Mary Ruth Memories of Mobile...We Still Remember
Chapter 3 - Return From Bremen. The Low Squadron is Gone
Working for Uncle Sam
Bombs Away rings out over the intercom static of 29 aircraft of the 91st Bomb Group (Heavy). From each olive-drab B-17, five, one thousand pound general purpose bombs break free of their shackles and fall through the open bomb bay doors. Relieved of the weight, the bombers lurch upward. The high explosives stream downward onto the Bremen, Germany Flugzeubau assembly works of the Focke-Wulf factory 26,000 feet below. The plant produces about 80 Focke-Wulf (FW) 190 fighters each month. FW 190s, along with hoards of Me 109s are wrecking havoc among heavy bomber formations as they penetrate into German airspace.
Many of the bombs explode within the factory itself, destroying at least half of the buildings. Others fall on the adjoining airfield and aircraft dispersal areas. The time is 1259 hours. Planes of the 91st Bomb Group have been in the air for almost three hours. Thus, ends successfully the day's work for Uncle Sam. From now on the air crews will be working for themselves. The primary objective of the crewmen for the rest of this day, 17 April 1943, is to return safely to their home base at Bassingbourn, East Anglia, England. A party awaits the returning officers this evening. Local English girls, the crewmen's dates, are already preparing for a night of dancing and general revelry. In a few hours, trucks, Passion Wagons, will be heading out to nearby villages to pick up the girls and bring them to the airbase.
For today's mission, VIII Bomber Command launched the largest number of heavy bombers it has sent out. Of the 115 aircraft put into the air earlier this morning, 107 made it to the target, another record. But, it has been a rough mission, even for this period of the air war over Germany. Weather over the target was clear, perfect for bombing, putting the Germans on guard as to the possibility of an attack on Bremen. Further, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane spotted the American formation while it was still well out over the North Sea. German fighter control was alerted as to the likely target, as well as heading, speed, altitude, and number of bombers in the Strike Force. A welcoming committee of 150 German fighters awaited the formations as they approached the enemy coast.
This is the 69th combat mission the 91st Group has flown since its first foray over the continent on 7 November 1942. The 91st and the 306th, Bomb Groups, comprising the 101st Provisional
Combat Wing (PBCW), with the 91st in the Lead, were first over the target today. They were followed by the 305th and 303rd Groups of the 102 PBCW.
The 91st Group put up 32 bombers this morning, the largest force it has mounted to date. The 323rd Squadron, with eight aircraft in the air, led the 91st formation. Maj Paul D. Brown, with Cpt Lawrence P. Dwyer, Jr. as his pilot, in No. 559, Stupntakit, led the Group. 1Lt John T. Evin's crew in No. 642, Vulgar Virgin, flew on the right wing of the Lead aircraft. Cpt Charles R. Giauque, in No. 657, was in the No. 3 position of the Lead Element. The Second Element of the Lead Squadron was led by Cpt William R. Clancy in No. 639, The Careful Virgin. On his right wing was 1Lt Homer C. Biggs, Jr. in No. 475, Stric-Nine and on his left wing, No. 077, Delta Rebel No. 2, with 1Lt George P. Birdsong, Jr. and his crew. 1Lt Robert D. Rand and his crew, in No. 547, Vertigo, was designated a Group Spare. They flew in the rear, diamond, position of the Second Element.
Six bombers from the 322nd Squadron formed the High Squadron. Cpt Robert B. Campbell, in No. 990, Dame Satan, was Lead of the High Squadron. The No. 2 position in the Lead Element was filled by 1Lt William H. Broley's crew in No. 789, Golden Bear. 1Lt John T. Hardin, in No. 453, The Bearded Beauty-Mizpath, was on Cpt Campbell's left wing. The Second Element was led by Cpt Bruce D. Barton's crew in No. 483, Spirit of Alcohol. On his right wing was 1Lt James D. Baird in No. 481, Hell's Angels, with No. 712, Heavyweight Annihilators No. 2, and 1Lt Don C. Bader's crew in the No. 3 position.
The 401st Squadron sent out nine planes. Six of the aircraft formed the Low Squadron. The first Element was led by Capt Oscar D. O'Neill and his crew flying in No. 070, Invasion 2nd. On his right wing, in the No. 2 position, was No. 172, Thunderbird, with 1Lt Harold H. Beasley's crew aboard. Lt Beasley's regular plane, No. 132, Royal Flush!, had been damaged by German fighters during a mission to Paris on the 4th of April. While Royal Flush! is being repaired, Lt Beasley and his crew have been assigned Thunderbird. This is their second mission in the aircraft. Lt Beasley's regular copilot, 1Lt Oscar F. Deithering, has been stood down for the mission. A new first pilot, 1Lt Walter L. McCain, is flying in the right seat to gain combat experience before taking out his own crew. Lt McCain and his crew arrived at Bassingbourn on the 3rd of April. Two of Lt McCain's crewmen also were sent up today, 2Lt Mathew Michaels, bombardier, with Lt Beasley and 2Lt Maurice J. Herman, navigator, with 1Lt Earl E. Riley.
On Lt O'Neill's left wing, the No. 3 position, was 1Lt Robert B. Walker's crew in No. 391, Rain of Terror. There was a shortage of qualified bombardiers in the 91st Bomb Group today. A 322nd Squadron administrative first sergeant, George O. Zedonek, volunteered to fly as a togglier. In so doing he had to take a temporary reduction in rank to S/Sgt. He is flying with Lt Walker. This is Sgt Zedonek's first combat mission.
The Second Element of the Low Squadron was led by Lt Riley in No. 763, Bomb Boogie. His copilot, 2Lt Neil A. Daniels, is the copilot on 1Lt Buster Peek's crew, who arrived on the 3rd of April. On Lt Riley's right wing was 1Lt John W. Wilson and crew in No. 459, Hellsapoppin. The left wing of the Second Element was 1Lt Nichalos P. Stoffel and crew in No. 574, Skywolf II. Lt Stoffel is the regular copilot on 1Lt Bill M. Martin's crew. Lt Martin and his crew are members of the 92nd Bomb Group (Heavy) stationed at Alconbury Air Field. Several crews from the 92nd are on detached service with the 91st and are flying out of Bassingbourn, using 91st Group aircraft. All are experienced crews. Lt Martin was transferred back to Alconbury yesterday. Lt Stoffel has moved over into the left seat as first pilot. Lt Stoffel is experienced at flying from this seat. For the last several missions, Lts Martin and Stoffel have been alternating as first pilot. For today's mission, the 92nd Group Assistant Operations Office, Cpt Robert A. Foster, is flying his first mission to obtain combat experienced. He is flying as copilot for Lt Stoffel.
Another 323rd Squadron plane, No. 399, Man-O-War, was designated as a Group spare for the mission. Man-O-War was assigned the diamond position of the Second Element of the 401st Low Squadron. The crew aboard Man-O-War is that of 2Lt Lowell L. Walker, Jr., another 92nd Bomb Group crew on detached service with the 91st.
Three additional aircraft and crews from the 401st Squadron were sent up, along with a three-plane element from the 322nd Squadron, to form a Composite Low Squadron in a Composite Group, designated the 104th Group for this mission. The three 401st planes comprised the Lead Element of this Low Composite Squadron. The Element Lead was No. 484, Bad Egg, with Cpt John W. Carroll and his crew aboard. On her right wing was 1Lt Donald H. Frank's crew in No. 437, Frank's Nightmare and on the left wing, No. 337, Short Snorter III, with 1Lt Nathan F. Lindsey and crew. In the lead of the Second Element was Cpt Kenneth K. Wallick from the 322nd Squadron in No. 178, The Old Standby. A third 92nd Group crew, with 1Lt McGehee Word as first pilot, was on his right wing in a 322nd plane, No. 057, Piccadilly Commando. 1Lt William F. Genheimer's crew from the 322nd Squadron, in No. 497, Frisco Jinny, was in the No. 3 position, on his left wing.
Six planes of the 324th Squadron formed the High Squadron of the Composite Group. The Lead Element of the 324th Squadron was led by 1Lt James. A. Verinis flying in No. 069, Our Gang. On his right wing was Maj D. G. Alford in No. 527, The Great Speckled Bird and in the No. 3 position, 1Lt James M. Smith in No. 053, Desperate Journey. The Second Element was led by Cpt Robert K. Morgan in No. 485, Memphis Belle. In the No. 2 position was Lt Charles W. Freschauf in No. 487, Ritzy Blitz, and on his left wing, 1Lt Clayton L. Anderson, in No. 480, The Bad Penny. Six planes from the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group, stationed at nearby Thurleigh, formed the Lead Squadron of the Composite Group. Maj Henry W. Terry, Jr. of the 306th Group led the Composite Group. Thirteen months to the day later, on 17 May 1944, Maj, then Col, Terry would assume command of the 91st Bomb Group.
The 91st Group Lead aircraft, Stupntakit of 323rd Squadron had lifted off at 0956 hours. Other planes followed at approximately 30-second intervals, the last one, No. 399, Man-O-War, left the runway at 1008 hours. There was considerable ground haze at Bassingbourn during take off, reducing visibility to between one and two miles. In spite of this the pilots did not experience serious problems in forming up on the Group Lead and heading for the Wing rendezvous with the 306th Group. Weather conditions over the prescribed route to the target were the best they had been for the past month. Although a general ground haze covered the continent and cloud patches were prevalent at 6,000, 14,000 and 20,000 feet over most of the route, at no place did cloud cover exceed 5/10 density. Still, it required considerable skill, and a little luck, for the lead navigator, Cpt Charles F. Maas, to identify check points along the route.
The flight path took the bombers to the northeast out over the North Sea, over the East Frisian Islands and on into Germany west of Wilhemshaven and Oldensburg. Check points along way were Baltrum Island, Edewecht, Ahlhorn, and the IP (Initial Point, beginning of the bomb run) at Wildeshausen. The IP was 5 minutes from the target. The prescribed rate of climb to bombing altitude while over the North Sea was very fast. The bombers had to move from 6,000 feet to 26,000 feet in 32 minutes. This placed considerable stress on the heavily loaded bombers. Two aircraft encountered problems because of the fast rate of climb. Bomb Boogie, Lead of the Second Element of the 401st Low Squadron, developed a fuel pressure problem in the No. 2 engine, the No. 4 engine began running rough and the radio compass went out. Lt Riley had
to turn back at 1225 hours, about 70 miles north of the East Frisian Islands. Bomb Boogie landed back at Bassingbourn at 1510 hours. Upon the departure of Bomb Boogie, Lt Walker flying in the rear of this element, moved Man-O-War up to become Element Lead.
A 322nd Squadron crew in the Composite Group, Lt Word's Piccadilly Commando, also had to return to base. After test firing his .50 caliber left waist machine gun, S/Sgt Edward A. Murphy lifted the gun back into the aircraft to make adjustments. In doing so, he accidentally hit the trigger causing the gun to run away inside the fuselage. He shot up the stabilizer, knocked the oxygen system out and nearly hit the tail gunner, S/Sgt Marvin E. Dyer. Lt Word turned back at 1230 hours, 15 miles NW of Baltrum Island.
Another 322nd Squadron plane had to abort the mission. The Bearded Beauty-Mizpah, with Lt Hardin in the No. 3 position of the Lead Element of the 322nd High Squadron of the 91st formation, turned back at 1236 hours, about 10 miles SE of Juist Island in the East Frisian Islands. The oil line to No. 2 engine broke and the No. 4 turbocharger went out because of the stress from the rapid rate of climb to bombing altitude. Lt Hardin returned to base at 1615 hours. Lt Rand moved his Spare aircraft, Vertigo, up into the space vacated by Lt Hardin.
As the Group crossed over onto the continent, 29 of the 32 bombers that left Bassingbourn remained in the Strike Force. Eight 401st Squadron planes went over the continent, five in the Low Squadron of the 91st formation and three in the Low Squadron of the Composite Group.
As the 91st passed over the East Frisian Islands moderately heavy, and accurate, flak came up at the formation. None of the 91st Group planes received serious hits. As soon as the planes passed beyond the range of these anti-aircraft guns, German fighters appeared. The fighters did not at first charge into the bomber stream, but gradually picked up the tempo of runs at the bombers until the IP, Wildeshausen, by which time they were mounting vicious attacks upon the intruding aircraft. All the while flak continued to come up at the Strike Force from Aurica, Oldenburg, Alhorn, Wildeshausen, and of course, Bremen.
Nearly every type of fighter available to the Luftwaffe came at the Strike Force. Most were with Me 109s, but a number of FW 190s also attacked the bombers. Although the majority of the enemy aircraft stormed in on the bombers from between 1000 O'clock and 0200 O'clock high, attacks were made from almost every conceivable direction. Many of the passes were made by javelin formations of several enemy aircraft flying in line directly through the bomber formation. Others swarmed at the bombers in elements of three. Me 110 twin-engine fighters engaged the bombers at a distance of over 1,000 yards, beyond the protective range of the machine guns of the bombers, firing 20 and 30 mm cannon shells at the planes. Twin-engine Ju 88s were believed to have dropped aerial bombs into the formation from above. No fewer than 125 single engine and 25 twin-engine enemy aircraft were estimated to have engaged the Strike Force.
Cpt Maas could not see the IP because of the haze, but rather than diverting to the alternate target, he turned at the estimated time he was supposed to turn on the IP and hoped for the best. He was accurate. Bremen appeared directly ahead and the bomb run was on course.
The heaviest fighter attacks were experienced at the beginning of the flak barrage at Bremen. Fighters continued coming at the bombers over the target as enemy pilots ignored the exploding flak. It appeared to the bomber crews that the enemy attacks were planned to drive Lead Elements of the Squadrons off the bomb run, after the Group had been committed to the run, so as to render the bombing inaccurate. Many of German pilots pressed their attacks to within 25 yards of the bombers before breaking off. In spite of persistent flak along the route in to the target and intensifying fighter attacks on the 91st formation as the Group approached the target, all 91st planes that crossed the enemy coast remained with the formation to go over the target.
Just after leaving the IP, and beginning the bomb run, Sky Wolf II received flak hits and was attacked head-on by German fighters. The windshields in front of both pilots were shattered. Fighters were queuing up off to the left of the bomber, darting ahead, turning over on their backs, and circling back in head-on attacks. Others were coming in from all positions. Some of the enemy aircraft came so close Lt Stoffel and Maj Foster could see their eyes. Crewmen literally were screaming out directions of incoming fighters over the intercom. One 20 mm shell came through the nose of the plane and exploded in the bulkhead just in front of the pilots' legs, severely wounding the bombardier, 2Lt Everet A. Coppage, in the buttocks. A piece of shell went on through the nose compartment and into the flight deck, hitting Cpt Foster in the right leg, causing a gaping wound. Cpt Foster felt as if he had been kicked very hard in the leg. Blood was flowing freely from the wound. Lt Stoffel was also wounded in the left leg by the exploding shell. Cpt Foster believed his wound was serious and bleeding so freely he needed immediate medical attention. He went down into the nose to bail out, hoping the Germans would find him quickly and get him to a hospital. When he discovered he did not have his chute on, he returned to the cockpit and removed the chest pack from under his seat. Cpt Foster snapped it on and went back down to the nose and bailed out.
After floating free for a short while, he pulled the rip cord. It came loose in his hand. Cpt Foster had to pull the canopy out of the pack by hand. While descending, Cpt Foster took his oxygen mask hose and tied it around his right leg to slow the blood still flowing from his wound. He landed heavily in a field and lay there, unable to get up because of his injured leg. A group of angry farmers came running at him from one direction and a small open vehicle with military men in it from the other. The military won and he was taken prisoner. Cpt Foster was taken to a hospital in Oldenburg where he remained for almost five months while his leg healed. At that time he was moved to the Center Compound at Stalag Luft 3.
Sky Wolf II continued on to the target, with Lt Stoffel handling the controls alone. She took more flak hits on the bomb run. The No. 1 engine was set afire while 20 mm cannon fire ripped through the rest of the plane. Much of the electrical system was knocked out, along with structural damage to the wings and fuselage. Still, Sky Wolf II remained in formation.
The Composite Group also remained intact to the target. The only change was that of the remaining two planes in the 322nd Squadron Element. In the confusion of evasive actions in response to fighter attacks, Lt. Genheimer and Frisco Jinny moved ahead of Lt Wallick in The Old Standby, who ended up flying on Lt Genheimer's right wing. As the two aircraft turned on the IP, 20 mm cannon fire blasted into the top turret of Frisco Jinny. The gunner, T/Sgt Roland E. Hale, was hit in the middle of the back, killing him instantly. In spite of the damage to Frisco Jinny, the two 322nd Squadron planes continued over the target, dropping with the rest of the formation.
Only two bombers from the entire Strike Force, both from the 306th Group, were lost en route to the target.
Except for Ritzy Blitz, of the 324th High Squadron of the Composite Group, the 91st bombers dropped all their bombs on the target. Three bombs hung up when the bombardier of Ritzy Blitz, 2Lt R. W. Stephenson, toggled over the target. He eventually was able to salvo the three remaining bombs, causing them to fall on Ochtelbur, at 1329 hours, on the return leg of the mission.
Flak over the target was intense, the most concentrated barrage the Group had encountered on any mission up to then. The crews were briefed that morning that there were an estimated 496 anti-aircraft batteries around Bremen. This appeared to be an accurate assessment. However many batteries there really were, the guns put up a solid box of exploding 88 mm and 105 mm shells. The resulting flak formed a massive black cloud of steel shards over the target.
Working for Themselves
The trip home proved to be a nightmare for the 401st Squadron. After bombs away, the prescribed route out of Germany started with a 90 degree right turn off the target, heading south into a sweeping right turn just north of Vilsen, angling back over Wildeshausen, and then to Ahlhorn. From there the bomber stream made a straight-line run out of Germany, passing east of Emden, west of Aurich and onto the North Sea over the west end of Juist Island of the Frisians.
The enemy aircraft did not break off their attacks on the 91st until the Group had left the enemy coast and was about 40 miles out over the North Sea. At this time the Strike Force was picked up by a formation of 12 British Spitfires which escorted the bombers back to England. Only two 401st bombers, both from the Composite Group, were still in the air when the Strike Force was met by the protecting British fighters.
What follows is the sequence of events involving planes of the 401st Squadron as the Group fought its way from Bremen back to the safety of the North Sea.
The Low Squadron
No. 070, Invasion 2nd
While over the target Invasion 2nd took flak hits and was attacked by German fighters. Three fighters came in head-on at 1200 O'clock level. They shot off completely the front of the No. 2 engine. The left wing and fuselage were also hit, turning the bomber into a fiery inferno. Invasion 2nd was on her way down. Cpt O'Neill rang the bail-out bell and called out over the intercom for the crew to leave the aircraft. The ball turret gunner, T/Sgt Benedict B. Borostowski, came up into the fuselage from the ball turret and went to the partly open waist door. The door was jammed and would not open further. The waist gunners, S/Sgts William B. King, left waist, and Eldon R. Lapp, right waist, were siting in front of the door, unable to squeeze out. Sgt Borostowski stepped up and one at a time put a foot between their shoulders, and in turn, pushed both gunners through the narrow opening. The others in the rear of the aircraft had already left. The tail gunner, S/Sgt Aaron S. Youell, dropped through his tail escape hatch. The radio operator, S/Sgt Charles J. Melchiondo, and the flight engineer, T/Sgt Harry Goldstein, went out through the bomb bay. There was no one left to push Sgt Borostowski out. So, he went to the tail escape hatch and dropped out. The rest of the crew, including Cpt O'Neill and the copilot, 1Lt Robert W. Freihofer, bailed out through the nose hatch. The bombardier, Cpt Edwin R. Bush, detached the Norden bombsight and tossed it out the escape hatch before following the navigator, Cpt Edwin M. Carmichael, through the opening.
Invasion 2nd crashed landed itself in an almost perfect landing on the ground near Oldenburg. Five planes were left in the Low Squadron.
No. 459, Hellsapoppin
The next 401st Low Squadron plane to go down was Hellsapoppin. Three or four minutes after the target there was a very hard jolt under the left side of the plane, close in to the fuselage. An anti-aircraft shell had exploded just under Hellsapoppin. Flak ripped into the left front side of the aircraft, flaking off chunks of metal from the fuselage and throwing them through the interior of the plane. At the same time, three feet of the right wing tip was blown off by a flak burst. A one and one-half foot hole appeared in the nose compartment and all the nose window Plexiglas blew out. There was fire in the left wing and nose compartment. The radio room became engulfed in fire from broken oxygen lines.
The pilot, Lt Wilson, was wounded in the head and the copilot, 1Lt Arthur A. Bushnell, in the right eye, both legs, left arm, and right hand by flying aluminum. In the nose, the bombardier, 1Lt Harold Romm, was hit in the left leg by flak. Earlier, before the target, Lt Romm had been hit in the same leg by a machine gun bullet during an attack by a FW 190.
In the top turret, the flight engineer, T/Sgt Norman L. Thompson, felt the jolt and when he looked out, saw the left wing on fire. He had just seen a fighter off the left wing going after a plane below and was afraid it would come back up at Hellsapoppin. The enemy fighter was about 15 feet too low for Sgt Thompson to deflect his top turret guns to get off a burst. Since the intercom was shot out, Sgt Thompson was not certain what was happening to the plane. He stepped down from the turret and went into the cockpit. There he saw both pilots with their oxygen masks off and blood pouring out from under their helmets. He assumed both were dead. Sgt Thompson had not heard any firing from the gunners since Hellsapoppin had left the target. He figured they either had been killed by the flak and fighters or were too seriously injured to move. From the intensity of the fire, he knew Hellsapoppin could explode any second. Sgt Thompson took a final glance at the instruments to ensure the plane was still in level flight. He went back to the bomb bay and opened the doors, which still operated. After checking below and seeing there was no plane under him, Sgt Thompson dropped out.
Almost immediately after Sgt Thompson bailed out, the plane broke in two at the radio room. Four others some how or other managed to escape the aircraft, Lts Bushnell, Barton, and Romm and the radio operator, T/Sgt Howard A. Earney. All were wounded. The rest of the crew remained trapped in the falling aircraft.
Hellsapoppin crashed 20 miles south of Bremen. Four planes were left in the Low Squadron.
No. 172, Thunderbird
Thunderbird, also was hit hard by flak over the target and limped along only a few minutes longer than did Hellsapoppin. Thunderbird took two direct hits on the No. 3 and 4 engines. The right wing was set ablaze immediately with burning oil. There was also fire in the radio room and bomb bay. Lt Beasley hit the fire extinguisher switch. Nothing.
The ball turret gunner, S/Sgt James L. Branch, looked up into all the fire, and knew Thunderbird was in serious trouble. He figured it was time to get out. Sgt Branch had been hit in the corner of an eye with a piece of shrapnel and blood covered the eye. He called Lt Beasley over the intercom and asked if he could come up into the fuselage. Lt Beasley told him he could. After getting out of the turret, Sgt Branch grabbed a fire extinguisher and went up to the radio room and bomb bay, but could not extinguish the fires. Lt Beasley then asked Sgt Branch to go to the rear of the plane to see if everyone was out. He had already rung the bail-out bell. Sgt Branch went to the rear of the fuselage and saw that the tail gunner, S/Sgt Johnnie Cagle, had bailed out through the tail hatch. He then told the waist gunners to get back there, to the waist hatch, and went up and told the radio operator, T/Sgt Jay M. Franklin, get your ass back there and bail out. Sgt Franklin started back, but passed out in the door of the radio compartment, apparently from lack of oxygen. Sgt Branch and the right waist gunner, S/Sgt Everett L. Creason, picked him up and threw him out, assuming he would come to and open his chute when he fell to where the oxygen was adequate. He did. Sgt Creason bailed out and Sgt Branch called up to the pilot to tell him everyone else was out and he was leaving. After leaving the aircraft, Sgt Branch opened his chute and looked up. He saw Thunderbird rise up on its back, turn up on it nose and go straight down to the ground.
While all this was going on in the rear of the aircraft, the flight engineer, T/Sgt Mark L. Schaefer, came down from the top turret and stood in back of the pilot and copilot to assist them in getting control of the aircraft. He saw Lt Beasley push the control column all the way forward and then pull it all the way back. No response! The controls were shot out. Lt Beasley and the copilot, Lt McCain, were getting ready to get out of their seats and snap on their chutes as Sgt Schaefer went down to the nose hatch and bailed out.
As the action had begun to develop, the bombardier, 2Lt Mathew Michaels, who was on his first mission, saw puffs of black smoke around the aircraft. He thought to himself, This must be what they had told us about. Just then Thunderbird took direct flak hits in the right wing. Lt Beasley rang the bail-out bell, which Lt Michaels mistakenly took to be only a warning. While Lt Michaels was waiting for the second bail-out bell to ring, the navigator, 1Lt Harry D. Sipe, headed for the nose hatch and bailed out. At that time a fighter appeared along side the bomber. Lt Michaels fired at him with the side gun, but missed. Thunderbird immediately afterwards started spinning downward. A case of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition pinned Lt Michaels to the top of the nose compartment. He heard glass breaking as his head crunched against one of the windows. A fighter came in on Thunderbird from head on, blowing away part of the nose with 20 mm cannon fire. The next thing Lt Michaels knew he was floating free of the plane. Either he had been blown out the nose when the 20 mm cannon shells hit or was stunned by the explosion and did not remember going out the nose hatch. He was still fairly high up and pulled his rip cord in time to float safely to the ground.
Lts Beasley and McCain must have been locked into the plane as it nosed over and dived downward. Their bodies were discovered by the Germans in the wreckage of Thunderbird.
Thunderbird crashed about 20 miles southwest of Bremen. Three planes were left in the Low Squadron.
No. 574, Sky Wolf II
Although Sky Wolf II had been hit hard on the bomb run and the No. 1 engine was on fire, Lt Stoffel kept her in position over the target. The bombardier, Lt Coppage, toggled the bombs with the rest of the Squadron. As soon as the Group turned off the target and was just beyond the edge of the flak barrage, more enemy aircraft jumped Sky Wolf II. Another 20 mm shell hit the nose throwing Plexiglas into the face of Lt Coppage, causing severe, profusely bleeding, wounds. The navigator, 1Lt John F. Segrest, Jr., who had also suffered wounds in both legs and his shoulder, told Lt Coppage he needed immediate medical attention and should bail out. He then helped Lt Coppage out the nose hatch. Although alive when he left the aircraft, Lt Coppage did not survive.
Lt Segrest then went up into the cockpit to help Lt Stoffel fly the plane. They flew along for about five minutes when more fighters came at them. Sky Wolf II took a direct 20 mm cannon shell hit that knocked out all the controls. Lt Stoffel rang the bail-out bell and said to Lt Segrest, Let's go. Both officers went down to the nose hatch and bailed out.
The electrical system to the ball turret was not active and the gunner, Sgt Carl H. Quist, could not rotate around to get out. He remained trapped in the falling aircraft. The tail gunner, Sgt Mathew C. Medina, had not been heard over the intercom for some time. He apparently was either dead or so badly injured he could not bail out. Sgt Medina also went down with Sky Wolf II.
Sky Wolf II crashed 10 miles south of Aurich, in Ostfriesland, Germany. Two planes were left in the Low Squadron.
No. 391, Rain of Terror
Rain of Terror was hit by flak as well as by Me 109 and FW 190 fighter cannon fire over the target, setting the aircraft afire. The bombs had just dropped and the togglier, Sgt Zedoneck, was turning the plane back over to Lt Walker when more flak hit the aircraft. The bomb bay doors were still open. Lt Walker and the copilot, F/O Robert A. Vetter, managed to keep the plane with the formation in spite of the fire. On the way to the coast, a fighter made a pass over top of the bomber, wounding the top turret gunner, T/Sgt Robert F. Flanagan. The tail gunner, S/Sgt Nick Sandoff, most likely was killed during this attack. The radio operator, T/Sgt Gust E. Collias, saw him slumped over in the tail.
As Rain of Terror continued towards the North Sea, the fires became more intense and Lt Walker and F/O Vetter no longer could keep her in the air. Lt Walker told Sgt Collias that there was fire in the cockpit and for the crew to leave the aircraft. The aft crew bailed out, Sgt Collias going out through the bomb bay. Sgt Collias did not see the left waist gunner, S/Sgt Donald J. Snell, in the plane when he bailed out. He assumed Sgt Snell had already gone out the waist door. Whatever the circumstances, Sgt Snell did not survive. The ball turret gunner, S/Sgt Raymond C. Ottman, came up from the turret and went out the waist hatch. He had been hit in the buttocks and back during the fighter attacks.
The togglier, Sgt Zedoneck, and the navigator, 1Lt Roy W. Scott, bailed out the nose hatch. Sgt Zedonek landed in a tree, severely straining his back. German farmers spotted him and
turned him over to the military. Lt Scott fell softly to the ground about two miles SW of Bremen. The two pilots remained with the plane in spite of the increasing intensity of fire within the aircraft. Rain of Terror continued loosing altitude. The pilots finally made a crash-landing on the beach north of Norden. They both survived to become POWs.
All 401st planes were gone now from the Low Squadron. Only the 323rd aircraft, No. 399, Man-O-War, flown by the 92nd Bomb Group crew, was left. Lt Walker formed up with another Squadron for protection. The Low Squadron was no more.
In the composite group, No. 337, Short Snorter III, made it through the flak over the target without being hit. On the way out to the coast she was attacked by fighters, inflicting heavy damage on the aircraft. Still, Short Snorter III remained in formation. At 1326 hours, as the aircraft passed 3 miles east of Emden, Short Snorter III took direct flak hits that knocked out the No. 3 engine and set the No. 4 engine afire. The pilot, Lt. Lindsey, feathered the No. 3 engine. Almost immediately afterwards another anti-aircraft shell burst into the cockpit killing both Lt Lindsey and the copilot, 2Lt George Slivkoff. More flak hits smashed into the aircraft. Short Snorter III began slowly circling downward in the direction of Norden and the North Sea.
The bombardier, 2Lt Albert Dobsa, was hit in the stomach by one of the flak bursts. The navigator, 2Lt Rocco J. Maiorca, was uninjured. Lt Dobsa, sensing the plane was out of control, went up into the cockpit to see what was wrong. There he saw both pilots dead in their seats. He looked back into the fuselage and saw crewmen lying on the floor, also apparently dead. Lt Dobsa knew it was time to bail out and went back down into the nose. Lt Maiorca was standing above the nose hatch, hesitating to jump. Lt Dobsa simply pushed him out the hatch and dropped through after him. Lt Dobsa came down in the shallow water on the Frisian Islands beach where he was captured immediately by German troops. Lt Maiorca drifted about a mile out to the sea off the Frisian Islands from where he swam ashore. He was in the water three hours and was taken captive by German troops upon reaching the shore.
Short Snorter III, went on out to sea where she crashed, taking the rest of the crew with her to a cold watery grave. Only two of the seven 401st planes, Nos. 484, Bad Egg, and 437, Frank's Nightmare, that had gone over the continent were still flying. Frank's Nightmare had only six machine gun bullet holes in the right stabilizer. Lt Frank landed her at 1556 hours. The Bad Egg had one of the tail guns disabled by a flak burst and several flak holes in the fuselage. She touched down at Bassingbourn at 1615 hours.
Of the twenty-one returning aircraft in the other three Squadrons, three sustained heavy damage. The top turret of No. 497, Frisco Jinny, was blown out by the 20 mm cannon shell that killed Sgt Hale. The other two bombers with major damage were from the 323rd Squadron. No. 077, Delta Rebel No. 2, with Lt Birdsong, was hit hard. A 20 mm cannon shell exploded in the nose, knocking out most of the glass, damaging the Norden bomb sight and wounding the bombardier, 1Lt Robert G. Abb, in the hand. The No. 1 engine was also hit. No. 475, Stric-Nine, flown by 1Lt Homer C. Briggs, Jr., was raked by 20 mm cannon fire as it came off the target. The No. 4 engine and the oxygen system on the left side were shot out. Stric-Nine landed at Hethel to refuel before going on to Bassingbourn.
The remaining 91st planes returned safely to England. No. 789, Golden Bear, of the 322nd Squadron landed at Shipeham Airdrome to refuel. The last plane in formation going straight on into to Bassingbourn, No. 481, Hell's Angels, of the 322nd, with Lt Baird at the controls, touched down at 1636 hours. The sky was clear of bombers. The 401st ground crews milled around with looks of disbelief on their faces. Only three of the nine Squadron planes that had taken off six and a half earlier, were now sitting on their hardstands. One of these had aborted over the channel and did not go over the continent. Fifty 401st crewmen, along with ten men of the 92nd Group flying in the 401st Squadron, were missing. Eventually it would be learned that 32 had been killed, 28 surviving to become POWs. While accustomed to losses, so many on one mission and all from one squadron had a demoralizing effect on all crewmen of the 91st Bomb Group, flight and ground alike.
Morale was no better over in the 306th Bomb Group at Thurleigh. Ten of the two dozen planes the Group had put up today were shot down. Five of the six planes in the High Squadron and three of four in the Low Squadron were lost. Thirty-four crewmen were killed and 66 became POWs. Planes of the 369th Squadron of the 306th flying in the Composite Group were hit hard by flak and fighters, but none of these bombers went down. On today's mission to Bremen, all 16 bombers lost from the Strike Force, of the 107 that made it over the continent, were from the 91st and 306th Groups.
Of the 233 crewmen of the 91st Group who returned to Bassingbourn from Germany today, 42 later would be killed in action, 31 others would become POWs--31.3% casualties. This is about normal for this period of the war, especially given many of the crewmen flying today had only a few more missions to go to complete their quota of 25.
The future for the bombers of the 91st Group that survived the day will be even bleaker. Eighteen of the twenty-three returning B-17s will be shot down within a few months time. Three will be so badly damaged, they will be placed in salvage and cannibalized for spare parts. One will be declared unfit for combat service and transferred to the Aphrodite program. There she will be filled with explosives and sent as a flying bomb to the V-1, Buzz Bomb, site at Mimoyecques, France. She will be blown to bits, but will miss her target. A total of 80 crewmen flying on the last mission of these bombers will be killed in action, 92 will become prisoners of war. Another 19 crewmen who will be shot down, will evade capture.
William Wyler, the Hollywood movie director, has been at Bassingbourn for several weeks filming combat action for a documentary dealing with VIII Bomber Command for the Army Air Corps. His intention is to base the documentary on the plane and crew first to complete 25 missions. The Army plans to have the crew fly their plane back to the States for a public relations tour to encourage sales of war bonds. The plane Maj Wyler had selected and had been filming around was Invasion 2nd, the crew, Cpt Oscar D. O'Neill's. Today was Cpt O'Neill's 24th mission.
With the loss of Invasion 2nd and Cpt O'Neill's crew, Maj Wyler will have to select another plane and crew. He will pick No. 485, Memphis Belle, and Cpt Robert K. Morgan's crew of the 324th Squadron. Memphis Belle will fly her final mission on 19 May, Cpt Morgan's crew having completed their 25th mission two days earlier. Memphis Belle will be put on orders to return to the U. S. Cpt Morgan and his crew will leave with her on 13 June. Memphis Belle will be the only plane that flew today to survive the war. She also will be one of the very few B-17s that flew combat to escape the recycler after the war. Memphis Belle eventually will come to reside on public display in Memphis, Tennessee, the city of her name.
The party this evening will go on as scheduled. Approximately 200 officers and 150 service and civilian guests will congregate in No. 1 Mess. The effects of the events of the day will cast an ominous gloomy shadow over the evening. This sense of despair will be heightened by the presence of girls whose dates are among the missing. A few will find other escorts. Many will simply stand around watching the dancing until time for the trucks to take them back to their villages. Late in the evening many of the officers, who will have indulged too freely of the alcohol, will become unruly, creating considerable disturbance. This behavior is understandable, given the pent-up frustration of losing so many friends, and knowing that very likely they may be next. Eventually order will be restored. The men will retire to their billets, the girls will be returned to their homes.
There will be other bad missions, other parties, other dates, and other missing escorts. The losses will go on, the parties will go on, the war will go on. There are 271 missions yet to be flown.
No. 459, Hellsapoppin, waiting to take off on 17 April 1943. Three hours later, she was shot down. 1Lt John W. Wilson and four of his crew were killed; five others became POWs. (Norman Thompson)