CAPE GIRARDEAU — In the summer of 1944, two men, Homer Schnurbusch of Perryville, and Sandy Austin of Vermont, met when Austin joined the crew of the "Ditney Hill," a B-24 Liberator bomber based in Spinazolia, Italy.
For 32 missions, flight engineer Schnurbusch, nose gunner Austin and eight other crew members flew bombing runs together against oil fields, ball bearing factories and aircraft plants of Nazi Germany. On Dec. 2, 1944, they were shot down when the 460th Bombardment Group attacked a synthetic oil plant in what today is western Poland.
As Wednesday's 65th anniversary of that mission approached, Schnurbusch, now 89, and Austin, 86, recently got together in Cape Girardeau, Schnurbusch's home now. They had reunited only once before, when they had dinner with their wives in Florida in the 1980s.
Austin, now of Jackson, Tenn., said he found Schnurbusch's address while sorting mementos. "I wondered if he was still living, and since it is only 160 miles from here, I decided to come up."
During their visit, the two men talked about their memories, exchanged copies of items related to their service days and caught up. Austin, who stayed in the Air Force until 1964, spent almost 40 years as a police officer — he was a deputy sheriff until 2001 — and now runs a headstone restoration company. Schnurbusch, who returned to Southeast Missouri after the war, worked with a CPA firm.
When he boarded the bomber 65 years ago, Schnurbusch had flown 45 missions, earning a Purple Heart on one. According to the rules, he needed 47 missions to earn a safer assignment. Even that late in his tour, the odds were against him. Some daylight raids lost as many as 15 to 20 percent of the bombers dispatched. The 15th Air Force, which included the 460th Bombardment Group, lost 3,364 aircraft, with 21,671 listed as casualties.
Austin joined the Ditney Hill crew as a replacement for a nose gunner killed on an earlier mission.
For his actions Dec. 2, 1944, Schnurbusch earned his second Purple Heart for his wounds as well as a Silver Star. Wounded in both legs and his right hand, he put out the fire on board the airplane before the crew parachuted. He was found by Poles and turned over to Soviet troops. After convincing them he was an American, which took two days, he received treatment. It took 55 days to return to his base, and Schnurbusch did not fly in combat again.
Austin hid for four days, but was taken prisoner. He escaped six days later and was picked up by Soviet troops as well. He, too, did not fly again in combat against the Germans.
Both men know they are living links to an era when the fate of the world was being decided. "I want people to remember that this actually did happen and it still can happen," Austin said.