Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

July 31, 2013

Tribute to a real-life hero

Newphew recalls uncle's role as WWII bomber pilot

Robert Stefani
The Andover Townsman

---- — Growing up in Andover during World War II, my contemporaries had heroes such as movie cowboys, professional athletes and others based on fictional characters from comic books. My uncle Francis grew up on Orchard Street in Andover. He was my real-life hero. I admired his athleticism in baseball. He played several positions with the Boston Industrial Baseball League. He was also one of the top skiers in the east before his military service. Even in his mid-30s, he competed in downhill racing against future Olympians.

He was a pilot for three air forces, something that was really exciting to my youthful imagination. He was part of what is said to be the greatest generation, one full of young men who accepted their duty to serve their country, and did so without complaint. Knowing Francis, you knew there was more than that.

The 1940 air battle of Britain, during which the Royal Air Force beat back a superior air power saving England, was what inspired Francis to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a pilot. Undaunted by being turned down, he left Andover to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in Ottawa, enlisting at the age of 29 in April 1941. He was part of the first American group trained as bomber pilots, leaving for England on Dec. 7, 1941, four days after his 30th birthday.

Together, the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force flew bombing raids to industrial targets. As a pilot of the heavy bomber Wellington, Francis’ targets were Bremen, Essen and Dussendorf, Germany. After months of these night raids, Francis was transferred to fly with the British Eighth Army in Africa. Shortly after, he was able to transfer to the U.S. Air Force, which had previously turned him down for being too old when attempting to enlist at age 29.

He was assigned to the Ninth Air Force, piloting a Liberator B-24 bomber, a plane he liked for its durability and power. He earned the distinguished Flying Cross, second highest to the Congressional Medal of Honor, for skillfully piloting his B-24 with one engine knocked out by enemy planes and ground fire. Two months later, his mission was to bomb the Romanian oil fields in the raid known as Operation Tidal Wave. U.S. aircrafts flew at tree-top level amid flaming refineries. This was best remembered as a mission that cost us many American lives and planes and it resulted in five medals of honor, three posthumously, for its members.

In late August 1943, Francis was interviewed by the Andover Townsman and Boston Herald for winning the distinguished Flying Cross. The articles written highlighted his experiences with the British army, including an instance when he and his crew were forced to bail out of a crippled Wellington bomber. The papers also detailed his American missions operation, which heightened my respect and admiration for an uncle who seemed to live a charmed life as a bomber pilot.

Francis came from a strong family of four brothers, one sister and a young widowed mother. He was educated in Andover, attending Phillips Academy for high school and going on to Brown University. Two of his brothers were in combat and two others were part of the war effort, but something about flying airplanes specifically excited a pre-teen boy. During the war years, his empty bedroom displayed posters of Britain and its war planes. My siblings and I spent summers at our grandmother’s house, where she used to read us letters from all my uncles from wherever they were stationed, minus the classified locations.

Many veterans of World War II were reluctant to tell their stories, but Francis was not. He would leave out the rough parts and tell it with his unique view on the war. I like to think that he had a bit of Hawkeye Pierce in him as he was not the military type. For example, in late 1943, he met brother Jim at Fort Knox and when a colonel approached, they had to salute him because he was their superior officer. Francis used the British Army version, which caused the officer to sputter, “What kind of salute was that soldier?” to which Francis responded, “The very best I could give you, sir.” The colonel noticed the ribbons on Francis’ uniform, which prompted Francis to say, “Colonel, you seem to have forgotten your ribbons, as I don’t see any,” sending the colonel on his way.

The best story was when he shot the barrack lights out because his rest was being interfered with after some harrowing missions. He had preceded his actions by saying, “I don’t want to ask for quiet again or I’ll take matters into my own hands.” After shooting out the lights, he was ordered to report to Colonel Kane, his Congressional Medal of Honor commander. The colonel complimented Francis’ marksmanship, but warned him never to do it again, and Francis did not.

Francis McClellan went beyond most veterans as he volunteered his service before the U.S. went to war. It’s remarkable to fly unpredictable planes through extreme weather, aircraft fire and harassment by enemy fighters. Francis made light of the dangers, even bailing out of his crippled Wellington bomber in Africa. After his military career, he was a pilot for Colonial Airlines. However, he realized flying with passengers was much different than flying with his wartime crew and decided to quit. He ended his flying career, never to fly a plane again. My hero uncle died at 101 years old on June 25, 2013.

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Robert Stefani is the nephew of Francis McClellan, who was his mother’s second youngest brother. Stefani now lives in his mother’s house off Orchard Street.