Grandfather a nearly famous B-17 crew chief
Staff Sgt. Norman Bossie (bottom, left) was crew chief for a B-17 in World War II. / Photo courtesy of Grant Bosse
Photo courtesy of Grant Bosse
Looking over the .50 caliber waist guns of the B-17 flying low over Hooksett, it was easy to imagine ourselves transported back 70 years to the skies over Europe. Except of course, we were warm. We were within sight of a safe landing strip. And no one was shooting at us.
This weekend, the Liberty Foundation is giving residents a peek into the harrowing missions flown by bomber pilots during World War II as it brings a restored B-17 Flying Fortress to the Manchester airport.
The plane flying into Manchester never actually saw combat. It rolled off the Boeing line on April 3, 1945, and was put in reserve for the final bombing campaign of the Japanese home islands that never came. She got her big break playing the lead in the 1990 movie Memphis Belle.
But during World War II, daylight strategic bombing in B-17s over Nazi-occupied Europe was among the most hazardous duties for American servicemen. And it was during such a tour that my grandfather nearly became famous.
Dubbed the Flying Fortress because it bristled with guns from tip to tail and was able to withstand incredible punishment from German fighters and flak, the B-17 was vulnerable without fighter cover. The pre-war doctrine of “the bomber will always get through” was shattered by the German Luftwaffe. So the United States threw more planes, bombs and men at the problem, resulting in massive raids of up to 1,000 B-17s.
To give their crews hope of surviving the meat grinder over France and Germany, the U.S. Army Air Force capped the crews’ tour of duty at 25 missions. Memphis Belle takes some liberties by including the experiences of several crews as if they occurred on one fateful mission.
Memphis Belle wasn’t actually the first B-17 to complete 25 combat missions with the same crew. The Hell’s Angels, which later lent their name to the entire 303rd Bomb Group, completed their 25th mission six days earlier. It was during his tour with the 303rd that my grandfather’s fateful adventure began.
Staff Sgt. Norman Bossie (the Army dropped the “i” at some point) was crew chief for the B-17F “Witche’s Tit,” a rather vulgar reference to the cabin temperature of a B-17 in flight. His crew was about to take off on its 25th mission and was then scheduled to go on a war bond tour, which would have meant several months back in the States and out of the war.
Prior to takeoff, the young lieutenant who was command pilot complained about the instruments, but my grandfather couldn’t find anything wrong. Shortly after takeoff, the lieutenant claimed an instrument failure and aborted the mission.
Bossie was furious and immediately rechecked the B-17’s instruments. He stormed back and yelled at the lieutenant, “There’s nothing wrong with that plane. You’re chicken!” I’m assuming his actual words were more colorful.
My grandfather was not busted back to private, which shows just how badly the military needed good B-17 crews. He was later among a handful of engineers awarded the Bronze Star for keeping the rugged bombers in the air. But even decorated enlisted men do not question the valor of an officer and a gentleman, particularly in front of the brass. He was sent to the Russian front.
Instead of a war bond tour of America, Bossie was transferred to a new unit, and a new plane named “Jay Byrd,” just as Operation Frantic was getting started.
While the Soviets were our allies in World War II, they never went to war with Japan. The United States wanted to use Siberian bases for bombing raids, which would have greatly shortened the murderous island hopping campaign and the Pacific war. But Joseph Stalin was unwilling to let American troops on Soviet territory.
Operation Frantic was a diplomatic effort to convince Stalin on the merits of joint military operations. Three heavy bombing groups would shuttle between bases in Italy, England and the Ukraine, striking German military targets out of range of round-trip missions.
Operation Frantic was never going to draw Stalin into the Pacific, and he likely gave grudging approval in order to gather intelligence on American air capabilities. But it did show my grandfather Stalin’s brutality first hand.
The Luftwaffe scattered bombs across the grass runways that wouldn’t explode until a plane attempted to take off or land. Clearing these bombs was dangerous and time-consuming for American ground crews in England. But the Soviets had a simpler solution. They lined up peasants at one end of the runway and marched them across, filling in the gaps each time a bomb exploded. Such casual barbarity towards his own people typified Stalin’s reign.
My grandfather was lucky enough to make it through the war uninjured. I never spoke to him about his time in the war. My father says they rarely talked about it when he was growing up, and he later served as an Air Force lieutenant in Vietnam. I don’t think he ever received a lecture like that delivered by Sgt. Bossie.
If you catch a glimpse of the Memphis Belle circling the Manchester airport this weekend, take a second to remember the sacrifices of so many young men 70 years ago, and do what you can to reclaim a bit of history before it fades into the mists of time.
(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy, and a senior fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.)