MORE THAN TWO YEARS after it began combat operations, the 303rd had evolved into one of the Eighth Air Force’s preeminent bomb groups. It was among the most decorated, most experienced and most effective—both in terms of bomb tonnage delivered and the accuracy of those deliveries. Too, its crews were noted for their competence and bravery—Mathis and Vosler being two examples of the latter trait. Nevertheless, there were infrequent missions when lapses in judgment, poor weather, enemy action or just plain bad luck, alone or in combination, conspired to work ruin on the unit. Indeed, there were occasions when—after all the effort spent on a particular mission was held up against the results—it could be said that the USAAF would have been better off had the 303rd never left Molesworth.
One such mission was the one to the Leuna synthetic oil refinery at Merseburg on November 21, 1944. It was a target that the Eighth had visited many times before. Both the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions—a total of 763 B-17s—were thrown into the attack. The 303rd’s contribution was 39 bombers, 2 of which aborted for mechanical issues.
The weather was poor over the target, with clouds, haze and thick contrails. Consequently, each of the three squadrons the 303rd launched that day, the 358th, 359th and 427th, made individual runs. Inbound from the initial point to the target, one of the 358th’s bombers was hit by flak and the crew jettisoned its bombs. Seeing the jettisoned bombs, five other crews mistakenly believed they were over the target and likewise released their bombs. Similarly, when the 358th’s lead aircraft was hit by flak and its crew dumped its bombs, most of the crews who still carried bombs released theirs.
The PFF equipment aboard the 359th’s lead aircraft failed just before the squadron reached the initial point, and the lead was passed to the deputy leader. For reasons that are not recorded, the results were not just poor, but were staggeringly awful. In fact, the 359th’s bombs hit fifteen miles north of the mean point of impact—the specific part of the target that was supposed to be hit. Along the way the ship piloted by Andy Virag was hit not only by flak but also by The Duchess’ Granddaughter, piloted by James Green. Virag, along with many of his crewmen, was on his last mission. After falling away from the formation, his ship was set upon by Me-109s. No longer able to control the aircraft, he ordered the crew to bail out. All the men survived, although the engineer, James Jeter, whose leg was nearly blown away during the fighter attack, was shot twice by civilians upon reaching the ground.
The crew of the 359th’s Heller’s Angel, captained by Arthur Chance, was not so fortunate. Like the Virag crew, many of the men were on their last mission, but their number three engine was hit by flak, and Chance was unable to stay with the rest of the formation. He ordered the crew to abandon ship but rescinded that order once he controlled the fire in the stricken engine. However, two of the crew had already parachuted clear.
It is possible this it was Chance’s ship that was attacked by Me-262 pilot Georg-Peter Eder, who recorded the following encounter: “We had been following this bomber formation, looking to see if there were any fighters around, as there usually were. I did not see any, and being low on fuel anyway, I saw this one B-17 smoking, and went in. I only had cannons, so it was a quick pass, nothing spectacular; except the explosion.” It might not have been spectacular to Eder, but it was terrifying to the Chance crew. Those still aboard bailed out. Sadly, at least three members of the crew were murdered upon reaching the ground.
The 427th was no more successful with its bombs than were the 358th and 359th. In fact, it was uncertain where the 427th’s bombs hit. Photographs from the ships that were equipped with cameras showed no explosions whatsoever on the target.
The results achieved by the 303rd that day were anything but laudable. Worse, the group paid a heavy price for achieving nothing. Four aircraft and crews—more than 10 percent of the attacking force—were knocked down. Lloyd Hester was the togglier aboard the 427th’s Miss Lace. He saw the Peter Cureton crew go down:
When Lt Cureton’s plane in the lead element was hit, a piece of his B-17 wrapped around our right wing, cutting the oil line to the number 4 engine. Our pilot, Lt [Auston] Caplinger, had to feather it on the bomb run. I released the bombs, but was unable to close the bay doors. The electric motor was shot away. S/Sgt [Francis] Duffek and I had to crank it closed by hand. After the Cureton plane was hit, I saw one of his crew in a free fall through space. I learned later that it was T/Sgt [James] Ellis, whose parachute opened late. He was the lone survivor on that crew.
That the flak and fighters were vicious was borne out by the fact that twenty-six of the thirty-seven B-17s flying the mission sustained major damage. One of those aircraft was piloted by Charles Haynes of the 359th. “Our ship lost two engines over the target and received major flak damage,” said the crew’s bombardier, Charles Dando. “We were unable to keep up with the group and stayed hidden in the fog until we emerged north of Frankfurt in bright sunlight and unlimited visibility. We felt that at any moment the Luftwaffe would appear and pounce on us, but miraculously they did not appear; instead a lone P-51 eased in on us and flew with us for a short time until a sudden burst of flak from the Frankfurt area hit him and he plunged down—no chute was seen.”
Flying on only two engines—and still over the Continent—the odds were against the Haynes crew. “We were gradually losing altitude crossing the Dutch coast under 5,000 feet and hoping we could reach Molesworth,” said Dando. “We were now 11/2 hours late and dusk was falling. When we reached Molesworth a runaway prop on [the] #3 engine, due to a severed throttle cable, caused us to lose the engine. We came in on one engine and without hydraulics or brakes we used up the entire runway before finally coming to a stop on the perimeter.” Aside from the aircraft being sieved with more than two hundred holes, its main spar was nearly cut in half.
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ALTHOUGH THE USAAF was a mighty force by the fall of 1944, its aircrews were still dying in horrible ways. And many of those men were from the 303rd. Richard Healy was leading the 427th Bomb Squadron against an alternate target at Osnabrück on November 24 when his ship was hit by a flak burst. “The explosion blew off the bottom of the fuselage from the chin turret back to the bulkhead directly behind the pilots,” said squadron mate Jim O’Leary. “Dutch Spooner, the GH navigator, Slim Steward, lead navigator, and Sandy Sandhagen, the lead bombardier, all fell out without their chutes. They tumbled out like tattered rag dolls. Sandhagen, to my horror, was blown forward through the Plexiglas nose and came back through the No. 3 fan [propeller], then rolled over the top of the wing.”
Remarkably, Healy and his copilot were uninjured and landed the stricken ship at an advanced fighter airstrip in Belgium.
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THE 303RD’S MISSION to the railroad marshaling yard at Ehrang, Germany, on December 23, 1944, was largely uneventful except that weather closed Molesworth. Of the thirty-nine aircraft that were sent on the mission, thirty-eight recovered at Bassingbourn and one landed at the RAF base at Gravely. “We were cold and exhausted after we landed,” said Paul Sersland. “We had spent about seven hours in the aircraft during the mission, and then we had to spend another three cold and miserable hours in trucks to get back to Molesworth. We didn’t get to return until very late. They arranged to feed us, but all we really wanted was to get back to our bunks. When we did, the huts were freezing—the day’s allotment of coke had been burned long before.”
Sersland and his comrades crawled into their freezing bunks and quickly fell asleep. They didn’t remain so for long. Only a couple hours later they were wakened to fly as part of the most massive bombing mission in history. The Ardennes Offensive—better known as the Battle of the Bulge—was at its height, and the Eighth ordered every available bomber to participate in the mission of December 24. Anxious to cripple the German attack from the rear, the Eighth sent its bombers after a series of communications centers and airfields.
“They woke us much earlier than usual,” Sersland said, “because they had to take us back to Bassingbourn.” After seeing to their ablutions, eating a quick breakfast and attending the mission briefing, the crews were loaded aboard trucks for the cold, dark ride back to their bombers. Although a skeleton crew of 303rd maintenance men had been sent ahead to help ready the aircraft, the crews were still apprehensive. “We had all the trust in the world in our own ground crews, but much less in anyone else, no matter what unit or base they were from,” Sersland recalled. “Accordingly, we checked our aircraft very thoroughly after we arrived. We checked the fuel, the oxygen, the guns—everything that we could touch or see.”
The weather was horrid and the visibility was essentially nil as recorded by one of the crews: “No visibility during taxiing and take-off. Could barely see wing tip lights due to heavy fog. Made instrument take-off.” Nevertheless, the mission was not scrubbed. “It was unnerving,” said Sersland. “Normally, at takeoff, each individual aircraft was ticked off a roster by personnel in the control tower. But that morning, because the visibility was so poor, they had to put a GI in a jeep at the end of the runway.” All told, the 303rd launched fifty aircraft from six different airfields. Although the majority of them flew out of Bassingbourn, many aircraft flew from bases into which they had diverted for various reasons during the previous week or so. In fact, some of those bombers were flown by crews from other bomb groups, and one was even flown by a mixed crew.
Although the visibility over England was horrible that morning, it was perfect along much of the route and over the target. The column of 2,046 heavy bombers—B-17s and B-24s—together with the 853 escorting fighters, was the most colossal assemblage of aircraft in history. Only two years earlier the Eighth could not muster a mission of even a hundred bombers. Sersland was awed at the sight: “There were bombers as far as I could see. It just didn’t seem possible that there could be so many. We were toward the front of the column, and after we hit the target and headed back west, it seemed the formation was almost unbroken. There were still airplanes making landfall en route to their targets as we reached the North Sea.”
The German defenses were virtually impotent that day, as only twelve bombers were downed. It was a loss rate of less than half of 1 percent. Although a few German fighters were spotted, the 303rd remained unmolested. Still, the gunners nervously fingered their triggers as a lone Me-109 skimmed over the top of the formation with a P-51 in hot pursuit. One 303rd aircraft, Ole George, flown by a crew from the 92nd Bomb Group, was lost over Germany. The Floose—a veteran of 102 missions—was cracked up and destroyed on landing while flown by another crew from the 92nd Bomb Group.
Notwithstanding the tiny loss rate, the Eighth lost one of its stalwarts. General Frederick Castle, who had been part of Eaker’s staff during the early days of 1942, was at the head of the entire formation that morning. His aircraft was attacked and downed by Me-109s and he was killed.
The results of the day’s bombing were excellent. The Hell’s Angels had been tasked to hit the airfield at Merzhausen, near Frankfurt, Germany. More than 75 percent of the airfield was cratered, and it was knocked out of operations for the near term. The effects of the overall effort on the ground fighting were impossible to quantify, but certainly they were real and significant. However, perhaps more important was the psychological impact of the enormous raid. If it wasn’t clear to the German leadership beforehand that the Americans could establish air superiority whenever and wherever they wanted, it was massively clear afterward.
The weather was still poor at Molesworth when the bombers returned, and most of the 303rd’s B-17s diverted to the 96th Bomb Group’s base at Snetterton Heath. Bob Hand, the navigator on Old Cock, was quick to make himself comfortable at the strange base and celebrated Christmas Eve with enthusiasm:
I fell in with the festivities at the base and lost track of time and was left with no barracks or bed and/or blanket, etc. By this time the well known pot bellied stoves had burned themselves out and it wasn’t getting any warmer. I gently lifted a blanket from over 4 or 5 sleeping airmen and fashioned a sack on the floor with my head next to the stove and fell fast asleep. Sometime in the night a person wearing heavy shoes was making his way to the john in the dark and not seeing all that well accidentally kicked me full force in the head. By the time I got back from First Aid my blankets were gone and I spent the rest of Christmas Eve sleeping in a chair in the day room.
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THE MEN WERE ALWAYS COLD. It was less miserable during the summer, but the wet, bone-chilling cold of England was a constant source of griping. The various buildings and huts were typically heated by coke-fueled potbellied stoves, but they were too few and too small to provide much comfort. Even so, the men were issued only enough fuel to fire the stoves for a couple of hours each day. “We usually burned ours between about five and seven in the evening,” said Paul Sersland. “But it was never enough.
“So we went to the maintenance shops and borrowed an oxygen cylinder, a valve and some tubing. We filled the cylinder with aviation gas and oil, hung it in the rafters and then ran the tubing down into the stovepipe. And oh, it worked—that stove got red hot!”
An inspecting officer was wholly unimpressed with the ad hoc furnace and the very real possibility that the hut might be caught up in a conflagration at any moment. He ordered it removed. Sersland and his comrades shelved their nascent engineering talent and pursued a more traditional means for getting what they wanted. “We made an ‘unauthorized acquisition’ to fill a big box with coke,” he said. “We cut a hole through the fence that guarded the field where it was kept. But they eventually discovered our hole and we had to stop our acquisitions. So we went back to being cold.”