John Homan says when he meets a P-51 fighter pilot, he says Thanks by buying him a drink. It’s a symbolic gesture to the veteran for the gratitude he owed two pilots, unknown to him, who helped saved his life in 1944 during World War II.
Homan’s B-24 had just completed a mission to bomb an oil refinery outside Berlin when an engine issue prevented the plane from keeping up with the rest of the squadron.
Alone in enemy territory, he radioed for help, and that’s when the two P-51s responded and escorted his crew back to safety.
“As we crossed the English coast, they peeled off and said, ‘So long’ with a wind wag,” says Homan, who’s now 92. “I would have liked to have found them to buy them the best drink in the house, but as a substitute, whenever I met a P-51 pilot, I did just that.”
Like the millions of Americans in the 1940s, Homan put his life on hold to fight for his country. He and his fellow soldiers saw the horrors of death and destruction, they formed lifelong bonds with one another, and they found out how just how much people across Europe appreciated them putting their lives on the line for their freedom. Still, with this December 7 marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the US into World War II, the stories and legacies of the “greatest generation” live on, even as many who fought in the war continue to pass.
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Barb Ermol’s father, Henry M. Burman, was born November 7, 1918, but her family didn’t celebrate that birthday, Ermol says. Instead, they celebrated his second birthday — February 16, 1943.
That’s the day Burman miraculously survived a crash landing from 16,000 feet in the air after his B-17 was shot while on a mission to bomb Saint-Nazaire in northwestern France. One of his crewman bailed out midair, but Burman, with cuts, broken ribs, a fractured skull, and a smashed face, was the only one who survived the crash.
Ermol says her dad remembers some of what preceded the crash: He tried to put his parachute on, but the plane’s wing broke off, causing the plane to go into a tailspin. He looked at the cockpit’s control panel, saw he was at 16,000 feet, but then lost consciousness.
When he awoke, he was in the company of people from the local town, wherever that was — he had no idea. He struggled to get out of the plane, going in and out of consciousness. The locals helped him get free, hid him in a barn, and cared for him. He remembered a woman feeding him something with a teaspoon, Ermol says.
The Germans must have seen the plane go down, though. Within hours, their soldiers arrived, looking for any survivors. The Germans took Burman away for treatment, and he eventually ended up in the Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp in what is now Poland. He spent the next two years there and eventually got away during the March out of Poland.
Back in the United States, he moved to State College where he was a real estate agent. Decades later, he still never knew where his plane went down and where the people who had rescued him were.
“It bugged him that he didn’t know where he was shot down,” Ermol says. “I think he was always trying to find out. He was always thinking, ‘Why me? Why did I live and my friends die?’ ”
Across the Atlantic, though, the people in that town in northwestern France did not forgot about the American who fell from the sky. His legend carried on — the date of the crash etched into the community’s memory.
In 1992, Burman received word that some folks in France were just as curious as he was to put the pieces of the puzzle together. A veteran friend of his had been in touch with a group of French World War II aviation enthusiasts that were looking to find more information about an American pilot who crashed on February 16, 1943, outside Molac, a small town in the Brittany region, north of Saint-Nazaire.
It sounded like Burman’s story.
The pieces came together. Burman got in touch with the group in France, who invited him there to show their thanks. He made the trip in 1994 with his wife, Stella, and Ermol. The whole town turned out in what was a hero’s welcome — there was a parade, a banquet, memorials, and more.
“It was just amazing,” Ermol says. “It was just an amazing feeling he had, how they appreciated him.”
Burman visited the exact spot where his plane crashed down. He revisited the barn where the the people of Molac hid him for a few hours before the Germans found him. He stood in the same spot with the woman, now into her 70s, who fed him.
“She looked up at him and said, ‘You’re just as handsome as the last time I saw you,’ ” Ermol says.
The town put up a memorial to Burman, as well as his crew members who didn’t survive. He was in awe.
“That gave him a sense of they didn’t die in vain,” Ermol says, referring to the crew that didn’t survive the crash. “He could never see the appreciation before. It really, I think, helped my dad in the last couple years of his life.”
Burman died in 2000.
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Lou Berrena’s first day in June 1944 was baptism by fire. A paratrooper, 21-year-old Berrena had been making his way north from Naples, Italy, to Civitavecchia, outside Rome, with the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team when his unit encountered a sniper.
“He spotted the guy beside me,” says Berrena, now 93. “He got him in the back. The guy on my left got hit, too. I thought I was going to get hit.”
He never did. He heard the bullet whizz by him, but he says he avoided danger by moving around, not staying in one place.
“We had eight machine guns firing at all the trees to get the sniper and another fellow with a burp gun,” Berrena says. “They finally got him.”
In all, the 517th suffered between 40 and 50 casualties on that first day, according to a history of the unit.
Berrena also talks of his closest brush with death from a German eighty-eight, an antiaircraft and antitank artillery gun, during the Battle of the Bulge. He and a soldier from his regiment were walking in between tracks in the snow from a German panzer when an eighty-eight fired. He and the other soldier dove down while shrapnel and stones flew up. Both men expected the other to be hit, but they both were OK.
Berrena spent 54 days on the line in the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive campaign in the war in the dense forests of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg from December 1944 to January 1945. The conditions were harsh — he remembers only one shower and one hot meal.
Back in the US after the war, he went on to be the food-service director at Penn State’s Hetzel Union Building (HUB) until he retired. He then worked as the food-service director at Bucknell University in Lewisburg and tended bar at the Tavern Restaurant in State College.
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After John Buzzell, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, received his draft letter in January 1943, he appealed, to no avail, to finish the semester.
“Why were they in a hurry to draft me?” says Buzzell, 94, and a resident of Foxdale Village in State College. “All of the sudden they needed me. I had no idea why.”
That was until he learned his assignment: a cryptanalyst for the Army, tasked with breaking German codes, and he would have some involvement in the invasion of Europe.
Buzzell had been studying for a master’s degree in chemistry, but also was taking German courses. The best work in chemistry was being done at that time in Germany, so it made sense for him to learn that language.
He went through some stateside training, but to learn about codes and ciphers, he had to go to England, where he’d be taught by the British on their home turf. He left for England January 31, 1944, arrived in Liverpool 13 days later, and was assigned to the 3250th Signal Service Co. The unit was a radio intelligence company assigned to identify and track German units ahead of them. Once in the field, they were to be close to the front but not close enough to be caught by the enemy.
Buzzell’s hunch that he was to be a part of the invasion of Europe was right. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was aboard a ship seven miles off the coast of Normandy as the Allied forces invaded. He remembers flashes from the guns of the Navy warships shelling the Germans’ positions on the beach. Two days later, he disembarked and joined his company in a temporary camp.
“We were a secret organization,” he says. “In a sense, our first six months in Europe we camped outside, we were not put in a village or homes. We were kept separated from our troops because the less anyone knew about us, the better.”
His mission in mainland Europe was interrupted by a medical emergency that required evacuation to England, but he reconnected with the 3250th as the campaign progressed toward Germany.
On the first day of the Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944, the Germans attacked through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Buzzell’s unit, located south of the offensive, wasn’t in the path of the German advance. But Buzzell remembers worries of English-speaking German paratroopers, in American uniforms, being dropped behind the lines to confuse the Americans.
“It got quite nervous and jumpy in our area, especially at night when you were on guard duty,” he says. “You made sure that you knew the correct password and response when challenged because everyone was trigger-happy.”
Buzzell’s unit spent the winter in Limbourg, Belgium. By mid-February, the unit entered Germany, and by the start of spring 1945, it was deep inside Germany’s Rhine Valley. The Allies’ success had the Germans retreating quickly, so much so that the 3250th’s code breaking wasn’t needed because the Germans’ messages were clear.
As the war in Europe approached its end, Buzzell’s unit moved from city to city in Germany. On Victory in Europe Day, the unit, now part of Patton’s 3rd Army, went to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, and waited for the Russians, who were to occupy the country as part of terms of Germany’s surrender.
Buzzell remained in Czechoslovakia until June 25, 1945, when his unit started a five-month process to get home. He arrived in the US in Boston on Thanksgiving Day.
He re-enrolled in graduate school at Wisconsin, later completed his doctorate at the University of Iowa, and worked for 30 years with Dupont as a research chemist in New Jersey and Towanda.
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The trouble after the oil-refinery bombing in 1944 was just one of the 34 missions Homan flew for the Eighth Air Force out of England. He saw plane damage on 14 of them.
In September 1944, he was on a mission to drop supplies for the troops that had broken out of Normandy and were advancing east, but it didn’t go according to plan. It became progressively worse.
The weather conditions were poor from the start, his B-24s dodged C-46s towing gliders, and after crossing into the Netherlands, something ripped a hole in the No. 3 engine. It took three passes to finally drop the supplies on target, but at some point, the plane must have crossed into Germany.
“Each time we went out over Germany, I saw a farmer shooting at us,” says Homan, who lives at Foxdale Village.
It got worse: The plane was hit by ground fire, knocking out the No. 4 engine, which cut out immediately. The hydraulic system went, too, which caused the cockpit to fill with fluid that he and his crew thought was smoke and assumed the plane was on fire.
Homan says the crew finally gained control of the plane when it was at tree level, but they weren’t out of the clear yet. On the approach to the runway, they saw a burning B-24 on their right. Without hydraulics, they had no brakes, and when they landed, they found out the left tires were shot out. To the right was the burning B-24, so they let the plane veer left and crash into some piping. Homan and the crew dashed away from their plane as soon as they could.
Homan came back to the US for a short leave before Christmas in 1944. He went to train on B-25 bombers and instrument training on the AT-6. He thought he was headed to the Pacific after being transferred to Missouri to learn C-46s, the largest twin-engine transport aircraft. But that was moot after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Homan was 21 when he was discharged in December 1945. He went on to college at Rutgers and worked with manufacturer A.E. Staley before retiring in 1985.
The crew of the 489th Bomb Group had over the years, Homan says. When there were just two left, they decided that the last one remaining would drink a champagne toast in their honor.
Homan says, “I did that in the summer of 2013.”