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WWII B-17 gunner lost his right eye in midair attack over Germany

By LOU MICHEL | The Buffalo News | Published: August 27, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — By the fall of 1942, Casimer L. "Casey" Bukowski decided he had learned enough about being a machinist and quit Emerson Vocational High School to put his skills to work in support of World War II.

The 17-year-old from Coit Street in Buffalo had always been fascinated by airplanes. He'd built model planes since he was boy. So it was fitting that he found work at Uebohlor Bros. making landing gear struts for the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter planes.

Within a year, Bukowski realized he wanted more and took the bus downtown, determined to enlist as a Marine.

"I was a little runt, 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds soaking wet. When I went in to see the Marines, there were all these big guys and one of them said, 'How can we help you?'

"I said 'I want to join the Marine Corps' and they looked at each other and kind of smiled and the big guy I was talking to, he towered over me, said, 'You're not big enough.' I left that office and went to the Navy recruiter."

The Navy was more receptive, but when he received his physical, Bukowski said he was informed that his teeth were a problem.

"They told me they couldn't take me because they don't have dental offices out in the ocean," Bukowski said.

Undeterred, he walked to the nearby Army Air Corps recruiting office.

"When I went in there, to me, it seemed they were real happy to see me," he said.

In the fall of 1943, Bukowski was assigned to a B-17 as a gunner.

"I was a side waist gunner and all gung-ho," said Bukowski, who flew out of Ridgewell, England. "My thought was 'I'm going out and beat the hell out of those Germans.'"

When the 10-member Flying Fortress crew, who had nicknamed their plane "Friday the 13th," wasn't dodging anti-aircraft fire, Bukowski and other gunners were taking aim at German fighter planes.

But on the 15th mission, the B-17 lived up to its unlucky nickname.

"We were roused at about 4 a.m. Feb. 22, 1944....We jumped out of bed, got dressed and went to our mission shack. We were told the target was Bunde, Germany. When we heard Germany, we knew it was going to be a tough flight and to expect many enemy fighters and a lot of flak," Bukowski recalled.

As the crew arrived for takeoff, he said he noticed "some unusual scurrying around the airplane," which caused him to reflect, "This is not going to be a good day."

While loading the plane, the navigator tossed his parachute up to an open hatch and missed. The parachute "fell onto the tarmac and popped open like a big white mushroom," Bukowski said.

The tower then gave orders to "start engines," but the pilot had difficulty starting one of the four engines, he said. "The engine was balking and the battery was running down and the pilot radioed the tower to send a generator over to help start the engine."

Bukowski said this increased his anxiety.

Other planes in the squadron were already taking off on the mission to bomb an enemy airplane factory.

"When we took off, we tried to catch up with our squadron and expected to catch up in the sky. But they were too far ahead. Our pilot was reluctant to abort the mission and joined up with another group heading in the same direction.

"About 30 minutes from our target, we were attacked by German Bf 110 fighters. They were riddling our formation with .20 millimeter cannons and finally hit our plane with the shells exploding in the midsection."

Bukowski says he was struck in the head and knocked out.

"To this day, I do not know how I got out of the aircraft. I recalled as I regained my senses that I was on my back in the fuselage facing the open escape hatch at the rear of the plane. I didn't notice anyone else near me and assumed I was alone in that part of the ship. I must have lost consciousness again."

He would continue to drift in and out of consciousness as he attempted to get out through the hatch.

When he came to, Bukowski says, he somehow managed to push himself halfway out of the hatch and passed out once again. His next recollection was being outside the plane.

"I was gently floating down towards the earth with my parachute."

It may sound tranquil, but the air battle raged. "I heard machine gun fire and thought, 'That S.O.B. is going to kill me."

Seven crew members were killed, but Bukowski and two others survived.

He says he awoke beside an elevated roadway and saw a small farmhouse in the distance. He passed out only to awake to an unpleasant sight.

German farmers, "the home guard," he said, were a short distance away waving rifles and shouting for him to stand up.

"I hadn't realized the extent of my injuries. I waved an arm and couldn't get up. The pain in my back and legs wouldn't let me move much."

The farmers transported him to a farmhouse.

After he was taken prisoner by German soldiers, Bukowski said he was treated at a hospital and his injured right eye was removed. Interrogations and recovery followed, before he was shipped to a POW camp in East Prussia, known as Stalag Luft VI. In time, the Russians advanced and he was sent to Stalag Luft IV.

The Germans were close to defeat and on the run.

"My last 82 days as a POW were spent on the road, a forced march. They just kept us from being liberated. They wanted to use us as pawns," said Bukowski.

The march ended in freedom on April 26, 1945, in Leipzig.

"It was great to see those American soldiers. It was fantastic," he said.

He returned to the United States in May 1945 and spent months recuperating in a military hospital in Phoenixville, Pa., before being honorably discharged Feb. 18, 1946.

Back in Buffalo, he tried to return to his work as a machinist, but with only one eye, he said, it was not to be.

He attended what would eventually become Erie Community College for mechanical engineering on the GI Bill, hoping an education would secure him work. But his disability continued to dog him.

A local congressman suggested he apply for a job at the VA hospital on Bailey Avenue.

"I eventually worked my way up to purchasing agent with the VA," said Bukowski, a Lancaster resident who retired in 1981 at 58.

His wife, the former Rita Szymanski, with whom he raised three children, died "twenty minutes into the New Year" last year, said Bukowski."We were married 72 years."

He says his goal is to take good care of himself and live as long as possible.

"I'm targeting 100 years old. I want to live to at least 100."

©2018 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)
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