Book: Hell's Angels

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“THE KRAUT FIRED A BURST INTO THE SKIPPER’S CHUTE”

THE 303RD’S MISSION scheduled for January 22 was canceled due to foul weather. Ehle Reber recalled: “This morning we were to be the first American attack on Germany. We were to bomb some sub[marine] pens and workshops northwest of Bremen 7 miles. The area is very highly defended with heavy flak and JU88’s and ME110’s as well as FW190’s.”

It was anticipated to be a fiercely defended target. “I think we have the same target for in the morning,” Reber wrote. He was wrong. Rather than Bremen, the mission of January 23, 1943, was scheduled against Lorient in northwest France. Lorient was a major submarine base and critical to Germany’s war in the Atlantic. Germany’s U-boat fleet—much of it serviced at Lorient—had a stranglehold on England during the early years of the war and Churchill was keen to neutralize it. Indeed, if the Allies were to defeat the Nazis, they had to mitigate the U-boat threat. The day’s mission to Lorient was part of that mitigation.

The 303rd got airborne with twenty-one ships, one of which turned back early due to mechanical issues. They were part of a larger formation of seventy-three B-17s led by the 305th Bomb Group. After crossing over Land’s End, the train of bombers headed to sea. The water was shrouded by a bright white undercast that grew patchier as the formation approached the enemy-held coastline.

Antiaircraft fire peppered the sky as the American bombers neared the target. It was described as intense and accurate, and one group reported that several of the flak bursts were pink. Regardless of color, it was deadly, and the aircraft of the 303rd started taking hits almost immediately. Green Hornet, piloted by Ellis Sanderson, fell away from the formation with three engines knocked out.

At the same time the 305th’s lead bombardier had equipment issues and was unable to get his bombs onto the primary target at Lorient. Consequently the 305th turned for the secondary target at Brest, sixty-five miles to the northwest. The 303rd continued to the target at Lorient, but the situation deteriorated badly. Another bomb group—out of position and above the 303rd—dropped its bombs through the formation.

Mel Schulstad was back in Molesworth that day, grounded by the flu. But his aircraft, Beats Me!?, piloted by Joe Haas, was on the mission with most of Schulstad’s crew. A bomb smashed Beats Me!? in the tail and knocked it upside down. The rest of the 303rd scattered. Charles Roth, the crew’s radio operator, nearly fell from the upside-down aircraft, through the hatch at the top of his compartment. Haas managed to wrestle the badly mangled aircraft upright, but it was barely controllable and fell from the protection of the formation.

“After Lt. Haas righted the plane,” said Roth, “I got up from the floor and assisted the ball turret gunner, Sgt. P. [Peter] Soria, out of the turret and put his chute on him. He headed for the rear escape door. I then noticed that the right waist gunner, Sgt. J. [John] Sherman, was hanging outside the plane, I went to help him, but, as I reached for his leg, his body fell away from the plane. Surely, he was unconscious or dead.”

Roth looked toward the tail and saw that the shoulder of Wayne Stevens, the tail gunner, was shot away; he was obviously dead. Roth donned an oxygen mask and manned Sherman’s waist gun against a pair of FW-190s that made repeated passes against the staggering bomber. The running battle lasted more than five minutes before Beats Me!? nosed over, out of control. Haas and his copilot, Roy Christianson, were probably shot dead by the attacking fighters.

Roth left his waist gun and headed for the escape hatch on the right side of the rear fuselage. Along the way he noted that Peter Soria, the ball turret gunner, had not bailed out but was either unconscious or dead. Roth struggled with the handle on the hatch before he was able to get it open. Still, he fought to get clear of the falling bomber. “It seemed impossible. I was half in and half out when something came off the wing, probably part of the deicer boot, and hit me in the head, knocking and jerking me out.

“I thought surely I must be close to the ground. I was spinning around very fast and pulled the rip cord, opening the chute too soon. The tremendous jerk broke a leg strap, and whipped off a boot and a shoe. Worst of all, a long tear appeared in the top of my chute. It was difficult to control. A German fighter pilot circled me, and was close enough that I could see his face. As he circled the second time, I saluted him. He saluted back and flew off.” After being recovered by French farmers, Roth was picked up by German soldiers that same night and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

A French farmer, Maurice Deimat, recalled watching Beats Me!? fall to earth:

I realized that the plane was about to crash, although the B-17 went on flying straight ahead. She actually lost speed until she reared backwards and turned on her left wing, then finally dived toward the ground. Her engines made a terrible noise. For a few minutes, as I saw her getting bigger and bigger, I thought she was going to fall on my head! Eventually she crashed at 500m from where I was—in a terrific explosion. A huge black cloud rose high in the sky, whereas the earth was shaking under my feet. I was astounded and scared; nevertheless, I decided to run toward the spot. People came from all around.

In the meantime, Ellis Sanderson’s Green Hornet—flying on only one engine—fought against gravity. Worse, FW-190s made head-on attacks and raked it with machine gun and cannon fire. Sanderson ordered everyone to bail out. However, for whatever reason, there was only one parachute between him and his copilot, Howard Bowman. They stayed with the aircraft and crashed it at Kergolay, where both were injured; Sanderson lost several fingers. Both were captured.

Hell Cat, captained by Oran O’Connor, was also knocked down by enemy fighters. Of the crew, two evaded capture and returned to England less than two months later. The rest became POWs.

Most of the guns on Werewolf, piloted by George Oxrider, froze or were otherwise inoperative. Moreover, the left outboard engine was damaged by flak and lost manifold pressure. Werewolf couldn’t keep up with the rest of the formation. “I cut the corner,” Oxrider said, “planning to rejoin them on the flight back, and ran into a mess of FW-190s. They got the #4 motor and then the #3 motor, setting them both afire [engines were numbered thusly: #1 was the left outboard, #2 was the left inboard, #3 was the right inboard and #4 was the right outboard]. The FW’s stayed with us until we reached the Channel, and then they had to turn back because they were out of ammunition.”

Sebastian Vogel, the radio operator aboard Susfu, manned the .50-caliber machine gun that protruded through the open hatch at the top of his radio compartment. A bitterly cold slipstream buffeted him as he watched for enemy fighters. “As we neared the target the flak was getting thicker; in fact, as I looked out to the rear through the top hatch it looked like you could walk on it. At that time I saw one of our B-17s go down. I still remember the sick feeling as I watched her go down because I did not see any of the crew bail out. Then I saw a Focke Wulf [190] blow up and saw the pilot bail out and disappear below. Every gun on the ship was firing at fighters; they were all over us like flies.

“A fighter came in at one o’clock level and hit and demolished our top turret,” said Vogel. “He killed our bombardier [Roy Moser] and also took the nose glass out.” Vogel and the left waist gunner, Val Hannon, watched their rounds tear pieces from another FW-190 diving down from Susfu’s left side. “Shortly after that encounter I heard a loud thump on the side of our ship then I heard the pilot feather the prop on one of the engines. As I looked out to the rear of the ship through the top hatch, I could see that the vertical stabilizer was gone. Then the ship started to climb, it kept on climbing, the engines roared as it climbed then it stalled out and went into a dive. I started for the bomb bay where I was to bail out.”

Val Hannon fell on top of Vogel when he opened the door at the rear of his radio compartment. “I tried to get him out [of the aircraft] by yelling at him and pounding on him but it did no good. We went into several spins and I was thrown around the plane, hitting my head several times. I was very dazed. I did not know if he [Hannon] had been shot. I was so concerned with getting out myself I did not try to be the hero and see if I could get him out or at least see if he had been wounded.

“When I went to the bomb bay,” Vogel said, “I should have taken the emergency oxygen bottle, which was strapped on my leg, and opened it and put the tube in my mouth, but I forgot. When I got into the bomb bay I was having difficulty moving because of lack of oxygen. When I finally got on the bomb bay catwalk the crew chief [Francis Sulkofski] had just come down out of the upper turret and was pulling the release on the bomb bay doors. The doors opened up when he pulled the release, but blew back shut.”

Vogel struggled with the doors. Toward the front of the aircraft he saw the copilot, Mark McDermott, bail out through the forward crew hatch. The pilot, Harry Robey, followed a few seconds later. Vogel grew increasingly hypoxic. “I thought I was going to go down with the ship. I thought that I had had it. A strange feeling of peace came over me and the thought that it was not going to be so bad after all. I figured I wouldn’t feel anything when we hit the ground. My thoughts wandered to back home. It bothered me that Kathie [his wife] would probably feel bad and Mother and Dad and the rest would hear that I didn’t make it and it would be like a funeral around home.”

It was at that point that Sulkofski coaxed the bomb bay doors open again. “As soon as the doors dropped open he went out,” said Vogel. “All I can remember about getting out was the wind hitting me in the face and I could see that I was hanging out of the ship and my foot was caught in the door. The next thing I recall is that I was hanging in mid-air; the ship was making a hell of a noise and heading for the ground. I knew that I had to pull the ripcord to get the chute open but I couldn’t get my hand on the ring.”

Vogel wore a seat parachute. He twisted about until he spotted a white handkerchief his wife had given him when he was still in the States. It was tied to the ring at the end of the parachute’s ripcord. He grabbed it and pulled. “I pulled it so hard that I ripped it clear out and I could see it flying off in the distance with the ring. My chute opened with a big bang like popping a paper bag full of wind. At first I was swinging back and forth making a big arc. As I was swinging I could see our ship heading for the ground and it looked like it was about to hit. I didn’t see it hit the ground because I looked the other way. I knew some of the crew were still in it.

“Just as the ship crashed into the ground a Kraut fighter came so close to me I could smell the exhaust from the engine. He didn’t bother me but he came in on the skipper [Reber’s friend, Harry Robey] whom I could make out quite a ways below me. The Kraut fired a burst into the Skipper’s chute then disappeared.”

Vogel, like virtually all of the 303rd’s men, had never before made a parachute jump. “It was fascinating even though I was very scared and worried about the fighter. By this time I was down where it was much warmer and everything was quiet except for the wind whistling through the chute shroud lines. When I got down to a few hundred feet from the ground it seemed to be coming up to me at a pretty fast rate. When I got to treetop height the earth seemed to come up and hit me.”

*   *   *

Jerry Jinx, PILOTED by Ehle Reber, was mortally hit. German fighters continued their attacks on the aircraft until it was well out over the Bay of Biscay, where nine parachutes were spotted as they blossomed from the descending aircraft. A short time later one more airman, presumably Reber, was seen to parachute from Jerry Jinx. None of the crewmen were recovered and it is believed their bodies sank into the sea.

The ragged remains of the 303rd’s formation straggled back to England. John Castle made a wheels-up landing with Thumper at Lulsgate Bottom after ordering the crew to bail out. Billie Stander, the crew’s right waist gunner, was killed when his parachute failed to open. The legs of Emilio Yannie, the radio operator, were crushed so badly upon landing that he was hospitalized, returned to the States and discharged.

George Oxrider and his copilot, Don Hurlburt, wrestled Werewolf across the English Channel back to England. Both engines on the right wing were dead, as was the left outboard engine. There was no stopping the B-17’s descent. Oxrider ordered his crew to bail out of the shot-up ship and headed for a hole in the clouds below.

When they were all gone, I shut off the alarm bell—it made a hell of a racket—and slipped the plane through the hole in the overcast. My one engine [left inboard, #2] was purring beautifully—it never did get hot. After two or three circles, I leveled off to land on a rugby field, coming in pretty fast. And then out of nowhere, a bunch of kids appeared in the middle of the field. Down at one end, there was a wooden flagpole, a hedge, and beyond that, another field with several roller coaster bumps in it, and a tree-lined wall at its end. I gunned the motor for what little it would take, cracked off the end of the flagpole, skipped the hedge, and set the plane down fast. It was an alfalfa field. I landed on one rise, went up and down to the next, up and over that one, and then I shoved the stick forward, so that the wheels would plow into the ground.

Werewolf came to a stop just in front of a stone wall, with its nose between two trees. Almost immediately it was swarmed by a terrifically curious crowd. Oxrider was no doubt stunned when—upon his climbing down—they straightaway bombarded him with questions and exclamations as they touched and felt and crowded around his ship.

George Oxrider had put Werewolf down on the grounds of one of England’s largest mental hospitals—Langdon, at Dawlish.

The mission, the 303rd’s eleventh, was a disaster and marked the group’s blackest day to that point. Curiously, it was the only group that lost aircraft on the mission. This was due in some indeterminate degree to simple bad luck, but it can also be attributed in part to the fact that the group’s formation—understandably—came apart when it was bombed by another group and Beats Me!? was hit. Consequently, much scattered, the 303rd’s B-17s were more vulnerable to enemy fighter attacks. Aside from the five aircraft that were lost, four other badly damaged aircraft recovered at locations other than Molesworth. Only eleven of the twenty aircraft that crossed the Channel to Europe returned home. Almost all of them were damaged.

Ehle Reber had been one of the 427th Bomb Squadron’s original ten pilots. His diary captured much of the color and character of the men who made up the organization that was the early 303rd Bomb Group. He and Harry Robey were the second and third of those ten original pilots Killed in Action, or KIA. By the first part of October 1943, six of the ten were dead. As much as Eaker or Arnold or anyone else might have wished otherwise, the strategic air war over Europe was—and would continue to be—a horrific destroyer of American lives.

In fact, it wasn’t until the very beginning of 1943 that direction, or even careful consideration, was given to what number of bombing missions would constitute a complete combat tour. Ira Eaker recognized that flying his crews until they were shot down or physically or mentally exhausted would cripple morale. He addressed the subject on January 3 in a letter to George Stratemeyer, Arnold’s staff chief.

Within the next sixty days we shall face a very critical period. We will arrive at the time when many of our combat crews will have to be relieved by reason of having completed their operational tours. They will be tired, war weary and punch drunk and they will have to be relieved whether there are replacements or not. As Tooey [Spaatz] cabled you, he, [James] Doolittle and I went over the situation very carefully and decided that the operational yardstick should be 30 missions and 200 hours maximum, with 25 missions and 150 hours minimum, giving the tactical commanders leeway within these limits.

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