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Andy Stirnweiss Used Brother Playing for Yankees, Flying Under Route 341 Bridge to Impress

By Bob Deakin

(Andy Stirnweiss is shown in the open cockpit of his World War II fighter and in his Kent home. Photo on right by Bob Deakin 2005)

No one in the world can say they served in two wars, flew under the Route 341 bridge in Kent, Connecticut and had a brother who played for the New York Yankees. No one, that is, except for Andy Stirnweiss.

Mr. Stirnweiss lives on the Kent/New Milford border but has called Kent home for most of his 81 years, retiring as a captain in the U.S. Navy following a 26-year career. Originally from the Bronx and the son of a New York City cop, he remembers cows and farms in the days when the borough was still remote from the city.

He found Kent by way of the Schneider family from the Macedonia section of town and the Imberts, who lived in the Bog Hollow area just over the line. The three families could all trace their ancestry to the same region of Germany more than a century ago and the Stirnweiss family came to Kent for visits when he was a kid.

“We used to come and visit the Blanks when they had the Bull’s Bridge Inn,” Mr. Stirnweiss explained last Friday at his home. His father loved the inn and the town and soon enough the family bought a red brick home on Birch Hill Lane.

Still powerfully built, he looks a man not to be messed with but he peppers his conversation with a dry wit and the understated modesty typical of his generation of veterans.

From the time he joined the Navy in 1942 he flew more than 50 different kinds of military aircraft including single and twin engines, turbo props, seaplanes, helicopters and jets. He served in many capacities including as a bomber and missile pilot, but spent the majority of his time as a test pilot during the burgeoning era of high-tech flight in the 1950s. After stints at the Pentagon “pushing papers” as he derisively described it, he served as navigator of the U.S.S. Kittyhawk aircraft carrier in the early 1960s as he neared the end of his career. He wanted to spend more time with his wife, Emilie, and their young family he said.

“I don’t know of any other woman I ever knew that would put up with the stuff she did as a military wife,” he said. “I’d run off and leave her with the kids and she kept the family going.”

The couple spent their first years together in the 1940s in Hawaii, where their first two daughters were born. Soon after the Navy sent him to UCLA for advanced training and the young family lived in California. They moved around a bit more until settling back in Kent in the mid-1950s.

He remembers a tongue-in-cheek pact he made with Emilie early in the marriage.

“I told my wife before we got married that I guaranteed she was going to love me half the time because I’d be away half the time,” he said with a laugh. “Whether she loved me or hated me she’d be happy half the time.”

“She was the nicest person you ever met in your life,” interjected his daughter, Lyn, while flipping through old photographs with him.

Before he met his wife his brother, George, was already making quite a name for himself on the diamond with the New York Yankees. George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss, as he was nicknamed, was the Yanks’ starting second baseman throughout the 1940s and into the 50s, winning the batting title in 1945 and playing on four World Series Championship teams. Snuffy – nicknamed for his penchant for snuff and because he resembled and old-time comedian – was also drafted by the New York Giants to play pro football as a quarterback, but chose baseball instead. He later taught at the Canterbury School during the off-season coaching baseball and football.

Andy Stirnweiss never considered sports as a career, however. While he had athletic ability, he said it didn’t show up in the same way as with his brother, who had amazing foot-speed.

He got to see George play a lot in the minor leagues, but after World War II erupted there were fewer opportunities to see him play. Nevertheless, he did watch him in action in New York and in Boston on occasion and citizens in Kent used to get groups together to travel to the Bronx to cheer on their neighbor.

What was it like having a brother on the Yanks during the golden era of baseball?

“I got tickets,” he joked. “I was dating a very attractive girl one time and she was a Yankees fan and I brought her down to the game one day. We met George in the locker room after the game then went to a steak house for dinner with the team.

“The three of us went in and half the Yankee team was in there and we sat down with them. This girl was a big Yankee fan and boy, my ratings went up,” he said, laughing.

He remembers his brother – who was five years his senior – as “a great guy and a nice man” and credits him with taking care of the family after their father passed away at a young age. Tragically, George died young himself, in 1958, the result of a train accident in New Jersey. Unlike his brother, George did not like to fly and his niece remembers he almost missed the train that day.

“He actually missed the train, then he ran to catch it,” Lyn said. “That’s how fast he was. Unfortunately, he did catch the train.

“They were grooming him to take over the Yankees as manager,” his brother said, describing his rise as manager through the minor leagues following his playing career. “He knew more about baseball than anybody. After he moved away, he’d come up and visit once in a while and one of the things he always wanted to do was see (notorious Kent resident) Lem Segar. George claimed [Segar] knew more about baseball than any player he ever knew.”

Andy Stirnweiss remains close to his brother’s family.

Mr. Stirnweiss gained his fighter pilot’s wings two years after entering the service and saw action in World War II and Korea before moving on to post-graduate studies in Monterey, California. In the mid-1950s he became a test pilot and entered the navy experimental squadron VX4 at the naval Missile Center in Point Mugu, CA. Much of the testing involved aircraft carriers.

“There are one-seventeenth as many accidents on a carrier as there used to be,” he said, referring to the straight deck carriers that have since been replaced by the angled-deck variety. “The hairiest thing I ever did was landing on a carrier at night under the old conditions – a straight deck with practically no lights on. You used your instruments to get your time turnaround but at the last minute you had to eyeball it.”

He completed more than 450 carrier landings on a straight deck carrier and plenty more on angled decks, and made the first carrier landings with the Grumman A3 Bomber in 1963.

“Angled decks don’t count,” he joked. “They’re easy.”

He won numerous medals during his flying days but downplays any personal accomplishments.

“I thought it was great,” he said of his career. “I enjoyed all of the flying. The more experimental it was, the more fun it was.”

He had two tours of duty in the Korean War, flying both the Corsair F4U as well as jets. His training and testing became increasingly sophisticated as the years passed and he Cold War intensified. He was one of the first fliers to attempt dropping atom bomb shells from jets in the early 1950s.

“The jets were easier,” he said of avoiding trouble during war. “You’re going like hell and you drop your bombs from the higher distances.”

He was shot at during his career but managed to move through his flying career with nary a glitch – with one exception. “I bailed out between San Francisco and San Jose on the coast in a town called Atascadero,” he remembered. “My F4U was on fire at night and it was over the ocean. In a Corsair all you’ve got to do is put your head toward the back of the wing and roll out. The amazing thing was in 1943 I was taught the technique and the chute’s opening and I remembered the lecture. All I could think of was, ‘I’m glad I paid attention.’”

He landed in a coastal marsh and was picked up 25 minutes later without a scratch. His children gave him a framed front page of the San Jose Mercury News with his picture on the cover, taken the day after the near tragedy. He keeps the pull cord from his parachute as a souvenir of the 1951 event.

Through the Society of Experimental Test Pilots meetings in the 50s he met Chuck Yeager, John Glenn and many of the other notable test pilots of the time and applied to be one of the original seven Mercury astronauts in 1959. Though he didn’t make the final cut he became a friend of John Young, who twice landed on the moon and commanded the first Space Shuttle mission.

Of all the test flights Mr. Stirnweiss made, none may have been as risky as the one he made in Kent in 1945. There was a young lady who worked at Watson’s Store on Main Street and he wanted to make an impression on her and some of his friends. Though only 21 he was already an expert pilot and figured he could pull off a stunt for all to remember by flying under the Route 341 bridge across the Housatonic River, next to Kent School. A friend was going to join him but backed out when he saw how little clearance there was.

Before the flight he carefully measured the bridge and determined he had 14 feet of clearance with his Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter/bomber, which was just over 13 feet tall. The old bridge was about a foot lower than it is today and he also had to veer to the right to avoid rocks in the shallow water underneath.

“It was relatively safe and extremely stupid,” he says today.

Before he made the maneuver he buzzed the town center then headed down over the Housatonic. He made it through without incident then beat it back to his base in Rhode Island before anyone was the wiser.

No mention of the stunt has ever been made other than within a close-knit group of friends and in local legend, but on that day a complaint was filed with the state police. A subsequent check with controllers at Stewart Air Force Base in New York confirmed no maneuvers in the Kent area at that time and it was seldom mentioned ever again – on the record.

All in all, Mr. Stirnweiss feels fortunate to have survived his career and is happy with the results.

“I would have stayed more except it would have meant three or four more years at sea and we had three teenagers and a couple of little kids running around,” he said. “My wife had the five children and I decided it wasn’t worth staying in four more years and be away from the family.”

These days the retired Navy captain volunteers his time for FISH (Friend in Service Here) in Kent and is a member of Sacred Heart Church. He makes occasional visits to see his family and enjoys attending Navy reunions each year, primarily the Tailhook Reunions in Reno, Nevada. He’ll still take the controls of a plane when he gets the chance and recently flew a friend’s plane from Los Angeles to Nevada during one of the recent reunions.

“One thing I’ve learned about reunions is the older we get, the braver we were,” he joked.

Mr. Stirnweiss is hesitant to speak of his flight under the bridge over the Housatonic, somewhat ashamed of the “dumb stunt” as he calls it. As it turned out it may have been the smartest dumb thing he ever did, as later that year the young lady from Watson’s Store became Mrs. Andrew Stirnweiss and the two were happily married for more than 55 years before she passed away in 2000, raising five children, all with warm memories and rich tales to tell of a father who served in two wars, flew a daredevil flight under the Route 341 bridge, and an uncle who starred for the New York Yankees.

Originally published in the Kent Good Times Dispatch in January 2005

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