Staff Sergeant Robert C. Van Lew (1926 – 2005)
8th Army Air Force, WWII – Europe, B17 Ball Turret Gunner, Air Medal
Remembering – Staff Sergeant Robert C. Van Lew – MZHS “Hero of Air Power”
Robert Calvin Van Lew, son of Mack and Audra Hollingsworth Van Lew of Benezette, was born and raised in Benezette, and attended Benezette High School. After graduation, a young 17 year old Bob moved to Buffalo with a sister Louise for a short while before enlisting in the Army Air Forces.
Bob joined the AAF in April, 1944, and was trained in aerial gunnery in Las Vegas. During crew training, Bob, at 5′ 7″, was naturally selected to be the ball turret gunner on his B17 crew. His crew was assigned to the 863rd Bomb Squadron, 493rd Bomb Group (aka “Helton’s Hellcats”) of the 8th AAF in Debach Airfield (pronounced “Deb-idge”) in Suffolk, England arriving in March, 1945. In the months of March and April, Bob’s crew flew a total of 17 combat missions in the B17 named “The Golden Goose”. Thankfully the war was then over, and so were Bob’s missions. All of the missions were bombing raids over Germany involving the Air Offensive of Europe and including the airborne assault across the Rhine in March, 1945. Bob returned to the States in July, 1945. For his service S/Sgt Bob Van Lew was awarded the Air Medal, the WW2 Victory Medal, EAME medal with 2 bronze stars for the Air Offensive Europe and Rhineland campaigns plus other ribbons.
One flight story that Bob enjoyed telling involved a time when the pilot gave the command to “Prepare to abandon ship”. Bob climbed out his turret, and put his parachute on knowing the aileron had been hit by flak. They next thing he knew, the radioman Clarke ran down the length of the plane and bailed out. Clarke apparently had a change of mind at some point but was pulled out of the aircraft by his chute and landed on the stabilizer of the wing. Seeing him unconscious, freezing to death and unable to pull himself back into the aircraft, Bob and the other crewman were able to reach his ripcord which they pulled. His chute deployed removing him from the wing; however they doubted whether he would be able to descend through the bomber formation let alone be conscious upon landing. Miraculously, Clarke survived the event and returned to service, and to the relief of his crew members Clarke was grateful for their actions.
After the service, Bob returned home, married Carol Davis from Emporium in 1950, and studied chemistry at Penn State. During this time Bob moved to Cleveland, started his family with daughter Pam and son Eric, and eventually started a business there. With his entrepreneurial spirit he started a very successful company called Aerokits Inc which became one of the largest “small business” defense contractors in the country. Bob finished his career as an Equitable Life salesman, and he and Carol retired to Zephyrhills, Florida. His interest and hobbies included fly-fishing, golfing, his grandchildren, and reading. Bob passed away there in February, 2005, and was buried next to his parents in the Mt Pleasant Cemetery on Winslow Hill in Benezette.
We are proud to honor S/Sgt Bob Van Lew as one of Mt Zion Historical Society’s “Heroes of Air Power”.
Lest We Forget…