A World War II Veteran Compares a Lifetime of Dancing to Flying a B-17 Flying Fortress

Stuart Hodes on a Stearman PT-13 “Primary” trainer. (U.S. Army)

Stuart Hodes had one of World War II’s most dangerous jobs: flying bombing runs over Occupied Europe in a B-17 Flying Fortress. That was no big deal. He was more self-conscious with his next job. Luckily, he had all the right moves for either gig.

A recent segment of PBS NewsHour’s “Brief But Spectacular” featured Hodes, now 96 years old, discussing his memories of flying planes during World War II and contrasting those memories with his postwar career as a professional dancer and choreographer.

“I guess I’ve been a dancer most of my life,” Hodes said during the segment. “Although it’s really foolish to become a dancer, but I did it anyway.”

He performed his first public show at just 20 years old, a year after flying in the war. Just one year before that, he was flying B-17 missions with the Army Air Forces in World War II -- statistically one of the most dangerous jobs of the war.

“That was the time when you flew in the cockpit, and you felt the whole country was up there with you,” he said.

The United States produced more than 12,000 B-17 Bombers during World War II. B-17s dropped more ordnance on the enemy than any other aircraft, but they paid a heavy price for that achievement. At a time when aircrews were expected to fly 25 missions, most bomber crews never made it past six.

“Death doesn’t bother me,” Hodes said. “I don’t think it really ever bothered me. When I was 19, your age, I was flying combat missions. I didn’t like being shot at. Who the heck would?”

Hodes loved flying, as he recounts in the segment. He says when flying a plane solo, the aircraft felt like it became an extension of his body. It was a feeling he couldn't get enough of.

“I was crazy about it,” Hodes recalled. “And after the war, I had the same experience hitting dance. I felt that dancing and flying were two ways of getting to the same state. People don’t understand how flying and dancing can be similar, but they do something to you.”

The last time Hodes performed on stage was in 2017, when he was 92 years old. He recently completed his autobiography, “Onstage with Martha Graham,” about his transition from Air Force aviator to dancer and choreographer.

According to his book, it was the desire for movement and action that he picked up in the cockpit that inspired him to go into the Martha Graham Studio in New York City and learn to dance.

“During my first dance lesson, I thought, ‘I'm a grown man. I fought in a war. Why am I sitting on the floor in a bathing suit doing these odd moves?’ Hodes wrote in his book. “But the moves feel good and I realize I am among people who want to change themselves.”

Stuart Hodes in Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring. (Martha Graham Resources)

Hodes joined the studio’s dance troupe and made his newfound passion his postwar career. To him, flying and dancing were practically the same thing.

“Both happen in space,” he wrote. “Both demand skills and practice. And both can become pure action in which self-awareness vanishes leaving unearthly joy.”

It’s an experience and understanding that the World War II veteran says can be felt by anyone, as long they have sufficient passion and desire for their work.

“Anything that you do with every particle of yourself can be wonderful, and it can make you forget the world,” Hodes told NewsHour. “It’s magic. How the heck am I supposed to describe it?”

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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