June 17, 2013
It’s not Memorial Day or Veterans Day or the Fourth of July, so you may think it odd that there’s a World War II post on the Peepshow today. But I recently had an experience so striking that I simply had to share it, without waiting for a formal occasion.
I stopped at a Walgreen’s drugstore on my way into work last week, and as I was checking out, I noticed an older man leafing through the newspaper. He was wearing a shirt with the logo of a B-17 Flying Fortress and the number of a bombing group.
I walked over to him and said, “What was your job on the bomber crew?” He looked up and, without a moment’s hesitation, replied, “Flight engineer.” And just like that, I was in one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had in a long time.
His name was Chuck Sasse, 92 years old, and he launched right into stories about his experience flying bombing missions over Germany. Chuck grew up on a farm outside St. Peter, Minn. When his older brother was drafted, Chuck decided that he should join up, too. His mother refused to drive him to the recruiting station, so he walked the nine miles from their farm into town.
“I couldn’t swim, and on the way into town I decided I didn’t like walking all that much,” he said. “So I joined the Air Corps.”
Stationed in England, Chuck’s job as flight engineer was to monitor all the mechanical, electrical and hydraulic systems on the plane during flight, and handle any repairs that were needed. His Flying Fortress was piloted by an 18-year-old New Yorker who didn’t even have a driver’s license. “He couldn’t drive a car, but he could fly that plane just fine,” Chuck said with a grin.
Chuck had a second job, too: manning the machine gun in the top turret. The British bombed at night and the U.S. bombed during the day. That made the B-17s ripe targets for German fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns.
“Those Germans could hit us with flak (anti-aircraft fire) at 25,000 feet,” he said. “We got our asses shot off. And the Messerschmidts (German fighter planes) had a 30-millimeter cannon that was just a death trap. They knew exactly how far away they had to be to stay out of range of our guns, and they’d sit back and take their shots.
“You see, the Germans weren’t like those Japanese kamikazes. They didn’t want to die.”
After every mission, there was a memorial service back at the base,”because people died every mission,” Chuck said. Casualty rates of 10 percent were common, and sometimes one of every three bombers failed to return. On one occasion, Chuck was assigned to accompany the body of a fallen airman back to Barnum, Minn. He flew back with the body and attended the memorial, then was back in England — all within 48 hours. And he was forbidden to talk with anyone about the war on his brief visit or even to telephone his family during the trip: “The colonel who sent me laid it out pretty plain — if I talked, then … court martial.” On another occasion, Chuck had to drag the dead tail gunner out of his post after the gunner was killed by a strafing fighter. “Just cut him right up, just like that,” Chuck said.
Still, he felt fortunate compared to the infantrymen on the ground. “We had it pretty good, except in the air,” he said. “We had hot showers, good food, a nice place to sleep. Those guys on the ground, sleeping in the cold, getting frostbite — they had it rough.”
Today’s wars are fought by a small segment of our society. In Chuck’s day, the war was an experience shared widely. But it’s not an experience he’d wish on anyone else. “War is terrible,” he said, shaking his head. “Just terrible.”
I had to cut our talk short — had a client meeting to get to. I hated to say goodbye; I wanted to buy Chuck a cup of coffee and continue the conversation.
Chuck, thanks for your stories, and your service.