Brackenridge veteran returns to the skies
Ed Grzywinski of Brackenridge sat shaded from the morning sun on Saturday at the Allegheny County Airport, musing about his upcoming flight.
His all-too-familiar ride, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber named “Fifi”, had not yet returned from an earlier flight.
With 1940s swing music playing in the background, Grzywinski, a former staff sergeant in the Army Air Corps, said he thought he would never ride in a B-29 again. He flew 28 missions in one over Japan during World War II.
“No way,” Grzywinski, 88, said with a smile. “When I got off for the last time, I said ‘Never again.' Now I'm paying to get on.”
Actually, his family was paying for the flight as a special Father's Day present. His wife of 65 years, Theresa Dolny Grzywinski, and three of their seven children: Bob, 57 of Ohio Township, Joe, 56 and Tim, 50, both of Harrison, were on hand for the flight.
“He's flying in his old position, right gunner,” said Bob Grzywinski, who went on the half-hour flight with his father.
The restored Superfortress is the same type of bomber that dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brought a speedy end to war with Japan. It is part of the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit group that, for more than 50 years, has collected, restored and flown vintage historical aircraft as a way of honoring American military aviation and the men who served on them.
“Fifi” is the last remaining Superfortress that still flies.
In addition to his family, Grzywinski was accompanied by about 20 members of the Oregon Club, a sportsmen's group in Brackenridge, of which he is a member, who rented a bus to be on hand for the event.
“He was really excited to do this,” said Glenn Freeman of Tarentum.
“For the past couple of weeks, he's been as excited as a kid waiting for Christmas,” said Matt Kolar of Brackenridge, another club member.
As he waited, Grzywinski discussed his service in the Army Air Corps and said he doesn't consider himself a hero.
“It brings back memories,” he said. “I'm thinking about the guys who were shot down — they gave their lives.”
After growing up in Harrison's West Natrona section and graduating from Har-Brack High School, he enlisted in 1943 at 17 after getting his parents to sign a consent form for him.
On 28 missions, the crew of his Superfortress, nicknamed “Good Deal,” had plenty of brushes with death. The B-29s flew in three- or four-plane diamond-shaped formations with each plane flying at a different altitude.
“One day we had to draw straws, and the guy who drew the short straw had to fly ‘high diamond,' ” Grzywinski recalled. “In high diamond, you had to cover the other planes.”
The 12 .50-cal. machine guns that protected the B-29s were operated with a computerized targeting system, the first of its kind, and the top or “ring” gunner manned the Central Fire Control Station, from which all the aircraft's guns could be operated.
He said the gunners were trained to fire in short bursts of about six to eight rounds at a time, enough to kill an enemy pilot or shoot down the plane without exploding it in mid-air. As he learned on a mission over Tokyo, there was good reason for that.
Grzywinski said they hit an attacking enemy plane, apparently disabling it, but the enemy pilot turned into a kamikaze and continued to fly directly at the American bomber formation, intent on doing maximum damage.
He said the ring gunner kept his finger pushed down on the firing control, burning out barrels on six of the guns.
“The ring gunner blew him up,” Grzywinski said.
Aircraft parts were scattered through the sky.
“I heard the parts hit the damned rudder and I said: ‘I hope you didn't damage the rudder,' ” Grzywinski remembered.
Bob Grzywinski said his father told him of another time when the “Good Deal” had to make an emergency landing.
“They were on a mission and they had two engines out and had to make an emergency landing on Iwo Jima — while the Marines were still fighting,” Bob Grzywinski said. “They made it in, but another B-29 coming in behind them crashed and blew up.”
On a mission to bomb the Hitachi aircraft manufacturing plant in Tachikawa, Japan, Grzywinski's aircraft suffered numerous hits from anti-aircraft fire, bullets and two 20-millimeter cannon shells from enemy planes. The damage was such that the left wing had to be replaced. But the crew delivered its bomb load doing considerable damage to the plant and shooting down an enemy plane. It resulted in the Distinguished Flying Cross being awarded to each of the 11-member crew.
Only one other member of the crew, navigator Alvin Kundert of Minnesota, is still living.
After squeezing into a narrow fuselage hatch, Grzywinski waited until 11:08 a.m. as “Fifi” roared down the runway and into a blue sky marked by ribbons of white clouds.
“I know he's got a smile from ear-to-ear,” Theresa Grzywinski said.
Time machine trip
That smile was there when he landed and while still perched in the right gunner's seat.
“It was great,” Grzywinski said of the flight. But, he conceded, “It brings back memories, mostly bad.”
Col. Mark Novak of the CAF, a Nebraskan who piloted the flight, said, “I tell everyone it's a time machine. It takes guys like him back to when they were 18 or 20 doing things halfway around the world that they never thought they would do.”
“Having the veterans makes such a difference because they get that far-away look in their eyes and you just have to walk away,” said Caren Landis, a crew member from New York. Her father, a radio operator on a B-29, died last year.
Asked how he wants to be remembered, Grzywinski replied, “(That) I did the job and did the job right. I'd do it all over again.”
After the flight, Grzywinski slowly walked around the plane toward the observation deck, and he was surprised to be greeted with a loud round of applause and cheers from the crowd of more than 200 people.
“It almost brings tears to your eyes,” Bob Grzywinski said. “What better Father's Day present can you give a guy?”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.