Steve Nordwell and his daughter Hillary stand with Anton Blasic at the site of the memorial in Stravberk, Slovenia, where Nordwell’s father’s plane went down during World War II. (Steve Nordwell)

Steve Nordwell and his daughter Hillary stand with Anton Blasic at the site of the memorial in Stravberk, Slovenia, where Nordwell’s father’s plane went down during World War II. (Steve Nordwell)

Port Angeles man grateful to villagers who helped his father in WWII

He and daughter attend memorial dedication in Slovenia

PORT ANGELES — The selflessness of the villagers of Stravberk, Slovenia, during WWII is as inspiring now as it was then, according to Port Angeles resident Steve Nordwell, who attended the dedication of a memorial where his father crash-landed during a military mission.

Nordwell and his daughter, Hillary, traveled to the small village in early October at the invitation of Anton Blasic, whose father witnessed the crash, and Andrej Kerin, a retired officer in the Slovenian Ministry of Defense.

Blasic and Kernin have been working together to uncover stories of heroism during the Nazi occupation of Slovenia and have worked to contact the surviving family members of soldiers who crashed there to participate in the dedication memorial and ceremony.

Nordwell spoke at the ceremony about the willingness of the villagers and Partisans and their willingness to share what little they had with his father and other soldiers, even during the intense wartime scarcity and the threat of attack by the occupying Nazi forces.

He said he believes that the cooperation exhibited then is a model for today, when cooperation between nations and even within a nation needs to be encouraged.

He hopes these monuments and activities of remembrance will keep alive these priceless lessons of history.

The ceremony was originally planned for 2021 on what would have been the 77th anniversary of the crash, but due to COVID-19, it was delayed until this year.

In attendance at the ceremony was the mayor of Novo Mesto, the nearest city to the village; an attache to the U.S. embassy; the Slovenian Minister of Defense; and the President of the Association of Police Veterans Society.

Nordwell’s father grew up in Matlock and after graduation from high school in Elma, he moved to Yakima, where he met his wife, to be a hop farmer. He joined up soon after the Pearl Harbor attack and as Technical Sgt. Ernest Nordwell, he served in the 15th Army-Air Force as a gunner on a B-24 bomber called “Moo Juice.”

“It has something to do with a milk run,” Nordwell said about the bomber’s name. “I don’t really know the history of the plane, mainly because it was not the crew’s normal plane.

“The plane they usually flew was fresh off the assembly line in Florida and it was called ‘Bubble Trouble,’ because of problems with the bomber’s gun sites. By the time it got to Europe, it had been renamed ‘Star Dust’ and wound up under maintenance when my dad and his crew flew their mission.”

The mission was one of the earliest from Italy into Nazi-occupied territory. Tech. Sgt. Nordwell and a crew of 10 men were flying from an allied military base in southern Italy to a marshaling yard in Graz, Austria, the targets being military transportation.

“They had just moved into the base in Italy in February after the allies retook the southern part of Italy,” Nordwell said. “This was a strategic move so those bombers could fly missions into northern Italy as well as into the industrial parts of Nazi Germany and Nazi-held territories.”

The bomber took hits from Nazi fighters and ultimately crashed in the village of Stravberk on March 19, 1944.

“My dad’s plane had one engine out and they were trying to come back to the base in Italy when the Nazi fighters got them just over Slovenia,” Nordwell said.

Tech. Sgt. Nordwell and the pilot, First Lt. Lowell West, parachuted out of the bomber at 800 feet and were able to evade capture by the Nazis with the help of the villagers and Partisans soldiers.

Five crew members were unable to parachute to survive the crash but were captured. The other three were killed in the crash.

A 14-year-old boy named Francisek Blasic was a witness to the crash. He contacted members of Titos Partisans, who helped Nordwell and West evade Nazi capture and escape to an allied base in Bosnia so they could fly back to Italy.

Titos Partisans were an anti-axis resistance movement, better known as the National Liberation Movement, that began in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina led by communist leader Josip Broz Tito.

“The Partisans were up to 300,000 by the time my dad crash-landed in Stravberk. The Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists feared them so much they wouldn’t travel up into the hills of the region,” Nordwell said.

Getting from Stravberk to Bosnia without being detected or caught by the Nazis was by no means easy.

According to historical accounts collected by Nordwell, Kernin and Blasic, much of the travel happened at night and in small groups.

“It was a complicated six- to seven-week journey traveling at night, either by foot or wagon, due to axis activity during the day. There was very little information to go on at times, and they never knew what was going to happen,” Nordwell said.

Tech. Sgt Nordwell was injured during the journey and, upon his return home to Matlock, he was awarded a Purple Heart medal and Air Medal for meritorious achievement.

He moved to Port Angeles in 1953 and worked at the Rainier pulp mill, which operated on the Port Angeles waterfront for about 60 years before it closed in 1997.

________

Reporter Ken Park can be reached at kpark@peninsuladailynews.com.

Tech. Sgt. Ernest Nordwell of the 15th Army-Air Force. (Photo courtesy of Steve Nordwell)

Tech. Sgt. Ernest Nordwell of the 15th Army-Air Force. (Photo courtesy of Steve Nordwell)

Tech. Sgt. Ernest Nordwell sits atop a B-24 Bomber bound for Graz, Austria.

Tech. Sgt. Ernest Nordwell sits atop a B-24 Bomber bound for Graz, Austria.

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