Norman T. Kanel was one of the first veterans to join our breakfasts in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh in 2009. An amateur actor after the war, Norm knew how to tell a story and hold a room captive, but he didn’t need to infuse any drama into his war stories—they were dramatic enough as they were. Trained as both pilot and bombardier on B-24s, Norm flew fifty missions with 450th Bombardment Group, whose planes were nicknamed “cottontails” for their distinctive white rudders. Norm’s 721st Squadron, flying out of Manduria, Italy, bombed targets in southern and eastern Europe out of reach of the Mighty 8th Air Force based in England. Surviving fifty missions was something of a miracle for a bombardment group that, according to historian Neil Hunter Raiford’s book on the 450th (Shadow: A Cottontail Bomber Crew in World War II), “lost 1,505 airmen in only a year and a half–the equivalent of losing their effective flying strength three times over.”
Read, for example, the citation we’ve displayed for Norm. It describes a mission on October 4, 1944, when his B-24—a plane, unlike the B-17, highly vulnerable to loss of hydraulic pressure—had an engine knocked out and fuel line cut. He might have tried to make it to Switzerland from his target in northern Italy, in which case he would have waited out the war in peace and safety as temporary resident of that neutral country. Instead, he crash landed in Italy on virtually empty fuel tanks, and lived to fly the remainder of his missions.
Norman Kanel died on November 19, 2012 at age 91.
Airmen’s Code: Norman Kanel on his Last Mission over Germany
Norman Kanel flew fifty missions for the 15th Air Force in World War II. Against orders, he kept a journal with detailed accounts of every mission. Reading over them today, he can’t believe what he saw and experienced. Fires, explosions, flak tearing into vulnerable bodies. Much of what he wrote, he said, is unfit for sharing with the group.
On his fiftieth and final mission, Norm’s plane broke down over Germany. One engine quit entirely, and Norm had to pull out of formation and head back to England. On his way back, a second engine quit. Unlike B-17s, B-24s weren’t easy to fly on two engines at high altitude. Norm decided to fly as far as he could before ringing the emergency alarm. The crew would probably have to bail out and take their chances parachuting into occupied Europe.
As he came to grips with his ship’s predicament, Norm spied a Messerschmitt approaching on his left. The German pilot held his fire, as did Norm’s crew. The Messerschmitt eased up next to the B-24, almost wingtip-to-wingtip, so that Norm and the pilot could look directly at each other. The German pilot smiled at Norm. Then, he raised his hand and brought two fingers to his temple in a salute.
“I knew what that salute meant,” said Norm. “That pilot didn’t think we would ever make it back, and he was wishing us well. Those two fingers said: #1: airmen on all sides are being shot down every day. #2: there’s nothing a doctor can do for them.”
Against the odds, Norman Kanel’s plane did make it back to England, and he completed his fiftieth mission. His war was over.
Norm shared this story in December 2010 at a Veterans Breakfast Club even in Pittsburgh, PA.
Norman Kanel passed away on Monday, November 19, 2012. Beloved husband of Eileen Kanel; beloved father of Gary (Krista) Kanel of Los Angeles, CA, Keith Kanel, and Jill Douglass both of Pittsburgh; brother of the late Sondra Greenbaum; grandfather of Tanner, Mindy, and Shane Douglass.