, this picture was taken in the summer of 1942 somewhere in Missouri. My father tent-camped for nearly a year during the war – good training for when he was Scoutmaster of our Boy Scout Troop back in Wilmette IL.

Dad was the youngest of 8 children – 7 of them boys – dad was the youngest. His parents were both born in Luxembourg and came to Chicago separately in the late 1800s. My grandfather heard there was a girl from Luxembourg that lived not too far away, so one day he just went up and knocked on the door of her house. Later they got married.

Dad as a Supply Sgt. – probably at Fort Bragg NC

Dad started playing the violin. Later one of his brothers had someone that owed him some money and couldn’t pay it back, so instead the man gave him a set of drums. It was my father that took to the drums. He was quite the drummer (“percussionist, Bill”). He played marimba, xylophone – any percussion instrument but the piano. He played in more than a dozen bands, including his own band for a few years, at hotels and parties. He told me that during the depression, he could make $5 cash for a gig. He also sang and played the harmonica.

He played big band and swing, but he really liked jazz and jammed with some of the best on the South Side of Chicago…the clubs along State Street. In the late 1930s, Northwestern University assembled a band to go to Europe and demonstrate American big band, swing and jazz music. Dad was the drummer of that band. They went over on a ship and were there for about 5 months. I could write an article about that trip – but that’s for a later time.

Dad came back and told everyone about this “maniac” named Hitler in Germany. “The guy is like Napolean and wants to conquer the world”. Dad said that people here thought Germany wasn’t much – too small to be a problem. Dad thought we’d be at war with Germany, so in early 1940, he went and enlisted in the Army – not wanting to be a buck private when the war did come.

He went to basic training in Rockford IL – then down to Missouri where he was a machine gun instructor. He was such a gentle, kind man – hard to imagine him with a machine gun. Later, they found out he had an aviation course at Lane Tech in Chicago, so they transferred him to the Air Corps.

He spent much of 1943-44 at Frederick Army Airfield in Oklahoma, where he flew in B25s (and other planes). He lived to be almost 91 – the oldest Steffen male ever (most Steffen males die of heart disease in their 70s – so that may be my fate). He had some dementia in the last couple years of his life. One day we took him to the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo. When we came to the B25 – his eyes lit up and he talked about flying around in B25s during WWII.

He never saw combat. Only one older brother served in the military during WWII. Felix Steffen was the head motorcycle mechanic at Gus’s in Chicago. The Brits were looking for a motorcycle mechanic to go to India where they were running supplies through the jungles on motorcycles. So, Felix spent a couple years in India during the war. He had his wife send over dozens of harmonicas and taught quite a few native Indians and some of the Brits how to play them.

Dad was almost career military, but got out in late 1945 to go back to Chicago to help his mother. He got a job working the line for 75 cents an hour at Bell & Howell and eventually worked his way up to be chief liaison engineer.

Dad playing the bass drum in the Memorial Day Parade in Wilmette IL

Dad walked in the Memorial Day parade in Wilmette IL for over 40 years…first with the American Legion, then as Scoutmaster of Troop 6, then with the Grosse Point Band. In the picture above, dad is in his low 80s and still carrying that big bass drum more than a mile in the Memorial Day parade. That band was pretty good – had about 15 paid gigs a year.

It was fun seeing the planes fly overhead. There are only a few left who served in the Air Corps during WWII. They deserve our respect and honor.

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