CLEARWATER — The engine of the B-17 bomber began its gurgling rumble. Feeling right at home, Norbert Swierz, 90, buckled his seat belt and surveyed the inside of the plane.
It had been more than 60 years since he'd been inside a B-17. As a gunner, he completed 14 missions during World War II. He was wounded, his B-17 was shot down twice during the war, and for nearly two years he was a prisoner of war.
Friday afternoon's flight was another mission accomplished for Swierz.
"This is my 15th mission," said Swierz, a Palm Harbor resident. "I was shot down during my 14th mission, recuperated and now I'm back with my 15th. I had to have one that I really enjoyed and this one was it. There were no bombs today, which is all right. But it evoked a lot of memories."
Along with members of his family, Swierz boarded a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in Kissimmee and flew to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Friday. His son Greg, 64, of Tarpon Springs, a retired Continental Airlines pilot, helped arrange the flight.
The Boeing B-17 is one of four historic aircraft that will be on display as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport today and Sunday. The event is sponsored by the Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts organization founded in 1979 to support living history events involving transportation.
"It's the worst, most horrific time in human history and it wasn't that long ago," said Hunter Chaney of the Collings Foundation. "It's vitally important that we embrace these veterans while we can. A time will come when they are just a memory. The world would be in a different place if it wasn't for the sacrifices that they made."
Though it has been more than 60 years, Swierz can recount where he was both times he was shot down. How and when he was wounded. Details of the 23 months he spent as a prisoner of war. The times he escaped and was recaptured.
"I'm pleased as hell," Swierz said Wednesday as he waited for his opportunity to fly in the B-17 again. "I don't feel like I did anything extraordinary in WWII, though. I did my share, and that's all I can say."
The long list of medals awarded to Swierz belies his modesty. Those include the Distinguished Flying Cross, multiple Purple Hearts (two awarded and three pending) and the French Legion of Honor.
Swierz, who was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, was first shot down in June 1943 over the North Sea. He and the crew were rescued by British seamen.
Swierz had been shot in the leg during the attack on the aircraft, but he later returned to duty and was shot down a second time, in September 1943.
"I have the pleasure of telling you I was the last one out of the thing," Swierz said about the day in September when his plane, dubbed Bomb Boogie, was downed over Stuttgart, Germany.
"I bailed out at 25,000 feet. That's a long way to the ground. I free-fell to 12,000 to 15,000 feet, then I pulled my rip cord. It really opened with a bang. I remember it every step of the way."
Swierz was captured by German soldiers and taken to the Stalag 7 prison camp. During 23 months as a prisoner of war, he was imprisoned in several camps, including Stalag 17, and endured regular interrogations, forced marches and little food, often just soup and bread served every three days. He escaped several times but was recaptured.
In the spring of 1945, Swierz was among Stalag 17 prisoners who began a forced 281-mile march west away from the approaching Russians.
"We were up at daylight and marched until dark," Swierz said, calling it among the worst experiences of the war. On May 3, 1945, the prisoners were freed by Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army.
"It was dense forest and here comes this Jeep," he said. "The Germans took off running because they knew. We had been freed."
Swierz retired in 1974 as a master sergeant after serving a total of 23 years in the military. He has been married to Muriel Swierz, 89, for 65 years, and she joined him on a portion of Friday's flight.
Afterward, Swierz carefully disembarked from the plane to face reporters asking his feelings about the ride.
His eyes glistening, Swierz simply said: "It was amazing."