Book: Hell's Angels

Previous: “He Was Lying on His Back Holding His Gun”
Next: “He Was Mad As Fire”

“HE WAS LYING ON HIS BACK HOLDING HIS GUN”

CHANCE, FATE, DESTINY AND PROVIDENCE. It went by those names and others, but however it was characterized, it played an enormous role in what happened to the men. It was there when a flak burst missed one bomber but blew another into flaming pieces of bodies and wreckage. It was there when a cannon round struck an aircraft but failed to explode. It decided when—and where—a critical engine or aircraft component failed. It decided what motivated the leader of an enemy fighter unit to direct an attack against one formation of straggling bombers rather than another. It drove the physics—down to the sixth decimal point or beyond—that determined how an enemy fighter’s machine gun round missed a crewman’s head by less than an inch. Or didn’t.

James Geiger, a pilot with the 360th Bomb Squadron, remembered an instance when a cannon round smashed into Sack Time’s windscreen immediately in front of his copilot’s face. “I had just told my copilot to get my parachute and the only thing that saved him was that he was ducked down to get it, otherwise he would have been hit right in the face. . . . There must have been two bushels of glass fragments in our laps.”

Indeed, fate came into play in many situations and ways. Eddie Deerfield remembered one: “I was sitting in my Nissen hut when an orderly came in looking for me. There was a new crew going on a familiarization flight and they needed a radio operator. I held off on volunteering. Our crew might be called for a combat mission in the morning, and I felt enough was enough.

“There was another fellow in the hut who was a radio technician. We called him ‘Tex.’ He wasn’t on a crew, but he was happy to go flying and volunteered to go in my place. The plane clipped a set of power lines, caught fire and crashed. Everyone was killed.”

Sometimes, but not always, the crews overcame the cruelty of chance with teamwork, skill and the sort of comradely love for one another understood only by those who have served together in combat. One such instance occurred during the mission to Bremen on December 20, 1943. Bremen, on Germany’s northern coast, was the site of a number of important targets, including a port, shipbuilding works, submarine pens, steel mills and aircraft factories. The city was heavily defended, but in seven previous missions the 303rd had lost only three aircraft.

The group’s assembly and route across the North Sea were unremarkable, although two aircraft aborted early during the mission. A layer of clouds blanketed the sea during the first part of the mission, but it dissipated as the bombers neared Germany. However, dense and persistent contrails clouded visibility and the pilots worked hard to maintain position.

Real trouble found the 303rd as it approached the target at twenty-six thousand feet. Intense and accurate antiaircraft fire rocked the formation, and more than a hundred enemy fighters attacked from all directions. Donald Gamble was in the lead aircraft, Sky Wolf: “We were doing fine until we started the bomb run. The formation was perfect. As soon as we got over the target, they smashed hell out of us. That flak was pretty accurate and there was lots of it. Our escort tried to keep the fighters out, but they sneaked through the contrails where we couldn’t see them.”

The 303rd’s mission summary report noted that Ju-88s and Me-210s fired rockets from approximately a thousand feet astern. Additionally, other Me-210s dropped small, dynamite stick–sized bombs from approximately five hundred feet above the formation. These miniature “bombs” were observed to “explode at once.” Although it was unnerving, no damage was reported from the air-to-air bombing. Rather the 303rd was savaged by more conventional fighter attacks with guns and rockets, and by antiaircraft fire.

The 427th Bomb Squadron was hit especially hard. The B-17 captained by Franklin Leve, perhaps damaged by flak or suffering from mechanical failure, struggled to hold its position on the right side of the formation. Ahead and to the left of Leve’s bomber was John Barker’s Flying Bitch. An Me-110 attacked it and then made a hard, right-hand turn and hit Leve’s ship in the rear fuselage with two rockets. Leve’s ball turret gunner, Edward Drees, shot off the Me-110’s left wing and it spun earthward, out of control.

Leve’s ship was subsequently attacked by another enemy fighter. Mortally damaged—with its two inboard engines afire—it went into a near vertical dive before leveling off and then gently descending into a cloud deck. No parachutes were observed. The aircraft crashed a few minutes later. All but two of its crew perished.

Alexander Alex’s crew aboard Santa Ana was on its first mission. Positioned at the right front of the 427th’s formation, Santa Ana, like Leve’s B-17, was brought down by a combination of antiaircraft fire and fighter attacks. At the head of the 427th’s formation was Edward Woddrop’s Spirit of Wanette. A wingtip was blown off the ship, an engine was destroyed, and the chin and ball turrets were rendered inoperable. The tail gunner and waist gunners lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen. Moreover, the electric flying suit of the copilot, Grover Henderson, went up in flames and had to be doused with a fire extinguisher. Twice. Nevertheless, Woddrop—a former flying sergeant with the Royal Canadian Air Force—brought the ship safely back to Molesworth.

Jersey Bounce Jr. was part of the 358th Bomb Squadron, which was at the head of the 303rd’s formation. It was piloted by John Henderson and Merle Hungerford. Henderson was relatively new to operations, having flown only four missions previously. Hungerford was an instructor pilot flying in the copilot position. Just prior to their reaching the target, an antiaircraft burst knocked out the left outboard engine and set it afire. The right outboard engine was likewise destroyed soon after the 303rd dropped its bombs.

The ship could not stay in formation with only two engines and was left behind. Henderson and Hungerford rolled the aircraft into a dive to the left, hoping to escape the attention of enemy fighter pilots. As much as Henderson and Hungerford hoped that diving away would save the ship, it did not. Isolated and with no friendly fighter escorts, Jersey Bounce Jr. was set upon by a mixed group of Me-109s and FW-190s. Cannon and machine gun fire ripped the flagging bomber, and George Buske, the tail gunner, called over the interphone that he was hit.

Forrest Vosler, the crew’s radio operator, was also wounded. Chunks of jagged metal penetrated through his several layers of clothing and punched into his chest, legs and feet. Blood ran down his legs and into his boots. Although badly wounded, Vosler stood up, charged his gun and fired it at the waves of enemy fighters that dived on Jersey Bounce Jr. Farther forward, in the upper turret, was the flight engineer, Bill Simpkins. Simpkins fired his guns in quick staccato bursts as he worked to fend off the dogged enemy pilots. A short time later Simpkins was called back to check on George Buske in the tail turret. The left waist gunner, Stanley Moody, climbed into the unmanned turret, shot up an Me-110 and then literally blasted an Me-109 pilot out of his aircraft. Moody, from Lewiston, Maine, hadn’t even told his mother he was flying in combat.

In the meantime, Simpkins found that the tail gunner’s position was essentially destroyed. Buske was flayed open, bloody and near death. Great wounds exposed the inside of his chest while his intestines pressed through another equally gruesome gash in his abdomen. Simpkins dragged Buske out of the tail turret and to the waist gun positions, where there was more room to tend him. He put compress bandages over the gaping holes in Buske’s body, defrosted a pair of morphine syrettes in his mouth, then stabbed them into his wounded comrade’s body.

Henderson and Hungerford wracked the shot-up bomber through near-continuous evasive maneuvers. Vosler, from the radio compartment, fired his gun at the attacking fighters but was hit in the chest, face and eyes. Although he didn’t know it, the inside of his right eye was dribbling down his face.

“As soon as I could I came down from the turret and looked back through the ship at Vosler,” said Stanley Moody. “He was lying on his back, holding his gun. In a few minutes I managed to get back for another look, and although he had been hit again, he had somehow pulled himself up on his table and was manning his gun to protect our defenseless tail.”

Moody recalled that the fighter attacks lasted more than an hour. “By the time they had finished, part of the control cables had been shot away, the ship was flying at a very bad angle, there were very few instruments left intact and four of us had been hit. The pilot told us to move everything moveable up to the front of the ship to try to level it out.” It wasn’t long however until the pilots realized that Jersey Bounce Jr. had to be lightened if it was to stand any chance of getting back to England. “So everything that could be lifted was thrown out,” said Moody.

Vosler turned to his damaged radio equipment and worked by feel to repair it. If Jersey Bounce Jr. made it past the enemy-held coastline, the crew stood a chance of rescue. Their odds would be better if Vosler could send SOS messages. In the meantime the German fighters inexplicably left the crippled bomber to its own fate. It is likely the enemy pilots believed it was incapable of returning to England. Or perhaps they were out of ammunition.

Stanley Moody entered the radio compartment to assist Vosler. “Every time Vosler wanted to turn himself around to change a tuning unit,” said Moody, “I had to move his leg for him. I must have done it about fifty times. When he tried to turn by himself, the leg just stayed where it was. I waved my hand in front of his face but he didn’t flinch, so I knew that he was blind.”

By that point Jersey Bounce Jr. was so low that it drew small arms fire as well as attention from larger antiaircraft guns. Finally, badly holed and struggling, it reached the North Sea. It was then that a lone Me-109 made a single, ineffectual, nose-on firing pass and disappeared. The crewmen aboard the bomber who could still move continued to toss every nonessential item overboard.

“I called the pilot and told him that we were ready for ditching,” said Moody. “Vosler, who had overheard part of the conversation, asked me if I had thrown everything out. I told him yes, all except the pilot and copilot.” Vosler asked Moody if he remembered the conversation they had shared during which Vosler declared he wanted to be pushed out of the aircraft—with a parachute—if ever he was badly wounded. “Now he told me to do it,” Moody said.

“I told him that we were over the North Sea and that there wasn’t a hope of his being picked up in that condition. He said that he didn’t care, but to throw him out with or without a chute. He said it would lighten the ship and make the gasoline last longer. He wasn’t morose about it. He’d been thinking and he said he was blind, his leg was no good and he’d probably be dead by the time we got back to base anyway. We argued a long while but I wouldn’t do it.”

Vosler’s radio set still did not operate properly. Moody helped him locate the correct frequency module, and Vosler put it in place. When the equipment still failed to work, he located and fixed a loose fitting by touch alone and then transmitted the SOS signal.

Air/Sea Rescue aircraft rendezvoused with Jersey Bounce Jr. as the bomber drew closer to England. There were two Spitfire Mk IXs, an Avro Anson and a Walrus. Henderson and Hungerford fired a red flare to declare their intentions to the pilots of the other aircraft and then put the B-17 into the water near a Norwegian coaster. The aircraft sliced into the cold water and almost immediately shuddered to a halt in a cascade of white-green spray.

Then, it started to sink. Bill Simpkins, with aid from the others, lifted the grievously wounded Buske out through the radio compartment hatch and settled him onto the right wing. Simpkins then turned his attention to the life rafts. Vosler moved to the hatch in the roof of his radio compartment and crawled out on his own. Once atop the fuselage he looked to the right where the sea was about to float Buske off the wing. He shouted a warning, but the rest of the crew was distracted with readying the bomber’s two life rafts.

Unattended and incapacitated, Buske was in danger of being swept away and drowned. Vosler, badly wounded himself and mostly blind, scrambled to rescue his comrade. He grabbed the wire antenna that ran from the top of the vertical stabilizer to the fuselage near the radio compartment. At the same time, he jumped from the top of the fuselage and grabbed Buske just as the waves lifted him into the water. Shortly after, Jersey Bounce Jr. lifted its tail and slipped nose first under the water.

Vosler and Buske were pulled into one of the aircraft’s two life rafts. The crew of the Norwegian boat subsequently brought the men aboard and shortly thereafter transferred them to a British patrol boat. The misery of the mission was extended when one of the boat’s engines caught fire and the transit to Great Yarmouth was delayed. Vosler and Buske suffered in silence. It was nearly dark when the boat was finally berthed.

*   *   *

THE HORRIFIC SORTIE WAS OVER, but the ugliness of it was far from finished. George Buske, the injured tail gunner, was more dead than alive. No one who saw him held out any realistic hope that he could survive. His right lung and diaphragm were visible through an enormous sucking chest wound. Moreover, his liver was torn and bleeding. His intestines protruded through another wound in his lower abdomen. A third, massive gash on his left side exposed his ribs.

He was nevertheless moved the short distance to Great Yarmouth Hospital, where—suffering from blood loss, exposure and shock—he received multiple transfusions and was rushed into surgery. A hurried examination showed that bullet fragments were lodged near his heart and that one of the machine gun rounds that had torn open his chest was embedded in his back. The British surgeons controlled the bleeding from his liver, reattached his diaphragm and closed the massive wound on his right side. The other two wounds were treated with sulfanilamide, packed with gauze and left open. Near death, Buske was evacuated to the U.S. Army’s hospital at Botesdale.

The rest of the crew was kept overnight. All but Vosler were released the following day. Vosler was moved to a hospital at Northhampton before being sent to the States, where his injured eye was removed during a long hospitalization.

*   *   *

ALTHOUGH OPERATIONS AT THE END of 1943 continued to take a toll on the 303rd, the size of its operations—coincident with the growth of the Eighth Air Force—continued to increase. Presumably, so did the effects against the Germans. Aside from the size of operations, other changes were made during this period.

Perhaps foremost was the creation of a new counterpart to the Eighth Air Force on November 1, 1943. The Fifteenth Air Force, headquartered at newly seized Bari, near the heel of the Italian boot, was intended to augment the Eighth’s operations against Germany. From bases in Italy—which enjoyed better weather than England—it was assumed the Fifteenth would be able to fly when the Eighth could not. Too, the Luftwaffe would be forced to disperse its forces in order to defend against USAAF attacks from two different directions. Moreover, the Fifteenth would be able to hit targets in the south and east of Europe that were beyond the reach of the England-based bombers.

Another big change made during early 1944 was the creation of a new command, the United States Strategic Air Forces, or USSTAF. Headed by Carl Spaatz, who returned to England to command it, the USSTAF coordinated and commanded both the Eighth Air Force and the Fifteenth.

Possibly the most emotionally charged change was Arnold’s removal of Ira Eaker from command of the Eighth Air Force. Done in part on Spaatz’s recommendation—perhaps under pressure from Eisenhower—the decision was controversial. Eaker, who got along famously with his British counterparts, had led the formation of the Eighth from essentially nothing at the outset of 1942. Finally, as 1943 transitioned to 1944, it began to meet expectations. Aside from increased numbers of bombers, long-range fighter escorts were finally being introduced. These were the final ingredient needed for the Eighth to succeed over Germany.

So, just as the Eighth was poised to achieve greatness, Eaker was removed from its head.

He felt betrayed, especially as Arnold had earlier told him that he would be the first to hear—and directly from Arnold—“if there was anything detrimental to be said” about his performance. Eaker straightaway cabled Arnold: “Believe war interest best served by my retention command Eighth Air Force: Otherwise experience this theater for nearly two years wasted. If I am to be allowed my personal preference having started with the Eighth and seen it organized for major task in this theater, it would be heart-breaking to leave just before climax.”

Others—both British and American—championed Eaker’s cause, but Arnold’s decision stood. Instead, Eaker was given command of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, or MAAF. Technically, it was a promotion; the MAAF was actually the largest air command in the world in numbers of aircraft and personnel, but no one pretended that the Eighth and its bombing organization was not the big show. Even Churchill appreciated Eaker’s frustration. “I can understand your disappointment, young man [Eaker was 48!], at having to leave the Eighth Air Force just when it’s achieving its maximum effect on the war effort.” Churchill also validated the arguments Eaker had made in favor of precision daylight bombing at Casablanca earlier in the year: “I no longer have any doubt that they will prove completely valid.”

Haywood Hansell played key roles in developing the USAAF’s strategy against Germany. And he had served under Eaker as both a staff member and a combatant commander. Moreover, he had worked on Arnold’s staff. There were few if any people more qualified to comment on Arnold’s handling of Eaker. “Arnold was terribly impatient. He just did not understand air combat. His crews, led by Ira [Eaker], were doing a simply astonishing job. I marveled at their willingness to keep on fighting.” Hansell offered that “Arnold just never understood what Eaker was up against,” and that “I think that Arnold treated Ira very badly.”

Eaker’s replacement was Major General James “Jimmy” Doolittle—the same celebrity whose aircraft Van White had wiped clean of mud before the war. He had led the daring raid against Tokyo on April 18, 1942, at the head of a flight of sixteen USAAF B-25 medium bombers. Since then he had commanded the Twelfth and Fifteenth Air Forces in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Italy. During that time he had worked closely with Eisenhower, who was impressed by his dynamism and abilities, and who wanted to continue the working relationship as the time for the invasion of Europe approached.

Eaker and Doolittle were friends. Of the change, Doolittle wrote, “I was pleased that I had finally sold myself to Ike [Eisenhower], but was sensitive about Ira’s feelings. He had done a magnificent job of getting the 8th started, and I didn’t want anyone to forget that. I hoped I could do as well.”

These organizational changes meant little to the 303rd’s men. To their minds the missions would be no less dangerous simply because there was a new air force being formed in Italy, or because the commander of the Eighth had changed. Accordingly, they carried on as they always had.

Previous: “He Was Lying on His Back Holding His Gun”
Next: “He Was Mad As Fire”