Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Norris King--Shot Down by the Swiss

Norris King stands beside a piece of the wreckage of his B-17 'Sugarfoot', shot down by Swiss anti-aircraft October 1, 1943. He was given the piece, which shows part of the naked lady painted on plane and comes from the nose section, fifty years after the war by a Swiss friend.

In Norris wartime log and journal, two pictures of the remains of his plane and a cartoon of his plane he drew while in captivity.

Saturday I had a great visit with Norris and Marilyn King in Arvada, Colorado, just outside Denver. I’ve been corresponding with Norris and Marilyn for a number of years, ever since I did the researched a chapter on Swiss internees for my book Untold Valor: Forgotten Stories of American Bomber Crews Over Europe in World War Two. Norris was one of the earliest internees in Switzerland after his B-17 bomber was shot down, not by the Germans, but by Swiss anti-aircraft guns, killing seven of the ten men on his crew.
The many photos in this article are just that--photos--and do not have the quality of a scan. I did the best I could with what I had available, but some are a little blurry.

A little history is in order concerning Swiss internment. By international agreement, a soldier from any warring nation who ended up in neutral Switzerland during the war was to be held as an internee till war’s end. These men could still draw their monthly pay and conditions for many of the internees, though Spartan, were not overly harsh. 166 U.S. aircraft landed in Switzerland during the war, and 1,500 Americans became internees. American airmen interned in Switzerland were sent to one of three small resort villages high in the Swiss Alps—Adelboden, Davos or Wengen. They lodged in stripped-down resort hotels. If they signed an agreement not to escape, they were allowed to go hiking, visit the town, and even ski. If an airman refused to sign the no-escape agreement, his movement was limited. And if an airmen attempted escape, punishment could be very harsh. Some escapees ended up in the Swiss federal prison of Wauwilermoos, a prison for the worst criminals in Switzerland run by a Swiss Nazi who was charged with war crimes after the war.

The main reason allied aircraft diverted to neutral Switzerland during the war was because the planes were severely damaged in combat and were unable to make the return trip to bases in England or North Africa. Other reasons for diversion to Switzerland included low fuel or the need for immediate medical treatment for severely wounded crewmen who would have died before the aircraft could make it back to base.

German airmen were also interned in Switzerland, at least according to the agreement. However, most were allowed to return to Germany. Over seven hundred German airmen actually refused repatriation and remained in Switzerland of their own accord.

October 1, 1943 is a day that Norris King will never forget. The 19-year-old waist gunner from Colorado and his tight-knit crew took off from the 99th Bomb Group’s isolated airstrip at Oudna, Tunisia. Their target for today was a Messerschmitt factory in Augsburg, Germany. The mission was the longest of the war for the group, over 1,800 miles round-trip.

The crew, led by pilot Burton C. English, was “a fun-loving, compatible crew of officers and enlisted men who trained together and played together”, remembers Norris. Today they flew a B-17 named Sugarfoot. They’d inherited her from another crew, and had only recently commissioned one of their ground crewman to paint a naked lady on the side.
Shortly before her fateful final mission, Sugarfoot's crew had a naked lady painted on the front of their B-17. This piece was retrieved from the wreckage of the plane by the man who shot her down, Colonel Ruegg, and he kept it in his home as a war trophy. Norris's piece fits directly below the piece shown here.

The formation became lost in the clouds and by the time the navigators were able to get a fix, they were way off target. The planes were ordered to drop bombs on targets of opportunity. A swarm of German Me-109 fighters jumped the formation and a fierce firefight erupted. The American bombers tightened their formation to protect against fighter attack, and while so engaged, the American bombers drifted into Swiss air space.

Flak Detachment 21 at Ragaz-Beul was only three miles from the Swiss/German border. It was commanded by Swiss Colonel C.S. Ruegg. Ruegg ordered his battery to open fire on the American planes.

Sugarfoot had already taken some serious hits from the Me-109 fighters in two passes. The pilots struggled to keep her in formation. “They hit us with everything they had,” remembers Norris. “I think I hit one, at least I saw one go down after I shot it.”

Suddenly, the aircraft exploded. It had taken a direct hit from Ruegg’s anti-aircraft guns.

Norris found himself floating down to earth like a leaf in the severed waist section, which had detached from the front and tail sections of the aircraft. He simply had to roll out the waist door. “I think we were at about twelve thousand feet when we got hit,” he remembers. “By the time I got out and got my parachute open, I only had time to make one swing in the chute before I hit the ground. I landed in a tree, kind of fell through the branches onto the ground. I sat under the tree, head spinning. I had a concussion. A soldier came up to me. I assumed he was German and put my hands up. But he identified himself as Swiss. He was very, very friendly.”

Norris was taken to Villa Flora Hospital for treatment of his injuries. While he was in the hospital, he was surprised when Swiss President Gisen came to visit him and two men from another crew who had also been wounded. “President Gisen was very friendly,” says Norris. “He was an American sympathizer. The Swiss civilians seemed to be pro-American. The military people were more pro-German”.
The Swiss president, President Gisen, who visited Norris in the hospital after the demise of Sugarfoot.

Norris found that he was one of only three survivors from his crew—himself, left waist gunner Marion Pratt, and ball turret gunner Joe Carroll. The other seven, pilot Burton C. English, co-pilot Donald M. Prentice, bombardier Irving B. Patten, navigator L. Stanley Finseth, flight engineer Peter B. Machiodi, radio operator Charles R. Burgett, and tail gunner Elmer Wheedon were all dead. “Wheadon was even younger than me,” remembers Norris. “He was only eighteen.”
A wooden piece of Sugarfoot's radio room, the first piece of the plane Norris received from a Swiss friend, who had recovered it shortly after the plane crashed.

Another B-17 had also gone down that day, shot down by German fighters before crashing in Switzerland. Five men died on that crew. It had been a disastrous day for American airmen over Switzerland. Thirteen young men had lost their lives. The Swiss held a full military funeral the next day, attended by the Swiss president and the US Military Attache’, General Legge. Each coffin was draped in an American flag, and the thirteen airmen were buried at a small cemetery with much pomp and circumstance. Only seventy Americans were interned this early in the war, and all attended the funeral, with some acting as pall bearers. Norris was too badly injured to attend the funeral, but his fellow crewmen Pratt and Carroll were there, and made the front of the Swiss newspapers and magazines getting condolences from the Swiss government officials.
First photo, below, one of the coffins from the tragic October 1, 1943 downing of two B-17s over Switzerland. American internees serving as pall bearers.
Second photo, below, flag-draped coffins in the church and at the cemetery.
Third photo, below, Norris's two surviving crew-mates, Carroll and Pratt, at the funeral. Norris was still in the hospital recovering from his injuries and did not attend.

Above, Norris's wartime log, given to him by the YMCA in Switzerland. He kept records, pasted in articles and photos, during his long and often boring stay.

Norris still has his wartime log, a thick scrapbook given to him by the YMCA after his internment. With little else to do, he spent a lot of time writing in it, drawing pictures, and pasting in various photos and souvenirs of his stay in Switzerland.
Norris, above, holds his wartime log. He covered the log with fabric from his parachute--the chute that saved his life after he bailed out of the waist section at 12,000 feet.
In the front, he has a memorial page to the seven men on his crew who died that day. Each man is listed, along with his position. A poem accompanies the memorial:

“These are the falconers who fly
Grey hawks of terror in the sky
How quietly the new dead lie.”
The memorial page, above, and Norris's graduation photo from gunnery school, proudly holding his .50 caliber waist gun.

Norris and his fellows were taken to Adelboden, where they stayed in a Swiss resort hotel that had been converted into a dormitory. A reception was held for them when they showed up. “We were treated like celebrities,” says Norris. “We couldn’t have been treated better.” The commandant in Adelboden was a man named Captain Kramer. “He was a former pilot,” remembers Norris. “He was one of the first to fly over the Swiss Alps many years before. He was a heck of a good guy.” Captain Kramer, Commandant of the Swiss internees held at Adelboden.
Below, Norris stayed at the Nevada Palace Hotel while interned. This is an advertisement for the hotel from the time period.

The cover of a Swiss photo weekly shows the first American internees captured in Switzerland.

Unlike his unfriendly welcome to Switzerland, Norris’s actual internment was quite pleasant. He had no desire to escape, and spent the time hiking or visiting in the town. He collected wildflowers and pasted some of them, including Edelweiss, into his YMCA scrap book. However, as the war dragged on, he became bored and together with some other internees, decided to attempt an escape.
Below, wildflowers Norris picked and pasted into his wartime log sixty years ago.
Below that, two pages from Norris's log showing pre-war advertisements for the resort town of Adelboden.

Below, Norris's identity papers as a Swiss internee. Above, Norris made these aerial gunner's wings from Plexiglas from the nose a crashed bomber. Above the wings is his leather squadron patch from the 99th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force.

“We left Adelboden in a strange car that had a wooden stove as a motor. There were five of us. We paid off the driver. He took us to Lucerne, and we got on a train to Geneva. We stayed in Geneva at a safe house for three or four days, then we each got a passport for France. The ‘Makis’, members of the French Resistance, picked them up and smuggled them to a safe house in France. “The Maki leader reminded me of Captain Easy in the funnies,” laughs Norris. “He gave me some kirsch that knocked me on my ass. A Jeep came and took us to an American Army camp. This was in September of 1944. And then an airplane came from Italy and flew us back to our base, which now was in Foggia, Italy. From there we went to Naples and then home on a liberty ship, the USS Athos.

Norris and Marilyn returned to Switzerland in 1993 for the 50th anniversary of the downing of the first American plane in Switzerland. The Swiss feted them and treated them like celebrities, even having a parade. Norris found himself riding in the same Jeep in the parade with an elderly Colonel Ruegg, the very same man who had shot down Sugarfoot years before. When I asked Norris if Ruegg seemed apologetic for killing seven of the ten men on his crew, Norris shook his head. “No. He was proud of it.” Though Norris couldn’t bring himself to shake Ruegg’s hand, he did give the old man a B-17 belt buckle. A Swiss friend later sent Norris a photograph (shown in this article) taken at Col. Ruegg's home. Ruegg still had a piece of Sugarfoot that he’d kept as a war trophy in his garage. It showed the top part of the naked lady the crew had painted on the plane shortly before her demise.

On a later trip, Norris was presented with a piece of Sugarfoot as well. Marilyn wrapped the one by two foot piece, which has the naked woman’s painted rear end and thighs on it, in a plastic bag and then wrapped it in clothing and put it in her suitcase. “It was very fragile, and I didn’t want it to break”, she says. Amazingly, the piece made it home safely, and is now displayed in a shadow box in the King’s computer room.
The buttocks and thigh section of Sugarfoot's naked lady, now on display in Norris's computer room. He got it fifty years after the war. Compare it to the one in Ruegg's home higher up in this article.

Norris, now 83, looks young and fit, and remembers his time in Switzerland with fondness. However, he still misses his brothers from his crew, young men who were robbed of their futures by the guns of the neutral Swiss.

Marilyn and Norris King and Rob Morris in the King home, Arvada, CO, Sunday August 13, 2007

This story is copyright 2007 by Rob Morris. Contact him for permissions.


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Richard Havers said...

Fantastic post Rob, really interesting.

p.s. Are you a Red Sox fan?

r morris said...

Yes, I am a proud member of Red Sox Nation and have been for many years. Even saw them in Fenway in 2002.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting story. I didn't know that so many Americans were interned in Switzerland during the war.

Just a detail: the person you refer to as "President Gisen" was actually Commander in Chief General Henri Guisan.

As for the Allied airmen who lost their lifes being shot down over Switzerland: I am very sorry about that.

I don't know if that makes you feel any better about it but Switzerland got some bombs in exchange from stray Allied bombers which cost a couple of dozen Swiss lives (the bombed Swiss cities were mistaken for German ones...).

Michael said...

My father was a member of Flab Det. 21 which brought down the B17Sugarfoot. I still have a ornamental fruit bowl which was made of the fuselage. On the bottom it has a distinctive inscription regading this event. If anybody is interested in photos or more info please contact me on