In 1952, Petoskey veteran Bill Steffens won a design contest to create a new emblem and insigne for the Air Rescue Service, a service of the United States Air Force.
After winning his $25, the design was sent off to the Pentagon to be approved, but he was discharged from the Air Force before he received any word — until February of 2013.
Steffens was watching a show on The National Geographic Channel when he heard the man on television describing the emblem on his aircraft.
“I was in shock! I called my wife to the living room because the guy on television was describing my design,” said Steffens. “I never knew that they approved the design until over 60 years later.”
Steffens started the design in 1951 when stationed in Hawaii. His commander told him about the contest and Steffens knew he wanted to submit something. The emblem depicts an angel wrapping its wings around the world in protection with the insigne “Ut Alique Viva,” and its translation, “That Others May Live.”
When Steffens was close to finishing his design, he was on Midway Island. He wanted a little color on the design, so he went to a tavern, The Clipper Lounge. He was not allowed in, because it was a civilian bar, but he knocked on the back door. Steffens was looking for children’s coloring utensils to fill in the color on the emblem. The staff provided him with some paint brushes so he could complete his work.
When he returned months later, on Nov. 5, 1952, he found the building in ruins from a massive storm. He never was able to tell them he had won.
Steffens dedicated more than 10 years to the United States military. He was an airman in World War II, the Cold War and the Korean War. He started as a bombardier on a B-17. Two years later he went to radar school and was a radar bombardier navigator on B-29, a position he had for the remaining eight years.
As a radar bombardier, Steffen’s main mission was to rescue people who were down. They would drop food, water and supplies and make contact on location. More than 99 percent of the missions were flying over the Pacific Ocean.
On one of his many missions, they were flying over the Pacific when Steffens received an alert on his radar. It was just one signal but they plotted a course backwards to find what made that signal. In less than an hour they found a man floating in the water. They contacted a nearby sailboat which brought the man home.
“It was an absolute miracle that we found him,” said Steffens.
Most of Steffens’ missions were classified at the time. Another mission was working with the Central Intelligence Agency.
They flew their B-29 over the Bering Sea between Alaska and the former Soviet Union with special filters, checking for atomic particles. Russia and the United States had an understanding they wouldn’t test above ground, but it was found during his mission that Russia was testing on land and emitting atomic particles.
Recently, Steffens received a call from Michigan Congressman Dan Benishek’s office. On Oct. 19, Steffens will be honored at a ceremony at the United States Coast Guard station in Traverse City. Steffens’ family and friends are invited to come.
Steffens went to college on the GI Bill at Central Michigan University. After school, the Air Force veteran became an electronics teacher for Petoskey Public Schools, St. Francis Xavier School and North Central Michigan College.
The Air Rescue Service was disestablished in 1965, and made over into the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service, according to history by the Air Force Special Operations Command.
Steffens has six children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He lives in Petoskey with his wife, B.J. Steffens.
He would like to thank Jon Luckhardt of Ventilation Plus Equipment for making the sign of his emblem.
To correct reporter error, this story has been updated from its original version. It should have called Bill Steffens an “airman” instead of soldier. Too, Steffens did not fly missions over Russia. Rather, their B-29 Bomber flew over the Bering Sea between Alaska and the former Soviet Union. Finally, the Air Rescue Service was redesignated into the Air Rescue and Recovery Service in 1965 rather than 1966, according to history by the Air Force Special Operations Command.