Martin H. Stephan

World War Ii B-17 Pilot, Who Flew 51 Missions And Won A Distinguished Flying Cross, Became An Engineer

August 14, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Martin Herman Stephan, a decorated World War II pilot who flew 51 missions and was a retired engineer, died of a heart attack Aug. 7 at his Ellicott City home. He was 86.

Born in a suburb of Leipzig, Bohlitz-Ehrenburg, Germany, he immigrated to Baltimore in 1924 with his mother and sister. He grew up on Palermo Avenue and graduated from Polytechnic Institute in 1942.

Mr. Stephan worked for Baltimore Gas & Electric briefly before entering the Aviation Cadet Corps. He reported for cadet training at Maxwell Field in Stuttgart, Ark., and received his commission in 1943. He then completed flight school in Tennessee.

He served as a B-17 pilot with the 97th Bomb Group, 414th Bomb Squadron, during World War II. He flew from an airfield in Foggia, Italy, on missions to the Schweinfurt, Leipzig - his birthplace - Berlin and the Ploesti complex of oil refineries in Romania.

Family members said that because of an administrative error, he was sent on 51 combat missions, one more than required. His last mission over Ploesti proved to be one of the most dangerous. Despite heavy damage to his plane, which lost two engines and its brakes, he was able to fly it back to the airfield.

According to a 1945 Baltimore Sun article, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bringing back a "badly damaged plane from an attack on an ammunition works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia," the previous October.

Mr. Stephan said in that article, "We had been badly hit on the bomb run with the hydraulic system knocked out, instruments severed from the panel and large holes blasted in the tail and fuselage." He said a fire broke out in the cockpit, and the plane lost one of its engines.

"We were forced to land without brakes," he said. "It was a surprise to all of us afterward to check up and find that not a single member of the crew had been injured."

At a recent squadron reunion, the officer who assigned Mr. Stephan his 51st mission apologized to him for the error.

After his discharge from active duty, he earned an electrical engineering degree from the Johns Hopkins University. He later earned a mechanical engineering degree, also from Hopkins.

He was a safety engineer for Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. and held engineering posts at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, Westinghouse Electric Co., the Army Corps of Engineers and Naval Sea Systems Command, from which he retired in 1986.

He worked on research and development for the TALOS guided missile system at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and satellite and space program projects, and helped build a dam in Saudi Arabia and a bridge in Tioga, Pa.

"He was a patriotic man who was proud of his German heritage," said his son-in-law, Noel Roberts of Portsmouth, R.I. "He had a hearty laugh and was a warm human being."

Mr. Stephan had been an active member of Historic Ellicott City since its creation. He served as the engineer for the reconstruction of the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin and a restoration of a B&O Railroad caboose at the station in Ellicott City. He served on the Baltimore Lutheran High School board of directors from 1956 to 1972.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at Holy Nativity Lutheran Church, 1200 Linden Ave. in Arbutus, where he was a member.

Survivors include three daughters, Barbara Perez of San Clemente, Calif., Marsha Cunningham of Baltimore and Heidi Roberts of Portsmouth, R.I.; two brothers, Karl Stephan of Edison, N.J., and Frank Stephan of Columbia; five grandchildren; and two great-grandsons. His wife of 49 years, the former Dorothy Kidd, died in 2001.

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