Neighbors: A Courageous Heart

Arthur Leva flew in a ball turret of a B-17 during World War II raids over Europe

Arthur Leva Sr. of Kihei, who turns 92 today, flew 32 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber.

Seventy-two years ago, a pair of boots saved Arthur Leva’s life.

On March 10, 1945, as World War II continued to ravage much of Europe, Leva boarded a Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” at an airfield used by the U.S. Army Air Corps on Italy’s Adriatic Coast. Once airborne, he squeezed into the cold, cramped confines of the ball turret (the glass and metal bubble attached to the underbelly of the plane), a pair of .50-caliber machine guns flanking his head.

As the B-17 bomber neared its intended target — a Nazi-held railroad yard in the northern Italian city of Bologna — Leva, seated in a fetal position, placed his heavy, fleece-lined flying boots over the turret’s sighting window, a habit that ultimately saved his life. Moments later, the B-17 came under intense ground fire; the ball turret was hit multiple times and rendered inoperable.

Leva, who was plucked out of the turret by a fellow crewman, was wounded: A large chunk of shrapnel had lacerated his left foot and two smaller pieces were embedded in his left thigh; one had grazed his femur. If not for his boots, the shrapnel would have hit his abdomen, chest or head. “I probably would not have survived,” he said.

After 10 days at a rest camp on the island of Capri, a patched-up Leva was back in the ball turret for his 24th mission. He went on to complete nine more missions before V-E Day a month and a half later.

The U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, pictured at age 19, was a staff sergeant assigned to the 414th Bomb Squadron of the 97th Bombardment Group.

Leva was born Nov. 10, 1925, and raised in East Hanover, N.J. A quintessential small-town boy, he learned how to repair cars and tractors, shoot, hunt and fish on his family’s 60-acre farm.

During his senior year of high school, Leva, then 17, knew he’d be drafted when he turned 18. Rather than leave the decision in the hands of the draft board, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps cadet program with his sights set on becoming a fighter pilot. But things didn’t go according to plan. Standing 5 feet 6 inches and weighing in at 130 pounds, Leva was a shoo-in for a ball turret gunner on a B-17 — one of the war’s most dangerous jobs.

With equal parts exhilaration and trepidation, Leva completed basic training and flew to Arizona for gunnery school — it was the first time he had ventured beyond the East Coast (or flown on an airplane, for that matter). “It was high adventure for an 18-year-old,” he said.

After weeks of intensive training, he was assigned to a 10-man bomber crew, which was then assigned to the 414th Bomb Squadron. The men joined a 30-ship convoy bound for the northern coast of Africa and were eventually moved to Italy’s Amendola Airfield as part of the 97th Bomb Group.

Leva flew his first combat mission on Nov. 10, 1944 — his 19th birthday — and in the months that followed, flew 31 more strategic bombing missions into Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria, Romania, Yugoslavia and northern Italy. The objective of each mission was the same: to cripple Hitler’s ability to make war. Targets included railroad yards, ordnance depots, aircraft factories, gasoline refineries, marshaling yards, fuel dumps and troop emplacements.

Then, on May 8, 1945, an announcement blared from the loudspeakers outside the barracks: The war in Europe was over. Leva says an eerie silence blanketed the air base. “The quiet was almost unnerving,” he recalled. “It was a time to reflect and try to answer why we were still alive . . . while so many of our comrades were not.”

Leva returned home, and after nearly a year of readjusting to civilian life, used his GI Bill to enroll in college. He chose to pursue a degree in business and, as it turns out, it was a wise choice.

In 1950, Leva landed a job as a salesman (or, as he jokingly calls it, a “man in a gray flannel suit”) in New York City and went on to scale the corporate ladder at breakneck speed. By the 1970s, he was a father of four and the president of several manufacturing companies in Missouri and California.

Leva says the secret to success is twofold. “Find something you thoroughly enjoy doing and find someone to pay you to do it,” he advised. “And always have a positive attitude.”

After he retired, Leva and his wife, Maria, then residents of Palm Desert, Calif., hit the road in their motor home and visited every state in the continental U.S. The couple also made regular trips to Maui to visit Leva’s daughter Barbara, a longtime Kihei resident. Leva says he and his wife were smitten with the island and eventually decided to hang up the keys to their motor home and make a permanent move.

Today, at his home in Kihei, Leva has a small, blue-gray box containing the shrapnel that pierced his body 72 years ago; it sits not far from a constellation of World War II medals, including a Purple Heart, mounted on the wall.

Leva is clearly proud of his service, but he’s quick to point out that he’s not a hero. He says he did what he was trained to do — and survived.

“The real heroes are the ones who didn’t come back, the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “We should be glorifying them.”

At 92, Leva is full of vigor, and, it seems, always with a twinkle in his eye.

“People often think of aging as a problem. Well, I don’t. Aging is an adventure,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.