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A Former German Soldier...Who Helped Build America's Arsenal of Democracy In WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 6, 2024 3:00 am

A Former German Soldier...Who Helped Build America's Arsenal of Democracy In WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 6, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Robert Frohlich tells the story of his grandfather, a German-born immigrant who handled warhorses as a World War I conscript - and helped the United States win World War II.

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Send them to They're some of our favorites. Up next, a story from Robert Froelich. Robert is the author of Aimless Life, Awesome God, and a regular contributor to this show. Today, Robert shares with us the story of a man who impacted him profoundly.

Take it away, Robert. In World War I, Wilhelm Bistner was in the German army. His assignment was to care for the horses that pulled the cannons to fight against the Russians. During a gas attack in that war, Wilhelm suffered the loss of his sense of smell. After the war, he was awarded a small disability annuity for his injury.

The monthly payments continued until he died in Florida in 1977. Wilhelm was born in 1892, the son of a tavern owner in Berlin, Germany. He learned his trade as a tool and die maker and married Elspeth Schulz.

In 1927, they came by ship to America with their daughter, Ursula. Wilhelm Bistner became William Burtner. His German friends called him Willy and everybody else called him Bill. When he first came to the United States, Bill worked as a mason's helper while he learned the English language.

Then he went to work at his trade. Long Island, New York was a hotbed in the early days of aviation and he saw it all. He knew many of the pioneers in that field. He worked for Sversky and for Sikorsky, the early developers of the helicopter. He also worked for Republic Aircraft and Chance Vought Aircraft. In 1933, Bill went to work for Edo Aircraft in College Point, New York. Bill was involved in the design and fabrication of floats for various aircraft, including some for Charles Lindbergh and Admiral Berg. I remember he had two model airplanes proudly displayed on the mantel in his College Point home. One was a solid aluminum model of Lindbergh's plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the other was a Chance Vought F4U, the iconic gull-winged Navy warplane.

World War II created a huge demand for military aircraft floats. As assistant division superintendent, Bill headed up a fabrication shop. According to one College Point residence, he hired, quote, every German tool maker and machinist he could find, including my father's, and as a result put food on the table from my family, unquote. Bill put all his skills to work revamping tool designs and manufacturing processes to make the production faster and more safe.

In 1943, he won a National Safety Ace Award for one of his designs. After the war, Bill retired to his 100-acre retreat in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Living in a house he had built himself, he and Elspeth took me with them in 1947. He had a small machine shop there and planned to do some contract work from time to time that only lasted a year.

They moved back to the city, gave me back to my mother, and Bill started work at Sperry Gyroscope Corporation. The company manufactured guidance systems for ships, aircraft, and missiles. Bill always took great pride in his work, immersing himself in the tiny details of his craft, and he loved the shaping of hard steel or soft aluminum into useful objects. Once he showed me a rectangular aluminum box about one and a half inches wide and high and about two inches long. It had a hinged lid. At Sperry, Bill had designed the tool that made this box, which was an electrical junction box for the instrument panel of the Boeing 707 aircraft.

He explained to me the intricacies of bending allowances and the tiny tolerances that went into this simple object. Bill retired again in 1961, but when I returned home for military service in 1964, I found him working every day in a small local machine shop, still making tools to shape metal to his will. Bill's German-born love for precision and order carried over to his off-duty life. He owned just three cars during my lifetime, all Plymouth's, a 1941, a 1955, and a 1968.

They were all base models with manual transmissions, and apart from a radio, no amenities. Every Saturday, Bill would check under the hood. Reflecting on my grandfather's life, it amazes me the advances he was part of. Young Wilhelm, taking care of horses and the muddy battlefields of World War I. Bill, the tool and die maker, acquainted with the pioneers in aviation. Bill, the superintendent, helping to win World War II by making water landings possible for military aircraft.

And Bill, the tool maker, seeing parts he helped create flying high in the sky and even into space. Bill Burtner loved this country, and he made the most of the opportunities it gave him. And he returned the favor by giving his best to America. He never lost that German love for precision and ordinal, nor did that distinctly German accent ever leave him. He was my grandpa, and I loved him. And what a gem we just heard.

I mean, what a time to have grown up. I mean, from horses to flight, and there he is right in the middle of flight, using his God-given skills to help America defeat the Nazi menace. Our arsenal of democracy, folks, we couldn't have done it without it.

And men like Bill on the front lines. William Burtner's life story is told by his grandson, Robert Froelich, here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

That's I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts. zumoplay is your destination for endless entertainment. With a diverse lineup of 350 plus live channels, movies and full TV series, you'll easily find something to watch right away.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-06 04:19:25 / 2024-05-06 04:23:23 / 4

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