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Published August 13 2011

World War II Navy pilots reunite in Fargo after 66 years

Fargo - They flew more than 70 missions together during World War II, including the sortie that sank one of the two largest battleships ever built.

And then they lost touch, until Friday at the Fargo Air Museum.

Stewart Bass and Leon Frankel stood together again next to a Grumman TBM Avenger, the torpedo-bomber that both piloted in the war – the airplane both were flying when they earned the Navy Cross.

“We haven’t seen each other in 66 years,” said Frankel, 87, wearing his blue USS Yorktown cap.

Theirs was one of many reunions fostered by Friday’s luncheon for naval aviators, part of Navy Week being held here in conjunction with the Fargo AirSho today and Sunday.

Bass, 90, and Frankel didn’t find each other again until five years ago.

Frankel, who lives in Minneapolis, was attending the AirExpo at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minn., when he spotted his old war bird.

He started talking to the Avenger’s owners, an Illinois couple who had bought the airplane from the Fargo Air Museum – a sale orchestrated by Bass, who lives in Fargo and volunteers at the museum.

The couple asked Frankel if he knew Stew Bass.

“I went slack-jawed,” Frankel said. “The rest is history, as they say.”

Soon, the old sailors were corresponding by phone and email. Frankel said it’s his fault they didn’t get together before now. When Bass learned about the luncheon, he urged Frankel to make the trip.

They reunited Thursday at the Doublewood Inn in Fargo and had dinner together with Frankel’s wife, Ruth. It wasn’t long before Bass was recounting the same war stories Frankel had been telling his wife for 60 years.

“She couldn’t believe they were true until Stew started telling them,” Frankel said.

During the war, Bass and Frankel were assigned to VT9, the torpedo squadron of Air Group 9. Serving aboard the USS Lexington and Yorktown carriers, most of their missions in the South Pacific were bombing runs.

In fact, they dropped their 13-foot-long, 2,200-pound torpedoes only once.

On April 7, 1945, American carrier planes took off to intercept the huge Japanese battleship Yamato, cruiser Yahagi and several other destroyers en route to attack American naval forces supporting the invasion of Okinawa.

Air Group 9 was the last to strike. The heavily armored Yamato had endured many torpedo attacks and was beginning to list, but its anti-aircraft guns were still firing.

The squadron split up. Bass and Frankel were among the six planes that attacked and sunk the Yahagi. The others helped destroy the Yamato, and Bass and Frankel were among the few to watch the 65,000-ton battleship capsize, explode and sink. Almost 2,500 Japanese aboard the Yamato died; fewer than 300 survived.

“The sky was blood red from horizon to horizon,” Frankel said.

“It was a pretty tough sight, I’ll tell you,” Bass said.

After the war, they went their separate ways. Bass worked for American Crystal Sugar for 35 years, and Frankel was a manufacturer’s representative in the auto parts business.

Of the 18 men in their squadron, they’re aware of only three still living, including themselves. Frankel said the three are now pen pals, staying in close contact after being out of touch for so long.

“We were a pretty tight group of people,” Bass said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528