Maj. Harvey G. Elling had a following.
Each week up to his death on Sept. 25, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas, the Northfield native would hold court at a Luby’s Restaurant, where he would tell stories of fighting the Japanese during World War II.
His stories from the front lines of WWII as a fighter pilot for the Army Air Corps intrigued those who broke bread with Elling during those sacred lunches and those who stopped by just for the conversation.
While the stories he told were fascinating and always seemed to hold the attention of those who sat with the old war veteran each week, they were not unique. Like Elling, many veterans brought back stories from various wars and those stories live on. Some talk about them, while some veterans keep them locked away in their memories, never to be told.
As we commemorate Memorial Day, the Northfield News caught up with the family and friends of Elling, as well as two living veterans who talked about their lives during and after World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. They all believe these stories are important for the next generations to hear and remember.
Maj. Harvey G. Elling
Elling’s remains were brought back to Northfield last week and laid to rest next to his wife Lyla Loberg Elling at the old Farmington Lutheran Church Cemetery.
At the time of his death, Elling, 93, was the last surviving member of the renowned WWII fighter pilots known as the “Flying Tigers.”
Elling was born on Sept. 9, 1920, to John M. and Anna P. Elling, then of Eureka Township. According to his family, from the earliest age Elling loved the idea of flying, and despite his father’s strong disapproval, he left St. Olaf College before graduating to join the Army Air Corps, where he learned to fly the famed Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.
Elling flew his P-40, nicknamed “Nightmare III,” on 96 combat missions in China and surrounding countries during WWII with the 14th Air Force, 23rd Fighter Group, 16th Fighter Squadron. He is credited with downing at least three Japanese aircraft.
Elling’s fighter group took over the role left by the original American Volunteer Group (AVG) who were known as the original Flying Tigers and were easily recognized by the fierce looking shark’s mouth paint scheme below the engine cowling on their P-40s.
“My father was born to fly from his earliest childhood,” said his middle daughter, Jean Elling Wells of Houston, Texas.
“He went on to fly B-47s with the Strategic Air Command (SAC) after the war and later taught many young pilots how to fly when he was stationed at Laredo Air Force Base. “My dad was a true American hero and the last of a group of men whose valor and bravery are still known the world over.”
Family and friends are proud of the fact that as a second-generation Flying Tiger, Elling flew alongside original Flying Tiger commander Gen. Claire Chennault, who also commanded the newly formed Flying Tiger squadrons when they officially became part of the then Army Air Corps in 1942.
Elling also flew with Flying Tiger legends David Lee “Tex” Hill, John R. Allison and Robert Scott. Elling’s exploits earned him the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Rudy Decker met Elling during the veteran’s last military assignment in Laredo, Texas, in the early 1970s. The young and impressionable pilot was interested in Elling’s wartime history and his stories from China and the two became close friends.
The two would remain friends after Elling’s retirement and up to his death. Decker and Elling’s family were at the veteran’s side when he took his last breath. Decker said his memory will forever be preserved because of the life he lived and through the stories he told.
“He had countless stories,” Decker said. “He talked about key figures in history like Gen. Claire Chennault and the other famous Flying Tigers and when you saw their stories retold on the History Channel or Military Channel, they were spot on. The accuracy that man had in telling his stories was amazing.”
Decker believes that without a doubt, Maj. Harvey G. Elling was a true American hero, much like those who have died defending this country and will be remembered on Monday all across the nation.
“He was proud to be an American and to serve his country,” Decker said. “I will always remember him as a hero. He was a great fighter pilot, good bomber pilot, wonderful corporate pilot, but most importantly, a great friend.”
Last Man Club
When the Northfield area “Last Man Club” met last Saturday at the Northfield VFW (Post 4393) for its 63rd annual banquet, they didn’t take up a lot of space.
After losing four comrades last year, the Last Man Club now has eight living members of the approximately 250 when the club was formed in 1952 from the VFW membership.
Chuck DeMann, a member whose story was told last year in the Northfield News’ Memorial Day edition, said that the banquet is a time to catch up and reminisce. To read his story, go to: http://www.southernminn.com/northfield_news/news/article_103ddfff-15e8-561f-8c24-b87dc1bbcd27.html
During the banquet, the seven members in attendance got together in a semicircle at the VFW and reminisced and told stories about their military service. Like many World War II veterans, DeMann believes it is important for these stories to be passed down through the generations so Americans won’t ever forget the sacrifices made in preserving freedom for all Americans.
“People deserve to know what really happened,” said DeMann, 89, who lives in Dundas. “I think it is always interesting to hear stories about other branches of the service. I even learned a few things.”
DeMann said the club will meet next year and until the last man is standing, at which time an “expensive” bottle of Cognac will be the prize.
“I hope we’re able to continue having these banquets for a long time,” DeMann said. “I enjoy getting together with these men and reminiscing about the war and about their lives. They are all good friends.”
Ross Stickley often had to take matters into his own hands when he was stationed at RAF Fassberg airfield in Germany from 1948 to 1949 during the Berlin Airlift.
In 1948, the Russians, who wanted Berlin to themselves, closed all highways, railroads and canals from western-occupied Germany into western-occupied Berlin. Called the Berlin Blockade, the Russians thought this would make it impossible for the people who lived there to get food or any other supplies and would drive Britain, France and the United States out of the city for good.
That didn’t happen. The United States and its allies decided to supply their sectors of the city from the air. The effort – called the Berlin Airlift – lasted for more than a year and carried more than 2.3 million tons of cargo into West Berlin as nearly 300,000 flights were made. During the Berlin Airlift, an Allied supply plane took off or landed in West Berlin every 30 seconds.
That’s where Stickley comes in. The Northfielder was attached to a communications unit that was in charge of installing and maintaining the navigation beacons that guided the planes in and out of West Berlin. The biggest problem he had during his tour of duty, he said, was getting repair parts for the 30 or so beacons he was tasked with maintaining.
During one particularly bad spell, Stickley said he had made numerous requisitions for parts but never received them. That’s when the former Iowa farm boy took matters into his own hands.
Working the control tower one night, he heard that a colonel was making a stop at Fassberg. He talked his way onto that plane and hitched a ride to RAF Burtonwood, a Royal Air Force airfield. He then procured the parts he needed and caught a ride back to Fassberg, where he and the others charged with maintaining the beacons were able to do their jobs.
“We needed to maintain those navigation beacons so our pilots could get in and out,” Stickley said. “It was a pretty important job.”
Stickley said that during the year he was stationed at RAF Fassberg, he would only hear news of the blockade and how it affected so many lives. It wasn’t until he visited 10 years later that he fully understood the complexities of the mission and the historical importance.
“You get a better view of it 10 years later,” he said. “Once they started making maps and talking about it, you knew the significance and historic value.”
Last week, Stickley and his daughter, Lee Norman, flew to Berlin to take part in the 65th anniversary celebration of the end of the blockade, which ended on May 12, 1949. The visit helped Norman understand the importance of the Berlin Airlift and the role her father played.
“We had people coming up to us wherever we were to thank us,” Norman said. “People would see that we were a part of the anniversary celebration and would come off the street and literally hug the guys and say ‘you saved my life.’ It was touching and emotional.”
While Stickley wanted to go to Berlin for the anniversary commemoration, he also was interested in seeing just how far Berlin had come since those days at the beginning of the Cold War. He said that while he felt no great emotion being there, he was amazed at how things had progressed.
“This was really a fill-in-the-blanks trip for me,” he said. “The main reason I wanted to go was because in 1948, Berlin was one huge pile of rubble. I was just amazed at how it looked today, especially looking back on what it was then.”
During the blockade, 31 Americans lost their lives in the line of duty. Nearly 80 total people died during the year-long blockade.
Reach Managing Editor Jerry Smith at 645-1136, or follow him on Twitter.com @NewsNorthfield