BOUNTIFUL — The last time Norman Biehn, 97, and his brother, Carl, 95, saw each other, they had just completed a trip to Washington, D.C.
The visit was part of a Utah Honor Flight, a program that takes veterans to visit the war memorials in the nation's capital.
They said goodbye at the airport before Norman Biehn traveled home to California, "and he gave us a hug and said goodbye,” his brother said. “He said, 'We're getting too old and fragile to be traveling anymore … especially to a funeral. … Let's just say goodbye now.'"
On Sunday, Norman Biehn died at his home.
Carl Biehn, who lives in Bountiful, said the pair, by chance, ended up in the same squadron during the war. He had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December of 1939. His brother joined about a month later.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Carl Biehn was based at Hamilton Field in California as a radio operator on a B-17. He remembered having to outfit their old planes with guns and patrolling the West Coast to ward against possible attacks.
A short time later, though, Biehn and his brother were bound for Indonesia. Their mission was to bomb the beaches to try to slow the Japanese advance in the area. They were initially told the Japanese anti-aircraft guns would not reach the bombers at their altitude and neither would fighters. That wasn’t the case.
“The anti-aircraft busting all around us, just kind of disturbed the morale a bit,” Carl Biehn recalled.
Though both brothers served in the same squadron and both were gunners, they never flew on the same plane.
"They asked me one time when my partner got killed,” said Biehn. “They kept getting spare gunners to take his place. They come to me one day and asked me if I'd accept my brother as the other side gunner on the aircraft.”
He told them no. “I says, 'I've seen one man killed and worked on him. I don't think I could take it watching my brother die and then trying to fight at the same time.'"
That fight in which Biehn’s first partner, another side gunner, had died happened on Feb. 8, 1942.
“My partner got hit early in the fight,” he said. “So I took over both guns. As soon as the fight was over I tried to work on my partner, but he was in too bad of shape." Biehn said two of the eight planes on that mission were shot down. He earned the Silver Star for his actions during that battle.
On another mission, his brother Norman earned a Silver Star.
“We used to carry rocks on the airplanes on night missions,” Carl Biehn recalled. Crew members would toss them out over enemy bases to try to trick the gunners into opening fire and giving away their positions. "And they started shooting, so (the bombers) located their air base.”
Later, the brothers were awarded their Silver Stars in the same ceremony. Newspaper accounts at the time claim they were the first brothers in the war to receive the awards at the same time.
"There were several brothers in the group,” Biehn said, “but we knew that they'd each lost a brother. … Me and my brother were the only two that got through complete without the one being killed."
There were other close calls. Carl Biehn said although an injury took his brother out of combat duty, the pair were separated for a time as they escaped the advancing Japanese from Java, Indonesia. Biehn and his crew had lost their plane. A bomb destroyed it as it sat on the airstrip.
“We lost more aircraft on the ground than we did in the air,” he said.
Those without planes were ordered to move to the coast to meet ships that would evacuate them, but at the last minute, their mission changed. They were ordered to another airstrip to help refuel a plane full of fleeing dignitaries and told they’d have to try to find a ride on the plane.
“If there’s room for you on the airplane, that’s fine,” Biehn said they were told. “If there’s no room, your boats will already be gone, so you’ll have to head for the hills. We’ll see you when the war is over.”
At the airfield, Biehn said the pilot was able to find places for the crew, but Biehn had to knock out the plane’s tail stand as it began to taxi, then run and jump in to man the side gunner position. He later learned the boat he was supposed to be on had been sunk.
It was good to be together again. The memorials were fantastic. I loved every bit of it.
“My brother thought I was on the boat that went down,” Biehn said. They reunited in Australia. He remembers his brother simply saying, “You made it, how come?”
Then Biehn relayed his story.
After their time in the Pacific, they were both moved stateside. Carl Biehn trained as a P-51 pilot and trained other crews. He got out of the Army just before the beginning of the Korean War and spent his civilian career at Hill Air Force Base.
Norman Biehn stayed in the military throughout his career.
During their Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., late last month, the Biehns were side by side, taken through the sites mostly on wheelchairs by their guardians.
“It was good to be together again,” Carl Biehn said. “The memorials were fantastic. I loved every bit of it.”
Both brothers and their guardians were also impressed by the number of people who approached them to thank them for their service.
As they returned to Salt Lake City, much of their extended family was there for the group’s welcome home party at the Utah State Fairpark. Family members said it provided them a rare opportunity to have so many of them together at the same time.
Norman Biehn will be buried at a military cemetery in Riverside, California, on Friday.