MUSCLE SHOALS — As Roy Stevens walked among the assortment of crafts at the Shoals Warbird Weekend in June, one in particular caught his eye.

It was a Navy Torpedo bomber, just like the one Stevens rode aboard as a radioman/bombardier during World War II.

Naturally, the Florence resident chatted with the owner about the craft, since it was the same type he had been on during combat missions with Composite Squadron 97.

The owner even handed Stevens a sheet of paper that provided information on the life history of the plane. Stevens didn't have time to read it during the show, but went over it later that day.

"When I got home and looked at it, I saw its first combat assignment was VJ 97 -- and that's my squadron," Stevens said. "That's when I first realized that was my airplane. I looked at my flight logbook and found we had flown that airplane on the 25th and 26th of June 1945 -- our last two combat missions. That was Okinawa."

Even though the realization came later, Stevens said he is glad to have had that reunion.

"It was good to see the airplane," he said. "It looked just like it did 72 years ago."

The moment also brought back poignant memories.

"You have feelings," Stevens said. "You have some remembrances. You have remembrances of some guys who were your friends and didn't make it."

His war experiences included many treacherous moments. His crew crashed into the East China Sea while returning from a 1945 combat mission.

"The landing went bad," he said. "We tried to get aboard the carrier and the airplane didn't quite make it. It was a three-man crew. We all got out without any serious injuries."

A day or two later, the crew received another plane -- the very one Stevens reunited with last month.

Overall, Stevens served three years, flying in 27 combat missions, including ones with objectives to destroy kamikaze planes.

"There were a lot of little islands in the vicinity that the Japanese were flying their kamikaze planes from," he said. "Our mission was to try to get them on the ground, or tear up the runway. A lot of islands were not really on the maps.

"We kind of knew what to expect and hoped for the best. We did a lot of training, and were ready for what we were trying to do. We were kind of a unique outfit. Air crewmen, there weren't too many of us in the Navy. We were kind of a small group and went through intense training. Probably not more than 50 percent of us who started the program finished it."

He had an aerial view of ferocious battles, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

"On those invasions, we were flying in support," Stevens said. "I had real feelings for the people who were trying to land on those islands. I was watching them from up in the air."

Stevens said the plane crash he was involved in occurred on June 10, which happened to be the same date as the Shoals Warbird Weekend. He said he still does not know what caused the plane to crash.

"The pilot wasn't sure what it was," Stevens said. "The engine was running fine, but he couldn't keep control of the airplane."

All Stevens knew at the time was things were out of his hands.

"You say a little prayer, to tell the truth about it," he said. "In a moment like that, you knew who your maker was."

After the war, Stevens went on to have a distinguished career with the University of North Alabama, retiring as executive vice president and chief operating officer. He is the namesake of Stevens Hall.

On this Independence Day, the 92-year-old laments the loss of World War II veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states 620,000 of the 16 million American World War II veterans were alive in 2016.

"If people want to find out about the war from World War II veterans, they'd better hurry up," Stevens said. "There's not many of us left."

bernie.delinski@timesdaily.com or 256-740-5739. Twitter @TD_BDelinski

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