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Norbert S. Olshefski’s Purple Heart

With February drawing to a close, fancy chocolate and candy hearts are on sale at grocery stores around the nation. With pink hearts in the rearview mirror, let’s talk about a more interesting colorful heart: The Purple Heart. An estimated 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded since 1932 to members of the U.S. armed forces who have been injured or killed serving their country. Each medal represents a unique person, a unique life, and a unique story.

In 1942 Norbert S. Olshefski was no more than a teenager. His widowed mother was raising him on her own in the midst of World War II, and he was by all accounts an average American boy, albeit a little less fortunate than others. Undoubtedly fascinated by the war, and perhaps motivated by a love of country, Norbert convinced his mother to alter his birth certificate. On June 25, 1942 Norbert S. Olshefski enlisted in the Army Air Forces at the age of just 15.

After completing basic training, Olshefski was stationed in England and served as a ball turret-gunner in a B-17 “Flying Fortress” for the 94th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. A little over a year after enlisting Olshefski found himself climbing into the ball turret of his B-17 bomber for his fifth, and final, mission. It was July 26, 1943. Norbert was now 16, and tasked with being the sole defender of his plane as the fleet of American bombers flew over Germany. Defending a B-17 was not a task for the faint of heart. Although nicknamed the “Flying Fortress.” the safety of this ‘fortress’ did not extend to the exposed ball turret that hung from the bottom of the plane. During bomb runs, B-17s had to be flown straight and level, making them easy targets for the enemy since the planes could not be maneuvered off course. In the ball turret was located a .50 caliber M2 Browning machine gun, the only means of fending off the enemy. Olshefski was manning this gun when the plane was hit by flak that damaged one of the engines and the right wing of the plane. Knowing their plane was damaged the crew began to fall back, out of formation, and head towards the North Sea. Once isolated, they were spotted by a group of German fighter pilots, who began to attack the B-17, knowing it was an easy target. While defending his crew from within the ball turret, Olshefski was shot through the arm. He managed to climb into the fuselage to take refuge, realizing that the plane had already taken heavy damage. Shortly after crawling to the fuselage, one of the badly damaged propellers separated from the plane and tumbled under the wing, splitting open the fuel tanks, and shearing the ball turret off the bottom of the B-17. Had Olshefski still been inside the turret he would have surely plummeted to his death. Luckily, a British aircraft in the area spotted the plane as it was crashing into the North Sea, and radioed the British Navy to send a boat out to the stranded American fliers. Olshefski and the rest of the crew had managed to survive their harrowing ordeal, and were able to be rescued and transported to a hospital in England. Once at the hospital, Olshefski’s real age was discovered and he was discharged from the Army. He received his Purple Heart later that year. In a true testament to his character, Olshefski had his Purple Heart engraved with his Christian name, Ignatius, which means fiery one.

This dramatic adventure is just one of the millions of stories attached to Purple Hearts. Perhaps the next time you see one of these medals, ask the recipient to tell you their heroic tale, you never know what you might learn!

Underage and Under Fire: Accounts of the Youngest Americans in Military Service, Allan C. Stover, pp. 126
The Purple Heart
The Purple Heart – Questions


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