Bailing Out Near Berlin

For Norman Bussel, December 7, 1941, started out like
any other Sunday. He was visiting his grandmother along with other family when
they heard the news on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. “I knew I
wanted to do my part, but I was not old enough for the draft. My father was a
World War I veteran and told me that it was better to enlist than to get
drafted so that I could have more control over where I went in the armed

Norman went to nearby Millington Naval Air Station in
Memphis, Tennessee, to enlist. He was given a form his parents would have to
sign to allow him entry to the armed forces. He said he can still recall his
mother telling him, “You are going to hate me, but I just can’t sign these.”

He went back to work on an assembly line, building B-25
nose sections. “We were really trying to make them pretty fast. Sometimes I
would see something I didn’t like and call an engineer over. The engineer would
OK it, and at times I was thinking, it was not of the highest work.” 

The day finally came that Norman would be drafted into
the United States Army Air Forces. 
“First thing I did is apply for a pilot slot. Everyone wanted a pilot
slot. So they sent me to radio school at Scott Field outside of St. Louis until
a slot would open.” After a few months in radio school, Norman and six other
guys got called to a major’s office. Norman recalls the major tried to make
them feel bad for wanting to leave for pilot slots, saying, “We gave you three
months of radio training and [in] another three months you will be ready to
graduate, and now you want to leave? It sounds selfish and cowardly to me.”
Norman said that after a few rounds of this talk, “I finally said, well just
forget about it then. And we all agreed and walked out. Once we were outside
and cooled off, we realized we had been had.”

During his time at Scott Field, Norman would get his
first airplane flight. “It was in a Piper Cub. There were lots of heavier
planes using the runways, so we just used the grass!” After radio school,
Norman reported to Laredo Army Air Field in Texas for gunnery training. “We started
with shotguns, then graduated up to aircraft gun turrets mounted on the back of
trucks. Eventually we would go up in AT-11 aircraft and shoot at other aircraft
towing targets. We would load different colored rounds in the gun. Each gunner
would have a different color. Then we would shoot at the target once on the
ground. I can still remember the wind ripping back into my compartment. You had
to wear goggles or it would feel like your eyes were going to fly away.” While
in gunnery training, they decided to train Norman to be a ball turret gunner. “Understand,
they don’t give you a choice. They tell you that you are going to train for

After training, Norman reported to Avon Park, Florida,
discovering upon arrival it was a B-25 base. “I immediately started to second-guess
my work back on that B-25 line and wonder if I would fly in something I built.
I got a little worried.” Later that day, Norman would receive some welcome
news. “I was waiting for a bus when a B-25 flew over. A guy standing there said,
‘Well, there goes the last one.’ Norman asked the gentleman what he meant, and
he replied, ‘That is the last of the B-25s to be based here. Tomorrow we become
a B-17 base.’” Norman felt a rush of relief. “The B-17 already had a wonderful
reputation, and I was happy to find out that is what I was going to go to war

A few days later, Norman would meet his crew. “The
pilot showed up and we were all together. He would call out a name and say, ‘OK,
you are my waist gunner,’ and so on. He got to me and said, ‘Norman you are the
ball turret gunner.’” This surprised Norman, who said, “Not unless you can take
that radio room down there as well.” The pilot was sure that there was some
sort of mistake, but there was no doubt — he had a ball turret gunner who was a
radio operator.

After sorting it out among the crew — someone else
volunteered for ball turret gunner duty — it was time to prepare for the big
adventure to Europe. This would include many flying hours on training flights,
followed by a trip on the Queen Elizabeth. Norman recalls about his trip on the
giant ship, “They were very lavish conditions. I never felt crowded, even
though there were 15,000 of us on the ship.” This would include famous boxer
Joe Lewis. “He was a really nice guy, and I even got a signed photo from

The men were fed well on the ship. To establish some
order, a color system was implemented. “You had a ticket with a certain color
on it. That color was on a schedule and that is how you knew when and where to
eat.” Norman kind of laughed as he remembered a story. “We had this redheaded
requisition officer from West Virginia; Bill Peters was his name. We were
walking the deck, and he said he was hungry and asked me if I wanted to go get
a snack. I responded that it was not time for our group to go yet. Bill pulled
out of his pocket tickets with every color on them. He said we could go
whenever we wanted! If you have to go to war, it helps to have a Bill

After leaving the boat, the crew took a train to their
new base, Rattlesden, England, home of the 447th Bomb Group. There the crew
would be assigned to the 708th Bomb Squadron. “Once we got there, they broke us
up and we had to do more training with other folks who had already been doing
the jobs we were going to do.” Gunners would learn from gunners and so on.

Norman recalled a bad day in training. “There was a
young man in our barracks. He had married his high school sweetheart before
shipping out. He was an armorer. So he would be responsible for loading bombs
and ammunition into the planes. One day we were in class and heard a massive
explosion. They made us get down on the floor, as they thought the Germans were
dropping bombs. When it was safe to stand up, I could see fire trucks racing to
a fire where a B-17 was blown apart. Turns out one of the bombs exploded,
killing several, including our bunkmate. He was just 19.” 

Norman could feel the tensions among the men as the
time for their first mission was growing near. “It was interesting to see how
people handled stress. One guy would spend all of his time just drinking. I had
a mindset that it was not going to happen to me today. It might someday, but
today would not be that day. I would spend my downtime writing home to take my
mind off things.”

Before the crew would fly together, they had two more
training flights to complete, flying with other experienced crews on regular
combat missions, including one flying its 23rd mission. Although they were learning
a job, the danger around them was very real, and Norman’s crew was about to
find this out. “Our navigator was a young man from Pittsburgh named Sherwood
Landis. On our second training flight, one of the B-17s came back with a dead
navigator. Sherry had been come friends with him and was really shaken by it.”
The next day would be the first combat mission Norman and his crew would fly
together, and it would change the course of Norman’s life. 

“It was still dark as we were preparing for the
mission. Since I was the radio operator, I went to get all of our throat mics and
headsets for the crew. Then I went out to the plane. When I got there, I
started handed everything out. I handed Sherry a headset, and he said there was
something on them. He leaned into the light, and we discovered that there was
blood all over the headsets. We think they belonged to his friend who had been
killed the day before and had somehow missed being cleaned. I could see how bad
this hurt Sherry. I jumped in a jeep with a driver and we raced back to get a
new set for him. I grabbed a new clean set, and we raced back to find the crew
climbing in and the engines running. I asked where we were going. The answer
was Berlin.”  

Not long into the mission, it was discovered the shock
of these events had really affected their navigator. “Our pilot was trying to
form up and Sherry just wasn’t there, wasn’t making the calls the pilot needed.
I ended up helping him.” That morning, the 447th found themselves ahead of the
main group. They were told they would have to perform a large 360-degree turn that
would put them right in line with the group. Norman laughs about it now.
“Someone lied to us. We did that 360-degree turn; we never saw anyone ever
again. It was just our 30 planes, but we pressed on anyway.” 

The small group of bombers made it to the target. “I
was checking my equipment when Joe, the ball turret gunner, came in to the
radio room and sat on my parachute that was on my chair. I said to him that he
shouldn’t sit on it as I might have to use it. He laughed and slid the chute on
the floor over to where I was standing as a joke.” They neared Berlin, eyes
strained to keep a lookout for antiaircraft fire or fighter aircraft. They
would be alone, with no escort to help protect them. As they neared the target,
someone on the crew yelled, “Fighters!” 

“Our pilot came back to make sure everyone was on their
guns. I had a gun that fired from our radio room hatch. I was shooting at a
fighter off of our tail, when another one shot a huge hole in the side of the
radio room using its 20-mm cannons. The huge rush of air and shrapnel knocked
me down and blew my throat mic off. The pilot knew something was wrong and
ordered someone to go back and check on me. I could hear it over the headset. I
found my mic, and put it back, and told him that I was okay, and I went back to

A few minutes would go by before another round of
fighters would pass through the group. This time their cannon fire would be
targeting the damaged aircraft. “There was another explosion as their gunfire
hit the oxygen tanks on the aircraft. A massive fire broke out on the left side
of the radio room, and the seat where my parachute had been sitting prior to
Joe’s antics was fully covered in fire. By joking around, Joe had actually
saved my life.” 

Norman contemplated what to do next. “I never heard a
bailout call. I looked back to the waist and it was full of fire. Then I
noticed the ammo was starting to cook off and the metal was starting to melt. I
decided it was time to leave. I bailed out through the bomb bay around 28,000
feet. I counted to seven and the aircraft exploded. The rush of the explosion
knocked me out.”

When Norman awoke, he was falling through a fine white
mist. “I figured I had died. Then I thought about how the afterlife was going
to be very boring if this was all there was. Just falling in this mist. Then I
could feel the sting of pain. I thought, well I can’t be dead if I am hurt. I
had a flashback to our weather briefing, and I could recall the briefer saying
there would be a cloud layer around 14,000 feet over Germany. Then it all
started to make sense. I have bailed out over Germany. My dog tags came to
mind. They had an H on them for Hebrew. I figured that the Germans would not
treat me very kind if they discovered I was Jewish. Our HQ said that the
Germans would know what that meant. I was not about to test that, so I took off
my dog tags and threw them away while still in my parachute.” 

Norman landed hard under the parachute and on the knee that
had suffered a wound from shrapnel. Civilians soon discovered his location,
which was not something that made him feel at ease. “The civilians came at me
with rakes and shovels, and one man had a rope. They started to prepare to hang
me, when a German officer on a motorcycle came. I could understand what they
were saying. They wanted to hang me and the German said he had to take me in.
Finally, the German soldier said, ‘I will search him; if he has a gun on him,
you can hang him.’ Luckily for me, I did not bring my .45 with me.”

Norman was then taken in to an interrogation room. “I
pretended not to speak German and they had no one who could speak English. As
they moved me, I was reunited with our pilot, co-pilot, and one of the gunners.
I found out that our bombardier, navigator, and ball turret gunner were killed.
Another member of the crew was injured so badly that the German arranged a
prisoner swap with the United States to get him better care.” 

Norman was taken to Frankfurt, where he was in solitary
confinement for 12 straight days. Then he was taken to a POW camp for enlisted
men. “When I first got there, I saw someone I knew. Roger Hess was on that crew
I trained with, the ones who had flown 23 missions. He was limping. I asked him
what he was doing there, as I figured they were long gone back to the U.S. He
then told me a horrible story on how they were shot down on their 24th mission.
Roger was in the tail, and when the aircraft broke in half, the wind ripped his
parachute open and pulled him out of the plane.” Norman would recall that for
the rest of Roger’s life, he lived with PTSD from that event and would never
fly again. “Think about this with me for a moment,” Norman said, “I lost four
men and it still affects me. That man lost his whole crew.”

The everyday life of a POW was not easy. “No fresh
clothes, showers, food, and the whole time the Germans really didn’t mind if
they shot you.” Norman’s camp was surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun
nests. “We had lost so much weight that you did not have much energy. I lost 65

After a year of captivity, Norman and the rest of his
camp received some great news. “Off in the distance, we would hear some occasional
cannon fire. Then on April 29, we woke up to see that the guards had fled in
the night. Soon a line of American tanks circled the camp. On one of them was
General Patton. I swear he had the pearl-handled guns and everything. He looked
like he was nine feet tall!” 

Over the next few days they were treated at the camp
but kept together. “We really wanted to get out of there. But the orders were
to stay put. Finally, one guy found wire cutters and cut holes in the fences.
We were out of there. A group found a convertible car and got it running. One
of the tank crews filled their gas tank for them and they wanted me to go with.
I thought I’d better not. Three weeks later, as I was boarding a ship home, the
convertible came screeching to the docks. Those guys had spent the entire time

Coming home was something Norman had long thought of.
After spending 18 days on a liberty ship, the sites of his hometown were
beautiful. “My grandmother came to the house and together with my mom cooked
all of my favorite foods, although I really couldn’t keep much down besides
baby food.”

For years after, Norman and his wife, Melanie, worked
to help veterans get benefits and help for PTSD. Together they have helped many
file their claims and get the support that they need. He also remains active
with the 447th Bomb Group Association and normally attends their reunions. “I
missed this last one, but we only had two actual veterans there. I can remember
a time when we would need five Greyhound buses to get us all there.”

Spending an afternoon talking to Norman was incredible.
He is remarkably funny and a wonderful speaker, full of detail. Norman is a
great example of what our WWII veterans are able to teach us about this
important time in our nation’s history.

Post Comments