On April 11, William Bramwell, the last surviving member of his crew, celebrated his 99th birthday.
Bramwell was a member of the Army Air Force during World War II. He became a B-17 pilot at age 25 and led a crew of men whose ages ranged from 19 to 30. Bramwell and his crew were in the 389th bomb group in the 8th Air Force and were stationed in Knettischall, England.
The crew flew daylight bombing missions over Germany, bombing manufacturing plants, to destroy products that were used to build tanks and fighter jets. In order to complete one’s tour, they had to successfully fly 25 missions, a task done by very few.
On Nov. 5, 1943, on the crew’s seventh mission, Bramwell and his crew were shot down over Lokeren, Belgium while en route to the German town of Gelsinkirchen. While flying, a German Faulkwolf-190 shot at the plane, destroying one of the B-17’s four engines. The plane dropped rapidly and was attacked again, forcing the surviving crew to jump from the plane. Bramwell was the last to jump.
As he was descending, he pulled his parachute, which did not deploy because it was damaged earlier in the plane where he was also hit with 27 pieces of shrapnel. The parachute caught in telephone wires and he then fell to the ground causing his vertebra to break.
He was captured by Germans and immediately taken to a hospital in Sint-Niklaas. His condition was too complex for doctors at this hospital, so he was then taken to a spine specialist in Brussels, where he was the only allied prisoner and was forced to sleep in a broom closet at night.
Bramwell recalls the German doctors treating him as a patient and not an enemy and cheering for him when he stood up for the first time. One German doctor told him when he got home he had to remember to tell everyone that not all Germans were bad.
After his recovery he was sent to the prisoner of war camp of Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany. In 1945, Bramwell was part of a severely injured prisoner exchange and made his way home on a Swedish luxury liner. He earned a Purple Heart upon his return home for being injured during the war.
The gunner on Bramwell’s plane, George Watt, wrote a book titled “The Comet Connection: Escape from Hitler’s Europe” in which he outlines each man’s journey back to the United States. In 1990, Watt sent a copy of his book to Bramwell with, “You saved our lives Bill and made this happen,” inscribed inside the cover.
Bramwell returned home and successfully navigated the world as an ambulatory paraplegic and is now a permanent resident of the Veteran’s Hospital in Long Beach. He is the oldest veteran currently residing there. (Bramwell is the great-grandfather of this reporter).