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Thursday, April 26 News

On Memorial Day, Westport parade marshal will proudly wear WWII flight jacket again

On Memorial Day, Robert Satter plans to wear the old, worn flight jacket he donned for dozens of World War II combat missions over Germany and occupied France in 1944.

Satter, a former portrait photographer who resides on Sue Terrace, says he will wear that uniform with pride as the grand marshal of this year's Memorial Day parade.

Satter served as a radio operator with the 8th Air Force and was one of the original crews that formed the 732nd Bomb Squadron, part of the 453rd Bombardment Group, whose operations officer was Maj. James (Jimmie) Stewart, the actor.

"I always wanted to fly," Satter, 90, a Norwalk native, said this week, adding he was influenced by pulp fiction magazines and movies of that time, like "Dawn Patrol," with David Niven and Errol Flynn, that romanticized fighter pilots.

So it's no surprise that, when he turned 18, andshortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he decided to enlist for active duty. "I wanted to sign up for pilot training," he said.

"The recruiter asked me what kind of college credits I had," Satter said. "I told him I just graduated high school and didn't go to college yet. They were fussy about that type of thing back in those days."

Saying he was "disgruntled" by the turn of events, Satter took a job at a defense manufacturer in Norwalk, but "hated it there."

"I was a healthy young man and I wanted to fly," he said. So he tried again, got turned down for pilot training again, but opted to sign on as an aerial gunner. At least, he said, he would be flying.

Basic training took place in Atlantic City where the military took over all the hotels and drills took place on the boardwalk. "We marched up and down it," he recalled.

He was later sent to Sioux Falls, S.D., for gunner/radio operator training. "You have to realize that I had never been further than Paramus, N.J., before then, so it was a big deal," Satter said. He added that after finishing that training, he would have "three stripes" and the rank of technical sergeant.

There was also training in Las Vegas that included ground school before crews -- pilots, gunners, navigators and radio operators -- were put together to man the brand new B-24 Liberators.

They were all also issued .45-caliber automatics, which Satter still has among his war memorabilia, that includes the Distinguished Flying Cross.

"I don't know how they did it, but our crew, all the members were from the East Coast," he said. Once the crews were compiled, they formed bomber squadrons, like Satter's 453rd bomb group.

"That's when we were told we were going to England," he said. But first, there were flights to a number of places like Belize in Brazil, "We flew over the mouth of the Amazon and crossed the equator," he said. There was also a stop in Marrakech, where they picked up a case of navel oranges. "We were all broke, we hadn't been paid yet," so, he said, they had to pool their money to buy the fruit.

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Their final destination was the Royal Air Force Station Old Buckenham that was also used during the war by the U.S. for its bombing campaign against Germany.

"There were hours of boredom there, punctuated by moments of terror during the missions," he said. "I never realized when I signed up that, someday, someone would be shooting at me."

Their targets were German assembly, engineering and manufacturing plants and chemical refineries, he said. Of the original 18 crews in his squadron, two-thirds, or 12, didn't survive. There were also casualties to his crew, and one time his plane was hit and the crew was nearly forced to bail out.

But after 32 missions, Satter was able to return home as a "happy warrior," a designation given to military personnel who made it back home alive.

It was then that he saw a poster with an offer for happy warriors to sign up for pilot training, which he did. "It was at a private flying school (in California) and we had catered meals," he said. They were trained in biplanes with open cockpits. "I finally soloed," he said, a grin spreading over his face. But his flying career was short-lived.

Just then, he said, atomic bombs were dropped over Japan and the war ended. "We were told we could continue in the pilot program, but we had to sign up for three more years," he said.

But, Satter said, there was something more important waiting for him back home -- his sweetheart, Jean.

"I met her when I was 15 and a half, and she waited for me all during the war," he said. "So I got a job and married the girl I loved."

The couple, married in 1946, are the parents of two sons and have three grandchildren.

The parade will begin at 9 a.m. on Riverside Avenue. Immediately following the parade, a memorial service will be held on Veterans Green opposite Town Hall.