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Lead Crew - Mission #98
11 Jan 1944
Oschersleben, Germany
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The '8' Ball Mk II #41-24635 (359BS) BN-O
1st BD Lead (359BS) - Pilot LtCol W.R. Calhoun, Jr. / CoPilot B/Gen R.F. Travis

(Back L-R) 2Lt Robert H. Halpin (TG-O), Capt Jack B. Fawcett (B),
Capt Norman N. Jacobsen (N), B/Gen Robert F. Travis (CP),
LtCol William R. Calhoun (P), 1Lt Darrell D. Gust (N)

(Front L-R) S/Sgt Harley F. Jennings (WG),
T/Sgt George R. Keesling (E), S/Sgt Leroy L. "Shorty" Mace (BT),
T/Sgt Kenneth P. Fitzsimmons (R), S/Sgt Albert C. Santella (WG)

[photo courtesy of Jack Turkel - identification by Mark Forlow]

The '8' Ball Mk II #41-24635 (359BS) BN-O
1st BD Lead (359BS) - Pilot LtCol W.R. Calhoun, Jr. / CoPilot B/Gen R.F. Travis

(Back L-R) Capt Jack B. Fawcett (B), Capt Norman N. Jacobsen (N),
T/Sgt Kenneth P. Fitzsimmons (R), S/Sgt Albert C. Santella (WG),
1Lt Darrell D. Gust (N), B/Gen Rrobert F. Travis (CP),

(Front L-R) S/Sgt Harley F. Jennings (WG), S/Sgt Leroy L. "Shorty" Mace (BT),
LtCol William R. Calhoun (P), 2Lt Robert H. Halpin (TG-O)

(Way Back) View of this man obstructed by Capt Jacobson: T/Sgt George R. Keesling (E)

[photo courtesy of Norm Jacobsen - identification by Mark Forlow]

B/Gen R.F. Travis & LtCol W.R. Calhoun, Jr

[photo courtesy of Mark Forlow]

The following report on 303rd BG Mission No. 98, 11 January 1944 to Oschersleben was written by Brigadier General Robert F. Travis and sent to the mother of 2Lt William A. Fisher, who was Killed in Action. 2Lt Fisher was on his first combat mission and flying as copilot with the 427th 1Lt George P. McClellan Crew in B-17F #41-24587 Bad Check. Bad Check was the first 303BG B-17 to be lost on this mission.

On 17 June 1944, the First Bombardment Division and its Bombardment Groups were awarded the Presidential "Distinguished Unit Citation" for actions on the 11 January 1944 Oschersleben mission. Most of the 8th Air Force, assigned to other targets in the vicinity of Oschersleben, turned back because of adverse weather, leaving the First Division to face the might of the Luftwaffe virtually alone. One of the fiercest aerial battles of the war ensued in which the First Division fought brilliantly–and bombed the target.

Oschersleben proved to be the most disastrous 303rd BG(H) combat mission flown to date. The 303rd BG lost eleven B-17s, the 1st Bomb Division lost 34 and the 8th AF lost 60 bombers and five fighters.

OSCHERSLEBEN - January 11, '44
by Brigadier General Robert F. Travis

We were seated on hard chairs in the base movie at Molesworth. It was a cold damp evening and darkness had come on prematurely due to the overcast, which was now breaking into low scudding clouds, and giving some promise of improving weather for the morrow. The theater consisted of a Nissen hut with a concrete floor, and was unheated and poorly ventilated; the only heat coming from the bodies of the military personnel present, which also exuded a distinct masculine odor. Seated next to me were Lt. Colonel William R. Calhoun, Operations officer of the 41st Combat Wing; Major William R. Thompson, Intelligence; and Captain Dan E. Baker, Adjutant and Aide-de-Camp.

The picture had just gotten well started when one of our interruptions occurred, being caused by a Sergeant who shouted above the sound of the movie, "All maintenance and gunnery personnel of the 341st Squadron report to your organization immediately." Cal turned to me and said, "It looks like we're up for tomorrow." Other such interruptions occurred successively as each organization was called to duty.

For some time we had been expecting orders to make our first attack on Berlin, and the weather map indicated a possibility of this mission being put on on the succeeding day. I knew that the men had been called out on the Alert Order and that the regular Field Orders would not arrive for some time; yet, I lost interest in the movie and shortly thereafter departed with my staff for our headquarters to see if any premature information had been released.

With our headlights dimmed, we drove a mile and a half over narrow roads beneath concealing trees to the oblong one-story brick building which served as our headquarters. The duty officer had only received the Battle Order and bomb and gasoline loadings, but from this information we could see that it would be a deep penetration, a visual target, and that my Combat Wing was to lead.

I immediately got on the phone and called "Chuck" Merwin, Operations Officer of the Division and asked if there was a possibility of my leading the division. He could not give me the target over the telephone, but indicated that it was extremely important; and he believed that General Williams would let me go as it was about my turn. There was nothing more that we could do until the Field Orders began to arrive so I stepped out into the darkness to look at the weather. Stars were beginning to break through and the scud was only a few hundred feet thick in patches. Activity was apparent over the entire area covered by our dispersal aircraft. Portable electric units furnished light for the maintenance crews who were feverishly trying to get the maximum number of aircraft available for the morning mission. Trailers loaded with 500-pound demolition bombs were creeping slowly toward the aircraft that would swallow up their loads. Overhead one or two Mosquitoes could be heard droning as they climbed toward altitude and reconnaissance flight over the continent. Far off to the east could be seen occasional flashes, where the British were practicing night bombing or a Jerry was putting on a nuisance raid. Search lights came on for short periods, fingered the sky, and disappeared into oblivion.

I was recalled to the office by the sudden chattering of the teletype machines as the Field Orders began to arrive. Looking over the shoulder of the operator, I obtained the code letters from which I could look in the Intelligence File and pick out the target. It was to be the Fock-Wulfe plant at Oschersleben, just south of Berlin, which so far had been untouched by our bombers. To reach this objective meant breaking through the concentric rings of fighter interceptors which the Hun had placed about Berlin and her important industries. We were to have some fighter support, but not nearly enough. Flak was sure to be intense and accurate at many places along the route as well as in the target area.

As soon as I had grasped the essentials of the mission and seen my name commanding the division, I went home to get a few hours sleep before the early briefing, leaving the essentials of getting our Supplementary Field Orders to my staff.

From experience I had found it necessary to lay out all the equipment which I intended to use the succeeding morning where I could quickly get into it and not forget some necessary item. On the table I placed my escape kit, emergency rations, identification tags, silk muffler to protect my face from freezing should the windshield be shot out, cigarettes, and a clean handkerchief. On the floor I piled a clean suit of winter underwear, my electric flying suit, boots, gloves, special helmet with oxygen mask, flak helmet, and vest. Alongside of this flying equipment was a special target folder in which my Intelligence Officer had placed a route to and from the target with check points and fighter rendezvous points marked thereon. Also was included aerial maps of the area and large scale identification photographs of the actual target.

Warning Sgt. Deldoso to awaken me at 3:30 I climbed into my G.I. bed and started my usual battle with sleep. This is the time when I get scared, not on the mission. Lying there in my bed and attempting to relax, my imagination runs wild. Being aware of the opposition and the problems of such a mission, I start thinking of all the things which can go wrong. I remembered that I volunteered for the damn mission and that it was not necessary for me to go at all as I had already done more than my share. I remembered my duty to my wife and children and how little money they will get in case I am killed. I wonder whether my sense of duty has caused me to go, and not just the desire for excitement and adventure. The net result is that I never sleep soundly but toss from one side to another in the bed until I hear the approaching feet of the Charge of Quarters to tell me it is time to arise.

Once I wash and dress this is all behind me. I am then ready and eager, and my only worry is that the mission will be scrubbed at the last moment due to adverse weather.

I left my quarters and drove to the 303rd mess. As a special treat for the combat crews going on the mission, fresh eggs were served. I always eat a hearty breakfast, for once forgetting my tendency toward obesity, as I am pessimistic enough to realize that it may be a long time, maybe the duration of the war, before I get another good meal.

Driving through the darkness, I arrived at the briefing room of the Group. The crews ahead of me had assembled in front of the big wall map where the briefing would be given. The target and route are temporarily concealed by a curtain and much conjecture is going on as to where we are to be sent. One young pilot saw me enter the room and realizing that I only went on visual missions of great importance that involved deep penetration said, "We have had it. The Old Man is going." Everyone took their seats with a sense of expectancy. The room was bitterly cold and damp. In the far corner one Sibly stove struggled valiantly against the winter climate of England. Many of the crews were suffering from colds as was apparent from their almost constant coughing. Colonel Lyle, Operations Officer of the 303rd, took his position and raised the curtain. Immediately a sigh of intense expectancy and trepidation arose from the entire room as they saw our route northeast across the North Sea, Holland, and on into Germany. All data pertinent to the mission were given to the crews; escape procedure, in case they were shot down, was covered in detail; methods of assembly; identification flares; what they should do in various emergencies; and every conceivable question which might be in their minds was answered. Slides showing the initial point, route to the target, and the target itself were thrown on the screen and discussed in detail. Great emphasis was placed upon the importance of destroying this target. An explanation was made to the crews as to what great bearing it would have upon the ultimate defeat of Germany. We knew that to get this target would cost us a great price and these boys must be convinced that the loss of life and aircraft was well worth what we hoped to accomplish.

There was one hour between the end of briefing and "stations time," which is the hour set when all members of the crew must be in the proper position in the aircraft with all essential equipment aboard and ready to go. During this period, Group, Squadron, and Flight Leaders are given last minute instructions. Airplane commanders gather their crews about them in the dispersed aircraft positions, check their equipment, and give special instructions.

I drove out through the darkness on the perimeter until I reached dispersal area No. 25 and as my headlights swung on the nose of the "8-Ball," the ship I was to fly, a guard who had been standing in the darkness challenged me and made me identify myself. About the aircraft I could see some 25 or 30 men checking the fusing on the bombs, topping off the oxygen, loading flak vests and miscellaneous equipment aboard the aircraft, and wiping off the pilot's and bombardier's windshields.

Though there was little snow on the ground, the night was bitterly cold and I remained in my warm car until approximately ten minutes before "stations," when I descended and shook hands with the crew. I particularly cautioned the tail gunner to keep me informed of any straggling or difficulty which the elements of my formation might be in while enroute to or from the target.

As usual I found considerable difficulty in working my large body with all of its winter flying equipment and paraphernalia up through the emergency exit and into the co-pilot's seat. Calhoun, who is to be my pilot, followed me and seated himself on the left. We both spent several minutes arranging such things as binoculars, maps, parachutes, and so forth, at conveniently located spots about us in the cockpit.

On my left front a white rocket shoots skyward and burst in a shower of small stars, which is the signal to start engines. Immediately the entire airdrome throbs to life with powerful deep-throated roar of 160 engines. Normal checks are made, wheel blocks removed, and the crews stand back in readiness for us to taxi.

At the second rocket the brakes are released and our heavy ladened aircraft lumbers forward. The ground crews, whose faces and bodies are illuminated by the light from the cockpit, hold up their right arms with forefinger touching thumb in the form of a circle to wish us good luck and a safe return.

Our progress through the dark on the narrow perimeter track is necessarily one of caution, for should we drop a wheel off the concrete, the aircraft would immediately bog down, obstruct the runway to following aircraft, and prevent our departure on the mission.

We swung into position on the main takeoff runway and lined up two abreast in our proper order. The sky was just beginning to lighten and in the gray light I could see our 36 aircraft and 4 spares all taxied into proper position with their engines idling.

At the green flare, Cal fed full power to our B-17 and we slowly gained momentum as we rushed into the dark. It always seems as though these ships will never leave the ground and the last few moments are anxious ones as we approach the end of the runway and see ahead of us a line of trees, which we never clear by more than a few feet.

Slowly we climb in circles while each succeeding airplane cut short their turns and fill into proper positions until we have a group of eighteen ships flying a normal combat formation several thousand feet in the air. Beneath me the snow covered fields looked like a jig-saw puzzle cut by the black lines of hedge rows and rock fences. Smoke from the tall chimneys in the nearby industrial town hung close to the ground and stretched out like a river toward the sea. All about me I could see other groups rising from their fields and firing identification flares which floated earthward as twin brilliant balls of green, red or yellow. The first rays of the rising sun struck the metal wings and reflected pink light. Radio calls were being made by the Unit Commanders for identification and request for position reports.

Slowly the entire division assembled into Groups, then into Combat Wings, and finally into a Division Formation which proceeded towards its departure point on the English Coast.

I looked behind me and as far as I could see came a mass of B-17s, stretching from horizon to horizon, which gave me a great sensation of the strength and force of our mighty nation.

The "8-Ball" is the leading aircraft of the entire force and on our ship are the picked members of the lead crew; each a specialist and the finest that we can produce. On their shoulders will rest the responsibility for the success of the entire mission. All the blood, sweat, tears and effort that have gone and will go into this mission will be futile unless each and every one of them performs his task perfectly.

As we approach the coast, I called Ground Sector Control and informed them that we would be on course on time. This was to aid our fighters who were to support us in making proper rendezvous with us at the enemy coast.

The channel can be seen through broken clouds which increase in density until we are flying over a solid undercast. The sun is now up and shining brightly in our eyes; all aircraft have worked themselves into proper position; radio conversation has ceased; and the formation proceeds like a well drilled Army, as it climbs toward altitude and the enemy.

Well out over the North Sea I give the order to check our guns. Even though I expected the firing, I always jump when the twin 50-caliber machine guns of the top turret fire just above my head. The whole cockpit vibrates violently while they discharge. Dust floats down through the rays of the sun and the shadow of the twin barrels swings across he nose of the aircraft as the gunner tries out his turrets.

This is our last period of relaxation. All preparations have been made that are possible and just before going on oxygen we all smoke one last cigarette. The outside air temperature is rapidly dropping as we ascend and as the needle passes minus 20 degrees, I plug in my electrically heated flying suit and adjust the rheostat to a comfortable temperature. All members of the crew relieve their bladders as this is also the last opportunity for many hours of cold flight ahead of us.

The navigator announces our progress as the result of dead-reckoning and check through the radar equipment which can see the enemy coast even though it is beneath a solid cloud cover. After several hours we are approaching the Dutch Coast and the Zuider Zee. Ahead of me I can see many pursuit aircraft and, though they are too far for me to identify even through my field glasses, I believe them to be friendly. Our cruising speed is tremendous and as I count them I have a greater trepidation of troubles to come, for there are several times too many. Only one group is supposed to make rendezvous with us at the enemy coast with other groups further along the route. Obviously some of the friendly fighter cover has arrived too soon, meaning that their endurance will be curtailed when we get further into Germany due to gasoline shortage.

Over the interphone I said to Cal, "There are too goddamn many of them. I don't like it."

As is customary the navigator kept the crew informed of our exact position to aid in escape procedure, should we be shot down and he now informed us that were just flying over a fringe of land on the Dutch Coast. Almost immediately I saw five ME-109's diving toward us out of the sun. All gunners were alerted and tracked the approaching aircraft, holding their fire until they were in range. We had little to worry about with this first attack as our friendly fighters had also observed them and were right on their tails giving them so much difficulty that they were never able to press home their attacks. Our entire friendly cover was drawn off behind these five aircraft, and almost immediately engaged by another large force of enemy fighters from the south. This was the last I saw of any effective fighter support.

As we drove toward the heart of Germany at 300 miles a hour, I began to feel mighty lonesome, and searched vainly in all directions for a converging force of friendly fighters. I called Fighter Control and told them that I was without support and asked for aid, but was never able to ascertain whether my message had been received.

Five minutes later I could see large numbers of small black objects rising on both sides of the formation and flying parallel of our course. It was not necessary for them to get close enough for positive identification - I knew them to be Huns, as they soon proved themselves. From this time on action became so violent and combat so exciting that it is difficult to tell a cohesive story. The enemy aircraft continued to climb and pull ahead of us until there were two columns of pursuit ships of approximately twenty-five each, strung out just outside of machine gun range. Drawing ahead of us four or five miles the ends of the columns turned in 90 degrees across our course, peeled off in elements of five, which flew in abreast wing tip to wing tip head on to our formation; successive waves of fighters being so close that when our gunners fired at the first wave, the next two waves would get through unmolested. Every gun in the formation was firing continuously. As the waves of fighters would dive toward me, my eyes would be fastened to the leading edge of their wings, waiting for the first burst of 20-millimeter fire. Suddenly the entire wing would burst into flame as all of their guns bore upon us. 20-millimeters would leave a chain of white doughnuts hanging suspended in the air and within a matter of split seconds after the firing had started, the pursuit ships would be to and through the formation. These first attacks were made with no effort whatsoever at evasion. They flew into the B-17 formation, firing as they came. Such suicidal attacks effectively driven home are sure to obtain results.

Both our aircraft and the enemy's were going down in great numbers. Normally the tail gunner reports losses, gives the position and time that B-17s are shot down, but the action was too fast and everyone was too busy. One of my wing ships was seen to burst into flames [2Lt Henry J. Eich, 1 KIA 9 POW]. He dove away from the formation and almost immediately exploded - a blind flash of red flame and smoke. Nothing could be seen of debris and only a black cloud hung temporarily in the air to mark where the ship had been. Fighters could be seen spinning earthwards and portions of wings, segments of their control surfaces, and miscellaneous gear flew off as they attain greater speed and plummet to the ground. There seemed to be no end to the Hun fighters and as we shot them down, others rose and took their place.

Not once did the intense attacks let up or dwindle. Most that I observed came from head on, but it was obvious that we were under attack from all directions as no gunner ceased firing. The Hun had decided that we were going to Berlin as our course was straight for this important target, and he had airborne every available aircraft in the Reich. Among the ships attacking us were not only ME-109 and Fock-Wulfes, but also night fighters and other twin engine aircraft.

I was heartsick and yet proud as I saw the terrific pounding my boys were taking and the valor and determination they exhibited, as they closed their dwindling formation, flew even closer, and fought their way on to their target.

Repeatedly we were under fire from anti-aircraft batteries on the ground as we passed principle cities in Germany, but compared to the fighter action, this flak was of no interest and caused us not even enough alarm to record or remember its position or accuracy.

While still under attack I made a rapid survey of the remaining aircraft in my lead wing. I called "Cowboy Baker," my Low Group Leader, and asked him how he was doing. He answered that he only had five aircraft left of his original eighteen, and since the Low Squadron of he Lead Group had been entirely wiped out, he moved what was left of his group into the position originally held by my low squadron.

Just then my attention was distracted by my second wing ship being shot down [2Lt William A. Purcell, 10 KIA]; this position being immediately filled by another aircraft in formation [2Lt Vern L. Moncur]. Diving toward me now was another formation of FWs. One of these seemed determined on knocking us out by collision. Cal rolled our aircraft to the left in almost a vertical bank and the FW shimmed over our wing, missing us by so little that the distance was impossible to estimate. My top turret gunner without thinking yelled over the interphone, "That was too goddamned close." As we rolled back to the horizontal, I perceived a huge hole in my right wing where a 20-millimeter had passed through, but it appeared to have missed the gas tank.

Losses by both the enemy and ourselves had now reached such proportions that the fighting was either becoming less violent or were becoming immune. Long before this I had decided that this was one mission from which I would never return. Our opposition had been such and our losses so great that survival seemed impossible. Never has the 8th Air Force been turned back from a target by enemy opposition, and not one of my boys was willing to let this be such an occasion.

Combat had become so violent and we so occupied that no contact had been made with succeeding units to determine how they were faring for a period of over an hour and a half.

We were now within 10 or 15 minutes of our I.P. where we would turn on course toward the target. The radio operator contacted me by interphone and told me that the Division had scrubbed the mission for many of the Combat Wings due to weather conditions at their targets. Though we had received no instructions, I was left with the decision as to whether to proceed on to the target or return to our bases with the main force. I fully realized that should I proceed I would become the sole target of all that remained of the Luftwaffe and their undivided attention would almost certainly wipe out what was left of my force. Visibility was excellent and it appeared that the target would be visual. I felt that our losses had been so great that success of the main mission must be accomplished. I informed the Combat Wing and my crew that we would continue and attack as briefed.

Turning from the I.P. toward the target we observed one lone P-51 diving into the midst of our attacking enemy and fight with glorious disregard to his own safely and determination to break up their murderous attacks upon us. As he rolled and dove through their formation with all his guns blazing, we saw him shoot down successively five enemy aircraft, and though he could never hear our encouragements, cheers went up from every American in formation. Out of ammunition and nearly out of gas, this lone fighter finally had to leave us and return to his base with our prayers and hopes for his safety. He made it and later each of us had the opportunity to extend our personal thanks for his brave assistance.

On our bombing run we stopped all evasive action. The bombay doors were open, the interphone was turned over to the bombardier and navigator, and no more fighter attacks were called. A red flare was fired to announce the approach of the target and caution the Wing Men to close up into a tight bombing formation. Ahead lay the town of Oschersleben. On its outskirts was a compact, distinctly marked factory area, the goal which we had come so far and fought so hard to reach. A juicy target presented itself just before we reached Oschersleben, for underneath us was a large enemy airdrome with aircraft of many descriptions, but we would not be distracted from our main goal. With our reduced numbers not one bomb could be spared from the main target.

Enemy attacks had never ceased, but now our goal was so close attention was concentrated on its success and all of our opposition that was made to the fighters must be made by the gunners alone, as no evasion was possible. Slowly over the interphone came the voice of the bombardier, "Three Minutes to go, Two Minutes, One Minute, Bombs Away!" As much as we wanted to turn and proceed toward home, evading enemy fire, we held our course and heading momentarily until we were assured that all bombs had departed toward the target.

I watched the open bellies of my wing ships as the 500-pounders dropped in close succession and descended as rapidly disappearing black dots toward the target. We turned toward home and looking back I could see the entire factory suddenly burst into a huge cloud of dirty black smoke which blossomed upwards for 5,000 feet and then mushroomed out to a white edge cloud with a dark center. Our destruction could be seen when we were a hundred miles on our way toward home. Opposition still continued, but by this time it was spasmodical and by single aircraft instead of large formations. Occasionally a B-17, which could no longer struggle on toward home due to the punishment which it had received, would drop down and descend earthwards.

We were far from being safe yet, but after what we had gone through and the success we had obtained, we felt elated and justifiably proud.

I sent a WT Message to the Division reporting the target bombed visually with excellent results. A quick survey was made to determine the number of aircraft still with me, their condition, and the ability of the stragglers to keep up. Four ships could be seen with feathered props. Many were having difficulties in conserving what gasoline was left to get home. Despite my reluctance to remain over Germany any longer than necessary, I reduced power, slowed down the formation to keep it compact, and started a gradual let down as we again approached the North Sea. Once over the channel we felt relatively safe, for the Hun has repeatedly shown himself to be a coward when fighting over water.

Our let down continued and at 10,000 feet we yanked off our oxygen masks, grinned at each other and shook hands with a heartfelt warmth, and lighted cigarettes.

At the English Coast the setting sun had turned west into a glorious mass of color shading from the pale pinks to the deeper reds, purples and blues, as though to welcome us home safely to a green peaceful countryside which lay beneath us and seemed well worth fighting for.

Oschersleben might be classed as just one of many such battles fought by the 8th Air Force, but there was something a little special about this mission. It was the turning point in the battle between our forces and the Fock-Wulfe. Up to that time, if anything, the Germans actually had a slight edge on our fighters, but never again after January 11 was he able to put up large opposition to any of our missions.

Our route across Germany into the target and back was well marked with tragic reminders of the conflict. It was a steady and unbroken trail of crashed airplanes, white parachutes, and dead soldiers, both from our forces and the Germans.

Once and for all we proved that the American Lad has the guts and the determination to reach his goal, regardless of the opposition; and the spirit exemplified on January 11th at Oschersleben is the same spirit which will win this war and keep America victorious so long as she keeps the principles of our free land high like a torch and our flag unfurled.

[B/Gen Travis' letter courtesy of Marie Deputy, neice of 2Lt William A. Fisher]