MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER — Talking with Bill Busch is a delight.
The listener must lean in close because the centenarian is markedly soft-spoken and may be wearing an oxygen mask to boost his breathing.
This should not deter anyone from taking the opportunity to have this gentleman bend their ear.
"I didn't quite make 30," Busch stated when asked how long he served his country.
William Busch was born Oct. 23, 1918, in southern Illinois. His life adventures included flying troops into Korea and Vietnam during U.S. conflicts, heading straight into typhoons in Japan on weather research missions, and, as he will likely focus on, giving the Germans hell in the skies over the Ruhr Valley from the navigator's seat of a B-17 bomber.
On a crisp but sunny autumn day in the Pacific Northwest, Busch recently sat in a hospital lounge chair with Mount Rainier dominating the window behind him. His youngest daughter, Deb Walker, was at his side.
"She's my baby," Busch added a number of times during an hour's worth of conversation, with clear pride.
The feeling is mutual.
"He has a lot of proud grandchildren who like to brag about him," Walker said, having already noted how her siblings appreciate her dad's character.
Busch retired from the Air Force while stationed at McChord Air Force Base in 1972 as a colonel. Then, he indulged his passion for golf full time.
Despite a solid century of exploits, it is World War II he returns his stories to again and again.
B-17 #42-5821 / CINDY is the designation under which his plane can be found. It was a Boeing-designed, Lockheed-manufactured B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber aircraft with four engines, a crew of 10 and a pretty blonde named Cindy painted on its side.
"I was a navigator," noted Busch. "I sit right beneath the pilot. I got the (50) millimeter guns on both sides. So, the fighters come in, I'm on them. I got a bucket of ammunition on each side."
Busch leaned down the side of his chair and made the motions of picking up his ammunition as he said, "This side …" He turned to the other side of his chair, repeated the motions and finished, "That side."
"When the fighters come in, I can give with one hand. Without the fighters coming in, that takes both hands for me to load the gun," he explained.
Busch was assigned to the 527th Bombardment Squadron, 379th Bombardment Group, First Bombardment Division of the United States 8th Air Force, flying out of Kimbolton, England, AAF Station 117.
The 379th flew more sorties and dropped a greater bomb tonnage than any other group in the 8th AF.
Busch and Walker shared a black and white photo of the plane and its crew.
"At that time, they had two kills," said Walker pointing to the recognizable symbols on the side of the plane above the men's heads; she continued, "The Nazi swastika."
Busch didn't remember all of the names of the men standing in front of the bomber, but he pointed them out by position.
He stated without hesitation, "Those are the ground pounders, that's the bombardier, the co-pilot, engineer … That's me in between them. That's the co-pilot and the pilot. And these are ground pounders. And this is our airplane, Cindy!"
Pointing again, he continued, "That's where the bombardier sits, and I'm right behind him. And this is my gunnery on both sides."
A Consuming Blaze
When asked how many missions his crew flew, Busch replied, "Seems like about five. I was in the Ruhr; that's where I was shot down."
The Ruhr Valley is in the North Rhine-Westphalia area of central, western Germany. It has a large population with a number of large cities, and includes the Rhine and other rivers. Dusseldorf is the largest city nearby, but not officially within the Ruhr itself. The region is just north of Köln, or Cologne, as it is called in English. This is the area the 527th was operating in at the time they were shot down by German Forces.
Asked about the fate of the crew when the plane was struck, Busch described a horrific scene.
"They had a bad fire and they couldn't leave — the back people, the people in the bomb bay."
Of the 10 crew members, all six behind the cockpit were lost to the fire.
"The oxygen ran out and they were lost," explained Busch. "The front too was on fire, I had to bail out. The flame was so bad, there was no escaping it for the ones in the back."
The "ground pounders," or infantry soldiers, who manned the guns in the back of the craft had no chance to escape.
Asked who survived, Busch reported, "Just the ones up front — the bombardier and two pilots, and the engineer was hurt; I never saw him again."
Busch was also injured.
He indicated his right calf and said, "It hit here, shrapnel hit here. It healed up. I have a scar."
"I bailed out first and the bombardier started to bail out at the same time. I told him, 'I was here first.' We laughed and he crawled out. I met him in prison camp."
Busch figured he bailed out of the aircraft at about 20,000 feet altitude. As he pulled the ripcord on his parachute his arm got caught, dislocating his left shoulder.
In excruciating pain and dire straits, Busch's situation was about to get worse as a cluster of people closed in on him.
"I was captured by the Germans. I was a prisoner for … how many years?" he asked Walker. "Twenty-two months; almost two years," she replied.
Busch was not the only one in his family in the fight either.
"While he was in the prison camp, he lost his younger brother in the Pacific. He was flying a B-25. He crashed there and they buried him in the Punchbowl (Cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii)," said Walker. "It was sad because he couldn't be there and he was a brother he was very close to — Jack Busch."
When asked if he wanted to add anything more about his time in the camp, Busch became quiet and after a long pause, shook his head slightly and whispered, "No."
Busch was taken to Center Camp of Stalag Luft III in eastern Germany in what is now Poland. This camp is best known for its breakouts including the "Great Escape," on which the Steve McQueen movie of the same name is based.
When Soviet troops were closing in on the camp in early 1945, the Germans forced the prisoners to march some 50 miles in freezing temperatures and 6 inches of snow to get them to a train station for transport to another prison camp.
By the time the U.S. 14th Armored Division liberated that camp in April, it held 130,000 prisoners, having been built to house 14,000.
Freedom and beyond
"I was hoping you were going to tell her about how you roamed around Europe on that moped or scooter that you got," said Walker as Busch returned to details of the B-17. "He has some wild stories."
He doesn't tell of the forced march, or anything else but leaving.
"He says that they just abandoned their prisons," Walker concluded as Busch said the Germans left.
From there, he and a friend from the camp headed north and west.
"We went to Paris for a show," said Busch.
Asked if the show was good, Busch's response was certain.
"Yeah. It was freedom."
Upon returning to the U.S., he married Dottie, to whom he stayed married until her passing in 2001. They had one son and two daughters. Busch continued to man the navigator position in Air Force planes until he retired and turned his interests to golf.
Living in Lakewood, since the 1950s, Busch has enjoyed family and visiting his old base frequently.
"He always golfed at the McChord golf course, then the VA golf course and Fort Lewis, with all of his buddies," noted Walker.
Walker is a constant presence by her father's side. He's happy about this.
"Good you came along," said Busch of his daughter.
"Yeah, we've got to make sure you get your story out there," she responded.
"I wouldn't have done it," Busch said of his written account of his capture that accompanies this article.
"He wrote it to get the benefit for being a POW," Walker explained. "It was a good story; he got it," she added.
Busch does not take his journey for granted.
"All these good people; I worked with good people," he acknowledged.
He also shares a sense of wonder about it all.
"I think it's something; I don't know how it happened," he said of his long life and many endeavors. "When you tell me, I'll believe you."
A Navigator's Capture
By Col. William Busch
(Editor's Note: This account is shared by permission with revisions only for clarity.)
I was firing the two 50 cal guns at the navigator's position at enemy fighters. We were hit by flak in the heavy flak area, prior to dropping our bombs on the target. With some of our guns knocked out and loss of an engine by flak, we were not able to keep up with the formation. The enemy fighters swarm on a straggler. And 20mms were exploding all around. My PH [Purple Heart] was awarded for 20mm shrapnel hit to my right calf muscle. All five in the front end were hit by shrapnel and a hit on the oxygen tank in the bomb bay caused a roaring orange flame. I pulled the hatch and bailed out. I decided to wait to pull my ripcord for there were fighters and scattered flak in the area. I figured I bailed out above 20,000ft. To keep from tumbling back, I laid on my back with my arms and legs extended. I held this position until I began to tumble from loss of control. I decided I had better pull the ripcord before I might pass out. As I pulled it, still tumbling, my left arm got caught in the shroud lines and snapped my left shoulder out of place. My arm dangled, useless, and as I rocked to and fro, the damage caused me excruciating pain. So, I held my left arm close to my body to eliminate the movement.
Upon landing in a field, I had a problem of dumping my parachute with my one good arm, and my face got scratched up. I laid flat for a minute to get some of my strength back. When I looked up, there was a circle of people closing in on me. An elderly man with a long muzzled rifle, dismissed all the others and pointed to me the direction to go. As I walked in front of him, holding my arm, he would run up and rap me across the skull with the muzzle of the gun and he would rush up and crack me in the back with the butt of the gun. This went on until we came up to a Luftwaffe corporal who took me to a place where a big lady nurse took an X-ray of my shoulder. Then she had me lay on a marble table and she took a slab of marble 12 inches square by 1 inch thick and, with all her weight, rolled it over my left shoulder. Then she put my arm in a sling. I spent that night in a French workers' camp. I had such pain I could not eat nor sleep.
The next day, I was taken to Koln train station, where we were threatened by a lynch mob. Many Germans had been killed in that industrial area by our Allied bombings. The German guard rushed us into the train for a trip to the Dulag* at Frankfort.
They placed me in a small solitary room at the Dulag hospital. They took my clothes and shoes and left me with only a nightshirt. Food was meager. At least one interrogator would show each day. One Oberfeltwebel would act intimidating. When I gave him my name, rank and serial number for the last time, he did a full soccer kick to my bare shin bones as I sat on the side of my cot. Luckily, I opened my legs in time. He said, "I have to identify you. How do I know you are not a spy? I am taking you to the Gestapo. You'll talk. You'll tell them anything they want to know." I put my clothes on, but he never came back. I think the reason was it was August 17, 1943, the day of the Regensberg-Swinefort raid. We lost more planes than ever before. That gave the Germans a lot of people to run through their system.
From Dulag, they sent me to Center Camp at Stalag III. My arm gave me pain for months. With no doctor's evaluation for two years, I never knew what bones were broken or fractured and ligaments torn. When I got out of POW, I always brought it up to the doctors at examinations. They might give a quick feel and say something like, "It looks like there might be a separation at the clavicle that may need to be wired, but you'll have to do that at your next station. We don't have facilities to do that here."