Flying their B-24 Liberators in the flak-filled skies over Europe late in World War II, the men of the 445th Bombardment Group knew they were renowned among the Eighth Air Force for two primary reasons—one, their ranks included Hollywood legend Major James “Jimmy” Stewart, who commanded the group’s 703rd Bombardment Squadron; and, two, they had suffered the highest single mission loss of any group in the Mighty Eighth during the war.
Constituted in March 1943, the business end of the 445th consisted of the 701st, 702nd, 703rd and 705th Bombardment squadrons, all based at Tibenham, England. Entering combat on December 13, 1943, the group immediately embarked on a mission to the U-boat pens at Kiel, Germany, and quickly earned a reputation for bombing accuracy. In recognition of the group’s participation in the “Big Week” strikes of February 1944, it was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation and later was praised for its efforts on D-Day in June. However, three months after helping the Allied forces storm ashore on the coast of France, the 445th’s luck ran out.
The morning of September 27, 1944, started like so many others for the group, with the crews awakened in darkness to prepare for the day’s sortie. On this occasion, however, the wake-up call had come an hour earlier, and as the groggy crewmen stumbled into the Nissan hut for their premission briefing they might have wondered if the hour less sleep meant they would be heading to the “Big B”: Berlin. They were probably relieved when informed that the German capital, which bristled with anti-aircraft batteries, would not be their target. Instead, their bombs would fall on the Henschel engine and vehicle plants in Kassel. They doubtless were also happy to hear that the schedule would have them back at their base by 12:30 p.m.
Regardless, the day’s sortie would be a massive effort. The Eighth Air Force’s 2nd Bombardment Division would send 315 of its B-24s into the air, with the 445th contributing 37. A total of 877 bombers from other groups would also head to Germany to strike industrial and transportation targets in Mainz, Cologne, Ludwigshafen and Mannheim.
Shortly after takeoff, two bombers from the 445th had to abort the mission, but the remainder flew on toward Germany, led to their target by the base navigator rather than the squadron commander’s navigator, which was normally the case. Even with this unique navigation arrangement, the formation seemed on course until it reached the critical initial point (IP) to begin its bomb run.
First Lieutenant Frank Bertram, lead navigator of the 702nd Squadron, was surprised when the group leader suddenly “veered off to the left, seemingly away from the primary target.” He immediately advised his pilot, 1st Lt. Reginald Minor, that they were off course, a message that was relayed on to the group commander. The admonition to “keep it together” and stay with the lead squadron soon crackled in Minor’s headset, however.
There was a low cloud layer at about 6,000 feet, and the formation was flying at about 25,000 feet, which might have been the reason for the errant course change. The aircrews made a radar-assisted Pathfinder strike before dropping their bombs. For some reason, the men believed they were still on target. Having unleashed their payloads on the perceived objective—the bombs, in fact, had struck Göttingen some 20 miles away—the 445th then executed the specified withdrawal plan, which placed it well behind and to the east of the remainder of the 2nd Division.
Worse than missing its target, though, was that the group’s sudden change of course had gone unnoticed by its fighter escort, meaning the weary bomb crews were without the comforting presence of their “little friends.” The absence of an escort would soon be keenly felt.
Given the drubbing the Germans had been receiving since the Normandy campaign and the increased effectiveness of Allied escorts, enemy fighters had not been much of a problem for months. In fact, high-ranking officers in the division, believing the worst was behind them, had decided a few weeks earlier to reduce the weight and drag on the B-24s by removing their belly-mounted ball turrets.
Flying on alone that morning, the 445th paid a hefty price for its poor navigation and the missing .50-caliber machine guns that used to adorn the planes’ vulnerable bellies. As 2nd Lt. Carroll Snidow of the 703rd remembered, “All of a sudden, all hell broke loose.”
Approximately 100 Focke Wulf Fw-190 A-8s from IV Gruppe (Sturm) of Jagdgeschwader 3 (IV/JG. 3), II/JG. 4 and II/JG.300 barreled down on the bombers in line-abreast formation, with Messerschmitt Me-109G-6s of I/JG.300 providing top cover. Rows of 10 to 15 planes each dove on the formation from the 6 o’clock position. Almost immediately, a horrified Snidow watched two B-24s ahead of him blow up and plummet to earth. He was then shocked by the sight of an Fw-190 striking the plane on his right wing with 20 to 30 small bombs. Only a waist gunner was able to bail out, the rest perishing.
The nightmare soon hit closer to home. Engine No. 4 on Snidow’s plane, Mairzy Doats, was struck. Unable to feather the disabled engine, the crew watched in horror as it ripped out of its housing on the wing and, with the propeller still turning, crashed into the No. 3 engine, taking it out as well. The wing remained intact, but the gaping holes where the engines had been created considerable drag on the aircraft.
Desperate to lighten the load as much as possible to avoid falling out of formation, Snidow instructed his crew to throw guns, ammunition and all other loose gear out of the plane—anything to gain speed and altitude. Despite those efforts, Mairzy Doats continued to lose altitude at about 300 feet per minute. The B-24 continued to struggle, moving along barely above stall speed, until it emerged from a cloud bank at about 6,000 feet and received a direct hit from a German 88mm antiaircraft gun. That was it. Snidow hit the bailout bell, and the crew abandoned ship. All were fortunate enough to escape the doomed plane.
Snidow landed in a field among a group of German farmers. A woman told him that her husband was a prisoner in West Virginia and was being well treated. Snidow was one of the few American pilots shot down that day not to face retribution at the hands of German civilians or police.
Meanwhile, Theodore Myers, engineer of the 703rd’s Hot Rock, recalled that he was the first member of his crew to report the German fighters coming in wing tip to wing tip from 5 o’clock. He quickly saw several parachutes in the air and assorted pieces of wreckage hurtling through the sky. When he went to fire his top turret guns at the approaching menace, he discovered that the guns wouldn’t function. Dropping from the turret, he noticed that the pilot, co-pilot and radio operator all seemed OK; however, several large streams of gasoline were pouring into the bomb bay.
Well aware of the necessity of getting that highly combustible fuel out of the plane, Myers did what he could to open the bomb bay doors but in the process was drenched in gas. Not long afterward a 20mm shell exploded under his feet, wounding him in the right foot and both legs and upending him onto the catwalk. A blinding flash followed, and Myers soon found himself on fire from head to toe. After losing consciousness, he awoke while descending in his parachute. Although his face was so burned that he could see only out of his left eye, the flames at least had been extinguished by the slipstream.
The burning Hot Rock exploded shortly thereafter. Myers later ran into the B-24’s only other survivor, tail gunner Frank Pless, in a German hospital. Pless recounted how he had been blown out of his turret and saw one of the plane’s wings hurtle past him just before he lost consciousness. The gunner came to just in time to pull the ripcord on his parachute.
First Lieutenant Bertram, the 702nd’s lead navigator who had initially noticed the 445th’s course divergence, reported that his plane had been badly hit in the German attack. Because of the shells sent through the fuselage and the direct hits, and explosions and fires in several vital areas, Bertram said it was a mystery that the plane didn’t blow up. The co-pilot and radio operator were killed, but the rest of the crew managed to bail. With all the chutes in the sky, the scene resembled a paratroop invasion. Bertram landed in a tree and was discovered the next afternoon by a group of Hitler Youth, who turned him over to the Bad Hersfeld City Police.
First Lieutenant Leo Pouloit, a co-pilot in the 703rd, first noticed the tail gunner on Cecil Isom’s plane to his right firing away at some fighters. He didn’t have a chance to gaze for very long. His own plane was soon struck and the radio knocked out as he was calling for help. In the midst of his despair, he saw several other bombers going down, some in flames and others just exploding.
The Luftwaffe fighters had taken out most of the squadron on the first pass, and by now Isom’s plane was shaking as all of its guns kept firing. A plane on his right, with its No. 3 tank on fire, blew up right after three men bailed out of its waist. All the losses were not on the American side, however. An Fw-190 was hit and spun into another, which hit yet a third enemy plane.
As Isom watched the horror unfold around him, his nose gunner, Ted Hoiten, got a clear view of the fighters attacking from below. One of them stalled out, and Hoiten sent it down in flames with a long burst. Not to be outdone, the top turret gunner, Kenneth Kribs, took on an Fw-190 that had attacked from 2 o’clock. Kribs had to immediately turn his turret 90 degrees and engage the enemy fighter at close range, causing it to disappear in a cloud of debris. The last attack Isom’s B-24 suffered came from the left side, which damaged one rudder, the hydraulic reservoir and some controls. Only four planes were left in the formation.
Once out of the reach of enemy fighters, Isom’s stricken plane approached the “lame duck” emergency field at Manston, England, with pilot Jackson Mercer working the ailerons and his co-pilot using the C-1 autopilot to control the rudders. Emergency procedures were necessary to lower the wheels and flaps, but the landing was smooth. An inspection revealed the plane to be a wreck, but a lucky one. There was an undetonated 20mm shell in the No. 2 gas tank. If it had not been a dud, Isom and his crewmates would have just been another set of numbers in that day’s grisly statistics.
Isom’s plane would be one of only two to make it all the way back to Tibenham. There is no question the gunners’ excellent marksmanship contributed greatly to their survival. The battle, which had seemed to take an eternity, hardly lasted five minutes, with eight of the 703rd’s 10 bombers that took off that morning not making it through the maelstrom.
As the pilots of the two lucky planes approached their landing field, startled operators in the control tower asked about the whereabouts of the remainder of the group. “We are the group,” they were told.
After landing, the exhausted crews were surrounded by military policemen and forbidden to talk to anyone about what had happened. They were whisked off to a debriefing and then locked up. An incredulous interrogation ensued, with the intelligence officers finding it difficult to believe what they were hearing. Losses of this magnitude were not supposed to happen in September 1944. Horrified when he heard the news, Jimmy Stewart, now a colonel assigned to wing command, took over the debriefing of his former subordinates.
Demonstrating the leadership that earned him the respect of all with whom he flew, Stewart’s presence had a calming effect on the jittery crews. Rather than berate the men, the veteran of dozens of his own combat missions listened intently to their horrifying stories.
It was hard, however, to keep news of the disaster from spreading around the base. The mess hall had prepared food for several hundred, and when only about two dozen showed up for the post-mission meal, it didn’t take long for the cooks to surmise what had happened.
When all the reports were in, it became clear that of the 35 aircraft that had made the flight to Germany, only 10 had escaped the clutches of their Luftwaffe tormentors. Of these, only two made it back to Tibenham, three had reached the “lame duck” emergency field at Manston and the remainder had crash-landed in France and England.
Of the 236 men in the planes destroyed by the enemy, 118 had been killed in action—five of that total were shot by German civilians, one was shot “while attempting to escape” from the police and two others were beaten to death by enraged civilians.
Despite the horrific losses that day, the demands of the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign took precedence, and on the 28th the 445th took to the sky again. This time, however, the group could send up only 10 planes, only one of which, Patty Girl, had flown the mission to Kassel.
Those who took part in the air battle of September 27 were unable to forget it. Even after more than half a century, the memories of “Black Wednesday” continued to haunt the survivors. Hoping to better understand what had happened and to silence old ghosts, veterans of the battle began working to properly commemorate that terrible day.
On August 1, 1990, their efforts came to fruition with the dedication of the German-American Airmen’s Memorial, consisting of three very large stones with descriptive brass nameplates. In addition to a description of the battle, the nameplates also contain the names of the American and German airmen who lost their lives. The memorial, in the Seulingswald Forest near Ludwigsau, is the only joint American-German monument known to have resulted from World War II.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.