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The Bim Bam Bola Mystery

Veteran: Bernard Stelzer, a gunner on the WWII bomber dug up in Switzerland in July, disputes its downing.

September 28, 2002|QUYNH-GIANG TRAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At 83, Bernard Stelzer and his wife, Edith, have found heaven, living a sunny life in Orange County's largest retirement community. Not much concerns the unflappable Stelzer, who spends his days going to the gym and attending shows and lectures.

Yet last month, a package from the Swiss Embassy in Washington transported Stelzer back in time, to painful events of World War II. It also galvanized him to find out more about a mysterious incident that put him in a POW camp for nearly a year.

Enclosed was a letter from Lt. Col. Ueli Weber of Swiss Army Rescue Battalion 35, photographs and newspaper stories in German.

"I was shocked," said Stelzer, a department store manager who retired to Leisure World in Laguna Woods.

"When he got all of this, he fought the war all over again," added Edith, his wife of 61 years.

Though vague, the letter suggested that Swiss authorities thought the enclosed material would be of interest to him. Stelzer couldn't read the newspaper stories but could surmise from the photographs that they had unearthed the remnants of Bim Bam Bola, the B-24 Liberator bomber he flew on in World War II before it crashed in the Swiss Alps.

*

A Last Mission

It was July 12, 1944, five weeks after the invasion of Normandy. At the break of day, the 24-year-old native New Yorker, a gunner stationed in southeastern England, woke up and hurried to his morning briefing. He and his crewmates were to fly one of the more than 1,100 bombers that took off that day on a mission to bomb Munich.

Nerves were rattled. The Bim Bam Bola had two new men in the crew that day, replacements for the bombardier and copilot lost on a mission a week earlier.

From this point, accounts of the mission conflict.

The son of one crew member who now is dead says the men finished their mission and were shot down over Switzerland as they returned to England.

Stelzer remembers it very differently. He says that the captain ordered the crew to jump out before it reached Munich. Somehow, the aircraft had separated from the rest of the fleet. In the clear sky, Stelzer saw no other planes around him, friend or foe.

He strapped on his parachute and jumped. He crashed into a thickly wooded area on the eastern side of Lake Constance, along the border of Switzerland and Austria, suffering injuries that earned him a Purple Heart.

After landing, Stelzer left his dog tags in the trees.

"I was scared to death. I am Jewish," Seltzer said.

He quickly fell into the hands of the Nazis and became a prisoner of war. He suffered 11 months of meager food, humiliation and forced marches until the end of the war. Other than George Klein, the navigator, Stelzer did not encounter any others from the Bim Bam Bola during his imprisonment.

The plane went on to crash into the Alps, smashing into splinters on a hillside near Prattigau in eastern Switzerland near the border of Austria.

*

A Wreck Found

Almost 60 years later, silvery scrap metal began to sprout as ice melted in the Riederen alpine nature preserve and the Bim Bam Bola resurfaced. The plane's remains lie in a remote mountainous area near the village of Klosters, now with an exclusive ski resort.

Over three weeks in July, about 20 men from the Swiss equivalent of the U.S. National Guard, led by Weber, excavated the site, finding sheet metal from the cockpit, electronic parts, two machine guns, ammunition and fragments of four engines.

"The largest pieces, 2 to 3 meters in size, came from the tail," Weber said. "The scrap is a part of history that has been forgotten."

Large remnants of the aircraft are headed for the Dubendorf Aircraft Museum near Zurich, Weber said. The rest will be recycled.

Back home, Stelzer saw the excavation as a chance to learn more about the crash and to help dispute accounts that the plane had been shot down.

Last week, the couple traveled to Washington to visit the Swiss Embassy and U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) to ask for help.

"I don't want anything," Stelzer said. "Just answers. Maybe a bullet or something."

The answers may prove elusive. There are no indications of evidence uncovered at the scene that would confirm--or refute--Stelzer's recollection of how the Bim Bam Bola met its end.

But through the efforts of Cox, Swiss authorities have agreed to send Stelzer a piece of the plane as a memento of those difficult months overseas.

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