Herb Stachler (by Susan Theodorelos)

Sometimes things happen in life that, at first glance, start out “normal” and you then realize, how truly special they are!
 

Herbie

We had the good fortune, through friends, to meet “Lil Herbie” — or Herb Stachler who, at 92 years old, looks and acts more like someone in his 70’s!  We met at our hangar as Sunday was the day we would take Herbie for rides in the Wacos.  We planned to take him for a ride in Andy’s cabin as it is much easier to get in and out.
We spent probably an hour before listening to stories Herbie was telling us that are nothing short of remarkable. Herbie flew P47’s in the 366th Fighter Group.  He spoke very fondly of the P47 — despite its penchant for guzzling fuel (100 gals per hour in normal cruise) with only 400 gallons on board.  He spoke of how their limited fuel range allowed them to escort the “heavies” (B17’s) out over the English Channel and in to France before having to turn back.  It was chilling to hear him tell how they would radio the pilots in the B17’s that they were starting to get low on fuel and needed to turn back.  The B17 pilots would always ask — “Stay just a little longer please?” as everyone saw the swarm of German fighter planes waiting up at higher altitude a little further along.  But eventually, Herbie and his squadron mates could wait no longer, low on fuel they had to turn back.  He said you could hear the radios light up with the B17’s chattering about the German Fighters beginning their runs.  There was a chill in his voice and a few cracks as he told this story.  “There were so many losses; those boys really took a beating.”  Herbie soon turned the conversation to a bit more light-hearted topics about the P47.
He told of a time when he was flying recon and relaying messages over the English Channel and was up at about 30K feet when he thought, “Let’s see how fast I can get this thing going…”  He did a split S and nosed over the P47 and reached over 600 mph!  He said fought like hell to pull it out of the dive, with a mental note not to do that again.
 

Button Compass and bits of shrapnel from the 20mm shell

His squadron was flying cover over the beach at D-Day +5 and he was “Tail End Charlie”.  “I was flying along at the back and looking in amazement at all the ships in the Channel, when I heard this ‘clink, clink, CLINK!”  Sure enough — just about the time he heard the squadron leader say, “Break away – you’ve got a ‘Gerry’ on your tail!”, he said the cockpit was filled with bits of shrapnel from a 20mm shell that had burst into the cockpit.  Covered in fluid, Herbie said, “I knew I wasn’t hit because I didn’t hurt, but I was sitting on top of the fuel tank and I reached down got some on my fingers to smell to make sure it wasn’t gas!”  Luckily, (maybe) it was hydraulic fluid.  He had just heard that the allies had captured an airfield and he headed that direction, unsure whether they “really” had captured the field or if it could even be used. Heck, he wasn’t even sure he was landing at the correct field, but without flaps or brakes, and a shot up plane he needed to land somewhere, now!  He managed to get her down and stopped before running off the end of the runway.  The maintenance crews quickly replaced the engine on his ship, and Herbie took her up to do “slow time” as he called it when at about 10K feet, the engine quit.  “It finally started running again after about losing 5000ft and I landed.  They didn’t have time to trouble shoot so they just yanked that engine off and put another one on!”  Herbie told meeting some of the Glider pilots that managed to survive the invasion.  “They told me they were never getting in another airplane without an engine!”  Herbie gave rides to the guys in his ship – but putting them in the seat and sitting on top of them! But time came for him to get back to the action so he took off from that little air strip and headed back to his squadron.   Although not completely verified, he said, “Story is I was the first Allied Plane to land in France and fly back out after the invasion began.”
We could have sat and listened to Herbie’s stories for hours, but the primary objective of our mission was to give him a ride in the Wacos.  Herbie did not fly after the war.  He said he flew a little bit when people gave him rides, but, like a lot of WWII veterans, he got busy with working and raising his family (10 children!)  So a ride in the Waco was a big excitement for him.

He had no trouble at all getting up on the wing of the Cabin and he and Andy took off with me in the RNF on their tail.  We joined up and flew a formation pass down the runway for Herbie.  Andy said he was laughing and enjoying the ride immensely.  Andy took him over UD’s Welcome Stadium.  Herbie had been there the night before as a friend of his just turned 90 and they honored his friend at the football game as a former alum.  They flew over Carillon Park and then back to the airport.  I had landed before Andy and kept the RNF running juuuust in case Herbie wanted to go for a ride. He had spoken so fondly of his Stearman training in Primary Flight school at the start of the war I wanted to give him every opportunity to go for a ride.


Andy asked him before he even got out of the Cabin, “You want to go for a ride in the RNF?”  To which Herbie responded, “Heck yes!”  Andy and our friend Mike went off to see if they could find a box for Herbie to stand on to help him on the wing, but they looked over and Herbie was already about to climb on the wing — so they rushed back over to help him in but he was halfway up the wing and surely didn’t need any help from us!  We got him buckled in and despite the chill in the air and the wind sitting behind the spinning prop — he was ready to go!
We taxied out and I did my pre-flight checks and said, “Are you ready Herbie?”  And he came back over the intercom — “Oh YES!  Let’s go!”
I pushed the throttle forward and the Warner kicked to life and we were off in about 200 feet.  We came back around and made a pass down the runway and Herbie was waving at everyone on the ground.  After we pulled back up to altitude, I just sat and listened to Herbie “oooh and ahhh” and watched him take pictures as we flew over the surrounding area.  I could have stayed up there all day with him, but I’ve been up front in my plane on a cool day and I didn’t want him to get chilled to the bone.  So we came back around and set up for landing…. the wind was rather squirrely — but I slipped the plane in and thankfully pulled off a smooth landing.  As we taxied back, Herbie said, “Oh I can’t thank you enough for this!  I haven’t been up in an open cockpit biplane since my primary training in 1943!”  I had tears in my eyes as I told him, “Herbie, it was my honor and such a privilege to take you for a ride and you can be my co-pilot anytime!”  As I pulled up to the hangar and shut the engine down, Andy asked him, “So how’d she do?” Herbie replied, “She did a great job!” Andy asked him if I was ready for a P47 and we all laughed when he said, “In time!” Needless to say — it was also Herbie’s first time riding with a female pilot!  I’m sooo lucky!!
Getting in the front cockpit of the RNF can be awkward — getting out even more so — but Herbie with his short stature (he had to stand on his tiptoes to make the height requirements to fly!) and being so nimble — he had no troubles at all getting out of the RNF.  As soon as I got out, he came up and gave me a big hug saying again how much he loved being out in the air again in an airplane.  We took lots of pictures and in front of the planes and the hangar for him to share with his buddies.  Needless to say, this is a flight I will never forget.  We invited Herbie to come back on Tuesday night (Airport night!) to meet more of our friends and tell more stories!
Herbie arrived about 6 pm and our usual Airport Night group of 17 people were there waiting to meet Herb Stachler!  Just about the time Herbie arrived, brother Pete Heins arrived with the CRG!  Herb was really amazed by that Waco!
 

Group photo at the end of the evening

It was to be a special night because Herbie brought his dress uniform, leather flying jacket, helmet, goggles and gloves for us all to see!  Herbie graciously answered all our questions about flying the P47 and the exciting (heck, downright scary) things he experienced.  He recounted stories about the Battle of the Bulge and the German Tiger tanks which were darn near impossible to stop.

 

Herbies flying jacket with all his missions

Herbie’s flight jacket was amazing.  One of the guys in his squadron painted his P47 on the back and he had the markings for all the fighter sweeps, and bomb runs he had made along with markings for the tanks, trucks, and planes he had taken out.  There was even what looked like a barn!  Herbie told us how he and another pilot had been sent in on a mission to destroy an ammo depot.  “I guess we did a pretty good job because we got the Distinguished Flying Cross for that mission!”  Everyone around the table was slack-jawed in amazement.  Herbie then reached inside his leather jacket and pulled out an envelope containing about four or five passport photos.  “We carried these in case we were shot down and were lucky enough to picked up by the Underground, then they could make passports for us to help get us out of enemy territory.”  He also had a little tin containing some of the shrapnel from that 20mm shell that invaded his cockpit and his little button compass that pilots would sew on their coats.
 

Herbie's dress uniform with DFC and Croix De Guerre

Another amazing award Herbie had decorating his dress uniform is the Croix de guerre which may either be bestowed as a unit award or to individuals who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces. For the unit decoration of the Croix de guerre, a fourragère or aiguillette is awarded which is suspended from the shoulder of an individual’s uniform.  Herbie’s unit was presented this award by the Belgians for their acts during the Battle of the Bulge.  It was truly breath-taking to be sitting there listening and seeing all this history.  Thankfully, our friends John and Linda LeBarre had set up their video camera and about an hour and a half of the conversation is recorded.


Our friend Brad had been busily cooking up a fabulous grilled dinner and we all sat down and enjoyed a great meal with all the Wacos as a backdrop.  Herbie has said he will come back to visit and fly with us again.  How lucky are we?
I may have confused some of the facts about his stories — but if you want
to read more about Herbie — here is a link:http://pages.prodigy.net/rebeljack/Herbie-and-others.html

3 Comments
  • Susan
    Posted at 16:20h, 21 February Reply

    Jim,

    How nice of you to stop in to the LLT website…and thank you for the kind words about the article.

    “Herbie” is one amazing man…and is sooo much fun to have around! He’s my “Co-pilot” and we fly every chance we get! You should stop by the airport on Tuesday nights this summer…we are always there and Herbie is a regular!

    Cheers!
    Susan

  • Jim Stone
    Posted at 13:59h, 21 February Reply

    My Doctor is one of Capt. Herb’s sons. I’ve been a student of WW II
    history since childhood. My great-uncle was at that same beach where Captain Stachler’s plane was hit two days before. The Capt. was very lucky to have taken a direct hit and still land the aircraft in one piece.
    You lady’s were even more fortunate to have been able to visit with the Capt. and actually fly with him. Great job on a great article.
    Jim

  • Anne Wright
    Posted at 11:28h, 04 October Reply

    All I can say is, WOW! Susan, you did a terrific thing by sharing Herbie’s story with us, and sharing your wonderful airplane with him.

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