A day before his final mission aboard a B-17 bomber in World War II, Norbert Swierz jotted down a poem for his mother.
“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. “Some men must die, that others must be free. And only God can say whom these shall be.”
The next day, Sept. 6, 1943, Swierz and the rest of the crew of his B-17 took off from their base in England, but didn’t make it back. Shot down and taken prisoner, Swierz spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp and did not fly in another B-17 for close to 70 years.
The opportunity came again last Friday. Swierz strapped himself into a restored Flying Fortress and held on as the vintage bomber took off from a Florida airstrip into heavy cloud cover.
“Wonderful,” the grinning 90-year-old kept saying during the 45-minute flight. “Wonderful.”
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.
“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 US with several aircraft restored to their World War II condition. Foundation spokesman Hunter Chaney said it’s important to put veterans together with vintage aircraft while its still possible.
“We’re in the last throes of this generation,” he said. “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 Swierz was one of the lucky ones. Participation in those daylight bombing raids on Germany and France was a dangerous duty.
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 mission and going to bed in an empty barracks.
“Let me tell you, that was a spooky night,” he said.
Swierz flew his first mission in March, 1943. His luck held out until June when his plane was shot up so badly it had to ditch in the North Sea. He was picked up by a British rescue boat and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a shrapnel wound.
His 14th mission — the bombing of a ball-bearing factory in Stuttgart, Germany — would be his last.
The attack was a fiasco. Fighters and flak 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.
Swierz’s plane was hit soon after releasing its bombs, and its crew bailed out. He was captured and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.
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 they realize now that they are living history, and we’ve got to get it out of them. They are real heroes,” Greg Swierz said.