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Joseph Sawicki Story
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Heroic Act of Self-Sacrifice
The Joseph Sawicki Story
[from "Hell's Angels Newsletter" Nov. 97 Copyright ©1997 303rd BGA]
Story artwork by Robert A. Hand, Sr.

Sawicki During World War II, acts of self-sacrifice and heroism often went unnoticed or unheralded in the intense head of battle. . . such are the conditions of war. Driven to split-second decisions in the most explosive of emergencies the least likely soldiers have committed extreme acts of bravery towards their fellows in arms, often with their last ounce of strength, some never to be remembered or recognized. This is the story of one such person, a B-17 tail gunner named S/Sgt. Joseph Sawicki of Detroit, Michigan.

On November 29, 1943 an 8th Air Force B-17 Fortress #29498 "D" piloted by Lt. Carl Fyler was hit by intense flak and jumped by enemy fighters after releasing its bomb load on a target in Bremen, Germany. This mission was to be Fyler's 25th and final raid with the 303rd Bomb Group, 360th Squadron, based at Molesworth, England. A burst of flak hit the plane, tearing off the right horizontal stabilizer, part of the right wing and killed both right engines. The controls went limp and Fyler used the Autopilot to steady the plane with slim results.

In the tail section, S/Sgt. Joseph Sawicki was struck by the flak burst that tore away his left arm below the elbow and that also inflicted mortal wounds to his midsection. Bleeding profusely and in unimaginable pain, he crawled forward to the waist section to find both waist gunners, Sgt. Fisher and S/Sgt. Marty Stachowiak, wounded and dazed on the floor of the aircraft. They had suffered multiple wounds and each had a broken arm.

With his last ounce of energy, he managed to buckle a chest pack chute on each and drag them to the waist door. Pulling the hinge-pin cable, he kicked out the door and wrestled both gunners to the exit, literally booting them out of the faltering aircraft into the minus 50 C air outside. They were able to pull their own ripcords and safely parachuted into enemy territory. Sgt. Sawicki collapsed from his wounds and went down with the flaming Fortress.

Repeated attacks by Focke-Wulf 190 fighters sent 20mm cannon shells tearing through the Fortress. Lt. Fyler was wounded and his co-pilot Lt. Bob Ward was hit in the face and lost an eye. The engineer, T/Sgt. Bill Addison, in the top turret, was blasted out of his position with a torn leg. The navigator, Lt. George Molnar was wounded in the back, but the Bombardier, Lt. Jom Petrolino miraculously escaped injury. The ship fumed violently with part of the right wing and two engines dead. A hail of cannon fire from the attacking fighters flamed another engine and after a futile, 20 minute struggle to control the stricken aircraft, the pilot gave the order to bail out. The forward crew members escaped through the open bombay. Fyler snapped on his chest pack chute and dove to the hatch below and seeing that the nose section was empty, dropped out of the plane.

Yet another sweep of the determined Luftwaffe pilots sent explosive shells screaming through the B-17s midsection, leaving huge holes in the radio room and ripping open the bombay fuselage. Caught in the midst of the explosions was radioman Sgt. O'Connell.

With split seconds to spare, he made his way forward to the open bombay and along with NPS Egge, the wounded photographer, dropped from the crippled Fortress. Sgt. Ray Ford was dead in the disabled ball turret and his body went down with the aircraft.

S/Sgt. Sawicki's remains were buried near Bremen and were later disinterred and moved to a stateside burial ground in Detroit, Michigan. Sawicki flew 14 missions in 1942 with the Polish RAF and wore the Polish Cross of Honor and the Polish Legion of Merit.

Of the heroic crew of 11 that day, ten were wounded and four died immediately and three succumbed later to POW mistreatment. Lt. Fyler was repatriated at the War's end in 1945, promoted to Captain and later Major. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with clusters. He is now a retired dentist living in Topeka, Kansas and is president of his local POW Chapter. His book, "Staying Alive" tells of this and other incredible wartime experiences.

Note from Hal Susskind, President of the 303rd BGA: Carl Fyler's account of the November 29, 1943 mission to Bremen was first published under the title "Staying Alive" in the July 1989 issue of the "Hell's Angels Newsletter."

In that story, Fyler related how he was liberated from the POW camp in May 1945 and later met up with Sgt. Stachowiak in the hospital at Camp Lucky Strike in France. It was in that conversation that Fyler heard about Sgt. Sawicki's heroic act. After hearing Sgt. Stachowiak's hospital-bed story, Capt. Fyler, at RAMPS Camp Lucky Strike, France in July 1945 wrote up a narrative recommending Sgt. Sawicki for a posthumous award of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Another recommendation was made in 1947. Both were lost and no action taken. Fyler is continuing his attempt to get the award Sgt. Sawicki deserves . . .

In 1995, I wrote a letter to the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, seeking his support in getting the award for Sgt. Sawicki. Unfortunately my letter, which started at the top, found its way back down to a Major in the US Army. He essentially said that we would need a person who witnessed the act of heroism to verify that the act had actually happened the way it is described. Since Stachowiak died in 1975 and Fisher much earlier, our quest to right a wrong has hit a roadblock.