Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
If you’re a regular Memoirville reader, the last name Bussel makes you think of a lovely book nerd who asks memoirists the most insightful questions around. Well, drop all your expectations, because Norman Bussel is a lovely, 83-year-old veteran with an amazing story to share and the talent to tell it well. Below is an introduction and sneak peek; enjoy, then cross your fingers we get to read the whole book sooner than later. (More info on Bussel the elder here.)
Update! Pegasus Books will publish Norman Bussel’s My Private War: Liberated Body, Captive Mind, a full-length memoir based on what you see below, in November 2008.
On April 29, 1944, my B-17 Bomber crew flew a fatal mission from Rattlesden, England to Berlin. Four members of our crew were killed that day. Six of us survived and became prisoners of war for a year.
I promised myself that if I were lucky enough to return home, I would write a detailed account of this calamitous event so that the families of those who were killed would know exactly what happened to their loved ones on that fateful day.
More than 60 years have now passed, but I have been unable to set forth a single word about that mission, although the minutiae are still as vivid in my mind as ever. I guess I wanted my account of this tragedy to be perfect but, as an editor, I know that writers must trade off the idea of “perfect prose” in exchange for meeting deadlines.
I also know that my writer’s block, or whatever excuse I might blame for my failure to record the most traumatic day of my life is simply that…an excuse. I haven’t written about it because I’m afraid of the subject. I’m petrified that I might not be able to describe these events exactly. That my reprise will not be “perfect.”
Well, my own mortality has now become a factor and I know that this story will never be told if I don’t record it now. So here it is. In sincerity. In candor. In awesome remembrance. And with apologies to those who died, for any imperfection in this work, because nothing is perfect.
I was the last one to bail out of our B-17 bomber alive that day. It was around noon on April 29, 1944 and our target was Berlin. “Big B,” we called it. It was probably the most heavily fortified city in Germany, with thousands of effective and deadly 88mm guns pointed at the sky. Pointed at the Allied planes that came to release their bombs on Hitler’s glorious city.
The mission started out very badly for my crew and continued to get worse as the day progressed. First, there was the problem with Flt. Officer Sherwood Landis, our navigator. Sherry’s face was ashen as we rode in the truck to the flight line. The day before, Lt. Sokol, also in our bomb squad, and a close friend and former classmate of Sherry’s in navigation school, had been hit in the neck by schrapnel while on a mission. His crew was unable to stop the flow of blood and Sokol died on the flight back to our base in Rattlesden, England.
As our crew’s radio operator, it was my job to pick up our intercom headsets before every mission. I walked into the radio shack with our co-pilot, Lt. Benedict and hurriedly hung the ten headsets over my left arm while Benedict signed out for them. When we reached the hardstand, where our plane was parked, I began passing the headsets out to my crew.
When I handed Sherry his, I heard him gasp, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“What’s wrong,” I asked.
Speechless, he could only point to the earpiece as he shoved the headset back into my hand. I saw that a part of the throatmike had been cut and there was dried blood on it. A name had been etched on the earpiece: Lt. Sokol.
I was horrified and Sherry was in shock. I grabbed the crewchief by the arm leading him over to his Jeep as I explained why I needed to get back to the radio shack in a hurry. The chief drove like a maniac and I picked up another headset. When we got back to the plane, I handed it to Sherry.
“How do you feel.” I asked.
“Got to pray, boy,” he said. “Got to pray.”
When our pilot, Lt. Edgar Farrell, started the B-17’s four powerful Pratt & Whitney engines, the force of the backdraft made it impossible to climb on board without holding onto the side door and pulling yourself inside. As Ed gunned the throttle higher, the plane began to buck on the hardstand and the four roaring engines made me think of Pegasus and I imagined four huge winged horses raring for takeoff.
Just before takeoff, the control tower told us by intercom that our group, the 447th, was early and we had orders to take off and do a 360 degree turn. By the time we completed the turn, we would in position to join up with the main formation.
As we taxied out to the runway, Ed called Sherry on the intercom and asked him to direct us when we were airborne, so we could quickly form with the rest of our squadron. Sherry’s voice was hoarse and scarcely more than a whisper. Ed couldn’t understand a word he said. I listened in anxiously for a while. I often hung out with Sherry and I could make out what he was saying. Finally, I spoke up and offered to relay to Ed what Sherry was saying. Ed agreed and this was the way we managed to form with our squadron and begin our mission.
This plan turned out to be the second catastrophe. By the time we had completed our turn, the rest of the wing that we were supposed to join was minutes ahead of us and we never caught up with them. As a result, the fighter planes that were slated to escort us ended up flying with the larger group and we were left to defend ourselves.
The B-17 wasn’t called the Flying Fortress for nothing. We had seven formidable 50 caliber machine guns for defense, but the loss of our fighter escort would make the German fighters even more daring in attacking us that day.
As we flew over the English Channel, our ball turret gunner, Sgt. Joseph “Little Joe” Guida, came into the radio room and sat on my chest chute, which was just in back of my chair. I turned and said, “Little Joe, don’t sit on my chute. What if I have to use it today?”
Annoyed, Joe tossed the chute across the radio room and it landed next to the door leading to the bomb bay.
“It won’t hurt the damned chute to sit on it!” he said.
As it turned out, if Little Joe hadn’t tossed my chute across the room, it would have been consumed by flames, because later, fire started in the exact spot where my chute was lying and I would have nothing to bail out with. I never got to thank Little Joe for saving my life. A few minutes later, this sweet little kid from the Bronx was dead. He was just nineteen years old.
We didn’t begin to encounter flak until we crossed the German border and then it was sporadic. When the flak increased, I opened a carton of “chaff” and began stuffing the silvery strips through the chaff slot in the radio room. Chaff came in small packages, open at both ends and looked like the tinsel used to decorate Christmas trees. As thousands of strands dispersed in our wake, it interfered with the radar that the Germans used to track us and to direct their anti-aircraft fire. It was too late to benefit our formation, but could help the planes that came after us. I hoped that the formations that preceded us were pushing out chaff just as diligently.
As we flew deeper into Germany, the sky began to fill with black puffs of smoke as flak shells exploded all around us. Any idea that these bursts were innocuous was quickly dispelled with the occasional ping of shrapnel fragments bursting through the aluminum “skin” of the plane, with the sound of gravel being thrown against a tin roof.
Then, our tail gunner, Sgt. Bill Mpourles, reported incoming fighters and Ed began to call each gunner on the intercom to check if he was firing at the attacking FW-190s. I was shooting my overhead gun in the radio room when Ed called me. I had gotten out one word, “Yes,” when a burst of flak that must have been right on top of us, blew a huge hole just above the radio table where I had been sitting and fragments splattered over my body, knocking me down and ripping off my throat mike.
When I stopped responding, Ed knew that I was hit and I heard him yell, “Norm’s hit! Somebody from the waist get in there and help him.”
I could feel blood running down my face and my leg, but I didn’t believe that I was gravely wounded, so I snapped my throat mike back on as quickly as I could and told Ed that I was okay and that no one should leave his gun.
I had just started firing at another fighter, when our plane was rocked again and I was thrown against the side of the ship. As I stood up, I realized that I was no longer getting any oxygen and then I saw the flames behind my chair and the plane’s skin began dripping molten aluminum. It was surreal to watch the aluminum skin, the metal that seemed to surround us so protectively, suddenly drip, drip, drip like soldering lead. Obviously our oxygen lines were burning because the fire was so intense. I tried to use the intercom but it was dead. I never heard an order to bail out.
Flying at 28,000 feet without oxygen can do things to your mind. I seemed to be moving in slow motion. With the plane burning around me, I didn’t feel rushed or afraid. I opened the door to the waist section to see if I could help anyone there and I was confronted by a solid wall of flame. I could see nothing. As I slammed it shut, I heard explosions inside the radio room and felt powder burns on my face as the raging fire caused my ammo to cook off. The blasting of the 50 caliber shells jerked the ammo belt so violently it danced like a large metallic snake in anguish, writhing in the flames.
I still didn’t think about bailing out. The plane was flying along on a smooth, level course. There had been no order. What I didn’t know was that the plane was set on automatic pilot and I was flying with four dead buddies as my sole companions.
I decided to head for the cockpit to see if anyone there needed help. First, I hooked on my chest chute, not realizing that only the right clip was engaged; the left not completely locked. As I opened the forward door, I saw that the bombs had been salvoed and the bomb bay doors were wide open. I don’t know why I noticed the large chocolate D-bar lying on the radio table, but I made no move to pick it up.
As I stood in the doorway, I turned and looked through the huge hole in the left side of the ship and saw that flames had engulfed the entire wing. The wings, of course, are where the fuel is stored. By now my clothing was on fire and I knew I’d never make it to the cockpit. I stepped out onto the catwalk in the bomb bay and for a brief instant remembered my famous last words, “I’ll never bail out. I’ll go down with the plane first.” Then I jumped.
I began a count to ten, delaying pulling my ripcord so that my flying suit would stop burning. I was falling on my back and I could see the plane moving away. I reached the count of seven when the ship veered wildly out of control–then exploded into a million burning pieces. I had been seven seconds away from eternity.
When I jerked the pull-ring on my chute, the unbuckled left side flew up and hit me under the chin, knocking me out. I came to, surrounded by a thick white mist. There was no feeling of motion and I figured I was dead. Then I pondered the horrible boredom of going through eternity enveloped in this moist white fluff.
As I began to pray aloud, I recoiled in surprise at what I first believed to be the booming voice of someone else. Then, I realized that the shouting was coming from my own throat. The sudden change from being on a burning plane, with its engines roaring as it tore through the sky, to the ethereal quiet of this new, white, white world in which I now floated was so shocking, so breathtaking, that I was suddenly frozen into silence.
Then my face began to sting where I had suffered powder burns from my exploding ammo. I touched my face and it hurt like hell. I didn’t have to be a scientist to realize that the dead feel no pain. When I burst out into the open and saw land beneath me, I remembered that at our briefing that morning, we were told to expect cumulus clouds at 14,000 feet over the target.
I was 14,000 feet over Berlin, but I was alive!
For the past several days, I had been having nightmares about being shot down and captured by the Germans. In keeping with my plan for survival, I reached up and pulled my dogtags, with the telltale H pressed into them, from my neck and threw them as far as I could.
Wounded and defenseless, I drifted toward the ground. Toward a welcoming committee of hate-filled civilians who were hell-bent on killing me.
The 447th lofted 29 B-17s that day, seven of the crews were on their first mission and three were on their second. Eleven planes were lost on that mission, with one crew making it back to the English Channel where they ditched and were picked up by a British air-sea rescue unit.
BUY Norman Bussel’s My Private War: Liberated Body, Captive Mind.