Staff Sgt. Forrest L. Vosler
U.S. Army Air Forces
Medal of Honor
December 20, 1943
Cut off from its formation and badly damaged by flak and enemy fighter attacks, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Jersey Bounce Jr. was rapidly losing altitude. A 20mm cannon shell had severely wounded the tail gunner, and shrapnel had ripped through the radio compartment, wounding Staff Sgt. Forrest L. “Woody” Vosler in the legs and damaging the radio.
It was Vosler’s fourth combat mission. A native of western New York, he had joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in October 1942 and was ultimately assigned to the Eighth Air Force’s 358th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group, based at RAF Molesworth, England. At dawn on Dec. 20, 1943, Vosler and fellow crewmen took off in Jersey Bounce Jr. destined for Bremen in northwest Germany.
Bombers on raids earlier that month had encountered only light resistance. This mission would be different. Nearly 500 B-17s and Consolidated B-24 Liberators took off from bases across England; 27 would not return.
Soon after the formation crossed into Holland, more than 100 German fighters engaged the American bombers in a running fight all the way to Bremen. Near the target the bombers also ran into heavy flak. Jersey Bounce Jr. was able to reach its target and drop its payload, but by the time pilot John Henderson turned the plane toward the North Sea and home, the B-17 had lost one engine, while another engine was smoking and losing power. Unable to keep up, Jersey Bounce Jr. dropped out of the formation.
“As I glanced off to my right,” ball turret gunner Ed Ruppel later said, “I could see four or five B-17s being attacked by fighters. There was one B-17 that was pretty close to us. [The German fighters] cut one of his wings off, and he went into a tight roll. Then they went after the others. They just kept pecking away until they got them all.… I knew that when the fighters were finished with them we were next.”
Though bleeding profusely from his leg wounds, Vosler was able to shake off his fear, man the single .50-caliber machine gun at the radio hatch and keep up a steady volume of fire. Fully expecting to die, he thought to himself: If this is the way it’s going to be, at least I’m going to die standing up. I’ll do the job. Vosler continued firing until another 20mm shell exploded in his face, peppering him with shrapnel wounds from his forehead to his knees and sending shards of metal into both of his eyes.
“The shell fragments had damaged the retina of my right eye,” he recalled, “and I was seeing blood streaming down the retina inside my eye, thinking it was on the outside. So my natural feeling was that I had lost the whole side of my face.”
Barely able to see and slipping in and out of consciousness, Vosler returned to his damaged radio, which he soon repaired by touch with the help of fellow crewmen. By then Jersey Bounce Jr. was skimming the wave tops. Vosler first sent an SOS and then transmitted regular holding signals that led search and rescue planes to their position. Once the B-17 ditched, he crawled out on the fuselage unaided and then, in a moment of selfless courage, jumped to the starboard wing to keep the unconscious tail gunner from slipping into the freezing water. With one hand on his injured comrade and the other gripping the plane’s antenna wire, Vosler held on until crewmates helped them both into life rafts.
Vosler and the tail gunner survived, but his injuries left Vosler blind in both eyes. Doctors were able to restore sight to his left eye, and at a White House ceremony on Sept. 6, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded the courageous radioman the Medal of Honor. At war’s end Vosler went to work for the Veterans Administration, a job he held until his death in 1992 at age 68.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.