VETERANS AIR 1945
What makes this story worth telling?
When he was 22 years old and recently honorably discharged from the Army Air Forces, Saunie Gravely began to conjure a business. Surplus war birds, unemployed WWII vets like himself, and something about air transport of fresh produce. Never short on ideas and enthusiasm, Gravely engaged decorated veterans who greatly outranked him, and most with considerably more aviation experience, but each eager to help, to start a contract, non-sked air service. Cargo and passengers. Veterans Air Express and Veterans Air Line – sister companies. No one pulled rank. Just their own weight. Plus got to doing whatever needed done. Which, for this fledgling 1945 company, could cover lots of uncharted territory.
From mid-1945 through 1946-ish.
Doesn’t sound like much duration, does it? But you can bet it felt monumental to this all-Veterans organization and the civilian board members and finance folks. They marshaled many moving parts (no pun intended) into a cargo and passenger service that operated domestic and international flights. They grew to 100 employees by July 1946.
The duration of the company’s existence is of little consequence compared to the accomplishment that it existed at all! Yes, they all brought invaluable aviation experience to this endeavor…but, as I learned during my research and witnessed first hand as well…they each brought their character and spirit. The “real stuff” that materialized Saunie Gravely’s dream.
Speaking of Saunie, this Editor/Researcher must make a disclaimer. Saunie is my Dad!
THE UNFOLDING STORY…as of today!
Chronology is not a researcher’s luxury.
Pieces of the puzzle. Time-dated.
Findings presented here surfaced randomly, in eclectic sequence, and oftentimes are contrary to “confirmed” information. Thus, much research remains…even as the gathered discoveries simultaneously beg to be told. In order to unfold as coherent a story for you as possible, time segments below contain “told to me” and “found” data of pertinent events. They begin with a personally important event in 1943 and travel through Early 1948..with much more to come. [The Air Mail stamps? They are just handsome graphics. But, yes, they also are all DC-4s.]
1943 to 1945
1947 to 1948
Made the story absolutely irresistible.
It started with Jack Stettner
At the outset in 2015, it never occurred to me that much of an actual Veterans Air story would unfold from my poking around. But the biggest surprise? The unimaginable surprise? The possibility that I would be in touch with! or actually meet! any of my Dad’s people? Never happen!
Until it did!
Only three months into research, on July 25, 2015, I found and spoke with Jack Z. Stettner. Jack was a Veterans Air Express co-founder, stockholder, international & domestic pilot, and operations manager. On the same day I spoke with Jack, I also spoke with and emailed his daughter, Ellen, and his two sons, Scott and Al…the “Veterans Air kids” like me. Until that encounter, the possibility of any such contact never crossed my mind!
Jack Stettner was a stunning, joyous revelation. He provided irresistible motivation for me to continue my research.
Turns out, Jack Stettner was the first of five!
Next came Thomas Cowart and Edward Martz. Then Michael Frome and John Schaus.
Scroll over to meet them here. Each of their stories unfolds as you explore our website! Lots to tell.
VETERANS AIR FOUNDERS
Just idle curiosity to “find out something” about Dad’s tales.
Idle curiosity to locate “something about” the tales my Dad told when I was a child, turned into a considerable collection of information. Material that requires management and order. Intrigued by so many seemingly unrelated pieces of the puzzle that began to surface, I was discovering even more data sources totally foreign to me. And learning to mine them for Founders, Board of Directors, Crews, Aircraft, Routes, Legalities. All of them intriguing rabbit holes!
John Noll was one of the known core Founders. From John’s narration (many years later) of a video he shot in 1946, and from a few press stories, we learn that seven men co-founded Veterans Air. Saunie plus six. You’ll meet all seven founders below.
Actually, Dear Reader, I’ve carefully exercised Researcher privilege here and added an eighth Founder. Based upon when Gordon E. Bellman joined Veterans, but more influenced by the depth of his involvement, I believe you will agree with my decision.
Deep vacuum of documents
Despite having identified these Founders, a deep research vacuum exists. Absolutely no “working” documents have surfaced. Not yet. Only stock certificates because Veterans Air Express Co. went public. Civil Aeronautics Board documents (must) exist…and are being sought. Certainly State of New Jersey documents of Incorporation exist. They were referenced for establishing the business in Florida and New York. But none have been located. These missing pieces help remind me that this is, indeed, still an unfolding history.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS & INVESTORS
The Founders and Crews wanted to control their own destiny.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS and INVESTORS
The Board, mostly “civilians,” are slightly easier to identify because they are named in various news clips.
They include Saunie B. Gravely as President and Chairman, Arthur Brenner (local produce dealer), Gordon Bellman (a combat flying veteran who had served with both the RAF and AAF), W. Thaddeus Rowland (local insurance man), Robert C. Chambers (AAF veteran and the company’s DC-3 Chief pilot), LaVerne Bernard Paroly of New York (another AAF veteran), and Richard F. Hutson of Newark. Harvey Stevenson was appointed Vice President, and Nellie Brenner Secretary-Treasurer.
However, photos for most of them, so far, are precious few. Of particular treasure would be photos of Arthur and Nellie Brenner. Arthur, the man who cheered and facilitated Saunie’s start. Nellie, who approved the endeavor and then served as Secretary-Treasurer.
The Investors remain illusive. Two or three outside investors are alluded to, but unnamed. The biggest number of investors are undoubtedly the ones who got the company off the ground. The Founders, Board and Crews. Those who bought stock, invested what they could, and worked or flew for months without pay. Only a few are named, but the story is consistent enough to be told.
The hesitancy toward “outsiders,” early-on, was by design. Saunie, the Founders and the start-up Crews wanted to control their own destiny. References are found to turning down major investors once, if not twice, in order to keep control of their company. Idealistic, for sure. In the end perhaps a fatal decision.
Crew gumption. Skills. Teamwork. And each flight a success.
UNRRA. United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration
The UNRRA contract carried unique, sizable challenges for the entire Company – Management, Mechanics, Flight Planners and Crews. Without a hitch, their first DC-4 (converted from an ex-Army C-54) was outfitted for and successfully completed five transatlantic war relief cargo flights to Prague and Warsaw between mid-April and early-June 1946. Each crossing required exceptionally narrow-range regulated temperature control, both airborne and on the ground, for tons (literally) of hatching eggs. The sixth flight was in August 1946, to Athens, the maiden voyage for the Company’s second DC-4, transporting young dairy breeding stock donated by The Borden Company. It, too, demanded temperature regulation and finesse on the flight controls.
Nothing happened without the Crews. From the ground up.
When a DC-3 interior needed conversion from cargo to “luxury” passenger, Crews did it. When a DC-4 retired from military livery to “civvies,” Crews did it. When 55,000 UNRRA hatching eggs relied on consistent cargo-hold temperatures to survive transatlantic transport, Crews made it happen. When a bomb-crater-patched Warsaw runway demanded barnstormer skills and finesse on the controls, the cockpit Crew met the challenge.
The U.S. Government had a WWII surplus aircraft disposal program.
With the Government aircraft disposal program, over a period of months, Veterans procured five war birds at “attractive” pricing. They had been granted a chattel mortgage, not purchased. And the aircraft all required painting, outfitting and various degrees of maintenance prior to entering service.
Three DC-3s flew domestic cargo and passengers. Two DC-4s flew international cargo.
The audacious dreamers had a plan.
Witness the “Routes” filed with the CAB. They accompanied applications for “permanent certificates of public convenience and necessity.” Meanwhile, the DC-3s flew cargo – fresh produce, live Maine lobsters, flowers, medical supplies. “Snowbirds” made trips from Newark to Miami. Summer vacationers flew to Cape Cod. And there were other routes only partially garnered from Veterans Crew logbooks. Flight records remain scarce.
First the U. S. Government giveth and then taketh away.
It’s a fair statement. From the start, the CAB restricted Veterans Air (and all other non-skeds) from flying regular routes. Thus the name Non-skeds. When the Non-skeds became unexpectedly successful, it scared the major airlines and the Government. For Veterans Air, timing, growth plans, under-funding, and the Non-sked regulations triggered the “taketh away.”