B-17 veteran back in air aboard a WWII-era bomber

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — A day before his final mission aboard a B-17 bomber in World War II, Norbert Swierz sat down on his bunk and jotted down a poem for his mother back in Michigan.

“I go so gladly to my fate, whatever it may be. That I would have you shed no tears for me,” wrote the 23-year-old gunner, who had already survived the ditching of his first B-17 in the North Sea that summer of 1943. “Some men must die, that others must be free. And only God can say whom these shall be.”

The next day, Sept. 6, 1943, “Skeets” Swierz and the rest of the crew of the B-17 nicknamed “Bomb Boogie” took off from their base in England, but didn’t make it back. Shot down and taken prisoner, Swierz would spend the rest of his war days in a POW camp and not fly in another B-17 for close to 70 years.

The opportunity came again last Friday, and Swierz didn’t hesitate. He strapped himself into a restored Flying Fortress and held on as the four droning engines lifted the vintage bomber off a central Florida airstrip into heavy cloud cover.

“Wonderful,” the grinning 90-year-old man kept saying during the 45-minute flight. “Wonderful.”

Strapped into the radio operator’s chair halfway back, Swierz looked around and reeled off the name of the man on his crew who occupied the same seat on his old plane, and the name of the gunner who had squeezed into the ball turret underneath. That’s what he was thinking about most, the other guys.

“They’re all gone now, but I still have the memories,” he said. “They were all kids then, just like myself.”

Swierz’s flight came courtesy of the Collings Foundation, which tours the country with several planes restored to their World War II condition. More than 12,000 B-17s were manufactured for the war effort, and the Massachusetts-based charity owns one of a handful around the world that can still get off the ground. Foundation spokesman Hunter Chaney said it’s important to put the old veterans together with the vintage aircraft while that’s still possible.

“We’re in the last throes of this generation,” he said from Stow, Mass. “It’s an increasing rarity that we’re able to share this with our World War II veterans. It adds a sense of urgency to living history programs like this.”

A top-turret gunner in those days — which means he poked his head up into a plastic bubble above the cockpit and blazed away on twin .50-caliber machine guns — Swierz was one of the lucky ones.

Participation in those daylight, precision bombing raids on industrial targets in Germany and occupied France was dangerous and terrifying duty, dramatically recounted in movies such as “Twelve O’Clock High” and “Memphis Belle.” Two out of three young men — their average age was 20 — who flew on those missions did not survive the war. Swierz recalls returning from one especially bad mission and going to bed in an empty barracks.

“Let me tell you, that was a spooky night,” he said.

Swierz grew up in Chicago and Michigan and was 21 when he went to Canada to join the British Civilian Technical Corps, a mercenary outfit for those who wanted to help out the British before the United States was pulled into World War II. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and volunteered for B-17 duty.

He flew his first mission on March 18, 1943. His luck held out until June 22 when his plane — nicknamed “Old Ironsides” — was shot up so badly it had to be ditched in the North Sea after a bombing run on a German factory. He was plucked from the sea by a British rescue boat and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a shrapnel wound to his leg.

His 14th mission — the bombing of a ball-bearing factory in Stuttgart, Germany — would be his last. B-17 crews needed 25 successful missions to rotate home, and most didn’t make it. The crew of the famous “Memphis Belle” — they shared a central England base with Swierz and his mates — was the first to do it in May 1943.

“Somehow or another, the Germans always knew we were coming and where we were going to bomb,” Swierz said. “The German fighters were something else. They were fearless. They would come right down through the middle of our formations, scattering B-17s all over hell.”

The attack on Stuttgart was a fiasco. German fighters and flak batteries battered the planes as they flew around looking for a break in the clouds so they could drop their bombs. Of the 338 B-17s on the mission, 45 were lost. Many ran out of gas.

“Bomb Boogie” was pounded by flak and enemy fighters soon after releasing its bombs, and the 10 young men bailed out over Stuttgart, their parachutes blooming in the gray sky. Swierz was captured immediately and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Austria.

Swierz and his fellow prisoners were liberated by Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in May 1945. He made it home and has done a lot of living since then. Wife, kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, a long military career, a long retirement. But his recollections of wartime duty in the B-17 have survived in fairly sharp focus.

Swierz’s oldest son, Greg, said his father didn’t start talking about those war experiences in depth until about 10 years ago. His family finally persuaded him to write down the memories.

“I think it was a pretty horrific adventure, and it was just a part of their lives that they just got through,” said Greg Swierz, a retired commercial pilot. “I think they realize now that they are living history, and we’ve got to get it out of them. They are real heroes.”

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Please review our Policies and Procedures before registering or commenting

News Tribune - comments