Through the glass: Veteran remembers his past

Courtesy photo

(This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Museums display artifacts that provide evidence of times from the past.

Walking into a military museum is like sitting down with a senior veteran and hearing their war stories from the “good old days.”

The heritage center at Travis Air Force Base has many pieces of military, history rich with old war stories. One piece, a bullet-riddled B-24 Liberator windshield, tells the story of a man from a small town who went on to fight in World War II and gave more than 40 years of service to his country.

Retired Lt. Col. Bruce Sooy, an Army Air Corps and Air Force veteran, was born April 17, 1917, in Greenbank, New Jersey.

Before joining the military, Sooy worked at a machine shop, hardening with bars of cyanide for approximately 50 cents an hour.

Being a spiritual man, Sooy said, “A voice actually told me, ‘Bruce, you need to get out of here because there’s no future for you.’ That’s when I went down to the recruiter’s office and joined the Army Air Corps for $21 a month.”

Sooy enlisted Sept. 20, 1939, and World War II was already in motion.

He started off his career working on B-17 Flying Fortress engines, and then he entered pilot training school in June 1942. He graduated as a second lieutenant and went on to become a B-24 Liberator pilot. He was stationed in England in 1943, ready to fly the Pink Lady over Germany.

During the war, Sooy flew 23 bombing missions beginning in November 1943. During his 23rd bombing mission on March 18, 1944, with the primary being Friedrichshafen, Germany, the lead plane in Sooy’s formation made a critical error.

“Picture 900 bombers in a stream,” he said. “We were doing 192 mph, which is fast at more than 20,000 feet with a load of bombs. Our normal speed was around 165.

“(The lead plane) had flown underneath the 44th Bomb Group so they couldn’t drop their bombs,” Sooy said. “His leader called and told the 44th he would go north about 15 minutes off course and then turn back.”

Those 15 minutes took Sooy and his 10-person crew approximately 50 miles off course.

“That’s when the fighters hit us,” he said.

German fighter pilots in elements of five were flying at Sooy and his crew head-on.

“If you shot any of them down, they were going to run into you,” Sooy said. “The plane that shot us down went so close to me that I think he probably tore my right rudder off with his wing because all of sudden the rudders went slack.”

The fighter also took out three of Sooy’s four engines, causing the team to have no choice but to evacuate the aircraft.

“We were lucky,” he said. “When we bailed, all of our chutes worked.”

All 10 of Pink Lady’s crew members — six enlisted and four officers — were captured and taken as prisoners of war. At their first location, Sooy was interrogated for three days.

“They put you in a little 4-by-8 cell and a German interrogator, who could speak English as well as I could, asked questions,” he said. “All we could give them was our name, rank and serial number. After three days, they gave up and put us in a barbed wire yard, where I was able to talk to the rest of my crew, who had all been taken prisoner as well.”

They split the crew up into officers and enlisted and Sooy was taken to a POW camp in Frankfurt, Germany.

“I can’t say that I was ever treated badly,” Sooy said. “We lacked food. That was the main thing. I went down to about 119 pounds.”

After 13 months as a POW, on April 29, 1945, Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army liberated the crew.

“It sounded like every Soldier who was with Patton had a machine gun because all you heard was ‘brrrr, brrrr, brrrr,’ “ Sooy said, imitating the machine gun sounds. “Patton’s army came through, a tank broke the gate down and came down the main corridor with Red Cross girls riding on it. What a sight that was.”

Patton’s troops provided food and rescued the POWs.

“We were taken to Camp Lucky Strike in France, where we got our first shower, clean clothes and three square meals,” Sooy said. “After returning stateside, I went home on 60-day leave, visited family and I got married.”

Sooy became a test pilot and was stationed at various locations before arriving at Travis AFB on June 12, 1955. He flew the C-124 Globemaster II and then became the field maintenance squadron commander until he retired Nov. 30, 1960.

“Three months after I retired, I received a phone call asking if I would return as chief of logistics plans,” Sooy said. “I was part of the facility utilization board which site planned for the C-5 docks, the pull-through hangar and the old hospital, which is now Bldg. 381.”

His last position at Travis was as the deputy director of logistics plans for the 22nd Air Force. He retired after 40 years of service in 1979.

Sooy was married to his late wife, Evelyn, for 67 years. He has three children, Mark, Yvonne, and Carol, and is a resident of Vacaville, California.

Even at 98 years old, he tells his World War II story as if it happened yesterday.

“All 10 of us bailed out, all 10 of us were captured and all 10 of us made it home,” he said. “We were lucky. I am the last one from the crew still alive.”

The windshield from Sooy’s plane was stored in a German barn for 70 years before it made its way to Travis AFB.

“I consider lieutenant colonel Sooy a personal friend,” said Master Sgt. Aaron Wallenburg, a 60th AMW curator. “He approached me a year and a half ago by walking into my office and showing me a picture of his windshield. He asked, ‘Would you have any interest in this piece?’ And that’s where it all started.”

Working with an active-duty member stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and the 70th Aerial Refueling Squadron, they were able to coordinate the transportation of the windshield from Muhlenbach, Germany, to Ramstein AB and then to Travis AFB.

“I feel lieutenant colonel Sooy to be a hometown hero,” Wallenburg said. “Even though he didn’t grow up here, he has made Vacaville home for more than 50 years. He is just as proud of his contributions to Travis as his contributions as a World War II pilot. His accomplishments are unparalleled with most other aviators, but yet he’s as humble as can be.”