During a disastrous mission to a German aircraft factory, the 91st Bomb Group lost six B-17s in less than a minute.
The time, 1002 hours. The date, August 16, 1944. Thirty-five Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 91st Bomb Group, flying out of their home base at Bassingbourn, England, were approaching Eisenach on the way to the Siebel aircraft factory at Halle, Germany. The target was one hour and eight minutes away. The American fighters that escorted the group to this point had turned back two minutes earlier, but the fighter group assigned to take over as escort was late. Lacking fighter cover, the 91st’s Fortresses were vulnerable targets in enemy airspace. Just how vulnerable would be made clear within the next few minutes.
The 324th Bomb Squadron of the 91st Group was flying as high squadron, to the right of and slightly above the lead 323rd Squadron. The 324th was led by No. 890, Fearless Fosdick, with 1st Lt. Robert E. Crans as pilot and squadron lead, flying at the apex of the three-plane V-shaped lead element. On the right wing, in the No. 2 position, was 2nd Lt. Edward L. Witty and his crew in No. 515, The Wild Hare. On the left wing, in the No. 3 position, was No. 000 with 2nd Lt. Reese W. Lindsay Jr. and his crew.
The three-plane second element, flying above and to the right of the lead element, was led by No. 126, with 2nd Lt. John “Jack” L. Leslie serving as the deputy squadron lead. On his right wing, Flight Officer Louis C. Marpil and his crew were in No. 613. The No. 3 position was filled by No. 085, Yankee Belle, piloted by 1st Lt. John R. McCombs. The third element, flying below and to the left of the lead element, was led by No. 012 and 2nd Lt. Vincent A. Fonke. There was no plane in the No. 2 position. Second Lieutenant Royal E. Manville and No. 088, Redwing, had been assigned this slot. But when Manville became lost in the overcast and could not find the 91st formation, he spotted the 457th Group coming together and—following standing orders—joined up with it to fly on to the target at Schkeuditz. The No. 3 position in the third element was filled by No. 673, Lassie Come Home, with 2nd Lt. Leonard F. Figie and his crew.
The fourth element, flying directly behind and below the lead element, was led by 1st Lt. Freeman C. Beasley in No. 128, Dear Becky. Second Lieutenant Lawrence N. Gaddis in No. 333, Wee Willie, had started out in the No. 2 position, but he became ill and had to return to base. A spare, No. 634, Texas Chubby—The J’ville Jolter, piloted by 2nd Lt. Halsted Sherrill, moved into his slot in the formation. In the No. 3 position, known as the “coffin corner” because it was the most exposed in the squadron, was No. 996, Boston Bombshell, with 2nd Lt. John F. Dunlap and his crew.
For most of the mission the 324th Squadron had been running into heavy prop wash from the 381st Group flying directly in front of the 91st. The squadron loosened up and fell behind. As the bombers approached Eisenach, flak bursts began appearing near Fearless Fosdick. Lieutenant Crans glanced down at the map taped to his leg to confirm the location. As he did so, the navigator, 2nd Lt. Carl R. Phifer, yelled over the intercom, “Lead, lead!” Crans looked up and saw that the group lead aircraft was making a turn to the left. Crans began his own turn, with the rest of the high squadron following, but the delay in response threw them farther behind. The 324th was also on the outside of the turn and had a longer route to fly, causing the squadron to fall even more out of position.
Forty Seconds of Terror
Before the turn, a gaggle of German fighters, mostly heavily armed and armored Focke Wulf Fw-190A-8 Sturmböck (“storm-rams”) of the IV (Sturm) Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 3, or IV (Sturm)/JG.3, along with Messerschmitt Me-109Gs of I/JG.302, had drifted back down alongside the bomber stream. As they moved past the formation, the German pilots saw there was no fighter escort covering the 91st and that the high squadron was lagging behind. Shortly thereafter the 324th Squadron’s tail gunners saw what they took to be the overdue American fighter escort approaching from out of the sun at 6 o’clock. It was actually the German fighters. While still out of range of the bombers’ machine guns, the fighters began lobbing 20mm and 30mm cannon shells with timed fuses into the formation. Puffs of grayish-white smoke from exploding shells suddenly appeared, and shells began hitting the bombers. The fighters barreled at full throttle right into the 324th Squadron in flights of two, three and five abreast. The ensuing gun duel would last only 40 seconds, but to the participants, it would seem like 40 lifetimes. In Fearless Fosdick, the tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Patrick J. Walsh, fired at the oncoming fighters for such a long time that he burned out his guns. The flight engineer, Staff Sgt. Russell W. Wilson, managed to fire off a few rounds from the top turret at fighters attacking the higher No. 2 element before they passed under his plane. Next an Fw-190 came in on The Wild Hare, riddling the tail. A piece of rudder fabric began flapping over the windows of the tail gunner, Sergeant Joseph M. Albury, who reached out and tore away the canvas so he could see.
When an Fw-190 came directly in on the tail of No. 000, the tail gunner, Sergeant Lewis C. Morgan, fired at the fighter, causing it to flare up and away, with its belly toward his turret. No. 000 was raked by cannon fire all along the right wing from the tip to up next to the fuselage. The gas tank between the No. 3 and 4 engines caught fire, sending flames streaming 30 feet to the rear. No. 000 pulled up almost vertically and exploded about four seconds later. Only the tail section remained intact, floating downward in a flat spin.
Morgan tried to go out through the opening where the tail was cut off but became entangled in the shredded metal. He finally managed to pull free, kick the tail hatch open and drop out, pulling his ripcord at 600 feet. The chute opened so late that Morgan hit the ground hard, breaking his left heel and leg. An old man gathering vegetables put Morgan in a cart and took him to a nearby town, where he placed the American in the care of some Catholic nuns. The next day, however, Morgan became a POW. The remaining eight crew members had been killed when No. 000 exploded.
Number 126 took several cannon hits, setting its No. 4 engine on fire and starting a fire in the bomb bay. The waist gunner, Staff Sgt. Douglas Buntin, was badly wounded in the chest and face. The tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Louis Kos, was also hit by cannon fire, which tore a gaping wound in his chest and injured his face. Lieutenant Leslie called over the intercom for the radioman, Tech Sgt. James I. Middleton, to get back in the waist and man a gun. By the time he unhooked his oxygen system, plugged in a “walk-around” oxygen bottle, disconnected the intercom system and got back to a waist gun, Middleton had time to fire off only a few ineffective rounds at the Germans.
Number 126 was going down. Kos tried to crawl from his tail position back into the fuselage. Although badly wounded himself, Buntin went back to aid Kos. Neither had on his chute. At the same time the flight engineer, Tech Sgt. Joseph H. Godfrey, jumped down from the top turret and went into the cockpit. Leslie yelled to the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. John E. Savage, “It looks bad.” Savage answered, “Yes.” Lieutenant Leslie ordered the crew to get ready to jump. He then said he was going to crash-land, since the wounded men could not jump. Godfrey said that he would “ride it down.”
The navigator, 2nd Lt. Stanley Koss, had just dropped through the nose escape hatch. Leslie called the bombardier, Flight Officer Karl W. Donley, over the intercom and told him, “Come up and get Godfrey and push him out.” Donley came up to the cockpit and took Godfrey down into the nose, shoved him through the escape hatch and bailed out after him, followed by Savage. Leslie remained at the controls.
Almost as soon as Savage jumped, the plane exploded and broke in two, killing Leslie, Buntin and Kos. Middleton, who was still in the waist of the aircraft, was knocked out by the explosion, but when he regained consciousness he was floating in the air with his chute open. He landed in a field, where several civilians held him until he was taken prisoner. Koss was shot and killed by an elderly civilian after the landing. Savage was not injured before he bailed out, but he did not survive. It is not known how he died.
The flight engineer of No. 613, Sergeant Joseph B. Nealon, saw fighters approaching the squadron from the rear and called over the intercom, “Look at the P-47s.” The tail gunner, Sergeant Clem J. Pine, yelled back, “Hell, those are Fws!” Almost immediately cannon fire from the German fighters started raking the plane, knocking out the No. 2 engine. The waist gunner, Sergeant Clayton O. Tyson, was hit in the head and throat and killed by the first rounds slamming into the plane. The radio operator, Sergeant Gerald J. Peters, was hit in the ankle and knocked to the floor of the radio room. Pine, in the tail, was firing at the oncoming fighters when a shell exploded in the tail compartment, shredding his chute, wounding him in the left thigh and throwing him back onto the tail wheel cover.
At the sound of exploding shells, the navigator, 2nd Lt. Elliot H. Winston, had started to get up to man his gun when the nose was hit. The Plexiglas above the bombardier’s position blew out, and several of the navigation maps were sucked out of the aircraft. Number 613 started losing altitude rapidly. The oxygen system had been punctured and drained. Flight Officer Marpil knew he needed to get the plane down to where the crew could breathe. As the aircraft started dropping, Pine, who had seen other B-17s in the formation exploding in the air, crawled into the rear of the fuselage, where he saw that Tyson had been killed and Peters was lying wounded on the floor of his compartment. When he sensed the plane was dropping rapidly and saw that the No. 2 engine was out, Pine assumed they were going down. He snapped on the spare chest chute the crew kept by the rear escape hatch, kicked open the door and bailed out.
Marpil finally leveled off No. 613 at 14,000 feet, feathering the windmilling No. 2 engine. The main gas tank to No. 4 engine had been hit, and that engine also stopped. Nealon pumped gas into the No. 4 tank and got the engine going again, although it was running rough. Marpil then went back into the fuselage to check out the damage and to give aid to Peters. At about the same time, Staff Sgt. Truely S. Ponder tried to come up out of the ball turret, but he had difficulty because Tyson’s body was lying on top of the hatch. When he finally got out, Ponder went forward to the radio compartment and gave Peters a morphine shot, then poured sulfa powder into the radio operator’s ankle wound. Marpil turned No. 613 for home.
Large puffs of whitish smoke from exploding 20mm and 30mm shells erupted all around Yankee Belle. Approximately 20 holes appeared in the aircraft, and the hydraulic system was shot out. Amazingly, there was no major structural damage to the bomber, and none of the crew was hit. Yankee Belle remained on course and at altitude.
Earlier, as No. 012 had reached 10,000 feet headed for the coast, the crewmen went on oxygen and manned their positions. In his haste to get into position in the ball turret, Sergeant Charles F. Brudo forgot his chute. The radio operator, Sergeant Wendell Meenach, noticed it was missing. “Charlie, your chute,” he yelled as he tapped his chest. Brudo reached back for the parachute and snapped it on as he took up his position.
The first indication the cockpit crew had that they were under attack was the sudden appearance of grayish-white smoke all around the front of their plane. At the same time, the tail gunner, Sergeant Willard M. Holden, called over the intercom that fighters were “coming in on the tail” and that he was “firing at them.” Holden yelled out: “Shoot at him! Shoot at him!”—his last words.
Almost immediately, 20mm cannon shells struck the No. 2 engine, knocking it out, as well as the right wing, between the No. 3 and 4 engines and in the inboard wing tank. The right wing, along with the No. 4 engine, became engulfed in fire. Part of the elevator was shot off at the same time. Number 012 nosed over. Thanks to the combined efforts of Fonke and the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Fred W. Van Sant, the plane started leveling out after dropping about 5,000 feet.
Holden had been killed by the first rounds of cannon fire. Brudo, in the ball turret, was wounded in the lower right leg, just above the ankle, in the crotch and in the left buttock. Another cannon shell hit the turret, knocking Brudo unconscious. When he came to, he was floating free; his chute had already opened on its own. Meenach’s reminder about the parachute had saved Brudo’s life.
Exploding cannon shells hit the waist gunner, Sergeant William J. Weaver, in the face, blinding him in both eyes and blowing away his intercom mike. When Meenach looked out from the radio compartment and saw Weaver lying on the floor with his face bloody, he told Fonke that Weaver was dead.
Fonke rang the bail-out bell and yelled over the intercom for everyone to leave the ship. Top turret gunner Staff Sgt. Raymond V. Prange, the navigator 2nd Lt. Robert W. Simcock Jr., bombardier 2nd Lt. Herbert Carlson and Lieutenant Van Sant left through the nose hatch. Meenach went out the waist door. As soon as he felt the crew had had time to clear the aircraft, Fonke went into the nose and bailed out. Almost immediately No. 012 exploded. “It sounded like the whole world had blown up when she exploded,” recalled Weaver, who was alive but knocked unconscious as No. 012 disintegrated. When he came to, he still could not see because of blood in his eyes, but he sensed that he was parachuting down.
Just before the German fighters started their attack, Lieutenant Sherrill in Texas Chubby decided to try to get out of the prop wash by moving from the fourth element into No. 2 position in the third element, which was left open when Redwing got lost. He asked the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Frank J. Gilligan, to take the controls, since the position was on his side of the plane. As they moved into the new slot, the tail gunner, Sergeant Chester W. Mis, called up on the intercom and said, “Our fighter cover is here…no, they’re not!”
Texas Chubby immediately took several hits from German cannon fire. The instrument panel was shot to pieces, and the engines started running away. Sherrill flipped on the autopilot. Nothing. Shells exploded in the top turret, killing the gunner, Sergeant Vernon E. Bauerline, who slumped down in the turret. The ball turret took several direct 20mm cannon hits, killing Staff Sgt. Enrique T. Perez. Both legs of the waist gunner, Staff Sgt. Joseph R. Morrison, were blown off by exploding shells. He did not have his chute on, and the radio operator, Staff Sgt. Richard J. Munkwitz, went back to give Morrison aid, put an emergency chute on him and try to help him bail out.
Texas Chubby pitched up and then dropped off on its right wing. As the aircraft went down, it just missed another B-17 that was dropping down with fire streaming from the engines. Sherrill said, “I guess it’s time to go, we can’t do a damn thing about it,” and then rang the bail-out bell.
The navigator, 2nd Lt. William M. Porter, had been hit in the head by shrapnel from the first shells. His oxygen mask filled with blood, and when Sherrill rang the bail-out bell and told the crew to leave the plane, Porter took off his face mask, buckled on his chest pack chute and made his way to the nose. But because of his wounds and lack of oxygen, he became disoriented before reaching the exit. As Gilligan moved down between the seats, he saw Porter fumbling at the escape hatch door. Gilligan crawled forward to the door and pulled the emergency handle, then Porter tumbled out. The bombardier, 2nd Lt. Nicholas J. Weber, had his chute on and was turning around to move to the escape hatch.
Gilligan went back to the cockpit and stooped down to retrieve his own chute from between the seats. He looked up to see Sherrill standing over him. Sherrill asked, “Are you still here?” Then everything became chaos—noise, flashes, flying debris. The next thing Gilligan knew, it was quiet. He saw blue, green, blue, green, blue—then he realized he was alive and tumbling end-over-end, seeing sky, vegetation, sky, vegetation, sky. Finding that he still had his chute in his hands, he snapped it on and pulled the ripcord. As he floated down over a small village, he saw Volkssturm (home guards) and Hitler Youth running toward the spot where he would land in a farmer’s field. They held him prisoner at the farm until the authorities arrived.
When the order to bail out came over the intercom, the tail gunner, Sergeant Chester W. Mis, started to go back into the fuselage to leave through the side hatch. Just then Texas Chubby exploded in a fiery ball, throwing Mis out of the plane. Lieutenants Sherrill and Weber and Sergeant Morrison did not escape.
John F. Wallaszek, tail gunner, was the first crewman in Lassie Come Home to spot the German fighters coming at the formation from the rear. Almost immediately the tail position was hit by cannon shells, wounding Wallaszek over the right eye and throwing him back into the fuselage. As he tried to crawl back into his position, the next flight of fighters fired into the tail, wounding him in the left leg. The B-17s interior became a fiery inferno, and Wallaszek, though blinded by blood, made it to the escape hatch under the tail and bailed out. He was shot in the right arm by civilians while coming down, but he landed without further injury.
Ball turret gunner Sergeant Frederick D. Baldwin, radio operator Sergeant Edmund J. Mikolaitis and co-pilot 2nd Lt. Dale W. Whitson were all killed when 20mm cannon shells hit Lassie. Baldwin was partially blown from the turret. Whitson was thrown forward onto the control column. Mikolaitis lay on the floor near the radio compartment, which was a blazing inferno. The flames soon spread to the left wing of Lassie Come Home.
The waist gunner, Staff Sgt. Walter Salo, was hit by exploding shrapnel from the cannon shells. Seeing the flames, Salo moved to the waist escape hatch, snapped on his chest pack chute, pushed open the door and tumbled out. In the nose, the bombardier, Sergeant Harlon B. Williams, saw a fighter flash by the plane, grabbed the right nose machine gun and fired at it. The fighter exploded in front of Lassie Come Home. Williams’ victim was possibly 1st Lt. Ekkehard Tichy, commander of the 13 (Sturm) Staffel of JG.3, who had run out of ammunition and decided to ram the B-17. Tichy was credited with bringing down his quarry, for his 25th and last victory. Just as Lassie crewmen started shouting, “You got him,” the intercom went dead and cannon shells began exploding in the nose compartment. Williams was hit several times in the head and left leg by shell fragments. The navigator, 2nd Lt. Frederick Seible, was also hit in the legs. He yelled, “They got me!” Almost immediately, before Williams could get the first aid kit and move back to help him, more cannon shells exploded in the nose, killing Seible. Williams, who saw that the oxygen system was on fire, realized the plane was doomed.
Technical Sergeant Walter L. Carpenter dropped down from the top turret and went into the cockpit. By then the pilot, 2nd Lt. Figie, knew the plane was irretrievably out of control. He and Sergeant Carpenter went down through the fiery inferno into the nose and fell out of the plane, followed by Williams a few seconds later. The crew had barely left Lassie Come Home when it blew up in an orange-and-black cloud. Williams was knocked unconscious by the explosion, but suffered no more injuries upon landing.
Lieutenant Beasley warned Dear Becky’s crew that there were bandits in the area and the escort had not shown up. A moment later Staff Sgt. Walter H. Keirsey III, in the tail, spotted a large number of Fw-190s and Me-109s closing in on the squadron from the rear. He yelled out, “Here they come, and they ain’t ours!” Sergeant Keirsey and Staff Sgt. Alvin P. Desisto, in the ball turret, began firing at two attacking planes. Keirsey’s target, an Fw-190, blew apart, while the Me-109 that Desisto fired on also went down, exploding when it hit the ground.
Fighters continued to flash past Dear Becky on both sides.
An Fw-190 flew alongside on the right, not more than 70 yards away. The pilot was staring straight ahead, apparently intent on the B-17 that was his target. Sergeant Jack M. Alford, manning the right waist gun, fired a long burst into the fighter, which exploded. Alford then began firing on another Fw-190 that also plunged to the ground and exploded. The pilot, 2nd Lt. Karl-Heinz Müller of 2/JG.302, was wounded but bailed out safely northwest of Eisenach near Kassel.
But for Dear Becky, the damage was done. A right-wing tank had been hit and began spewing fuel out behind the wing. The exhaust on the No. 2 engine was also hit, knocking out the supercharger and causing the prop to run away, which slowed the plane so much that it dropped about 600-800 yards behind the rest of the squadron. Realizing he could not stay in formation with a full payload, Beasley told the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Bruce D. Pardue, to jettison the bombs, which he did. Dear Becky struggled to stay with the formation.
The navigator of Boston Bombshell, 2nd Lt. Hubert B. Carpenter, was working on the mission log as the action began to unfold. The togglier, Sergeant Leslie D. Algee, yelled at him that he thought he saw fighters. At that instant, cannon fire raked Boston Bombshell from one end to the other. The left wing was set ablaze between the No. 1 and 2 engines, and the Fortress immediately started spinning downward. Algee raised up out of his seat to leave the aircraft. Carpenter snapped on his chest pack chute, and held onto the brace above the nose hatch to steady himself as he moved to the opening. There he saw Lieutenant Dunlap lying on the catwalk. Just then Dunlap came to and told Carpenter to open the escape hatch. Carpenter kicked it open and jumped, followed by Dunlap. Almost immediately, Boston Bombshell blew up. Only Carpenter and Dunlap survived.
The Downward Dive
At the end of their 40-second attack runs on the American high squadron, most of the German fighters rolled over and dived. As they roared down through the 323rd Squadron, the fighters made frantic passes at a number of bombers in the first three elements. Only No. 234, Bomber Dear, the lead plane of the second element, flown by 1st Lt. L.C. Basinger, was hit, and the damage was minor.
The fourth element was less lucky. Their 20mm cannons blazing, two Me-109s and an Fw-190 dived down on No. 579, Betty Lou’s Buggy, in the No. 2 position, with 1st Lt. Walter Reese Mullins and his crew aboard. Both the No. 3 and 4 engines were knocked out, and the No. 2 engine was also hit, and thereafter could only deliver about half power. Tail gunner Staff Sgt. Mabry D. Barker, waist gunner Staff Sgt. Robert D. Loomis and ball turret gunner Staff Sgt. Kenneth L. Blackburn all got off bursts at the fighters but did not score hits. A 20mm shell hit the tail gun position, knocking Barker off his seat. Fragments went through his right leg, leaving a hole the size of a silver dollar. He quickly pulled himself back onto his seat in case other enemy aircraft came at them. None did.
At the same time, splinters from a shell that hit the top turret gun sight creased Tech Sgt. Carl A. Dickson’s face. It was a superficial wound, but blood flowed down over his face. Meanwhile the radio operator, Tech Sgt. James B. Knaub, hooked on a walk-around oxygen bottle, then went to the tail gun position and dragged Barker back into the fuselage. He applied a bandage to Barker’s wounded leg and would have given him a shot of morphine, but there wasn’t a morphine syrette in any of the first aid kits on board the aircraft. Betty Lou’s Buggy was now flying on only 11⁄2 engines. Lieutenant Mullins had the bombardier, Flight Officer Orville G. Chaney, jettison the bombs as they continued on alone, under and north of the 91st formation.
First Lieutenant Arvin O. Basnight’s bomber, No. 298, White Cargo, flying as lead plane of the fourth element, was hit by flak just before the fighters swept through the formation, Although the enemy knocked out two of his engines, Basnight managed to keep White Cargo in formation all the way to the target. Because of evasive action taken as they hurtled through the lead squadron, only a few of the German fighters were able to line up on bombers in the low squadron. An Fw-190 fired wildly at the lead bomber of the third element, No. 504, Times A-Wastin’, with 1st Lt. Joseph R. Lyons and his crew. His tail gunner, Sergeant Burdette E. Conner, saw the ball turret from a bomber that had exploded in the high squadron go sailing earthward. He could even see the hapless gunner trapped within.
Number 851, Qualified Quail, flown by 1st Lt. Gregory E. Good’s crew in the No. 3 position of the third element, had already been hit hard by flak bursts and had lost its No. 2 engine. An Fw-190 came directly at the tail gun position, its flaps down to slow its speed to that of the Fortress, all the while drilling the bomber’s wings and fuselage. The tail gunner, Sergeant Clarence W. Koeller Jr., started firing at the enemy aircraft at 300 yards, exhorted by Lieutenant Good to “Stay with him.” Koeller could see his tracers bouncing ineffectively off the Fw-190A-8’s armor plate. A 20mm shell hit about two feet from Koeller, knocking out his oxygen connection. He glanced down to reconnect the oxygen and looked up to see the fighter only 200 yards away. Koeller fired off another burst as the Fw-190 went into a vertical dive. The sergeant yelled out, “I got him—he’s going down.” As he looked back for more German fighters, Koeller saw a crewman from another bomber hurtle past the tail with his chute on fire.
The action was over. Less than 40 seconds had elapsed, but six bombers, all from the 324th high squadron, were gone. In less than a minute, 31 men had been doomed to die, and another 25 were on their way to becoming prisoners of war. The Germans thought they had done even more damage. They credited six B-17s to IV(Sturm)/JG.3 and another four to I/JG.302.
On to the Target
Since he was piloting Fearless Fosdick, in the very front of the 324th high squadron and facing forward, Lieutenant Crans had seen none of the action taking place behind him. However, his tail gunner, Sergeant Walsh, spoke incoherently over the intercom, trying to describe what he saw. Crans yelled over the radio to the squadron, “Close up, close up!” But by this time there was no squadron left to close up. There were only three 324th planes left at altitude, Fearless Fosdick and The Wild Hare of the lead element and Yankee Belle of the second element. Lieutenant McCombs moved Yankee Belle over into the No. 3 position on the left wing of Fearless Fosdick. Lieutenant Beasley in Dear Becky could not maintain airspeed and dropped down below the three planes remaining at altitude. Beasley continued on to the target, however, since he was carrying the strike camera in his plane.
Forty-five minutes after the Me-109 and Fw-190 fighters abandoned their attack, the 91st and an adjacent 305th Bomb Group formation were attacked by five of the newly deployed Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket-powered Komets of 1 Staffel, JG.400. The bat-shaped fighters streaked up through the strike force to about 60,000 feet, trailing white smoke. At that altitude the Komet engines cut out. The fighters banked over and swooped down on the bombers. One Komet, flown by Sergeant Herbert Straznicky, attacked a B-17G of the 305th Bomb Group, only to be shot down by its tail gunner, Staff Sgt. H.J. Kaysen. Straznicky, the first combat casualty in a rocket fighter, bailed out safely but was wounded by splinters in his left arm and thigh.
After it went down through the 91st formation, 2nd Lt. Hartmut Ryll’s Me-163 leveled off behind Betty Lou’s Buggy, which was flying alone well below the rest of the planes. As he neared the bomber, Ryll began firing at his quarry’s tail, but missed. The Komet then banked to the right and glided along just out of the range of the bomber’s .50-caliber machine guns. Sergeant Blackburn, in the ball turret, asked Lieutenant Mullins to dip Betty Lou’s Buggy’s left wing so that he might be able to get off a burst at the Me-163 with his twin .50s. Just then Flight Officer Chaney, who had moved up from his bombardier’s position to man the top turret after Sergeant Dickson had been wounded, yelled at Blackburn to hold his fire, as he watched a North American P-51D Mustang dive on the enemy fighter. The German nosed over and dived straight down, with the P-51 in pursuit. The Mustang pilot, Lt. Col. John B. Murphy of the 370th Squadron, 359th Fighter Group, hit the Me-163, and Ryll died when his Komet crashed west of Brandis. Although Me-163s had been in the air since July, this was their first recorded encounter with Eighth Air Force bombers. Their two casualties were added to the total of 25 fighters destroyed, 14 pilots killed and five wounded that the Luftwaffe recorded that day.
The remaining 91st Group bombers continued on to the target, dropping their bombs at 1110 hours from 25,000 feet. Flight Officer Marpil, in No. 613, left the 324th Squadron formation to return home alone after the German fighters departed.
Because his maps were gone, Lieutenant Winston, the navigator, was unable to set a precise course back to Bassingbourn. As No. 613 approached the coast, the route Winston had selected unfortunately took them right over the port city of Bremen at 14,800 feet—almost atop the anti-aircraft guns. The plane was hit in a number of places, knocking out several instruments and wounding Ponder in the face and hands. Despite all its damage, No. 613 remained in the air over the North Sea, crossing above land near Boreham. There, Marpil saw an emergency landing strip and headed for it—with no electrical system or hydraulics. As the Fortress approached the airfield, its remaining three engines all cut out. But Marpil managed to make a perfect dead-stick landing on the grass, narrowly missing a hangar as the aircraft rolled to a stop. Number 613, however, was by then ready for the salvage yard.
Although many of the bombers sustained major battle damage during the raid, the remaining 29 91st Group aircraft, including Redwing, returned to Bassingbourn. Eleven of those planes were shot down later, and three others were destroyed when they crash-landed in England. Of the 13 planes sent up by the 324th Squadron on August 16, only Redwing survived the war. Of the 274 crewmen who made it back safely, 19 were killed in action and 13 became POWs. From August 16 through the end of the war, an additional 140 crewman of the 91st Group were killed, and 148 became prisoners.
The surviving crewmen who participated in the Eisenach mission forever carried with them those 40 seconds of terror and the horrific specter of six deadly orange-and-black clouds over Eisenach. Forty seconds, 40 weeks or 40 years—war exacts its toll.
Lowell L. Getz is a frequent contributor to Aviation History. For additional reading, try: Bomber Pilot, by William Wheeler; Serenade to the Big Bird, by Burt Stiles; and A Real Good War, by Sam Halfert.
Forty Seconds Over Eisenach originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe today!