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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

    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

    Photo courtesy of Grant Bosse

  • 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.)

Legacy Comments9

This comment really doesn't have much to do with Grant Bosse's column but I am compelled to get this off my chest. I find it troubling that most Americans look at WWII only from the American point of view. There are dozens of movies chronicling the battles between American and German forces (only a few of the American/Japanese battles) but what most Americans fail to understand is that most of the fighting took place in Eastern Europe. Savage, brutal fighting took place non-stop from 1939 to 1945. German, Soviet and other eastern European soldiers (and civilians) were literally starving and freezing to death by the thousands. The Battle of Stalingrad alone resulted in about 1 million deaths. The Soviets were so desperate, they shot anyone who refused to fight on the spot. The average life expectancy of a new infantryman in Stalingrad was 1 day. Women fought alongside the men. After the Nazis rolled through Eastern Europe in 1939-1941, the Soviets swept back through the region in 1944-45. They pillaged, plundered and destroyed anything the Germans had left and raped women by the thousands without repercussion. Of course both the Nazis and the Soviets committed unspeakable crimes to Jews and others. Death was everywhere: about 14 million were Soviet, 6 million Poles, 4.6 million German, 1.2 million Japanese, 600,000 French, 300,000 Italians, 300,000 British. About half of these were civilians. The United States lost 292,000--none civilian. I'm not sure why this is never talked about. Perhaps it's too horrific but I suspect it's because to a lot of Americans if it doesn't happen here or if it doesn't involve Americans, it's like it never took place.

Dont forget the Chinese...I think they lost more than the Russians did

Well that may be the case. I think nowdays unless a history buff or student most young people don't think about recent history. I feel most countries are more interested in their own history in a war, especially a war they felt they won. I lived through the Vietnam war and knew people killed in it but since it is not a war that we "won" it is not talked about much. I know the British and French think a lot about WWII but only from their own part in it. The French do no like to think about the Vichy so it is barely mentioned. The Japanese didn't mention in their school books their part in the Rape of Nanking. The Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Wonder if that is mentioned in their history books. And of course England had their "peace in our time" moment.. I wonder if the Repubs had not destroyed the League of Nations maybe WWII could have been avoided. Who knows?

From Wikipedia: "After a number of notable successes and some early failures in the 1920s, the League ultimately proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. Germany withdrew from the League, as did Japan, Italy, Spain and others. The onset of World War II showed that the League had failed its primary purpose, which was to prevent any future world war. The League lasted for 27 years" It had nothing to do with Republicans.

A central plank of the Republican Party in the 1920s was opposition to the League of Nations. Henry Cabot Lodge led the fight against it in the Senate. Our failure to join, at the very least, did nothing to strengthen the nascent organization.

Good questions all. I think we have to place some of the blame for the horrors of WW2 on what came before, including the onerous terms placed on Germany after WW1. WW1 and its aftermath laid much of the groundwork for what came later--the rise of Hitler and his war machine, which in turn led to the Holocaust and the beginnings of "total war"--in which there was often little or no distinction made between civilian and soldier.

Good post. The Russians are the ones who took the brunt of the Nazi war machine, and with a little help from General Winter, did much to defeat it. This isn't to minimize the contributions of the other allies. But It was on the eastern front where Hitler put his best men and machines. Fighting raged there for more than 3 years before D-Day. I think it was Churchill who said words to the effect of "The Russians supplied the blood, the English supplied the time, and the Americans supplied the materiel." Seen in this light, WW2 is not quite "the last good war," Instead, we have one tyrannical dictatorship defeating another. Also, a number of historians credit Russian entry into the Pacific theater, rather than the atom bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Japan's decision to surrender.

Sometime ago, talked with an elderly gentleman (105 yrs) who was a chaplain for the WW!! bombers. Said he would say prayers with them knowing full well 50-60 of them were not coming back. Don't know if his figures were accurate but if even close - OMG. What a generation that is/was. We owe them a great debt of thanks and honor.

Great column Grant! My dad was a bit late for the actual fighting but served his country as a member of a B-17 crew flying mapping missions over Germany just after the war. The love he had for that plane was amazing. I've been up close and inside one once and it was incredible how you could fit ten men and all that ordnance in a plane that, while on the outside looks huge, on the inside is quite cramped, not too mention the unpressurized cabin that resulted in crews having to deal with temperatures that were, well, your Grandfather and his crew mates nickname for their '17 was quite apt!

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