WWII Veteran, Bomber Pilot & POW Flies Again Over Arizona

14 November 2014   Geena Yarbrough, Guidance Aviation
Since he was a young boy, Barney Wasowicz always dreamed of being a U.S. Army pilot.

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, the 91-year old Sun City, Arizona resident is a U.S. Army veteran and former World War II Prisoner of War. Prior to joining the Army, he studied Mechanical Engineering at the Lawrence Institute of Technology with the intent of joining the U.S. Army Air Corp.

During World War II, the Army opened a new position titled Flight Officer. Like many young men at the time, the thought of becoming a pilot brought pride and joy to Wasowicz. With war spreading throughout Europe and traditional military age-restrictions lifted, Wasowicz forged his mother’s signature on the recruitment form and proudly volunteered in the U.S. Army.

In 1942, at the age of 19, Wasowicz began his airplane mechanics training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi with a take home pay of $16.00 per month. Following the completion of basic training, Wasowicz started formal training to become a Flight Officer. The program was an intensive regimen which covered manual flight planning, navigation, blind-folded pilot control recognition, and even methods of interrogation that were used by German Intelligence.

Almost a year into the Twin Engine Advanced Training flight program in Texas, he received his wings at 20 years of age, launching his aviation career as pilot in command of a Martin B-26 Marauder. As Pilot, Wasowicz flew missions throughout Eastern Europe with his five other crew members: Harold McClannahan, Co-Pilot; Matt Gemery, Bombardier-Navigator; Bob Carpenter, Engineer; Lewis Fischer, Radio Operator; and Lester Higgins, Tail-Gunner. Wasowicz and his crew served in the 386th Bomb Group, 55th Squadron, 9th Air Force at Colchester in England during which Wasowicz had the pleasure of escorting Polish Spitfire fighter pilots, who admired Wasowicz and the B-26 he flew.

One of few aircraft to go straight from concept to flying model in less than a few years, the B-26 was created to meet the Army’s need for a high-speed medium bomber. Nicknamed B-Crash, Widow Maker, and Flying Prostitute, the aircraft was known for requiring a high take-off and landing speed, making it an intimidating and intricate plane to learn to fly in its pre-modification models. Despite the aircraft’s initial poor performance, the B-26 was capable of holding over 5,000 pounds of bombs and more importantly possessed rough and robust features which later proved to be a distinctive element of military aviation history and a blessing for Wasowicz.

On his 18th mission, Wasowicz was assigned a B-26 nicknamed Exterminator. Soon after successfully hitting their target off the coast of France, Wasowicz’s crew was hit with 20-mm armor piercing and explosive shells fired by a Focke-Wulf (FW) 190 German fighter plane, the backbone of the Luftwaffe's Jagdwaffe. The hit set the radio compartment, bomb bay, and left engine on fire, and the cabin filled with smoke. Despite not having any formal parachute training, the three rear crewmen, Bob Carpenter, Lewis Fischer, and Lester Higgins bailed out while Wasowicz attempted to maintain control of the B-26 as long as he could. The radio compartment and bomb bay were soon consumed in a blaze. The only way out for Wasowicz, his co-pilot, Harold McClannahan, and Bombardier-Navigator, Matt Gemery, was from the nose wheel compartment. As ammunition from the plane’s machine guns exploded from the intense flames, Wasowicz managed to jump out of the plane and land on a farmer’s field. Although he suffered slight injuries on his neck, shell fragments in his back, and right hand, Wasowicz owes his life and the lives of his fellow crew members to the B-26’s impressive ability to withstand battle damage while remaining aloft.

Not knowing the state of his crewmen, he was immediately captured by enemy soldiers and taken to a nearby German headquarters. Wasowicz was then transferred to a Frankfurt interrogation center and miraculously reunited with his entire crew who were injured but alive. The crew was sleep-deprived and interrogated for almost two weeks. Eventually, they were all detained at the same prison camp. For the next fifteen months, Wasowicz and his men spent their time as P.O.W.’s at North 2 – Barrack 5 – Room 9 in Strulug Luft Prison Camp near Barth, Germany.

Within the prison camp, the men created a hierarchy similar to their military ranking system in an effort to create order. Food was rationed, injured men received medical attention, and tools were created from anything available, including tin cans. Supplies were also traded with German soldiers to create more complex equipment such as a radio and a printing press. Later, some of the supplies traded were used as blackmail to acquire even better supplies from the Germans as the P.O.W.s realized their guards could be executed for trading with the P.O.W.s.

On the night of April 30, 1945, the prison camp was liberated when every German soldier evacuated to evade the incoming Soviet Red Army. At the time of liberation, over 9,000 Allied soldiers were at Strulug Luft I. After two weeks of negotiation with the Russians, all American P.O.W.’s were airlifted in B-17s to Camp Lucky Strike, northeast of LeHavre, France during Operation Revival. Plummeting from 160 to 120 pounds, Wasowicz spent two months in rehabilitation which included a diet heavy in creamed chicken and egg-nog, before receiving a medical clearance and heading back to the states.

Wasowicz returned back to his hometown of Detroit, Michigan only to find the American job market overwhelmed with pilots. Once again, he decided to serve by becoming a Detroit Firefighter. Soon after, Wasowicz got married and started a family. His children live in California and Arizona.

Despite his incredible aviation career, Wasowicz hadn't flown in over 70 years. When this fact was discovered by personnel at Guidance Aviation of Prescott, Arizona, a leader in supporting, training, and promoting U.S. Military Veterans, not only did they take Wasowicz up for a flight over the Prescott region, they committed to taking Wasowicz to a flight museum in Polk City, Florida called the Fantasy of Flight. There, Wasowicz will be able to set his eyes, and hands, on an in-tact B-26. The same plane he bailed out of over 70 years ago.

"Hosting this trip will be a way to give back to Mr. Wasowicz, who served our nation so well both during WWII as a pilot and during civilian life as a firefighter," states John Stonecipher, CEO, Guidance Aviation.