He has the skills the Peace Corps could use. He's built houses and is a master electrician. He has international experience. Mostly, he wants to make a difference.

So last year he applied. He was 89.

Jerry Havens was orphaned as a child. His mom died when he was 12, his father shortly after. He worked odd jobs in rural Minnesota to pay for his upkeep – a twice-daily paper route, setting pins at a bowling alley, caddying at a golf course.

At 21, Havens had a wife and baby on the way. He owned a service station in Minnesota. He was building a life. He'd certainly never considered going into the military.

Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Ten days later, he enlisted. Havens knew he was needed and figured he could help.

He wanted to fly. A national shortage of pilots in the Army Air Corps meant Havens spent only 25 days in training instead of the normal 50.

"I must have had some good instructors, because they taught me a lot of good things."

By May 1942, he had crossed the Pacific Ocean as a copilot in his B-25 headed to Northern Africa. They met ground troops and began fighting German Gen. Erwin Rommel.

American and British troops had, by December 1942, forced the German army onto the small island of Crete, working them back into Italy.

New Years morning 1943, authorities ordered Havens' bomb group to attack the Germans on Crete. Havens figured his commanders wanted to catch the German troops hungover from a night of celebration.

As the B-25s took off from the desert, about four miles from the coast, the propellers blew sand into the air.

Engines sucked in the particles.

All of the planes made it to Crete. Many didn't make it back. Havens watched as other members of his squadron bailed out, jumping into the Mediterranean Sea.

His pilot said they could make it.

But as they reached land, Havens knew they wouldn't reach the airstrip.

The plane landed with the landing gear still up, sliding across the beach on its belly.

He still has a picture of one B-25 hovering above water, taken shortly before the crew jumped and the plane went down.

By the time Havens flew his required 25 missions, the Germans had retreated to Italy and Rommel went back to Germany. He thought he may go home, but the shortage of pilots meant there were no replacements. The government raised the limit to 50. He would eventually fly 55 before he was reassigned and sent to India.

He wasn't there long before he got papers telling him he should go home. He was put on a flight to Italy but told to go home "any way he could" from there.

He and four others hitched their way to Algiers and caught a train to Casablanca, figuring their chances of flying home were best in the large airport.

They waited a week in the port. First they tried finagling their way onto plane passenger lists, but were always bumped off by higher ranking officials. Deciding they weren't going to fly, they tried finding a ship.

When no one was looking, the five men sneaked onto a docked ship full of wounded American soldiers, French cadets headed to flying school and German prisoners of war. The stowaways made themselves at home.

"One day at sea they found out we weren't supposed to be there so they put us on gun watch," Havens said. "We were really kind of discriminated against because we weren't registered as part of the list of passengers."

In 1945, Havens returned home to his wife and a 2-year-old daughter he'd never met. His service station had closed because of government rations on gasoline. So, in January 1947, he headed out West, promised a job as a flight instructor near Worland.

He blew a tire between Moneta and Shoshoni. With no money, he agreed to work for a mechanic for a week to pay for his repairs. Several days later his would-be boss at the flight school was killed in a wreck, so Havens stayed in Shoshoni.

He used to joke that he never had enough money to leave. Now he admits Shoshoni is his life and, despite the harsh winters, it is home.

The Peace Corps ultimately didn't accept him. Officials mailed a letter telling him that while he did have useful talents, he didn't meet the program's age requirement. He was disappointed, but moved on.

Now he cares for three other seniors in the community, visiting with them, doing chores and collecting their mail. It's a two-year commitment.

His squadron has a reunion each year, many of which he's attended. This year it's in Ft. Worth, Texas. He's not sure if he can go because of his duty to his senior companions.

Until his eyesight began failing, he built Habitat for Humanity houses. Now he supervises and gives advice.

He'll keep helping people as long as he is physically able, not to receive praise or honors, but simply because he can.

Contact features reporter Christine Peterson at 307-266-0524 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

Age: 90

Unit: 12th Bomb Group 87th Squadron

Family: married nearly 60 years with two children, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren

War fronts: Flew 55 missions in Northern Africa, Crete and Sicily. Sent to India.

His words: "I had not considered going into the military. Things were awfully patriotic after Pearl Harbor, so I talked about it with my wife and she said she could sell gas at the station."

Next week's profile: As a paratrooper, William “Bud” Allen’s job was to cross enemy lines first. The men who dropped from the sky were on their own, tending to wounds by themselves.

 

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