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Last surviving member of World War II Sorgenfrei Crew turns 100
Mike Bisek looks back on 37 days surviving in Nazi-occupied France
CEDAR RAPIDS — Mike Bisek was never supposed to be on the mission that came to define his service in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.
Call it luck. Call it chance. But shortly after joining the Sorgenfrei Crew’s 44th and final mission, 21-year-old Mike Bisek was facing a daunting situation.
He was the last person added to the U.S. Army Air Force crew on its last mission — an aerial photographer — just before the crew’s B-24 Liberator Bomber crashed in Nazi-occupied France.
“I was just another eager younger boy wanting to help my country,” Bisek said. “I felt it a privilege to be able to fight for my country.”
On April 7, he became the crew’s oldest living and last surviving member as he turned 100 years old.
Bisek served just under three years from 1942 to 1945 in World War II. Most of his time overseas was in Italy — except for the 37 days from July 19 to Aug. 24, 1944.
In December 1943, 10 trainees assembled in Casper, Wyoming, came together as the crew of the B-24 Liberator Bomber. After settling into their European home base with the 460th Bombardment Group of the 762nd Bombardment Squadron, they flew dozens of missions.
Most were flown together, with occasional substitutions for injuries or illness.
By mission 44, the Liberator Bomber had 150 bullet holes from flak, damage to two engines and the hydraulic system. With damage, the crew knew to be especially prepared for mission 44.
Their mission to bomb the marshaling railroad yards in Munich, Germany, was set to be their last one. After delivering bombs over Munich, the plane encountered extensive flak near their target. Two engines were lost, and the remaining two were surging.
With fuel burning fast, a ruptured fuel line inside the plane filled the cabin with vapor. Even a spark from the microphone headsets could have turned the plane into a bomb itself.
Bisek and others started throwing everything possible out of the plane to lighten the load. With adrenaline pumping, Bisek threw out 60-pound barrels of ammo as if they were paper clips. The last thing they wanted to do was bail over enemy territory.
“I picked that thing up like it didn’t weigh anything, even though I wasn’t that strong,” he said.
But as the third engine died en route to neutral Switzerland, the pilot made the call to bail. Only one of the 11 crew members had parachuted out of a plane before, but all but one were able to jump without freezing up and needing to be pushed out.
Bisek’s parachute, which had opened before he could jump, was carefully held as he leapt into the air, keeping it from being caught by the plane.
As they landed on a farm in rural southeastern France, the children nearby yelled “Bosch!” — a slang French word they came to use for Germans during the war that roughly translates to “rascal” or “cabbage.”
Within an hour, they knew they had fallen short of Switzerland as the French Underground quickly retrieved them before the Germans within sight could get there.
“If it were not for the French Underground, we would have been prisoners of war,” said crew member Raymond Swedzinski in a historical account.
One account claims that the Nazis arriving to the evacuated crash site were so infuriated that they emptied their machine guns out of anger.
35 days in hiding
After a transfer to the French Underground movement’s rendezvous point two miles away, the crew had to move frequently. Later, they were moved into the mountainous French Alps, living under tents made from their parachutes.
A few months later, one account said that women and girls in Chorges flaunted blouses made from the linen of the American parachutes to the Germans occupying their town.
The group moved nearly daily at the discretion of the French resistance groups, which also included the Maquis guerrilla fighters and the Free French of the Interior (FFI) — from Chorges to Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur and later to Le Bourge-d’Oisans and L’Alpe d’Huez, a ski resort in the mountains.
At every turn, close calls with danger were waiting. The soldiers narrowly evaded Germans on multiple locations as they drove coal-burning trucks and fled through the mountains.
The group survived a trek across one mountain by eating boiled eggs and black bread for energy, at first. Later, they butchered sheep, eating the meat sun-dried with salt and pepper, as they had no means to cook it. Tallow from the sheep was used to make doughnuts with flour and water.
Fires were built by running water to evade detection from rising smoke — the air turbulence created by the water would carry the smoke downstream, instead.
After crossing a mountain, they crossed a 15- to 18-mile glacier on foot, following a French guide who cut steps into the ice for their rubber soles.
They were eventually welcomed in Le Bourg-d’Oisans, on the Romanche River, as heroes by a hotel owner who showered them with champagne, flowers and French songs.
The hotel owner, 75, was later killed by the Germans who burned his hotel to the ground.
Bisek said that while the ordeal reinforced his faith in God, their reliance on the French Underground and resistance strengthened his faith in humanity, too.
The whole time, Bisek said, he thought Americans were saving occupied France.
“But they saved us,” he said.
After the war
After returning to the United States in 1945, Bisek met his wife, Myron, while stationed at the Keesler Field Army Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi. They married in October 1945.
After Mike was discharged, the couple returned to Cedar Rapids, Bisek’s hometown. There, they raised three children together: Pat, Peg and Michael.
Bisek worked as an engineer for Iowa Manufacturing Co. for 40 years until retiring in 1982. Subsequently, he worked at an automotive parts warehouse.
Myron died in March 2012 at the age of 84.
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