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Frederick Allen Stearns

The Gallant Youth

Born in Adams, Massachusetts in 1925 and raised in Keene, New Hampshire, for a majority of his life, Frederick Allen Stearns, the son of two public school teachers, came to YMCA Camp Takodah in 1936.

Boys at camp Takodah in 1936 presumably listening to a story from Uncle Oscar Elwell. Allen is possibly present in this photograph.
Boys Camp in 1936 presumably listening to a story from Uncle Oscar with Allen possibly present in this photograph

Allen was one of those kids that the staff would talk about for the remainder of the summer, if not for years to come. He was a joker, a charmer, a musician, a performer, a prankster, a natural born leader, and he was always ready and willing to debate any subject… and usually win.

Based on their birth dates, how the divisions were configured, and the limited number of available bunks at that time, Allen most likely shared a cabin that July with several other future military veterans including Thomas Aaron Eaton, George Frederick Toomey, William Thomas Burrows, Jr., and Phillip Douglas Parady.

Robert Douglas Lancey, being five years older, could have been their Leader in Training.

Flag Raising Ceremony, mid-1930s
Flag Raising Ceremony, mid-1930s

The boys ate their meals together. They sang songs together. They tried new activities together. They played, swam, created, sailed, rowed, wrote, slept, laughed, cried, and ran together.

In short, without a doubt, they all knew each other.

What they didn’t know was that each of them would eventually make the supreme sacrifice in the Second World War in places ranging from England to Guam . They would be eternally honored by their families, have their names cast into a solid bronze memorial plaque, and be remembered by Takodians for decades to come.

After his summer at camp, however, Allen would continue to be a memorable charmer around Cheshire County. He attended Keene High School, where his father was a well-known history teacher. Allen was an excellent student and stayed busy with various extracurricular activities including the band, orchestra, German Club, A Cappella Choir, Outing Club, Senior Steering Committee, and the Yearbook Board. He even found time to take leading roles in different plays with the Dramatic Club including a notable performance in Noel Coward’s three-act comedy “I’ll leave it to you” for the Keene Women’s Club on March 8, 1943.

Allen’s co-star in the play was Edward J. Kingsbury, Jr., the cousin of fellow Takodian and future US Army veteran Chester Lyman Kingsbury, Jr.

Edward’s father donated the funding required to help produce the play. Seeing as Chester, or “Beany” as he was called, enlisted in the US Army at Fort Devens just over 2 weeks after the play premiered, it’s highly possible he was in Keene that week visiting his parents. As a fellow thespian himself who would undoubtedly want to support his performing relatives, he might have even been in the audience that evening.

In the Women’s Club report on the play, they reported that “for Keene audiences, the unusual happened. The curtain rose promptly at 8:00 PM.”

F. Allen Stearns graduation photo from Keene High School, 1943
Allen’s graduation photo from Keene High School, 1943

Allen was also the Editor in Chief of Enterprise, the Keene High School magazine of poetry, essays, and commentary, in his junior and senior year. The November 1942 edition was already darkened by war, but in the forward to the Winter 1943 edition, Allen wrote “The government has said that ‘if it’s fun, it’s out,’ but that only goes for the use of cars. … we are fully aware of the war and we’re not trying to escape it; but we can still have fun and carry on as before.”

And try they did, with skiing and skating and other intramural sports popular (varsity sports were all but eliminated owing to gasoline rationing). Given Allen’s parents, his father was head of the history department, on the student guidance staff and led the history curriculum board for the State of New Hampshire, and his Mother, Gertrude, who also a teacher, Allen focused on literature, history, and music.

His wit showed through too, in the Winter ’43 Enterprise he and his younger sister Janet included a biting poem about their father:

There was an old man named Stearns

Who made many and numerous yearns

It was always his whim

Any argument to win

And this any senior soon learns.

It would appear Allen was a chip off the old block.

Keene High School Class of 1943 (with Allen's father at right in the front row)
Keene High School Class of 1943 (with Allen’s father at right in the front row and Allen likely present in the back row)

Later that year, his friends would write of him in the Keene High School yearbook Salmagundi that “Allen is always ready to take the opposite side in any argument, and has a lot of fun doing it.“ They went on to describe him as: “He, the best of all musicians. He, the sweetest of all singers.”

When Allen wasn’t performing in school or wooing a girl, he was a concert pianist and organist for the Federated Church of Marlboro.

Allen graduated from Keene High in 1943 and immediately attended the all-boys Phillips Academy Preparatory School in Andover, MA, that summer. His ambitions included “to take up music or get into the Foreign Service.” Allen’s parents, siblings, teachers, clergy, and everyone in between knew he’d inevitably go on to accomplish something wonderful.

Aerial photograph of Phillips Academy in 1943
Aerial photograph of Phillips Academy in 1943

Ever the macho charmer, he spent that summer at Phillips pining after girls – he wrote in one letter home “they are so rare, especially good lookers” – and studying music, physics and other subjects in preparation for college. As the summer waned, however, Allen began considering another choice. Like so many others, he knew the war offered another path. One that offered the excitement and adventure that most young men are susceptible to, but also the chance to be a part of something larger than himself, to join in the great, joint effort to defeat the Axis powers that had cast such a dark shadow over the world.

Indeed, his own father had served in the First World War, and had trained at Fort Devens in Massachusetts, so how could he not serve himself? How could a boy, raised by a history teacher who taught the principles of Constitution and the history of the Republic, resist such a lure?

Allen, with his parents blessing, made the decision to serve in September.

Army Air Forces Training Command poster, mid-1940s
Army Air Forces Training Command poster, mid-1940s

He joined the US Army Air Forces on 7 October 1943 in Manchester, New Hampshire, and began pilot training shortly thereafter. After initial testing and physical exams, he began preflight training with the College Training Detachment, Furnham University, in Greenville, SC. This consisted of “physical training, military training, supervised athletics and the complete processing of assigned students,” as well as “additional instruction and training as may be practicable . . . to further qualify trainees for instruction as pilots, bombardiers, or navigators.”

Allen also decided he liked the girls of those parts, and fell head over heels in love with a woman named Zelda. As he put it in another letter home “these southern belles have got something, and I ain’t kidding!”

Although lucky in love, Allen was less so when it came to pilot training. Unfortunately, he’d joined the Army Air Forces at a moment of peak capacity – in December 1943 there were over 74,000 students in flight training. At the same time, despite heavy losses in Europe and the Pacific, the AAF had actually planned for much higher losses. ‘Big Army’ quickly identified the program as having excess students and, in March 1944, transferred a large number of lower quality trainees to the Army Ground and Service Forces. Most of the remaining trainees shifted to navigator, bombardier or gunnery schools, of which Allen attended the latter.

He also had to say goodbye to Zelda.

After a short stay in Greensboro, Allen transferred to Buckingham Army Field, in Fort Meyers, Florida. As a typical New Englander, Allen did not take to the oppressive southern heat well at all. In a 30 April 1944 letter to his sister, he wrote:

Dear Janet,

I just got your letter and since you put it that way, I couldn’t put off writing to you any longer. From what Mother and Daddy have said, I gather that you are doing all sorts of things – the play especially. Congrats on what I gather was a swell performance. Helen Primrose went all out for me last year at the Women’s Club Play and seems to have done the same for you. The difference being that you probably deserved it and I didn’t.

Allen, during his time in flight school
Allen, likely taken during his time in AAF gunnery school

This place is the closest to hell that I ever want to get. It’s hot, miles from nowhere, right on the Everglades, etc. Mud, KP, detail and such things are what I hate. I’ll sure be glad when we start school. I’m sure learning plenty about the gentle art of goofing off.

I feel head over heels for Zelda at Greenville and haven’t begun to recover yet but from now on I’m going to follow Jack’s advice: love ’em and leave ’em.

There ain’t no social life here so I’ll have to do without for a couple of months. I’m going to holler like hell for a furlough when I finish.

Nice going on the [latest volume of] Enterprise.

How about sitting down and scribbling off another letter, huh?

Love,

Allen

Meanwhile, the gunnery school at Buckingham was extensive and taught a complex five-week “flexible gunnery” course. The first weeks of training focused on aircraft identification, weapons training and firing, including skeet shooting out of moving trucks.  Later weeks included the use of remote turrets and practicing air-to-air gunnery against flying targets towed by other aircraft. By 1944, the gunnery school was also using “synthetic trainers,” including a complex motion picture system that forced the trainees to aim and fire a mock machine gun at the correct angle and distance.

Army Air Forces Gunnery Schools trainee fires on a scale model aircraft
Army Air Forces Gunnery Schools trainee fires on a scale model aircraft

Allen did not find the program challenging, complaining about the restrictions of camp life in rural Florida. He wrote home “Don’t let anyone kid you – it’s not fun to be told what, how, where and when to do everything…” To make matters worse, they only received liberty one night a week. On the other hand, his roommate had a radio, there was a piano to play and plenty of Vargas calendars pinned up around the barracks.

19th bombardment group Boeing B-29 Superfortresses in flight
Boeing B-29 Superfortresses in flight

In the fall, Allen transferred to Great Bend Army Air Field, Kansas, where he joined the 28th Bombardment Squadron (Very Heavy). Equipped with Boeing four-engine B-29 Superfortress bombers, the squadron, part of the 19th Bombardment Group, trained for combat operations in the Pacific. The B-29’s design, completed in 1940, was a true long-range bomber, capable of flying almost 1600 miles with a bomb load of 20,000 pounds (forty 500-pound bombs). Built with a pressurized cabin, the bomber could fly at 30,000 feet at speeds up to 350 mph, higher and faster than almost all Japanese fighters. The aircraft was also equipped with remotely controlled turrets armed with .50-caliber machine guns. Allen trained as a tail gunner, which was a more technically complex position since he also operated a fire control radar.

Meanwhile, in the central Pacific, the Navy and Marines had captured Guam, Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands by August 1944. Navy construction battalions (Seabees) built five major airfields there and in December 1944, elements of the 19th Bomb Group departed Kansas for North Field, Guam, arriving there on 16 January 1945.

Crew of aircraft #42-94098 with Allen second from right in front row
Crew of aircraft #42-94098 with Allen second from right in front row

Allen, however, remained behind. His aircraft was new (#42-94098) and required extensive shakedown training. Deployment was also delayed by equipment refits and waiting for a replacement group to form. During one training flight, Allen noticed one engine smoking on take-off, which was a problem, as B-29 engines were finicky at low altitudes. To make matters more exciting, as the pilot put the landing gear and flaps down, a second engine started smoking and the aircraft lost what little altitude they had (about 400 feet). Dropping quickly, the bomber bounced hard off the runway – Allen called it “an extremely rough landing” – but the pilot got them down safely. As he later put it, “it was all quite exciting and slightly nerve-wracking, and my first real experience with a close call in the air.”

Meanwhile, the bomb group, assigned to the 314th Bombardment Wing on Guam, conducted its first high-altitude raid over Tokyo on 25 February. This raid, like others earlier in the month, produced poor results. The jet stream, a high-speed wind coming out of the west, disrupted the bomber formations and actually blew bombs off course as they dropped. To make matters worse, the high winds caused many engine failures and aircraft crashes.

Insignia of the 314th Bombardment Wing
Insignia of the 314th Bombardment Wing

AAF planners quickly reassessed their strategy, deciding that a policy of high-altitude, high-explosive bombing was the wrong approach to the Japanese war economy. Instead, given widespread but small cottage industries all around major industrial plants, planners decided to switch to low-altitude night attacks with incendiary bombs. Given that Japanese cities were mostly wood construction, they hoped general conflagrations would work instead of high explosives. In a letter home, Allen wrote that because of Japan’s “feudal system of extensive home manufacturing we can’t help but cripple their war effort as long as the bombs fall anywhere within their cities.”

The policy was an instant success, with a fire bombing attack on 10 March destroying sixteen square miles of the center of Tokyo. The raid also took a terrible human toll, killing an estimated 84,000 civilians. By June 1945, the 50 largest cities in Japan lay destroyed.

Allen’s plane arrived at Guam in June 1945. The crew conducted a raid on Hiratsuka on 17 July and two other cities by the 23rd. Three days later, a raid of 130 aircraft took off to bomb the Japanese port city of Omuta, including B-29 #42-94098.

Crew of B-29 #42-94098 with Allen, standing, second from right
Crew of B-29 #42-94098 with Allen, standing, second from right

To fill the hours the crew slept, read newspapers, played gin rummy, and listened to the news and music from home on Saipan radio. After four hours, the formation passed over the emergency airbase and “glorified gas station” of Iwo Jima, and three hours later the stream of planes began the approach to Omuta. Japanese night fighters met the planes and in the ensuing attack aircrews spotted numerous tracer trails, explosions, burning debris and glowing fireballs in the sky around them. By the time the planes turned for home, over third of Omuta was destroyed or in flames, leaving behind an unknown number of dead, wounded, and homeless Japanese.

Only one of the planes in the attack did not return.

B-29 Superfortress goes down over Kyushu
United States Army Air Forces B-29 Superfortress shot down over Kyushu during the Second World War

Witnesses saw a single B-29, with one engine on fire, under attack by Japanese fighters. The aircraft disappeared into a cloudbank and then disintegrated into two or three flaming pieces. Aircrews later spotted five life rafts in Ariake Bay. Of the eleven-man crew, six of the men – including Allen – managed to escape the burning plane and parachute to earth. There they were captured by the Japanese and taken to Western Army Headquarters in Fukuoka, Japan.

Unfortunately, that headquarters was perhaps the worst location to be a prisoner. In consequence of the Doolittle Raid in 1942, the Japanese Army already viewed captured airmen as ‘war criminals’ and by 1945, and the many firebombing raids, the situation had worsened. Indeed, in late June, Army officers had led an illegal execution of eight flyers at Fukuoka.

On 7 August, one of the Japanese officers returned after viewing the damage caused by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and incendiary damage at Kofu. Three days later, after hearing about the second atomic bomb dropped at Nagasaki, the officers decided to kill eight more prisoners with swords. That this was an illegal execution disturbed some of the Japanese participants but they did not stop it, all eight men died by beheading later that day.

US Army Air Force officer, blindfolded by his captors, is led from a Japanese transport plane
US Army Air Force officer, blindfolded by his captors, is led from a Japanese transport plane

Then, on 15 August, the Emperor broadcast a surrender message to all Japanese forces. Worried that the previous executions would now be uncovered, the Japanese officers decided “they would have to execute the remaining flyers because if they didn’t the other executions would then become known.” The Japanese then killed the last seventeen Americans in custody, again mainly with swords. A work detail then exhumed and cremated all 33 bodies, later dumping their ashes in Ariake Bay.

Frederick Allen Stearns died in the executions of either 10 or 15 August. His bones were never recovered.

Although initially declared missing in August 1945, Allen was declared KIA in January 1947 after extensive interviews conducted by post-war Army investigators. The news softened, or so the War Department believed, by condolences offered by Maj. Gen. Edward F. Witsell, Adjutant General of the Army:

If, in the end, we learn that it has cost us your son’s life to win back freedom and peace, then, through our tears, let us take pride in his noble sacrifice, and let us to use and to preserve that peace and freedom that and all of his heroic comrades may not have given their lives in vain.

United States Armed Forces Prisoner of War Medal
United States Armed Forces Prisoner of War Medal

Allen posthumously received the Air Medal, the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal. His name is in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial above Oahu. He is listed not too far from fellow Takodian Phillip Douglas Parady’s name in the memorial.

In May 1947, Allen’s parents presented Keene High School with a beautiful, brand new Hammond Electric Organ. A brief dedication ceremony, attended by a large audience, included a memorial concert. The concert included two pieces by Bach, Wagner’s ‘Prelude to Parsifal” and ended with Widor’s ‘Toccata in F from Symphony No. 5,’ a popular piece of organ music that Allen loved. An article about the event appeared in the Keene Evening Sentinel that following Monday. It was written by G. H. Barrett, a close friend of Allen’s who was still mourning his loss.

1947 Hammond Concert Model E electric "Tonewheel" organ
1947 Hammond Concert Model E electric “Tonewheel” organ

“The memory of a gentle, gifted young man lives longer than the trite phrase,” he wrote. “A gifted musician and scholar, we can think of no more generous act on the part of his mother and father than the gift to the school of this fine instrument. A gift to provide the incentive and opportunity for others to take up the study of an instrument upon which Allen Stearns was at so early an age already an adept. Surely the gratitude of the city cannot be measured in words.”

After Allen’s father died in 1956, his family found a poem by Archibald MacLeish, an American poet, in his desk.

Titled ‘This Month,’ the first stanza reads:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses.

(Who has not heard them?)

For decades afterwards, however, Allen did speak. He spoke through the organ, through the skill and splendor of musical expression that came from student after student. The echo of notes, chords, and harmonies filling the classroom and hallways of the school – an institution from which so many heroes of the Second World War had emerged – would prove to be a lasting tribute to a man who wanted music to be his legacy.

 

Courts of the Missing, Honolulu Memorial
Courts of the Missing, Honolulu Memorial

 

Read the next story in the series.

Return to the Lost Takodians of WWII main page.

Author’s Letter – Senior Chief Petty Officer Timothy L. Francis, United States Navy, and nephew of F. Allen Stearns

 

SOURCES:

  • Interviews with Senior Chief Timothy Lang Francis, United States Navy
  • YMCA Camp Takodah History, Oscar & Francis Elwell, 1971. Takodah YMCA Archives.
  • YMCA Camp Takodah Registration Cards. Takodah YMCA Archives.
  • Ancestry.com Records, Media, and Stearns Family Trees
  • Fold 3 Records, Media, and Military Documents
  • Wikipedia
  • Library of Congress
  • Newspaper Archives
  • Newspapers.com
  • Keene Evening Sentinel
  • “To Dispose of the Prisoners”: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945; Timothy Lang Francis, Pacific Historical Revie, 1997
  • FindAGrave.com
  • American Battle Monuments Commission

PHOTO CREDITS:

  • Stearns & Francis Family Photos
  • YMCA Camp Takodah Photo Archives
  • Wikimedia
  • Hammond Organ Company Historical Archives
  • American Battle Monuments Commission