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Members of B-17 crew enjoy camaraderie, friendship 50 years later

The "Sons of Helaman" are a little older now. Their hair is graying, their gaits are slower, but what their mothers taught them bears as much significance today as it once did while preparing for battle.

Of course, these are not the stripling warriors from the 56th chapter of Alma in the Book of Mormon. They are members of a B-17 bomber crew that trained together the winter of 1944-45 before being shipped overseas. As was tradition for American bomber crews during World War II, these men adopted a name for themselves - the "Sons of Helaman." Of the nine-member crew, seven were LDS.Fifty years later, eight of the nine men, including the two non-LDS, gathered last April 7-8 for a reunion in Salt Lake City. Most had not seen each other since the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. But no matter, during the more than two hours that these men reminisced during a dinner at the Lion House, time seemed to slip back to when they were 23 years old and younger.

Speaking of how he felt associating with these men during the world's bloodiest conflict, co-pilot Leland Davis told the Church News: "It was a great morale booster in working together - knowing that we felt the Lord was with us. We felt we were very much blessed."

Many expressions of gratitude and friendship - regardless of religious background - were offered during the reunion dinner by the crew members, some who came great distances to attend. Attending the reunion were Ralph Spongberg, a B-17 radio operator, who is not a member of the Church, from Kearney, Neb.; Robert Schoettler, a navigator, also non-LDS, from Fresno, Calif.; Russ McDonald, ball turret gunner, from Salt Lake City; Robert Clark, nose gunner and bombardier, from Provo, Utah; Charles Wall, top turret gunner, Salt Lake City; Clinton Miller, pilot, Gainsville, Va.; Robert Robinson, flight engineer, Salt Lake City; and Brother Davis, who lives in Salt Lake City.

The missing crew member, Ralph Hawkins, a tail gunner, died in the late 1980s. Two of the crew members, Brothers McDonald and Wall, served full-time missions before serving in the Army Air Corps, predecessor to the U.S. Air Force.

Also attending the reunion as guests were BYU football coach LaVell Edwards and his wife, Pat. One of their sons is married to Brother Clark's daughter. The football coach offered a few comments to the World War II veterans, calling them "real live heroes."

Fifty years ago, these B-17 crew members most likely never suspected how much their friendships would come to mean to them. As it was, having several members of a crew of the same faith was unheard of. They first met in early 1944 for B-17-crew training at Lincoln, Neb. The LDS servicemen attended branch services in a building in town. They'd help sweep out the room every Sunday morning and hold sacrament meeting.

One member of the branch had the task of assigning servicemen to B-17 crews. Upon finding out they had almost enough LDS servicemen for one crew, he assigned them to train together. "That's when we named the crew the `Sons of Helaman,' " Brother Davis recalled. "Of course, that is from the Book of Mormon story of the stripling warriors. They went into battle, but none of them were killed."

From Lincoln, the crew was sent to Sioux City, Iowa, for flight training. Mr. Spongberg recalled: "I was very close to all the crew. I think one of the big things was that due to the Mormons' superior health habits, you felt very secure and reassured when you were flying with them because you knew they were in top physical condition."

Actually, once the "Sons of Helaman" reached their base near Cambridge, England, they were assigned to other B-17 crews, but they never forgot each other.

Today, 50 years later, the camaraderie continues - and a few laughs. Mr. Schoettler, the navigator, still gets teased about getting the crew lost over the North Sea during a training flight. "It was a night mission, and I was flying `celestial' navigation (meaning navigation by the stars). They've never forgiven me," he said with a chuckle.

He added, more soberly, "There's not one of them I wouldn't have trusted with my life."

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