PIPESTONE -- Imagine spending 22 months of your life in training for a skill you will never get to fully utilize in service to your country. It's almost bittersweet -- bitter knowing you were well trained and confident in the mission; and sweet because you know flying just one mission could have ended your life.
Stephen Hicks grew up in Pipestone, graduated from high school there and completed nearly a year at Macalester College in St. Paul before dropping out to enlist in the Air Force in June 1943. World War II had been underway for more than a year and a half.
"I just wanted to fly," he said. "When I was about eight years old, I rode in a Ford tri-motor from Pipestone to Elkton (S.D.). From that time on, I was hooked."
Hicks reported for duty at Jefferson Barracks, Mo., for basic training, and then transferred to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, for an introduction to flying.
Flying was just part of his education at Drake, however, as future pilots were required to take classes on the history of World War I and politics in the world. Eventually, Hicks was introduced to the Piper Cub, on which he and his fellow classmates learned the controls and took their first practice flights.
By the end of the summer in 1943, Hicks was on his way to Santa Ana, Calif., for classification training. Here, he learned map reading and coordinates and was scored based on his abilities.
"They classified us as ... pilot, bombardier or navigator," Hicks said. The high score was a nine for each classification, and if a student earned nines for each position, they received a stay-nine.
"I got three nines -- the highest in all three -- so I got a choice," Hicks said. He chose to be a bombardier, the man who determined where and when a bomb would be dropped from the aircraft. The job was a challenge, as the bombardier had to adjust for both altitude and wind speed to be able to hit his target.
Once classified as a bombardier, Hicks was sent to Las Vegas, Nev., for machine gun school, and then to Deming, N.M., for four months of bombardier school.
"We dropped practice bombs filled with sand to learn," Hicks said, adding that they were flying about one mile off the ground.
The targets, called shacks, were 20-feet square and built out of wood in the shape of a pyramid.
"It was pure luck the first two bombs I dropped (hit) shacks," he added.
Hicks was one of 162 cadets in the class, and because of those first two successful hits, and a good aim on many of the missions that followed, his fellow classmates never caught up.
"I had the best bombing record of the 162 students," he added. "I was a commanding officer -- they called me a Cadet Colonel."
The students were Class 4410 -- the 10th class of 1944 that graduated.
After graduation from bombardier school, Hicks returned to the Midwest for operational training on the B-17 bomber at Sioux City, Iowa. Since he was so close to his southwest Minnesota home, he was allowed to visit Pipestone on his days off.
The training in Sioux City included missions to a gunnery range near Yankton, S.D., where they shot at targets on the ground. This time, instead of being just one mile up in the air, they were flying at 29,000 feet, or five miles. While the higher distance created more of a challenge in hitting the target, Hicks said there was much less turbulence.
The flight crew consisted of 10 men -- the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier were the four officers, and they were accompanied by an upper turret gunner, a ball turret gunner, radio operator, two waist gunners and a tail gunner.
"Some did double duty," said Hicks, explaining that the bombardier and navigator also had machine guns at hand.
Hicks remained in northwest Iowa until April 1945, when he and fellow members of the 8th Air Force were shipped out of Camp Kilmer, N.J., on a convoy bound for England.
"Some of the graduates from training school flew over there," he said, adding that it took them two weeks to make the journey by ship.
"The speed of the convoy is dependent on the slowest ship," Hicks explained. There were usually 75 to 100 ships that traveled in a convoy, and if any of them went off course, they were in danger of being picked off by enemy submarines.
"(The convoy) was a protective process," he said, adding that they were surrounded by war ships.
There were approximately 5,000 troops onboard the "super troop" ship Hicks journeyed with. Their sleeping quarters were below deck, with bunks arranged five high.
After landing in Southampton, England, Hicks boarded a train for Ridgewell Airfield to join the 381st bomb group.
"They split every crew up to join veteran crews to fly missions," he said.
When Hicks arrived at Ridgewell, the bombardiers were grounded because the radio system was different and they needed two weeks of training.
On Hicks' last day of training, he awaited assignment for his first mission in the war, but it wasn't to come. The last mission flown in the European Theater was around April 28.
"I missed flying a mission by one day," said Hicks.
Still, the war waged on in the Pacific Theater, and Hicks prepared for a new assignment.
"The philosophy was the crews with the least number of missions would go back to the U.S. for training on the B-29 to then serve in Japan," he said.
Hicks flew back to the United States in a B-17, landing at Bradley Field in Connecticut. At that time, everyone was given a 30-day leave and told to report to Sioux Falls, S.D., in a month.
When Hicks arrived at the airport to meet up with the rest of the 8th Air Force, he said there were more people waiting there for orders than were in the entire rest of the city.
For the next month and a half, Hicks had to report to the airport for any news about an assignment. During that time, he lived in Pipestone and made the daily commute.
When Hicks finally received his assignment, he was sent to San Antonio, Texas, to await news on a mission to Japan.
"While we were there waiting to be assigned, the war in Japan ended," said Hicks. He was sent back to Sioux Falls, where he received his honorable discharge on Oct. 23, 1945 -- his 21st birthday.
When the war ended, Hicks returned home to Pipestone. Though he had entered the Air Force with a couple of friends from his hometown, not everyone made it home.
Keith Thorndyke had completed pilot training at Drake with Hicks, and ended up working as a copilot for a number of missions.
"As a first time pilot on a mission in Europe, he got shot down," said Hicks.
It could have happened to anyone -- and perhaps that is why Hicks' service was bittersweet.
"You would have liked to have the experience (in war), but yet you came out alive," he said. "I was very fortunate."
Hicks ended up returning to Macalester College after World War II, where he earned his graduate degree in mechanical engineering. He returned to Pipestone and joined in the family's businesses. His older brother, George, who served in China, Burma and India theaters of operation in World War II, also graduated from Macalester and returned home to help his dad in the car dealership.
"My brother ran the car business and I went into the oil business," said Hicks. At the height of the business in the mid-1960s, they sold about 4.5 million gallons of petroleum. Both businesses were sold in the early 1990s.
Hicks and his wife Mary Lou married in 1957. They have three adopted children and one grandchild.
A private pilot by the time he and Mary Lou met, Hicks said their first date included a flight over the St. Paul skyline. He jokes that he asked Mary Lou to go steady that night and when she finally said yes, he turned the plane right-side-up.
During his years in business, Hicks utilized his pilot training to travel to refineries in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Over the years, he's logged about 3,500 hours of flying -- enough to travel the globe 25 times.