Four World War 2 veterans helped with the coin toss ceremony at this year’s Superbowl. While watching I immediately started to think of my grandfather, Joseph Mutz. He served in WW2 as an Armorer/Waist Gunner on a B-17 flying fortress called “Sad Sack,” which was a part of the 336th Squadron. I recently started to write a fictional story about a character based off of him with many other stories from WW2 wrapped into it.
His story was featured in a book called “B-17s Over Berlin” along with the stories from hundreds of other WW2 heroes. I’ve read his story dozens of times and I’ve read many of the other stories. They are riveting. It’s a hard book to put down. I started to look for more content beyond that book that I could engage with. I found that he was quoted in another book called “Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943.” I immediately ordered the book. His paragraph is short enough that I feel comfortable typing up the entirety of it:
“Joseph Mutz was similarly demoralized when he arrived in England. He had been slightly delayed on his journey across the Atlantic, and got to his airbase a few days after most of the men he had trained with. One of the first things he did was to look up a friend, only to find that he had already been shot down. It was impossible not to come to the conclusion that the same fate awaited him. ‘I had a rock in my stomach, and I just knew that we were never going to make it. Just couldn’t make it. I even went as far as writing my brother. I told him what to do with my insurance money.”
So many feelings come up as I read this: 1) I wish I had a chance to know him while I was a competent adult. I was only 13 when he died and hadn’t gotten to any level of sophistication where a lot of this was interesting to me. 2) What incredible bravery these men had. My grandfather was 23 years old when his plane was shot down over Hanover on July 26th, 1943. I was a senior at the University of Illinois when I was 23, trading time between Joe’s Bar and the library. I don’t know that I would have had the same courage at that age. Or at any age.
Commander Robichaud (pictured above) gave the command to abandon ship after they were attacked by swarms of Fw 190s and Me 109s. My grandfather’s parachute was not adjusted properly on the chest strap. He had always thought he would hunch his shoulders and buckle the strap if he needed to bail out. Needless to say he was a bit distracted because of the intense fire and the order to abandon ship. He forgot to hunch his shoulders together and was immediately ripped out of his shoot when he jumped out of the plane. Thankfully he was attached by his ankle strap.
The initial jolt out of his pack contributed to him losing consciousness. He regained consciousness at a lower elevation, swaying in the wind as he hurled towards the Earth upside down. “The closer to the ground I got, the faster it appeared to rush up to me.” He had broken his arm when he shot out of the pack and it was dangling lifelessly as he plummeted towards the ground. Eventually he landed awkwardly on his broken arm, shoulder, and head and lost consciousness again. He was pleasantly surprised when he regained consciousness because it meant he was still alive. But this wouldn’t be his final test. He awoke to find a German civilian standing near him with a rifle. Here is a quote from B-17s Over Berlin:
“…a few minutes later an armed German civilian approached me and stood about five yards in front of me. As I lay there unable to move, except to kick my legs and shake my head, he raised his rifle and shot me twice. The first shot entered my lower thigh behind my knee and exited from my upper thigh. The reason for the strange path of the bullet is that I was kicking my legs, shaking my head, and screaming, “No! No!” His second shot grazed my right forehead, just above the eye. He obviously thought that the second shot had finished me because he then left, and I fainted mercilessly into unconsciousness.”
Luckily he was later found by German soldiers and taken to a POW hospital. He spent the next 19 months at various prison camp hospitals in Germany before he was finally repatriated and sent home on the Swedish exchange ship Gripsholm. He was 25 years old by the time he made it home and walked with a limp the rest of his life due to the experience.
I owe everything to his toughness and his sacrifice. We all owe everything to these brave heroes. The world would look a lot different without them. I saw an estimate of how many of these heroes were still living as of September 2019. 389,292 of the 16 million Americans who served in WW2 were still living. Only 2.4% of the greatest heroes that have ever served our country. I’m glad we’re still honoring them and celebrating them like we did at the Superbowl coin toss.