At 95, WWII Glider Pilot Maintains Special Bond With Neighbors

Nov 11, 2016
Originally published on December 2, 2016 11:08 am

One of the last living World War II glider pilots lives in a modest home in Tampa, Florida, where he's developed a special bond with his neighbors.

You can't hear the story of World War II veteran Leonard Stevens without learning about the woman he calls his body guard. Their stories are now deeply connected.

As connected as the 95-year-old is to his blue ball cap that reads: "WWII Combat Glider Pilot."

"I'm the last of the glider pilots living, and I wear this hat," Stevens said. "We walk into any place and people start talking to me: 'What the Hell Is A Glider Pilot?'"

As Stevens tells his story, his neighbor Vonnie Wallace sits nearby. The two have been close friends since  they met a few years ago. She was walking her dog past his house when Stevens, whose arm is paralyzed from his war wounds, asked her to help move a table.

"I said okay, but I need to tell you I’m packing a 9 millimeter," Wallace recalled. "If there’s anybody behind that door that intends to do me bodily harm, they're dead because I'm an expert shot."

"He laughed and said if there's anybody behind that door, they don't belong there. You shoot them."

Since then, Stevens and Wallace have gotten to know each other so well that she has memorized his war stories and fills in the blanks if he falters. She also filled out all the paperwork for Stevens, who this September was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his World War II service.

Stevens joined the Army in 1938, before the war. It was during the Great Depression, and he was 17 years old.

"I was hungry," Stevens said. "My father was an old first sergeant from World War I, and he told me how to use the system."

Stevens volunteered to be a glider pilot was sent to Africa, Naples and Rome and even got to meet Pope Pius the XII.  

Then came Operation Dragoon - the liberation of southern France in September 1944.

"40 percent of my buddies got killed," Stevens said.

That’s because the paratroopers who were supposed to clear his landing area were killed by the Germans the night before. He crashed, suffered massive injuries, and wasn’t rescued for days.

It took him three years to recuperate. He retired in 1949 as an Army Air Corps officer and then worked as a TV repairman. Stevens and his wife of 69 years raised two children and traveled the world.

But she died four years ago, leaving Stevens adrift -- until he met Wallace.

 

"We’re buddies, and each of us are bodyguards," Stevens said.

"Somebody asked, 'Who is she?," and instead of saying buddy, I said, 'I'm your bodyguard.'"

It works out perfectly because Wallace - who is more than four decades his junior - is the daughter of a veteran, and her husband also served. And despite their age difference, they feel like they’re part of the same military family.

They can be found at the Village Inn on free pie night or hunting through thrift shops. And not a day goes by that Stevens doesn’t get a visit from "buddy" or "bodyguard."