Ex-Waist Gunner Gets War Medal After 43 Years
Flying over the Baltic Sea in the spring of 1944, a stream of B-17s of the “Bloody Hundred” Bomber Group was suddenly hit head-on by more than 40 German fighters.
In one of the Flying Fortresses, called “Josephine” after the pilot’s mother, was a Lincoln Heights boy named named Rinaldo J. Bussino, flying his first combat mission as a waist gunner. By the time the shooting was over that day, the plane’s co-pilot, Lt. Charles J. Gutekunst, looked down and saw that there were so many parachutes that “the ocean was white with silk. It’s a sight you never forget.”
The two men, who had trained together in the United States, flew 25 more combat missions together, over Berlin, Poland, Belgium and Normandy on D-Day. Every member of the original crew who stayed with the plane survived the war.
“Everybody came back safe who flew with me,” said Bussino, who now lives in Westminster.
“We were extremely lucky to get back,” Gutekunst said Friday in an interview from Vero Beach, Fla. “Very seldom did we come back without holes in the airplane.”
Bussino, who has worked for Thrifty Drug & Discount Stores in Anaheim for the last 24 years, acknowledges that he was equally lucky to have a friend like Gutekunst, who stayed in the Army Air Corps when it became the Air Force, served during two more wars and retired as a colonel.
Largely because Gutekunst was able, as he put it, to “lean on the paper work,” Bussino earlier this week received the same Distinguished Flying Cross medal that all the other members of their crew received more than 40 years ago.
In the summer of 1945, Bussino returned to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, before his crew mates. And for some reason still not entirely clear, he alone did not receive the medal, a decoration given automatically for completing 25 combat missions during that period of the war.
‘Made a Mistake’
“They made a mistake,” he said, one that he began trying to correct “as soon as I got out of the service.”
Still, Bussino didn’t make a crusade of getting the decoration. He was not especially active in veterans’ affairs or in reunion activities.
“Every once in a while I’d write to the Air Force,” he said. Once he wrote to a Los Angeles congressman for help. But the error did gnaw at him, and later at his wife and two children.
“To me it’s a high honor,” he explained. “I thought I had it coming.”
Then, last November, Bussino saw Gutekunst’s name on a list of those coming to Long Beach for a reunion of the 100th Bomber Group, which, as a unit in World War II, received several Presidential citations and the French Croix de Guerre. Bussino didn’t find Gutekunst at the gathering, but he was able to contact him later in Florida.
Gutekunst agreed to help, and together they gathered as much documentation as they could, reconstructing Bussino’s service record from old letters and flight logs.
In one letter to the Air Force, Gutekunst told of finding a 1945 letter from a lieutenant promising to correct the error. “Although many years old, (that letter) represents a promise to Sgt. Bussino, a promise that for some unexplained reason, did not develop into the intended result,” he wrote.
In addition to the letters, said one Air Force officer familiar with the case who asked not to be named, “The colonel worked Air Force channels to get the medal for him.”
The Air Force finally agreed, and earlier this week, at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Col. James Savarda, commander of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on Bussino’s suit during the base’s monthly retirement ceremonies.
Gutekunst “was the mastermind,” Bussino said Friday. “That’s why I got the medal.”
Gutekunst recalled Bussino as a “quiet,” “cooperative” crew member who “always did exactly what you told him.”
The main reason Gutekunst said he went out of his way for Bussino was because the former staff sergeant deserved it.
“He did a helluva job in the back end of that plane, keeping fighters away from us,” Gutekunst said.