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World War II veteran to kick off St. Louis County Board history lessons

Bob Givens’ B-17 Flying Fortress wasn’t shot out of the sky by the Nazis on April 4, 1944 — it simply started to spin out of control and disintegrate 24,000 feet above the North Sea.

Givens, then just a 20-year-old from the Iron Range hamlet of Leonidas, tried to bail out of the plane as it hurled downward, but he couldn’t move against the centrifugal force.

Just before he blacked out, Givens assumed he was about to die.

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“I think it was pilot error. We were in formation — there were 800 planes on that mission — and I think he just let the plane stall, and he lost control of it,” Givens told the News Tribune last week. “I couldn’t get out. I was pinned in that top turret by the spinning.”

When Staff Sgt. Givens came to, he was free-falling below parts of his airplane. He reached for his ripcord — but his parachute wasn’t there.

Recognizing history

The decorated veteran is among the dwindling ranks of Northland World War II veterans, a living, breathing example of the kind of rich history St. Louis County and its residents have that County Board Chairman Chris Dahlberg wants to share.

Givens, who received a Purple Heart and U.S.A.A.F. Air Medal, will tell his story before today’s County Board meeting at the Industrial Town Hall, on County Road 871 just west of Minnesota Highway 33, in the Saginaw area about 20 minutes west of Duluth.

Elected to his first stint as chairman this month, Dahlberg follows in the path of other board chairmen who have picked specific topics to celebrate at board meetings — favorite places in the county, exemplary employees, artists and scientists all have been honored in the recent past.

Through 2013 at each of the board’s primary meetings, Dahlberg will set aside up to 10 minutes at the start of the meeting for the board to hear a little history.

“I’ve asked the commissioners to do something appreciative of our history, people and places, even if it’s something like ‘How did Forbes get its name?’ ” Dahlberg said. “And I’d be very appreciative of military personnel telling their story. That’s a special chance we have to say thanks and let them talk, even if it’s about how bad the chow was where they served.”

Dahlberg has arranged for the St. Louis County Historical Society to capture the stories told throughout the year and save them for posterity’s sake.

The duty to come up with a history lesson for the meetings — three are held each month, rotated around the county — will be rotated among commissioners. Givens was picked for the first history session by Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township.

Givens was an 18-year-old kid from Leonidas, a long since-defunct mining location near Eveleth, when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in 1942.

“The Navy wouldn’t take me because I’m color blind. … But the Army Air guys said that was great because I could see camouflage from the air better than anyone else. They wanted me,” Givens said.

It was on his sixth mission to bomb Germany from their base in England, serving as the flight engineer and top turret gunner, that the accident occurred.

Lucky recovery

Falling through the air as he awoke, Givens eventually noticed his parachute dangling by two straps away from his body. He pulled the parachute in, hand over hand, grabbed tight with one arm and found the cord to trigger the chute. His rescuers said he had probably free-fallen about 13,000 feet by the time the chute opened.

“They started calling me Two Mile after that because of how far I fell,” he said with a chuckle.

He hit hard in the ocean and spent 40 minutes floating in the cold water until British Air-Sea Rescue picked him up. Only four of his plane’s 10-man crew survived the ordeal. In a bitter blast of irony, the mission the crew had been on was canceled not long after their crash.

Givens spent nearly eight months recovering in England in an upper-body cast, with three compression-fractured vertebrae. He tried to go back to flying combat missions, but on his first training run the plane nearly crashed on landing.

“That was it; I couldn’t do it anymore,” Givens said. “I had a bit of a nervous breakdown.”

Givens re-enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, however, until 1948, taking a land-based job as a crew chief. He was called back to serve in Europe in 1951 during the Korean War, then as a crew chief for F-86 Sabrejets.

After his military service he came back to the Iron Range, got married and worked for the Oliver Mining Co. (later U.S. Steel) as a truck driver. He then spent 26 years as a bus driver for the Virginia school district, retiring in 1984, and he still lives in Virginia.

His first wife, Dorothy, died in 1990. He’s now married to Opal and — except for a bum knee and a bad eye — he’s doing pretty well for a guy who turned 89 on Monday.

“I’ve had a pretty good life. … Two good wives, four kids and one grandson,” Givens said. “I’m glad I came to and found that parachute hanging out there.”

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