91 Year-Old Palm Harbor WWII Veteran Tells His Dramatic Story
French Legion of Honor recipient Norbert Swierz escaped from a P.O.W. camp three times during WWII. He is one of two Palm Harbor men who have been recognized with the French Legion of Honor.
Palm Harbor residents Fred Kaufman and Norbert Swierz are two exceptionally humble men. But they have more in common than that, the country of France is forever indebted to them for their heroism.
Swierz is equally humble, “I’m flattered, I don’t think really that I deserved it. I did my job, but so did millions of others fellows.”
The men recently talked with Palm Harbor Patch about their experiences during World War II. Swierz's story plays out like a dramatic Hollywood movie or a storyline from a super hero comic book, with the difference being it really happened.
“I escaped three different times,” said Norbert Swierz referring to Stalag 17, the prisoner of war camp that was his home for two years during WWII. The camp also wound up being the subject of a Hollywood movie.
Now 91-years old, Swierz’s memory of WWII is as good as his eyes — which even at the age of 91 do not need glasses.
But before his tale of escape, is his tale of being blown from the sky. Twice. Swierz was a flight engineer gunner who flew on B-17’s, when he was first shot down in the North Sea. “I still remember how cold that water was,” he laughed. The British rescued them accidentally, while looking for another downed flight.
14 months later, Swierz did not fare as well and wound up in the hands of the enemy. When flying over Stuttgard, Germany, bullets once again shot his plane down from the sky. “They captured me the minute I hit the ground. I came down right in the middle of the city we were bombing. They weren’t too happy with me,” he said.
He never saw any of the men he was flying with again.
His two years in Stalag 17 were far from cushy. “We weren’t fed or clothed properly and our barracks weren’t fit to live in, we were cold all the time and the summer was desperately hot,” said Swierz.
So, naturally, he had to try to escape. But he was not the only one craving escape — and that was the problem. “Every time you had an idea for an escape you had to run it past the escape committee. You had to get permission because people were doing bonehead things.”
But Swierz got a job in the kitchen, hoping to come up with an idea worthy of approval. He found one. “Me and my buddy decided to get into these huge trash sacks and escape in the garbage wagon. It got approved and we got people to put us in there. We had two gates to go through and they had probes — big metal rods they’d poke the garbage with. They missed,” he laughed.
A few weeks of careful nighttime traveling ended in recapture. “But we almost got away with it,” Swierz laughed.
Norbert Swierz's wife, Muriel, who also participated in our interview, chided her husband, “Yeah and you almost got a pitch fork right in your tummy.”
Swierz was quick to respond, “Yeah, it was too close for comfort.”
The couple has been together since before Swierz left the country to fight in WWII. He was gone for four years, with his moment of freedom from the P.O.W. camp occuring during a forced march in the middle of a forest. The guards got word that the war was over, and they vanished, leaving the P.O.W.s unattended.
When Swierz arrived back in the U.S., he and Muriel married 13 days later. “I didn’t give him time to change his mind,” she said.
Almost 66 years of marriage prove that he never would have changed his mind. Their house is filled with pictures of their children and grandchildren, a testament to their fruitful relationship. “It’s been a wonderful life for me. I did more or less what I wanted to do. Except the whole Stalag 17 thing — I didn’t want to do that,” said Swierz.
Three wars and many medals later, Norbert and Muriel Swierz are enjoying the people they love and the life they are living. “I do some painting,” said Swierz. “I’m not great at it, but I always do the best paintings when it’s for someone I care about.”
One of those fortunate people is Nathaniel Vitale, a 9-year-old who has become one of Swierz’s dear friends. “He knows as much about B-17’s as I do, and I fought in one,” said Swierz. The two met when the Collings Foundation sponsored a flight for Swierz in a preserved B-17. He had not been in one since he was shot down about 60 years prior. The Associated Press went along for the flight and made a video.
“Because I befriended Nathaniel, they allowed him to take the flight with me. You never saw a kid so thrilled in his life,” Swierz remembered. “I painted him a B-17. He has it hanging over his bed.”
Mrs. Swierz is especially glad for these happier times. “It’s so nice to have him safe. During the war I had no idea whether he was dead or alive most of the time. It was horrible,” she said, tearing up at the memory. “But he was tough.”
“I’m still tough,” Swierz winked.