A Russian and a US Vet Share Two Sides of the Same Victory

An American bomber gunner recalls a crash-landing, extra chocolate, and celebrating the end of the war in Brussels

AS soon as he graduated from high school in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1942, Dante Salvatore DeFazio volunteered for the United States Army. But a fellow soldier from his hometown convinced him to transfer to the Army Air Corps.

So Mr. DeFazio became a waist gunner in a B-17. Based in Kettering, England, he flew bombing missions over Germany in the spring of 1945.

Sitting in the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Ashland, Mass., about 25 miles west of Boston, he talks about his most vivid memory of the war.

''It was the morning, about four hours before our flight,'' he says. ''A B-17 that was disabled turned around on the runway, and the plane behind it was taking off. They had full bomb loads on and gasoline, and the two ships went up in flames. We scratched the mission that day.''

DeFazio flew 12 night-bombing missions over Germany. ''All those men who served ... were scared,'' he says.

''You always had that hope that it wasn't going to be you. It was one of those things that keep you going. Every single time we took off for a mission, we knew that the possibility was ... you weren't all coming back,'' he adds.

On April 10, 1945 -- less than a month before the war ended -- his group was on a bombing mission over Berlin when his plane was hit by German 88-millimeter antiaircraft fire, disabling two engines.

The crew, having heard stories about Berliners killing air crews, decided to stay with the plane. Soon they spotted the German Air Force base at Fassberg and tried to land.

''What we didn't know was that the base was guarded by the Hitler Youth,'' DeFazio says. ''They were 12, 13, 14 years old, but pretty expert with their machine guns.... We were a sitting duck.''

The plane crash-landed. DeFazio and another crew member were thrown out of the craft and injured, but everybody survived. DeFazio was taken to the base hospital, where he stayed until the British Sixth Armoured Division liberated the area a few weeks later.

Unlike the Allied prisoners who were kept in the stalags, or German prisoner-of-war camps, DeFazio says he was treated ''fairly well'' and got the same rations as the Germans: a bowl of soup a day.

He thinks the fact that he was at an air base, where the personnel respected flyers, helped. Plus, ''they knew that the end of the war was near,'' he says.

The British took him back to a Royal Air Force hospital in Brussels. He was there on May 8, 1945, when the war in Europe ended.

People outside the hospital began yelling and cheering; the celebration soon moved into his ward. ''That night they gave us an extra ration of chocolate,'' he says.

Defazio returned to the US in October 1945 and soon was a student at Boston College, from which he was graduated in 1950. For 35 years he taught English literature in the Boston and Framingham, Mass., schools.

Now retired from teaching, he works as a truck dispatcher for an asphalt company. He has five children and 10 grandchildren.

DeFazio says his wartime experience ''was not in vain. It was something that had to be done. If we hadn't stopped Hitler, he would have just kept on going.''

Although DeFazio says the postwar world generally worked out well, he gets upset when talking about the treatment that US troops serving in Vietnam got when they returned home.

''The people who are now admitting that they were wrong ... it's asinine,'' he says. ''They knew it was wrong then. That certain segment of the American people who did not welcome these men back home, no matter what they had done in the war, was very wrong.''

If he met a Russian veteran, DeFazio says he would ''want to know what he did all those years. He was a soldier who survived World War II ....

''I'm sure he was restricted by the Communist regime from doing what he would have wanted if he had been a free man.

''But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he would say that Russia was good to him, that his life was good. I'd like to know how he felt ... and how he feels now about the movement towards democracy.... I'm sure there are still some die-hard communists who still want to be communist.''

DeFazio has never been back to Europe. ''But it's on my itinerary as soon as I retire,'' he says.

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