Wounded Arm Paralyzed, Lieutenant Bertuzzi Outflew Japanese Zeroes 150 Miles To Safety

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


‘If I land on water, I’ll drown. If I land on the coal, I’ll burn. So I decided to go back.”
Lt. Samuel Bertuzzi was a 25-year-old Naval combat pilot from Oneonta. His mission was to team up with a squadron of 18 F6F Grumman Hellcats and escort a fleet of B-24 bombers on airstrike against a heavily fortified enemy in Bougainville, in the northern chain of the Solomon Island. Over the island of Ballalae, Bertuzzi’s squadron was ambushed by 80 Japanese Zeros.
Skies were punctuated by smoke and fire, the whine of 18-cylinder high-speed radial engines, and an occasional starburst whenever a direct hit tore an airship apart. After knocking down one Zero, Bertuzzi was encircled by six more closing in for the kill. A 90 mm shell blasted a hole in his fuselage. When it detonated, the impact sent shock waves through the ship.
“My compass was gone. So was my radio. I couldn’t see any land.” The instrument panel was a conglomeration of torn wires and twisted metal. The radio, his only contact with his squadron, was a molten glob. Worse yet, a pool of blood collected at his feet. As the plane lurched and wobbled like a dying quail, Bertuzzi discover flying shrapnel had shattered his right arm.
He couldn’t bail out because the release crank was on his right, beyond the reach of his left arm. With his dead right hand still frozen to the joy stick, he was forced to cradle the steering rod between both knees, alternately maneuvering the ship with his good hand and then fingering the wires to see which controls stil reacted to his touch.
Miraculously, the gears meshed and the ship responded to his frozen fingers. With the plane plummeting headlong, he leaned into the control stick with all his weight, hoping that the 1,200-horse-power radial engine of the powerful ship had the life to brake his descent. The plane bottomed out within 10 feet of the yawning sea. Once he started to climb, he was confronted by another dilemma. The Zeros, anticipating his moves, came down like a swarm of hornets.
“Tracer bullets went by me and then they got me with a machine-gun burst in my left shoulder. There was blood all over me and all over the cockpit. But my plane came through.”
Lieutenant Bertuzzi is being interviewed on KROW, a West Coast affiliate, in late November 1943. He is reliving his near death, experienced barely two months prior to the radio broadcast. His bandaged arm in a shoulder sling, Bertuzzi was the latest war hero to appear on Scott Weakley’s radio show to drum up blood donors to give the gift of life to wounded service personnel in combat zones.
“I never would have lived that night if it hadn’t been for the plasma I got 20 minutes after I landed. They came for me in a rubber boat and gave me morphine on the spot, but they told me they thought I was dead when they took me ashore. I’m grateful for the life that God and luck and plasma gave back to me.”
The radio host wondered aloud, What did it feel like to confront the possibility of a sudden and violent death?
“I remember thinking, I’m done for. Here I go. And the next thing that came to me was, What will my mother think? I even had a momentary flash of her standing there at home getting the telegram. It made me want to cry,” he said.
Once Bertuzzi caught sight of the sun from his stricken ship, he triangulated the position of the sun with his home base on Munda, resolving to fly by dead reckoning. ”As long as the sun was behind my left shoulder, I knew I was all right.” Drifting in and out of consciousness, he wasn’t sure if he could make it back alive over a distance of 150 miles.
He tried to stave off zonking out while ginning his engine while barely skimming the waves to keep at bay the enemy sharpshooters the minute he elevated his run. For the next 50 miles, he was shadowed by the Zeros until suddenly they retreated out of sight.
The Zero had a top speed of 317 mph, compared to the Hellcat’s 328. Like the proverbial ferocious feline it was named after, the Hellcat was maimed but far from broken. Once Bertuzzi was no longer an easy kill, he gained altitude to clear treetops and ridges.
“I started passing islands, but I didn’t know what they were. But I could still feel that something in the plane was with me, guiding me on.”
Early in the broadcast, Bertuzzi recalled his mental state soon after being hit by a machine gun burst to his left shoulder. “Call it faith if you will or just call it the will to survive. There was blood all over me and all over the cockpit. I kept going, doing a little praying now and then.”
He was elated when he spotted another Hellcat winging towards him. “I found out later that he’d seen my plane’s reflection in the water and came to investigate. The pilot mentioned to Bertuzzi to follow him to home base.
“The son-of-a-gun took me right over a Jap airfield, not five minutes from Munda. They were as surprised as I was. I was only 50 feet up. I could see them looking at me.” This time, no Zeros to send a calling card. No ack-ack guns to boom goodbye.
Bertuzzi was prepared to land his plane when he reached Munda, but a damaged Hellcat swerved into view at the last minute and crash-landed in the runway, making a safe landing impossible. Furthermore, Bertuzzi failed to find the circuit to deploy his landing gear. He’d have to attempt a belly landing.
He spotted a lagoon off to one side to land in. As he nosed the plane down, he twisted his body and reached over with his good left arm to crank open the cockpit shield. With a final agonizing effort to keep from slipping into oblivion from extensive blood loss, he pancaked the ship into 8 feet of water.
“I dug up one little bit more of strength from somewhere and stood up in the cockpit as the plane skidded to a halt. My head and shoulders stayed above water.” In an instant he fell into a deep coma.
No one knows for sure how or why Bertuzzi survived the ordeal and lived to tell the tale. There were at least four ways he could have died: an enemy bullet to the brain or the heart; a headlong crash into the sea; excessive hemorrhaging; blanking out and losing control of the plane until it smashed into a mountainside. And if he hadn’t succeeded in dislodging the cockpit shield before hitting the water, he could have drowned before he could be rescued.
In a field hospital on Guadalacanal, surgeons entertained the idea of lopping off his mashed right arm but weren’t certain he’d survive the trauma of his savaged spirit. After his third blood transfusion, Bertuzzi’s condition stabilized. It took more than a year to make minimal use of his paralyzed limb. Blood vessels had to be rerouted and muscle tissue grafted from his thighs. He was lucky to be alive.
The heroic saga of the young naval lieutenant, a crippled combat pilot in a crippled ship on a perilous odyssey over a distance of 150 miles in a race against time and the limits of human endurance, was duly noted by mass media. He made the cover of LIFE. A full page ad in the NY TIMES on Feb. 18, 1945, showed a photo of the war hero in full uniform. The ad, sponsored by Revere Copper & Brass, singled out Bertuzzi for his fortitude and resourcefulness. The banner heading over the ad read, “God Flew My Hellcat For 150 Miles.” A grateful nation awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.
Clifford Craven, a bombardier flying missions over Germany in the same war, was intrigued enough by Bertuzzi’s luck to tell me, “In the heat of battle, just when everything seems hopeless and lost, a sudden strange calm takes over stronger than fear. You stop being scared. Maybe the will to live is stronger than the fear of death. Maybe, in Sam’s case, what saved him was sheer determination to survive.”
Returning to Oneonta after his medical discharge, Sam Bertuzzi married Angie Lambros and raised a family. Over the years he became a retailer, ran as an alderman and served on the city council, had a 32-year tenure as Oneonta’s postmaster, promoted Italian studies at SUNY Oneonta, served as president of the Oneonta Italian American Club and was name Citizen of the Year in October 1995, by the same organization.
Sam Bertuzzi went to his eternal rest Oct. 30, 1996, at the age of 77. Why was this man revered by all and sundry who had the privilege of knowing him.
A hero is a reflecting mirror in whom are magnified a nation’s ideals and foremost virtues. On Veteran’s Day we honor a war hero not on the body count of enemies slain. Not always for sacrifices made when potential victims are thrust in harm’s way. Rarely for overcoming odds in the hazards of war when combined with happenstance and luck.
We honor exceptional people like Sam Bertuzzi because by their actions and example these gallant heroes awaken in each of us an inspirational glimmering of hope. Consumed as we are by life’s fitful fever and compromising choices, we are prey to doubts and fears. The prospect of death and dissolution fills us with terror.
Heroes personify Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” By virtue of their unique participation in some of life’s deepest mysteries, they demonstrate the narrow winding path of untapped greatness, the mix of courage, fidelity to duty, perseverance, and resourcefulness that all of us aspire to but few are witness to except when fate intervenes and tests us beyond ordinary endurance.

Joseph Fioravanti, an Oneonta resident, is a retired English professor at SUNY Delhi.

This page mirrored on 12-13-2009 original page: http://www.hometownoneonta.biz/2008/11/wounded-arm-paralyzed-lieutenant.html


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