Bill Steffens, WWII, Korean War, Cold War

Petoskey Veteran’s logo design has graced air rescue units for over 60 years, and he just found out about it

By Tamara Stevens
Special to Emmet County

Bill Steffens

Bill Steffens today, holds a framed photograph of his crew and the B-17 they flew in 1951 to find a lost victim in the Pacific Ocean.

No matter where you are in the world, if there are pilots and planes there’s an air rescue unit there to save the military personnel, according to United States Air Force Tech Sergeant (Retired) William R. Steffens.

“Wherever men or women are in combat, whether it’s over land or water, there is Air Rescue there to help them,” said Steffens, 88 years old.

The United States Air Force Air Rescue Service is an elite, life-saving unit that rescues downed and injured pilots in dangerous locations around the globe. Originally begun during World War II as part of the U.S. Army Air Corps, before the Air Force was established, the U.S.A.F. Rescue is represented by a logo of an angel wrapping her arms around the globe, and the immortal words “That Others May Live.” The design was drawn by Sgt. Steffens in 1951, but he didn’t know that his design became the symbol that emblazons helicopters throughout the world until the fall of 2013 – 61 years after he sketched his original artwork.

“During wars, when airplanes were shot down, our (Air Rescue Services) rescue unit was there to help,” Steffens said from his home in Petoskey, where he and his wife, BJ, have lived for the past 21 years.

Steffens served his country during WWII as a Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which became the Air Force after WWII. Years later, the Air-Sea Rescue unit of the Air Force underwent a name change and has been known ever since as United States Air Force Air Rescue Service. In 1951, Steffens was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Oahu, Hawaii, when his commanding officer announced a contest was being held to create a logo for the Air Rescue operations.

“Our commander said we’re not going to have girlies painted on the nose of our aircraft,” Steffens remembers. “We’re a dignified branch of the service, and we’re going to have something dignified to signify us. And he was right about that.”

Steffens had sketched a design of an angel with her arms wrapped around the globe. He checked his use of Latin words with the base chaplain to verify their accuracy, and under the globe is the slogan, “Ut Alique Viva,” or “That Others May Live.”

He submitted his design to the base contest. His design was the local base winner. He was awarded $25 and an official handshake from the base commander. Steffens thought at the time that his design would be the winning design for his base, or perhaps other bases throughout the Pacific Islands. Protocol dictated that all the contest submissions be sent to Washington, D.C. for final approval. He never heard anything more about his logo design, until 2013 when he and his wife were watching a National Geographic documentary on air and para-rescue operations. On the side of the helicopter in the film was his logo design. The photographer asked the helicopter pilot what the logo’s slogan meant. “That Others May Live,” the pilot said.

Bill Steffens2

Bill Steffens’ logo

“I almost fell out of the chair,” Steffens said. “I didn’t even know that they had selected my logo. It’s being used all over the world,” Steffens said in disbelief. “All that time, and I didn’t know.”

Steffens had his wife take a good look at the logo on the helicopter on the television, because he suffers from macular degeneration and at 88 years old, his eyesight isn’t what it used to be. When the last program in the series aired a week later, Steffens had his wife tell him when to take the photograph, and he snapped a picture with his camera of the television screen when the logo appeared.

A few weeks later, Congressman Dan Benishek was to appear at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey. The Steffenses went to the college in hopes of being able to tell Benishek about his discovery. The crowd was too thick, so Steffens talked to Benishek’s aide. He showed the aide the photograph he’d taken of the logo on television in the documentary and explained that he just wanted recognition for his creation of the logo all those years ago.

Not too long afterward, Steffens was contacted by a Secretary Special Assistant for the Air Force. She asked Steffens if he was interested in receiving money for his logo.

“I said, ‘No!’ I just want recognition,” Steffens said. “The assistant said, ‘Well, then, we’re going to have a big program and properly recognize you and your contribution.’”

The Air Force flew into Traverse City and held a formal recognition ceremony on Oct. 17, 2013. They pulled out all the stops, Steffens said. An enormous American flag hung in the front of the United States Coast Guard station. Staff Sgt. Beau Vore, enlisted accessions recruiter with the 339th Recruiting Squadron, organized the ceremony. More than 150 people attended the ceremony, including representatives from Michigan’s Governor’s office, and an Airman in the Recruiter Assistance Program sang the National Anthem.

Steffens’ six children flew in from around the country to surprise their father.

“After thorough review, the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) and the Air Force History and Museums Program officially recognize Mr. Steffens as the original designer of the Air Rescue Service emblem,” wrote Stephen T. Carson, Lt. Col, USAF, in a letter to Steffens in October 2013. “The AFHRA has included Mr. Steffens’ information in the official archive, so that his contributions to the Air Rescue Service and our Air Force heritage will be forever known.”

Lt. Col. Chad Rauls, 339th RCS commander, told those in attendance that while the Navy SEALS go through a strenuous training program, he knew that “PJs,” the military’s nickname for parachute rescue personnel, go through much more. He knew this because he was a PJ.

“I was so proud,” Steffens said. “I was sitting in my wheelchair, and I was a Sergeant, and here was this Air Force Colonel, and he got down on one knee and posed next to me for photographs.”

Service during WWII
During WWII, Steffens rose to the rank of Lieutenant. After the war, you are a civilian, Steffens explained. When he went back into the military, he started over as a Sergeant in radar operations. So today he carries the title of Tech Sergeant Retired.

Steffens enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the age of 18, on July 30, 1943. He hadn’t graduated from Charlevoix High School yet, but due to a documentation error, Steffens was accepted, he said. The forms asked for the names of schools he had attended. Steffens wrote St. Mary’s (elementary and middle school) and Charlevoix High School. The form then asked if he’d graduated. He wrote “yes” for St. Mary’s. The military assumed that he had graduated from high school.

From Charlevoix Steffens went to Miami Beach, Fla., for basic training; then on to Jackson, Tenn., for College Training Detachment. By January 1944, he was at Aviation Cadet Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he was assigned to bombardier training. He earned his Silver Wings in December 1944.

“100 men apply for the Aviation Cadent Program,” Steffens said. “Thirty guys get into the school, and about 20 graduate. That’s what they call ‘wash out.’ They had a high attrition rate. I didn’t know any of that before I was in the Air Corps. I learned it all while I was in the service, and you had to learn it fast.”

Later in 1944, Steffens continued his education for the Air Crew with Gunnery Training in Brownsville, Texas, in a B-24 bomber. After Brownsville, he was eligible for Advanced Bombardier School in San Angelo, Texas. He graduated from his training in December 1944.

On January 2, 1945, Flight Officer Steffens was assigned to Langley Field, Virginia, for transition to B-17s as a bombardier. His service and accomplishments on previous missions got him recommended for Lieutenant, but because his time at Langley had not been long enough, he couldn’t get the commission until later. While at Langley, he received orders to fly for the 8th Air Force England, but his orders were changed, so he wouldn’t be flying over England. He was included in the reassignment of 30 bombardiers to Boca Raton, Florida, for radar school.

He believes that reassignment saved his life, because the attacks over Europe at that time resulted in 80 percent loss of life for American flight crews. “I wouldn’t have lasted two months over there,” Steffens said.

Following completion of radar school, Steffens went to Davis Monthan Air Field in Tucson, Arizona, to transition his training in B-29s and long range missions. During the last training mission at Davis, he and the crew traveled to avoid a storm over the desert, but the aircraft was struck by lightning. The lightning strike blew out the left Scanner Blister, a plastic cover about three feet in diameter where the gunner sat to look at enemy aircraft. The explosive decompression injured four men on the flight including Steffens, who was in the hospital for two weeks from an injury to his left ear. His ear was permanently damaged and he suffers today from vestibular neuritis and vertigo as a result of the nerve damage. He went back to service after his weeks in the hospital.

“The need was so great for crewmembers,” Steffens said. “The Germans were shooting us down by the hundreds with proximity shells (bombs) that exploded if they got near a target.”

Connection to the ‘Manhattan Project’
After Davis Monthan, Steffens was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Flight Officer Steffens served as a Radar Bombardier on a B-29 during training. His training involved flying up to Yucca Flats, Nevada, for practice bombings. He remembers specific training involving a very heavy bomb. Unaware of the Manhattan Project at the time, he continued to serve and follow through on training missions. Many years later, Steffens figured out that he and his crew were in the Manhattan Project training, but didn’t know about it. The B-29 that the famous Col. Paul Tibbets selected from Kirtland may have been the one that Steffens flew in during bomber training.

“We just thought it was a new kind of ordinance (the extremely heavy bomb),” he said. “It never occurred to us that it was an atomic bomb we were training for. That word wasn’t in our vocabulary.”

It was revealed in the story, “Enola Gay,” by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, that the training missions at Kirtland were part of the same program that Tibbets was operating at Wendover – training missions that would later prove to be preparation for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.

“The author told about finding a plane that could fly faster and higher than other B-29s,” Steffens said. “Our guys figured out a way to put a rod between the two hooks on the bottom of this very heavy bomb to keep it steady in flight.”

Steffens explained that the two hooks had to be released at the exact same instance or the bomb would wobble on its descent and not land where the bombardier wanted it to go. Tibbets saw their invention at Kirtland and copied it in the Enola Gay, Steffens said.

Years later, Steffens tried to research his own service records to verify his suspicions. Flight records are very detailed and kept on records for eternity, he said. But he was unable to find any record of his flight records at Kirtland.

“The CIA had removed our records from Albuquerque,” Steffens said.

Tracking a radiation cloud

By 1947, Steffens was stationed in Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, with the 23rd Recon. He and his fellow servicemen were battling another storm with 250 mph gusts. A typhoon was attacking the island and Steffens’ crew was assigned to fly to Clark Field in the Philippines to wait out the storm, 11 planes in total. After three days, the storm passed and the crews were assigned back to Okinawa. When they returned, they witnessed complete devastation. The base they had left had disappeared, Steffens said. There were no recognizable forms of equipment, shelter, or even files of paper flight records. Steffens believes that being assigned to Clark Field saved his life.

“The B-29s propellers were turning like they were running, but they were sitting on the ground,” Steffens said of the typhoon.

Steffens and the crew used the plane’s brakes to turn them into the wind. A B-29 can handle 250 gusts, as long as it’s pointed into the wind. “You just don’t want it to turn sideways,” he said.

In 1948, Steffens landed at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, California with the 374th Recon VLR. In September 1949, he flew in a modified B-29 bomber from Elmendorf AFB in Alaska, off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula of the USSR. They were looking for traces of radiation, proof of the first sign of a radioactive cloud drifting across the North Pacific, the United States, Canada and crossing the Atlantic. Scientists from around the U.S. were scrambling to figure out the source of the radiation.

The radiation cloud had elements that proved the Russian’s had their own atomic bomb. Flying in a remodeled B-29 bomber, Steffens job was to insert filters and keep track of the time, each numbered filter and locations as they flew over the Bering Sea between Alaska and the USSR. Basically, the Russians were surface testing against the nonproliferation treaty and the U.S. State Department was trying to prove it, Steffens said. He recalls the moment when he realized, many years later, the significance of those missions. Those flights took place for weeks and months, he said.

“We had no idea what we were doing or why, until I heard a book on tape titled, ‘Sun in a Bottle,’ by Charles Seife,” he said. “While listening to the book on tape, I discovered the author was talking about our crew flying out of Elmendorf Air Force Base in September 1949. We made a very important discovery about the Russians testing atomic bombs.”

After hearing the author’s account, Steffens tried to research his own flight records. Again, he discovered that the detailed records were nowhere to be found.

“We had to know every minute where we were flying,” Steffens said. But he couldn’t find any record of those flights.

Near catastrophe on the Arabian Peninsula

After his time in Alaska, Steffens was later transferred to Saudi Arabia in 1950. One mission in particular exemplifies his quick thinking while protecting the safety of his crew members. Their aircraft commander briefed them at 4 p.m. the day before their mission. On July 8, 1950, they were to transport the Ambassador and four others in his diplomatic party from Dhahran to Jidda to confer with the king of the Saudi’s about a military problem. They were told to be secretive about the purpose of the mission.

At 4 a.m. they reported to the flight line to fly their B-29 across the desert for three hours. They landed at Jidda. Their post-flight inspection took them about half an hour and when they were about the leave one of the Arabs held a gun across the rear door and said, “Goat.” Steffens said it sounded like “Goat.”

“We couldn’t get off the aircraft and the Arabs didn’t speak English,” Steffens said.

After about an hour, Steffens and the other crew members were down to their skivvies because the heat inside the aircraft was 130 degrees. Their pilot told the radioman to send out an S.O.S. message to get the Arabs off their backs. The right scanner (the crewman who looks out the right side of the plane for enemy aircraft) yelled that the Arabs were building a fire to boil something in a pot under the right wing.

“There were no windows in a B-29 so we yelled our heads off, ‘No fire, gasoline!’” Steffens said.

They forced their way out of the airplane to kick out the fire. About then a Jeep drove up with an Arab in military uniform, and he was able to get the situation under control. They kicked out the fire, cooled off under the wing, and flew out back to Dhahran Air Base in about three hours.

Bill and BJ Steffens and their six children and many of their grandchildren participated in an official ceremony in October 2013 at the Coast Guard Station in Traverse City where Steffens was formally recognized for designing the logo that is used for Air Rescue units around the world.

Bill and his family at the recognition ceremony in 2013 in Traverse City.

Bill and his family at the recognition ceremony in 2013 in Traverse City.

Commendations for saving others

The last of his many Air Force assignments was at Hickam AFB in Hawaii with the 11th Air Sea Rescue. He was promoted to Technical Sergeant and was a Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of the radar and radio repair shop, a position he proudly held to the highest standard. While stationed there, Steffens and seven other crew members were called upon to help find a V.I.P. seaman who fell overboard a ship in the ocean between Hawaii and San Francisco (about 10,000 square miles) and was floating unprotected without a life raft.

“It was almost impossible to see someone floating alone in the ocean,” Steffens said.

Three reporters rode along on the B-17, a significant occurrence, as civilians were never allowed on the aircraft due to lack of safety belts.

On the third day of the search, Steffens saw a brief signal on the radar scope. He said it could have been caused by a piece of foil or an emergency mirror in someone’s pocket as they were floating in the ocean. He noted the time and immediately called the navigator and told him to back up on the course line 10 minutes, plot a 30 degree course line to the left, and mark off 45 miles out. They gave the pilot a new heading for the position for a low altitude search. In less than one hour they found him.

“It was a miracle we found him,” Steffens said.

In 1952, Technical Sergeant Bill Steffens (right) is congratulated by the Commanding Officer of his squadron at Hickam Air Force Base in Owahu, Hawaii, for his winning design of a logo for the then Air Sea Rescue Unit.

In 1952, Technical Sergeant Bill Steffens (right) is congratulated by the Commanding Officer of his squadron at Hickam Air Force Base in Owahu, Hawaii, for his winning design of a logo for the then Air Sea Rescue Unit.

He was a photograph of himself at the radar screen during that search mission because the reporters onboard took his picture. The crew all received two commendations for finding the seaman.

After his honorable discharge in 1953, Steffens attended college on the G.I. bill and received a master’s degrees in Science and Arts. In 1954, he married BJ. They had six children; four girls and two boys. They’re very proud that both their sons went into the Air Force.

He became an electronics teacher and taught for 32 years, beginning in Flint before moving to Petoskey in 1961.  In Petoskey’s vocational department, he shared his knowledge of electronics with hundreds of students, many of whom went into the Air Force. He saved letters from students who wrote to him thanking their former teacher for the quality education they received in his classes.

Steffens was the first Co-op Director and Job Placement Coordinator at Petoskey’s Vocational School. He earned the Master Teacher of Michigan Award in 1974. He retired from teaching in 1984.

The Steffenses have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They volunteer to cook Lenten fish suppers at Brother Dan’s Food Pantry in Petoskey, and are looking forward to celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in June 2014.

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