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To hell and back
WWII vet shares story of courage - and survival


December 12, 2011

William 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 European Theater.

After training 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 targets.

William Rossman of Nashotah survived a German air attack and POW camps during WWII.

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.

"Louie (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.

"I 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 everywhere.

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.

Rossman gave 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 sure.

"I was thinking, ‘Geez, just a year or so ago I was in high school,’" Rossman says.

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.

Their German 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."

The Germans 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 pounds.

"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.

Today, Rossman 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."


This story ran in the November 2011 issue of: