PALM HARBOR — In February 2011, Norbert Swierz slid into the belly of a vintage B-17 bomber for the first time in more than 60 years. With national media filming his every move, the thick man with a thick voice shouted over the plane's four propellers.
"I can look around and I don't see one German fighter," he said.
The foundation-sponsored commemorative flight took the former B-17 gunner, then 90, from Kissimmee to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Mr. Swierz flew 14 missions during World War II, mostly over Germany. He was shot down twice and spent 23 months as a prisoner of war. He would be decorated with 27 medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Legion of Honor and five Purple Hearts. He finished out a 22-year military career and most of his retirement without talking much about his adventures.
"Until a couple of years ago, he never talked about the details, about what it was like, about what they did and how they did it," said Greg Swierz, his son and a retired commercial airline pilot. "You're up in a little tin can B-17 with no armor."
Mr. Swierz was born in Chicago and grew up in Dowagiac, Mich. When the rumblings of war commenced, he wanted to be a part of it. The United States had not yet joined the war, so Mr. Swierz joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Soon, however, he was a member of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
His war experiences make for a harrowing story. In June 1943 he was shot down over the North Sea and rescued by British seamen. Three months later his plane was hit. Wounded by shrapnel in his back and leg, Mr. Swierz parachuted into Stuttgart, Germany, where he found himself surrounded by angry civilians.
German soldiers intervened, sparing his life but also making him their prisoner.
He escaped Stalag 17 multiple times but was recaptured.
His ordeal ended, Greg Swierz said, during a forced 281-mile march away from Russian troops. "We were up at daylight and marched until dark," Mr. Swierz said in 2011. They were rescued in May 1945 by Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army.
"He said it was exhilarating to see Patton's guys coming in their jeeps," his son said. "He talked about the elation of seeing the American flag again, and knowing that they were going to make it out of there."
Mr. Swierz married Muriel Pease in 1945. He later served in Korea and Vietnam, retiring as an Air Force master sergeant in 1974. In recent years he wrote a book about his experiences and was honored in last year's commemorative B-17 flight.
Until recently he seemed to defy his age, working in the yard in midday heat. A few weeks ago he became dehydrated and fell, breaking his hip.
Mr. Swierz died July 21 in Mease Countryside Hospital. He was 92.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.