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Cardinal Charlie: Norbert Swierz’s life made for the movies

Published 9:49pm Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Not too long ago I had a column where I had an old friend who had passed away down in Florida at age 96.

Not too long after his death another good friend of mine down in Florida also died.

It was another one I’ve written about in several columns. He was 92 years old and his name was Norbert Swierz.

Norbert grew up in his early life and graduated in 1938 from Dowagiac High School.

He was 10 years older than me. He lived out on old M-40 North (now M-51).
In the summer of 1935, a fire consumed his mother’s place, the Moonlight Inn, on the corner of M-51 and Corwin Street.

He said that they got the supplies from Judd Lumber Co.

He left home in 1941 for Canada and was issued Royal Canadian Air Force clothing. The next thing he was headed to England on a boat. It was there he signed up for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

He finally ended up as a gunner on a B-17 bomber. He was credited with shooting down seven German aircraft.

One of his B-17s was called “Bomb Boogie.” Another one was called “Old Ironsides.” The first time he was injured and the plane crashed, they were rescued by the British Air Sea Rescue.

He later got up to 13 sorties of the 25 required missions. He wrote in his book he had the pleasure of meeting and drinking with movie star Clark Gable.

He had to bail out of the Bomb Boogie at 20,000 feet and free fell at least 8,000 feet as he didn’t have an oxygen tank on his leg like he was supposed to.

It was not in his book, but he later told me the German pilot who shot his B-17 down circled him several times as he floated down, but finally made a close pass, threw back the canopy, gave Norbert a salute and flew back to Germany.

It was on this jump he was captured by the Germans.

I’ve written about him being a POW in Stalag 17.

It was Feb. 16 when I first got to know my good friend Norbert and we talked and exchanged letters during the 2 1/2 years we were such good friends.

I feel so bad we never got to shake hands, though we kept hoping to get together.

He always told me how many memories of Dowagiac I had given him.

He once told me two of his prison buddies tried to escape. One was killed outright. He said he and another buddy went out and dragged the wounded POW back to the barracks.

He said many years later at a reunion he met the man he had saved and his wife.

Norbert was also an artist. He sent me a framed oil painting and a DVD of one of his many interviews. He told me after so many saw the picture and article about a 92-year-old Dowagiac man flies again in a B-17 (I was one of them). It was in an Associated Press picture of him and a B-17 that he took a ride at 92.

When Norbert died there were nice write-ups in the Florida papers. I never knew how popular he had become. I always told him what a wonderful movie could be made out of the life he lived.

It almost brings tears to my eyes when we go out M-51 North and pass the building that used to be the Moonlight Inn, the home of my friend Norbert.

“Cardinal Charlie” Gill writes a nostalgic weekly column about growing up in the Grand Old City. Email him at cardinalcharlie@hotmail.com.

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