Navigating A Three War Veteran's History
by U.S. Army Kirstin Grace-Simons
Madigan Army Medical Center
February 3, 2020
Talking with Bill Busch is a delight.
must lean in close because the centenarian is markedly soft-spoken
and may be wearing an oxygen mask to boost his breathing.
This should not deter anyone from taking the opportunity to have
this gentleman bend their ear.
“I didn’t quite make 30,”
Busch stated when asked how long he served his country.
William Busch was born on October 23, 1918, in southern Illinois.
His life adventures included flying troops into Korea and Vietnam
during U.S. conflicts, heading straight into typhoons in Japan on
weather research missions, and, as he will likely focus on, giving
the Germans hell in the skies over the Ruhr Valley from the
navigator’s seat of a B-17 bomber.
Retired Air Force Col. William Busch is surrounded by the staff of Madigan Army Medical Center's 7 North ward to celebrate his 101st birthday
on October 23, 2019. His daughter Deb Walker is directly behind him. (U.S. Army photo
by Ryan Graham, Madigan Army Medical Center)
On a crisp but sunny
autumn day in the Pacific Northwest, Busch sat in a hospital lounge
chair with Mount Rainier dominating the window behind him. His
youngest daughter, Deb Walker, was at his side.
baby,” Busch added a number of times during an hour’s worth of
conversation, with clear pride.
The feeling is mutual. “He
has a lot of proud grandchildren who like to brag about him,” Walker
said, having already noted how her siblings appreciate her dad’s
Busch retired from the Air Force while stationed
at McChord Air Force Base in 1972 as a colonel. Then, he indulged
his passion for golf full time.
Despite a solid century of
exploits, it is World War II he returns his stories to again and
B-17 #42-5821 / CINDY is the designation under which his plane
can be found. It was a Boeing-designed, Lockheed-manufactured B-17
“Flying Fortress” bomber aircraft with four engines, a crew of ten
and a pretty blonde named Cindy painted on its side.
“I was a
navigator,” noted Busch. “I sit right beneath the pilot. I got the
60 [sic] (50) millimeter guns on both sides. So, the fighters come
in, I’m on them. I got a bucket of ammunition on each side.”
Busch leaned down the side of his chair and made the motions of
picking up his ammunition as he said, “This side …” He turned to the
other side of his chair, repeated the motions and finished, “That
“When the fighters come in, I can give with one hand.
Without the fighters coming in, that takes both hands for me to load
the gun,” he explained.
Busch was assigned to the 527th
Bombardment Squadron, 379th Bombardment Group, First Bombardment
Division of the United States 8th Air Force, flying out of
Kimbolton, England, AAF Station 117.
The 379th flew more
sorties and dropped a greater bomb tonnage than any other group in
the 8th AF.*
Busch and Walker shared a black and white photo
of the plane and its crew.
The crew of the “Cindy” a B-17 bomber prior to its August 1943 downing by anti-aircraft fire over western Germany. According to retired Air Force Col. William Busch, the plane’s navigator (second from left in the back row), all of the “ground pounders” or gunmen in the front row perished in a fire in the back of the plane when it was hit. Busch identifies the front of the plane flight crew that makes up the back row as the engineer, himself, bombardier, co-pilot and pilot. The engineer was injured and Busch lost track of him. The other four were taken prisoner by the Nazis. (Photo courtesy of Col. William Busch)
“At that time, they had two
kills,” said Walker pointing to the recognizable symbols on the side
of the plane above the men’s heads; she continued, “The Nazi
Busch didn’t remember all of the names of the men
standing in front of the bomber, but he pointed them out by
He stated without hesitation, “Those are the ground
pounders, that’s the bombardier, the co-pilot, engineer … That’s me
in between them. That’s the co-pilot and the pilot. And these are
ground pounders. And this is our airplane, Cindy!”
again, he continued, “That’s where the bombardier sits, and I’m
right behind him. And this is my gunnery on both sides.”
A Consuming Blaze
asked how many missions his crew flew, Busch replied, “Seems like
about five. I was in the Ruhr; that’s where I was shot down.”
The Ruhr Valley is in the North Rhine-Westphalia area of
central, western Germany. It has a large population with a number of
large cities, and includes the Rhine and other rivers. Dusseldorf is
the largest city nearby, but not officially within the Ruhr itself.
The region is just north of Köln, or Cologne, as it is called in
English. This is the area the 527th was operating in at the time
they were shot down by German Forces.
This 1937 map of Germany is used
to show the area retired Air Force Col. William Busch's B-17 airplane was flying bombing missions in the western part of the country, where the plane crashed
in August 1943 and where he was held as a prisoner of the Nazis for nearly two years. (Graphic by Kirstin Grace-Simons based on original map by W.B. Wilson)
Asked about the fate of
the crew when the plane was struck, Busch described a horrific
“They had a bad fire and they couldn’t leave – the
back people, the people in the bomb bay.”
Of the ten crew
members, all six behind the cockpit were lost to the fire.+
“The oxygen ran out and they were lost,” explained Busch. “The front
too was on fire, I had to bail out. The flame was so bad, there was
no escaping it for the ones in the back.”
pounders,” or infantry soldiers, who manned the guns in the back of
the craft had no chance to escape.
Asked who survived, Busch
reported, “Just the ones up front – the bombardier and two pilots,
and the engineer was hurt; I never saw him again.”
He indicated his right calf and said, “It hit
here, shrapnel hit here. It healed up; I have a scar.”
“I bailed out
first and the bombardier started to bail out at the same time. I
told him, ‘I was here first.’ We laughed and he crawled out. I met
him in prison camp.”
Busch figured he bailed out of the
aircraft at about 20,000 feet altitude. As he pulled the ripcord on
his parachute his arm got caught, dislocating his left shoulder.
In excruciating pain and dire straits, Busch’s situation was
about to get worse as a cluster of people closed in on him.
“I was captured by the Germans. I was a prisoner for … how many
years?” he asked Walker. “Twenty-two months; almost two years,” she
Busch was not the only one in his family in the
“While he was in the prison camp, he lost his
younger brother in the Pacific. He was flying a B-25. He crashed
there and they buried him in the Punchbowl (Cemetery in Honolulu,
Hawaii),” said Walker. “It was sad because he couldn’t be there and
he was a brother he was very close to – Jack Busch.”
asked if he wanted to add anything more about his time in the camp,
Busch became quiet and after a long pause, shook his head slightly
and whispered, “No.”
Busch was taken to Center Camp of Stalag
Luft III in eastern Germany in what is now Poland. This camp is best
known for its breakouts including the “Great Escape,” on which the
Steve McQueen movie of the same name is based.
troops were closing in on the camp in early 1945, the Germans forced
the prisoners to march some 50 miles in freezing temperatures and
six inches of snow to get them to a train station for transport to
another prison camp.#
By the time the U.S. 14th Armored
Division liberated that camp in April, it held 130,000 prisoners,
having been built to house 14,000.
Freedom and Beyond
hoping you were going to tell her about how you roamed around Europe
on that moped or scooter that you got,” said Walker as Busch
returned to details of the B-17. “He has some wild stories.”
He doesn’t tell of the forced march, or anything
else but leaving.
“He says that they just abandoned their
prisons,” Walker concluded as Busch said the Germans left.
From there, he and a friend from the camp headed north and west.
“We went to Paris for a show,” said Busch.
Asked if the
show was good, Busch’s response was delicious.
“Yeah. It was
Upon returning to the U.S., he married Dottie, to
whom he stayed married until her passing in 2001. They had one son
and two daughters and Busch continued to man the navigator position
in Air Force planes until he retired and turned his interests to
Living in Lakewood, Wash., since the 1950’s, Busch has
enjoyed family and visiting his old base frequently.
always golfed at the McChord golf course, then the VA golf course
and Fort Lewis, with all of his buddies,” noted Walker.
Walker is a constant presence by her father’s side. He’s happy about
“Good you came along,” said Busch of his daughter.
“Yeah, we’ve got to make sure you get your story out there,” she
“I wouldn’t have done it,” Busch said of his
written account of his capture that accompanies this article.
“He wrote it to get the benefit for being a POW,” Walker
explained. “It was a good story; he got it,” she added.
does not take his journey for granted.
“All these good
people; I worked with good people,” he acknowledged.
shares a sense of wonder about it all.
“I think it’s
something; I don’t know how it happened,” he said of his long life
and many endeavors. “When you tell me, I’ll believe you.”
*Information from the 379th Bomb
Group Archives found at: http://www.379thbga.org/history.htm
+Information about the Cindy’s crew can be found at B-17 Bomber
Flying Fortress – The Queen Of The Skies at:
of Stalag Luft III, Part IX – The March. AFHI Virtual Museum. Stalag
Luft III Former Prisoners of War Association.
The following account is shared by permission with revisions only for
clarity. Please continue reading for background information.
By Col. William Busch
I was firing the two 50 cal guns at the navigator’s position at
enemy fighters. We were hit by flak in the heavy flak area, prior to
dropping our bombs on the target. With some of our guns knocked out
and loss of an engine by flak, we were not able to keep up with the
formation. The enemy fighters swarm on a straggler. And 20mms were
exploding all around. My PH [Purple Heart] was awarded for 20mm
shrapnel hit to my right calf muscle. All five in the front end were
hit by shrapnel and a hit on the oxygen tank in the bomb bay caused
a roaring orange flame. I pulled the hatch and bailed out. I decided
to wait to pull my ripcord for there were fighters and scattered
flak in the area. I figured I bailed out above 20,000ft. To keep
from tumbling back, I laid on my back with my arms and legs
extended. I held this position until I began to tumble from loss of
control. I decided I had better pull the ripcord before I might pass
out. As I pulled it, still tumbling, my left arm got caught in the
shroud lines and snapped my left shoulder out of place. My arm
dangled, useless, and as I rocked to and fro, the damage caused me
excruciating pain. So, I held my left arm close to my body to
eliminate the movement.
Upon landing in a field, I had a
problem of dumping my parachute with my one good arm, and my face
got scratched up. I laid flat for a minute to get some of my
strength back. When I looked up, there was a circle of people
closing in on me. An elderly man with a long muzzled rifle,
dismissed all the others and pointed to me the direction to go. As I
walked in front of him, holding my arm, he would run up and rap me
across the skull with the muzzle of the gun and he would rush up and
crack me in the back with the butt of the gun. This went on until we
came up to a Luftwaffe corporal who took me to a place where a big
lady nurse took an X-ray of my shoulder. Then she had me lay on a
marble table and she took a slab of marble 12 inches square by 1
inch thick and, with all her weight, rolled it over my left
shoulder. Then she put my arm in a sling. I spent that night in a
French workers’ camp. I had such pain I could not eat nor sleep.
The next day, I was taken to Koln* train station, where we were
threatened by a lynch mob. Many Germans had been killed in that
industrial area by our Allied bombings. The German guard rushed us
into the train for a trip to the Dulag* at Frankfort.
placed me in a small solitary room at the Dulag hospital. They took
my clothes and shoes and left me with only a nightshirt. Food was
meager. At least one interrogator would show each day. One
Oberfeltwebel* would act intimidating. When I gave him my name, rank
and serial number for the last time, he did a full soccer kick to my
bare shin bones as I sat on the side of my cot. Luckily, I opened my
legs in time. He said, “I have to identify you. How do I know you
are not a spy? I am taking you to the Gestapo. You’ll talk. You’ll
tell them anything they want to know.” I put my clothes on, but he
never came back. I think the reason was it was August 17, 1943, the
day of the Regensberg-Swinefort* raid. We lost more planes than ever
before. That gave the Germans a lot of people to run through their
From Dulag, they sent me to Center Camp at Stalag
III*. My arm gave me pain for months. With no doctor’s evaluation
for two years, I never knew what bones were broken or fractured and
ligaments torn. When I got out of POW, I always brought it up to the
doctors at examinations. They might give a quick feel and say
something like, “It looks like there might be a separation at the
clavicle that may need to be wired, but you’ll have to do that at
your next station. We don’t have facilities to do that here.”
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