Rossman was a fresh-faced boy of 19 when he enlisted in the Army Air
Force in January 1943, eager to see action in World War II. Soon he
would be in the thick of some of the most ferocious air battles in the
at bases across the country, Rossman, a waist gunner, met his B-24
bomber and his nine fellow crew members for the first time.
"I was the
youngest guy on the crew, so I earned the nickname of ‘Billy the
Kid,’" he says.
The crew was
deployed to North Africa in support of Patton’s army, then, as the
Allies advanced in Europe, moved on to a base in Italy’s
"boot." The airmen, all part of the 450th Bomb Group, would
be up at 4 a.m., go to a briefing after breakfast, and get their
Rossman of Nashotah survived a German air attack and POW camps
The target on
Valentine’s Day 1944, was a marshaling area in Verona, Italy. As the
Allied bombers returned from the target, Rossman says, the enemy sent
up a barrage of flak so intense that the sky turned black. That’s
when German fighter planes roared in from behind, strafing. "They
killed our tail gunner and engineer and everyone else was
wounded," Rossman recalls. "And they shot out one of the
engines. We stayed in formation."
But when another
engine started to sputter, the pilot called for the crew to bail out.
Rossman, with a severely wounded left arm and hand, got ready to jump.
(Vasquez), the radio man, was wounded real badly," he says.
"I took his flak suit off him and put his parachute on him, put
his hand on the ripcord and threw him out of the plane." As the
plane spiraled downward, Rossman jumped a few minutes later.
unfortunately put my chute on upside down, so it opened up in my face.
I must have blacked out for a while and landed out in an open field
and saw all these people running toward me," he says. "I
thought it was the Germans."
It was the
Italian underground. They buried Rossman’s chute, hustled him into a
nearby house, gave him first aid and cut off his flying suit. They put
him in a wagon, covered him with straw, and took him to a hospital in
a monastery at the top of a hill, though German soldiers were
The nuns at the
hospital told Rossman not to talk when the German SS came in. They
told the Germans that their patient was a Frenchman, hurt in the
bombing raid, and was in shock. One of the Germans wasn’t buying
that story, and Rossman was taken prisoner.
them his name, rank and serial number and nothing more. Since he was
in civilian clothes, said his interrogator, "We can execute you
and no one will ever know the difference." The American pilot in
the next cell assured Rossman that they’d be fine. But when the
Germans began to build a scaffold just outside, they weren’t so
thinking, ‘Geez, just a year or so ago I was in high school,’"
Rossman and the
other POWs were loaded onto a train and their German guards warned
them they would be going through areas that had just been heavily
bombed. The train stopped in Munich, Rossman says, "and there
were probably thousands of civilians shouting, ‘Give us those guys.’
But the Germans stood guard and protected us."
When the POWs
reached an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Rossman was put into
solitary confinement for a week. He refused to give up any
information, and spent another week in solitary. At one point, he and
20 other prisoners were made to walk down Frankfurt’s main street,
where civilians pelted them with branches and sticks.
captors kept the POWs on the move. In Danzig, the prisoners were
turned over to German Marines, consisting primarily of Hitler Youth,
who put them in arm and leg irons and chained them in pairs. The
prisoners were forced to walk to a camp and told, "You’re
either going to make it to the camp, or you’re going to be
bayoneted, shot, or we’ll feed you to the dogs."
As the fronts
drew nearer, the POWs were moved to a camp in Nuremberg specifically
for fliers. Allied planes flew overhead, Rossman says, "They told
us not to try to escape. The German Air Force was almost completely
annihilated by this time."
responded with "The Black March," a forced 90-mile march of
thousands of POWs to Moosburg, Bavaria. The Allies continued to
advance, and some fliers painted a red cross on a sheet so they wouldn’t
be strafed by friendly fire.
"We lost a
tremendous number of people," Rossman says. "We did the best
we could, digging up turnips and potatoes, anything we could
find." By the time Rossman reached Moosburg, he weighed 100
"All of a
sudden on a Sunday morning, everything was quiet," Rossman says.
"We looked up on the hill and there were Patton’s tanks,
roaring down the hill and right through the fence."
It was April 29,
1945. Billy the Kid had made it.
lives in Nashotah with his wife, Alice. They will celebrate their 65th
anniversary in December. Louis Vasquez survived his jump and died
about six years ago. In 2002, Rossman was awarded the Distinguished
Flying Cross, one of the nation’s highest honors, for "extreme
heroism and complete disregard for his own life to assist and bail out
his severely wounded crew member, Louis Vasquez."