World War II veterans are scarce to find nowadays, my father who served in the US Navy aviation corps has been gone for almost a decade now. He had kept his aviation books and instruction manuals that I read and studied many times over. My father was a gunner’s mate, Chief Petty Officer, and served aboard the USS Antietam, an aircraft carrier that roamed the Pacific during WWII. He had attended flight school, but didn’t graduate as a pilot at Norfolk, Virginia where he was transferred to the carrier as a gunner chief.
The big bomber of the day was the B-17, operated by the US Army Air Corps that later became its own branch after WWII and now the US Air Force. This famous bomber that made runs from England to Germany was called the Flying Fortress, and it met all the criteria of its name.
The B-17 was designed in 1934 to add a multi-engine aircraft long-range bomber that replaced the Martin B-10 bomber of the time. The B-17 entered service in 1939 and Boeing produced 12,700 B-17s with a top speed of 295 miles per hour, a 17,600-pound bomb load, armed with twelve .50-caliber machine guns for defense against fighter aircraft. The United States Eighth Air Force was based at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in England and the Fifteenth Air Force was based in Italy, which aided the RAF Bomber Command and its night bombing ruins in Operation Pointblank to help secure air superiority over cities, factories and battlefields in Western Europe in preparation for Operation Overlord, which today is known as D-Day, Battle of Normandy. Although the B-17 served in the War in the Pacific, it did so in a lesser degree than in Europe, conducting raids against Japanese shipping and airfields. The B-17 had a service ceiling greater than any Allied counterparts and dropped more bombs in WWII than any other US aircraft. It is stated that 1.5 Million metric tons of bombs were dropped on Germany by US aircraft, 640,000 tons of those were dropped by B-17s.
The Associated Press reported on February 15th, 2011 that Norbert “Skeets” Swierz, 90-years-old, had the opportunity to fly in a Flying Fortress again – and took the opportunity to fly 45 minutes once again after many decades in the radio operators booth. The ride was courtesy of the Collings Foundation, based in Clearwater, Florida, that collects and restores B-17s and B-24s, two famous US bombers of WWII, the latter used extensively in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
Swierz was a top-turret gunner armed with twin .50-caliber machine guns to protect his aircraft from German fighter pilots. It was amazing he survived the war for two out of three B-17 crew members at an average age of 20 didn’t survive. Swierz recalled that upon returning from an especially fierce bombing mission, he went to be in an empty barracks – the crew either in the hospital or the morgue.
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 officially entered World War II. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and volunteered for B-17 duty. He flew his first mission on March 18th, 1943 and missions were successful until June 22nd when his plane, Old Ironsides, was shot up so bad it had to be ditched in the North Sea before returning to the English airbase. He was rescued by a British rescue boat and spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from a shrapnel wound in his leg.
The rules were that after 25 missions, crew members were allowed to rotate home. On Skeets 14th mission, on a bomb run on a ball-bearing factory in Stuttgart, Germany; his plane didn’t return.
Somehow or another, the Germans always knew we were coming and where we were going to bomb. 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.
German fighters and flak artillery battered the bombers as they flew around looking for a break in the clouds so they could drop their bombs. Out of the 338 B-17s on that mission, 45 were shot down – some just ran out of gas. Swierz B-17 dropped its bombs on schedule, but was pounded heavily by flak and enemy fighter fire and the crew of ten had to bail out over Stuttgart. Swierz was captured almost immediately after landing and spent the rest of the war in from 1943 to 1945 in a German prison camp in Austria.
Swierz and his fellow prisoners were liberated by General George Patton and his Third Army in May of 1945. He made it home to live out his life, like many veterans. He spent a long military career while raising children and now has great-grandchildren and undergoing a long retirement.
Swierz’s oldest son, Greg, a retired commercial pilot, stated that his father didn’t talk about wartime experiences until about ten years ago and his family encouraged him to write down his memoirs of the experience. Greg Swierz said:
I think it was a pretty horrific adventure, and it was just a part of their lives that they just got through. I think they realize now that they are living history, and we’ve got to get it out of them. They are real heroes.
Indeed, as all veterans, they are heroes of a time when the world was at war and the skies were filled with aircraft, sometimes seemingly an unending formation. It was the dawn of the era of air superiority that was important then as it was during the short Persian Gulf War.