Escaped POW Recalls Rescue Mission
Richard Busken was a civilian again after World War II when his medals came in the mail: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Air Medal, DFC.
It would be a half-century before a brigadier general would pin that Distinguished Flying Cross on Busken in an award ceremony.
These days, he tends the wraparound garden at his duplex on the Carthage side of the Traffic Circle, still lurching a bit from the old war wound in his right ankle as he waters his roses and tomato plants. Bones shattered in 14 places in that ankle when Busken slammed into an Italian mountain after parachuting from his B-17.
He woke up in a German prisoner-of-war hospital under the watchful eye of an SS officer whose brother had been killed in their raid on the large Italian airfield at Grossetto.
"We came in over the target, and the order came to open the bomb bay doors," Busken says. "Then the order came to close them again. The leading pilot was on his first mission and wasn't satisfied with his sight of the target. We came around again at the same speed and same altitude."
Ground anti-aircraft gunners had the bombers well in their sights by now, and flak tore through the planes. Copilot Busken reached up to grab the leg of their navigator and pull him toward the only way out.
"Let's go!" he shouted over the noise. "Move your ass!"
The wind was screaming. The airplane was tearing apart. They bailed at 25,000 feet into 50-below air with very little oxygen.
"There was NO oxygen -- I woke up at 12,000 feet and pulled my ripcord," he says. "We were coming down, and I noticed people with shotguns running along below and watching us. It didn't look good. Those people were not friendly."
Busken pulled his Army Colt .45 from one side and a Spanish .38 from the other and started shooting in the air, ping -- ping -- ping.
"I was penduluming, swinging back and forth and I couldn't stop," he says. "Then I hit, broke my ankle in about 14 different places, but you don't feel anything. I crawled. Something hits me on the head about 9 o'clock. I have the scar still, and I wake up in the hospital."
Five months of alternating between attempted recovery, misdiagnosis, and solitary ended when the Italians capitulated, the Germans came in, and he and other POWs were loaded onto a train heading north.
"They were taking us to Germany," Busken says.
He didn't want to go.
"I knew I had to escape before we crossed the Po River," he says. "I asked one of the other guys, a football player, how to jump from a 70-mile-an-hour train. He said, 'Just jump and roll. Jump and shoulder-roll.' I believed him."
Roll he did, over and over -- that leap the start of more than a year dodging German soldiers, seeking help from friendly Italians, trying to get to the Vatican, whose status as a neutral state could protect him. He never made it.
"It was 19 months," he says. "Five months a prisoner, then I ran for 14 -- April 26 of '43 to November 17 of '44."
Pearl Harbor Intervened
Busken had been a bomber pilot and copilot flying out of Allied bases on the coast of Africa.
"We were bombing all the ports -- Tripoli, Suzz, Gades, Bizerte -- and boy, was that heavy flak," he says. "Whoaaaa! Bizerte. That was the furthest point that we bombed, in North Africa. The top of the Sahara desert."
Busken had not had to go. He might have stayed home. He had been exempt from the draft, an engineering student with a 3B classification working for a defense contractor.
Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. A little more than a week later, Busken went down to the post office and headed upstairs to find the recruiters.
"I walked in and said, 'Two years of engineering -- where do I sign up for the Air Corps?' -- 'Over there.' I was in -- in 20 minutes," he says.
Nine months later, Busken was a fresh pilot and a second lieutenant.
"Of course, when we graduated, all the guys wanted hot-pursuit ships, you know," he says. "Ten of us were sent to Westover Field, Mass. We were 10 hot pilots, and a major walked in. He said, 'I am the Fifth Bomb Wing to which you are assigned. You are looking at it. We have no planes, nothing. Go out and get your flying time in so you can get paid.'"
'Down We Went'
They flew sub-chasers, B-25s, for practice, waiting for equipment. Busken made friends with an intelligence captain -- Byron Hilliard -- and they would fly down to Mitchell Field.
"He would say, let's go to New York, and down we went," Busken says. "Turned out he was a millionaire from Louisville -- a horse jumper and an adventurer. I didn't know that. I'd say, 'OK, you know this place. Get out your black book. Get me a date.' I dated Vanderbilts one night. Next time the Whitneys."
He fell in love with a girl who lived on 86th Street near Gramercy Park.
"Week after week, and I wanted to get married," Busken says. "She said, 'Wait till you come back.' I said OK. We went over on a boat. Christmas Eve -- '42 -- we landed. All of a sudden I was assigned: I was a general's aide. Big deal."
In January 1943, Busken was with his general at the Casablanca conference.
"Roosevelt was there, and Eisenhower," he says. "De Gaulle. Churchill. It was a big deal. I said to my general, 'You see those airplanes up there? Those are combat airplanes. Release me.'"
He doesn't remember the name of the general who released him from that posh posting, but he finally found himself back in a B-17 cockpit making bomb runs -- for a while -- then rolling and tumbling down an Italian hillside as the prisoner train sped north without him.
"I lay down on the ground and fell asleep," he says. "The next morning when I woke up, four people: father, mother and two kids, were standing there looking at me. I told them I was British, asked for some old clothes."
Joining the Partisans
Busken swapped his uniform for something nondescript to wear, not realizing that he could be shot as a spy if captured out of uniform. They gave him hot milk and bread, and he slept. About 7, he came to a house and asked to sleep in the barn. They took him in for the night but sent him out early the next morning.
Busken found a secondary road and hitched a ride in a donkey cart. Its Italian driver pointed to two girls washing clothes, indicating he should speak to them.
"For the first time, I said I was an American," he says. "And she turned around and -- in perfect English -- asked me just where did I come from in the U.S.A. I said, 'Dearborn, Michigan.' They were Americans, had gone over in '39. The war started, and they couldn't get out."
He stayed with them for a time, told them he wanted to get to Vatican City. They told him he'd never make it: too many Germans, too many checkpoints. He'd have to head north.
Busken wandered back and forth across the upper west of Italy, trying again and again to find some way south to Rome and the sanctuary of neutral ground at the Vatican. If queried, he would pretend to be Yugoslav -- something to explain his odd accent.
Once, boarding a nearly empty train, Busken fell asleep. He woke to find it packed with German soldiers. A conductor hid him in his own compartment.
Eventually Busken made his way up the Mediterranean coast to Genoa, where he was sheltered for two days by the president of the largest Jewish congregation in Italy.
With no feasible way to get south, Busken moved farther north into mountainous territory, hoping to join a group of partisans. He knew only two expressions in dialect: He could ask to talk to the boss, or ask to talk to a priest -- though his Italian was improving.
"I couldn't make it to France, because I couldn't walk," he says. "I was thinking of taking a boat and getting to Corsica, but the boats had all been burned. I couldn't get back to Genoa. It was Sept. 27, 1943, and I had no place to go. I was getting hungry, too. Finally, an old man comes up and says, 'How would you like to join the partisans?' I said, 'I'd like to join them yesterday!'"
He was taken to a building owned by a woman sympathizer, who told him he could stay there "until the Americans come" and hid him in a third-floor room.
"I stayed there from Oct. 26, 1943, until March 26, 1944 -- fully five months on the nose," Busken says. "One day, I look out the window and here come seven German soldiers with drawn pistols. She takes me up to a storeroom on the roof. That was close; that was very close. I said, come on, Richard, let's get out of here."
He joined a group of partisans, moving farther and farther up into the mountains.
"I got up into the hills," he says. "Two guys took me up, and I stayed there in an abandoned house for a month or so. Finally, I said I was leaving, going into the country. That night I walked out into the country, sat down and smoked Italian cigars. And that night they searched that house."
Germans were interrogating everybody going south. Busken could walk only on flat ground like a highway. He crawled, struggling up a mountainside as far as he could -- but when he reached the top of a rise and saw only more mountains ahead, he felt sure he'd never make it.
But finally, using a bicycle, he got farther up into the hills. The first partisan group he found was not organized, just kids trying to keep out of the war.
"I got into another outfit," he says. "I asked how they eat, and they say this and that. I said, 'Let's get organized. Get me a pot.' They bring one, three feet by three feet, and copper-lined. I said, 'Get me some meat. Get me some vegetables' -- verdura -- and this, and that. And I made the first minestrone. I put in water and 80 handfuls of pasta, rice pasta. And we lived through it."
Building an Airstrip
He met a Canadian, a writer for The Toronto Star who had dropped into Italy.
"By that time, I was highly organized," he says. "And then, guys would get shot down."
With those downed American aviators and with British support, Busken began to build an airfield. Morton and some of the British hiked out over the mountains and into France, but he was not able to go. He could not walk well enough because of his ankle.
"All these American pilots were being shot down, and they were brought to me," he said. "I'd give them a bottle of bourbon, a bottle of Scotch. The way we got it was, we'd take the last truck from German convoys. The last truck was always full of booze. Time was going on, I didn't want to get caught in the snow. So that's when I decided to build the airfield. I had six or eight Americans."
He had no aircraft, but he started work anyway.
"A detail, only a detail," Busken says. "It was summer, and I said OK. We blew up a couple of houses, then we had to haul all this stuff out, but finally we made a nice little airstrip. I got a message that a plane would come Nov. 1."
Word was getting out that someone was building an airstrip.
"The Italians thought the Germans were doing it," Busken says. "And the Germans thought the Italians were. It was the funniest thing. Waiting, waiting. November first, but no plane. November second, third. We waited, waited. The Germans started peppering us."
Day after day, they scanned the skies, looking for the promised plane. Some got discouraged and just walked off.
"Losing faith in Richard," he says. "I wasn't providing their airplane. But then one day, out of the blue, this guy comes in -- a little two-seater."
The British pilot didn't want to take Busken, saying there was not enough room.
"I am here to pick up a colonel -- British," the pilot says. "And a captain -- British."
Busken had news for that pilot.
"And Richard Busken -- American," Busken says. "Or you don't get off of my airstrip. It's mine, buddy."
They all piled into the second seat, three deep with Busken on the bottom, British captain on top of him, British colonel on top of him.
'Way of Life Threatened'
A Lt. Gen. Twining was running the show at Florence when they landed safely. Busken demanded to see the commander.
"They take me to him, and he says, 'What the hell do you want?'" Busken says. "I say, 'A B-25 and five rocket-firing Thunderbolts -- because we are surrounded by Germans. He says, 'Who's WE?' I say, 'Eight Americans -- as of yesterday.' He says, 'Give 'em to him.' Simple as that."
Busken went out to the airport and found his B-25, an unarmed observation plane. They took off.
"Bingo, 10 o'clock," he says. "I am the B-25 navigator standing between two pilots."
He navigated the flight into the Italian mountains until his airfield came into view.
The pilot didn't want to land. He said Busken's field was too short. Busken wasn't having that.
"I say, 'Look, if you can't fly this crate, I can,'" Busken says. "I flew it in Massachusetts many months. It's a plane: it has a front and a back. "OK, OK, he says, and we land. I say, 'Give me 10 minutes -- make it seven minutes.' He says, 'Move it, because they are shooting at us, the Germans.' I am pulling the guys in, pushing them in. I had an 80-year old-Polish correspondent.
"He says, 'Richard, don't leave me here.' I say, 'Get in!' We have an Italian paratrooper. I say, 'OK. OK. Get in. We can use you.' They are shooting at us, boom boom boom."
They took off. Safely back in Florence, Busken made his report to the general, riding up in the elevator with an attractive Red Cross nurse.
"He says, 'Did you get 'em?' and I say, 'Of course.'" Busken says.
"Good deal," says the general. "Bye-bye."
Busken left and the nurse stayed.
He had successfully completed the rescue 11 minutes before Germans overran his airfield. After a couple of days' debriefing, he was released to return to duty.
"I flew down to where my outfit was, the one I'd flown away from," Busken says. "And all my buddies were there. What are you going to do? So I went back, and all these medals came through after the war."
More than 50 years would pass before Brig. Gen Richard Montemeyer, 305th Air Mobility Wing commander, finally pinned that Distinguished Flying Cross on Busken, calling him a hero. The award citation commended Busken for voluntarily "subjecting himself to grave danger" on the rescue mission when, as an escaped POW, recapture would have probably meant his death.
"It's never too late to present the awards that people deserve," the general said at Busken's August 2000 award ceremony. "Freedom fighters like Rich Busken stepped up at a time when our way of life was threatened more than ever before."
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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