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My Most Unusual 303rd Experience
Page 5

as published in the Hell's Angeles Newsletter
May 1998
[Copyright © 303rd BGA, Hal Susskind, Editor]


PAGE 1     PAGE 2     PAGE 3     PAGE 4

The Luck of the Draw
Harold "Red" Timm and I are the only known surviving members of the original 360th Squadron crew piloted by Bob Cogswell. Bob was killed in action on B-29s during the Korean War. Alvin "Pappy" Etheredge lies in the English cemetery at Cambridge. Dwight Kennedy, Gil Bengston and P. J. Davis have passed on. We nave been unable to trace Ed Cobb, Paul Tippet and Gus Brundage.

I used to puzzle over "the luck of the draw" in aerial combat. Why was it that some of us gave our lives, some were downed and taken prisoner, others were wounded or suffered though the roughest of missions, and still others breezed through tours with barely a flak dent in their B-17s? It serves no purpose to dwell on this. We need to thank whatever Gods may be for having had the privilege of serving our country and surviving, and to go on honoring the memories of lost comrades.

Our Cogswell bunch earned the unenviable tag of "jinx crew" almost from the time of our first mission on 10 July 1943. We ditched before the end of July, barely managed an emergency landing at an RAF base a month later and bailed out four weeks after that. Throw Hamburg and Schweinfurt into the mix of those first 13 missions, and it was a recipe for disaster.

Target Kassel on 30 July. We lost number four engine on crossing the enemy coast en route to the target, but didn't abort. We were beaten up by flak and fighters going in and coming back. We lost another engine on the return leg. We exhausted out fuel over the North Sea, and Bob Cogswell ditched about 22 miles off Felixstowe. We cleared the B-17 and were in the dinghies in less than a minute, hauling out Ed Cobb, the injured navigator. Upstairs Maid went under a minute later. A P-47 circled overhead protecting us and sending a distress location. In less than an hour, we we swept to safely by a British Air-Sea Rescue mosquito boat.

Target Watten on 27 August. Our favorite B-17 Iza Vailabie was heavily damaged by deadly accurate anti-aircraft fire and we barely made it back to England for an emergency landing at a coastal RAF base. As we walked around the aircraft checking damage, we counted more than 200 flak holes, yet none of us was wounded. Tragically, Shangri-La-Lil flying nearby in our 360th formation took a direct hit and blew up. We saw only four parachutes.

Target Nantes on 26 September. The mission was recalled because of cloud cover over the target. On the return, approaching Southampton on the southern coast of England, Bob Cogswell was unable to feather a runaway prop. When the engine began pour smoke, he ordered the crew to bail out. We came down on rooftops, in trees and on farmer's fields in the vicinity of Alresford and Winchester. Lady Luck crashed in a field near a lake, and the only fatalities were six grazing cows. Ironically, we didn't even get credit for a mission!

Cogswell was injured in the bailout, and the original crew drifted apart after that. I went on to complete 30 missions, flying with four different crews. Twelve of those missions were with Joe Stevens at the controls. A flak burst smashed a hole in the wall of my radio room on the Saarbrucken mission and my face was cut up by metal fragments.

My most vivid memories, however, even after at these years, are of B-17s exploding in flames and the empty bunks that night in our Nissen hut.

Eddie Deerfield (360) Radio Operator

I almost missed WW II
On the 1942 trip to England with the Air Echelon, I was the extra crew member assigned to Stouse's aircraft. After taking off from Gander headed for Scotland, the flight became dull and I was looking to some place to stretch out. The tunnel from the forward access door (under the cockpit) to the cockpit was chosen and I was rearranging a large canvas engine cover taut and momentarily lost my balance. I reached back to catch it and put my hand on the forward access door for stability. The door was not latched and my hand and my ass were, all at once, hanging out in the slipstream, with my neck on one side of the door frame and my legs on the opposite side. I was able to get back inside and tried to close and latch the door by banging it shut in rapid attempts with the aircraft sprung in the flight position. The catch wouldn't catch. The cockpit heard my banging attempts and thought someone was shooting at us in the air. Immediately they took evasive action which startled the whole crew. I scurried up to the cockpit to tell Stouse that it was only me trying to get the door to latch and he stabilized the flight. I safety wired the door shut for the remainder of the trip to Preswick. Now I tell my friends how I almost missed WW II, by almost falling out of the B-17 on the way over.
Bill Neff (359) Engineering Officer

Two in April
On our mission to Marienburg on April 9, 1944 we had to get up at 1 a.m. Since it was Easter Sunday, everyone was expecting an easy mission but when we went to the briefing room we thought the maps on the wall looked kind of funny. They had added an extension to them which meant we weren't going on a short mission. Anyway, the trip to Marienburg wasn't too bad. We experienced some light flak en route but over the target the flak was kind of heavy. We didn't see any fighters on the way in. On the way back we ran into some heavy flak over Denmark and lost our wing man.. We were kind of straggling and all of a sudden there were two FW-190s that came out of the sun and we collected about 25 20mm shells and probably more machine gun bullets than that. When we got back to interrogation they asked the pilot how many holes we had in the aircraft. He answered, "at least a thousand." They took the plane to the repair depot and we never got it back. The mission summary gives 11 hours and 30 minutes but we were in the air for 13 hours and 10 minutes. We were very fortunate to survive that one.

On the 18 of April 1944, our crew was on leave and I had lost all my money in a poker game so I didn't go with them. The 303rd was putting up a maximum effort (ME), so they came around and asked me to go which I did. I don't remember the name of the pilot or the crews names. We flew to the target at Oranienburg and everything was OK. After we dropped the bombs, I looked into the bombay and there was still one hanging there. I called the pilot and he said to get in there and kick it out. I never had the first bit of instruction on what to do if a bomb stuck on the rack. Anyway, I went into the bombay without a parachute, a 15 pound flak suit on with an oxygen bottle hooked to it. The bomb was on the right side of the fuselage on the outside. I put my arm around the bomb rack on the catwalk and stepped across to where the fuselage was butted together and got hold of the control cables and I couldn't get it loose. I went back and called the pilot and told him to close the bombay doors. Then I went back and put the pin back in the bomb fuse and made it safe in case it did get loose. Every time I think about hanging out there, over nothing but four miles of air, without a parachute, scares the Hell out of me.. And the pilot never even said thank you!

John C. Hess (358) Radio Operator
We dropped the 1,000 lb bomb!
Molesworth: Winter of '43-'44. The order for the next day's mission was two 1,000 lb bombs in each of the B-17s scheduled for the mission. Capt. Bailes plane. FDR on the pad adjacent to the 359th Squadron's office and living quarters was one of the planes scheduled to be loaded. Pitcher, Gilsdorf and Smith of the 359th Squadron Ordinance Section were assigned to the loading of FDR. It was a bitter cold winter night and the three of us were wearing heavy winter coats and gloves. Pitcher and Smith were on the catwalk in the bombay operating the lifting wench on the second 1,000 1b bomb and had it up about 5 feet or halfway up and Gilsdorf was guiding the bomb in its sling, fully finned and fused as was the standard operating procedure. Gildorf's foot slipped from the step on the bombay door and fell that short distance to the ground, his coat catching the tail fin of the bomb and over-balancing it, causing it to fall tail fin first to the ground and standing upright on Gildorf's coat tail. The fall completely crushed the tail fin and broke off the tail fuse right next to the bomb. There was only a crunching thud. After what seemed to be forever, in a state of shock, I came to my senses and together with Smitty we got out through the waist hatch and went to Gildorf's rescue by cutting his coat tail with my pocket knife. He was not injured and the three of us went for help.

The rescue team decided it was impossible to remove the bomb safely in any simple manner. The bomb, standing upright on its crushed tail fin, projected into the bombay of the plane, preventing the removal of the plane. Should the bomb detonate, it would annihilate me plane and a large portion of the squadron's living quarters. A feasible option was to remove all four propellers of the plane, whereby a large crane lifted the tail of the plane high enough to roll the plane forward, clearing the bomb safely. The bomb was then very carefully slung and transported to a safe area and disarmed. No one was injured.

We were informed later that when the bomb crushed the tail fin and broke the tail fuse off, it also broke the long tail fuse firing pin and left a large burr on the firing pin which prevented it from detonating the bomb. That burr was truly a gift from God! It saved not only our three lives but perhaps many more as well.

Maynard F. Pitcher (359) Aviation Ordinance Section

They painted 35 on the seat of our pants!
My worst mission was No. 4. We were shot up pretty badly and our waist gunner R. Wilson caught a large piece of flak through his knee. We ran out of morphine and he was in extreme pain. He did recover and was sent home. The crew morale was very low, we didn't see how we could complete 35 missions. Thankfully they weren't all that bad. Later a relatively low-level mission to a German Officer's Training Camp was almost enjoyable.

A sight I'll never forget was having an ME-262 fly off our formation for a few seconds. Apparently everyone was spellbound by seeing this unusual but fascinating plane. Everyone realized finally and opened fire. He peeled off without further hesitation without major damage. We did have P-51s, little buddies, flying escort and considering the were outclassed speed wise, they could out turn the jets and downed several. What a sight! I think the mission was to Bremen.

We also lost our co-pilot, A. Kacus, while he was checking out for 1st pilot with another crew. He was killed in a mid-air collision on the mission to Leipzig, April 6, 1945. Our tailgunner was trained for radar-jamming and was in another plane that took a direct hit by flak and blew up. He later turned up as a POW without really knowing how and why.

The most unusual experience was the day we actually completed our 35 and had that number painted in red on the seats of our flying suits.

Kenneth R. Auer (360) Flight Engineer

Tail end "Charlie" over Merseburg "That's all brother!"
It was 4:30 a.m. on a typical midmorning in November in England in 1944. The men were filing out of the mess hall on the way to the briefing room. The briefing was normal in all aspects, but the navigator raised an eyebrow at one point, when the briefing officer was discussing the type of enemy resistance that would be encountered. He said the Luftwaffe was decimated and were loading its fighters, therefore the formation would only see them on the return leg and then only in small numbers, even though this was a deep penetration.

On the way to the flight line, there were some catcalls and greetings between the airmen and supply people, mostly insinuations about the milk run, or perhaps about dividing the loot left behind should someone's luck run out. Our crew had been assigned an unusual position on this mission. We were to be 'Tail End Charlie.' Our plane would lead the last three B-17s, but would be the last in the formation to go over the target. On our left wing was a crew going on their first mission. Matter of fact, our crew only checked them out the day before. They were kind of green but eager.

Finally aboard, check list completed, we were off. I took one last look at the base as we ascended to flight altitude, somewhere around 32,000 feet. Most of our crew were flying their last few of the required 35 missions, then it was back to the USA for them. I had just recently joined the crew, having been grounded for medical reasons, so I had several more missions to make before I could make the trip back home.

About an hour or so later, somewhere over Germany, we encountered some strong air turbulence. The plane on our left wing was jerking around. Suddenly their right wing tips us and we go into a spin. Our plane is losing altitude quickly. Over the intercom we can hear the pilot and co-pilot muttering feverishly, calling on all their experiences to pull us out. Finally, after an almost endless few minutes, the plane pulls out and is flying level.

I look around the sky, there is nothing there. The rest of the formation is long gone. The pilot requests a heading from the navigator -- me. I had been following the leader so I did a little back tracking and announced to the pilot to take a heading of 350 degrees. The immediate reaction from the crew over the intercom was, "we're going to Sweden." No, I was just trying to avoid flak areas around Hamburg, I inform them.

Some short time later, the tail gunner announces, "German fighters sighted. The best he can do is estimate about five or six fighters. The pilot had reached normal flight altitude, the airmen got ready at their guns. We are flying without a bombardier, but we have an experienced "togglier" aboard.

Well here they come... each of our guns were in position, manned by very well trained gunners. I tried firing a few rounds with a gun but having limited visibility, decide if we get out of this, we'd better know where to go, and proceed to do some more navigation configurations. But I was also monitoring the gunners. I watch the first few fighters coming in from one o'clock. Our togglier is magnificent; as stingy with his burst as a Scotsman. I can't see any hits, but we are sure giving a good account of ourselves; if we're not hurting them, we're scaring them pretty good.

I thought back to our training missions, often wondered it all that practice had any importance. If your going to get it, what difference does it make?" Well, we finally got it, and it did make a difference. They shot us up pretty good! I was hit on the left side of my face by shrapnel, as well as in my arm and legs. From the amount of blood and the lack of feeling in the right side of my face, I imagined that half my face was gone and wondered, "who wants to go on with half a face?"

The pilot orders us to abandon ship. The togglier is not moving, I think to myself that maybe he expects the navigator to jump first. Well, I'll go, but I intended to pull the chute's rip cord immediately, just in case I blacked out from my wounds. It seemed like I was the first to go. I pulled the rip cord as soon as I jumped and my chute opened at approximately 30,000 feet. Fighter planes were circling around me, I could see the fighter pilot's faces clearly. They don't strafe us. Now the others are coming, almost all free falling - it seemed like forever before I saw their chutes open.

I am met on the ground by a group of armed civilians. They take me to a barn and begin discussing whether to hang me or not. Understanding a little German, I realize that one of the men is arguing not to hang me as his son was a POW of the Americans and he wanted his son kept safe. About an hour or so later, before they came to a decision, I was picked up by the German military. Most of our crew were taken, three of us were wounded, but our tail gunner most seriously with head wounds. We were marched through the streets of Hamburg, where civilians hurled insults, and some harder stuff at us. We were taken to Frankfurt for interrogation. I was kept in solitary confinement and several times questioned by the officer in charge. Not only did they know my name and rank but they also knew where I was born, what schools I went to and just about every aspect of my life. The felt that since we were a single plane without a bombardier, that we were on a special mission, which was why we were not strafed in the air after bailing out. When they realized that this was not the case, we were transferred to Stalag #1, where I spent the rest of my internment until we were freed by the Russians. The most unusual experience was liberation by the Russian forward troops and then the regular troops. It was a very interesting difference and noteworthy revelation to an American soldier. I never saw my crew again.

Harold Scheer (359) Navigator
[Ed. Note: An interesting sidebar to this mission and the reason for a togglier flying in the bombardier position was that the regular bombardier Lt. John C. Rhyne was killed on the 24 August 1944 mission to Merseburg. Also Might in Flight does not show a togglier as flying with Lt. Virag's crew on the November 21st mission. My question is, "Who was the togglier and what happened to him? What does the mission report say?

The other "Truth is stranger than fiction" fact about this mission was that the Air Commander for the 303rd's efforts was Capt. W.C. Heller of the 359th. One of the casualties on the mission was a B- 17 named Heller's Angel. On the final mission of their operational tour, Lt. Virag's crew found Merseburg to be its nemesis. Today, a copy of a story which appeared in a Florida newspaper by Vera Fitz-Gerald was forwarded to me by J.E. Jeter, Jr. who was the engineer on the 21 Nov 44 mission. Here it is:
Stanley Gurka of 92nd Avenue N was living in Detroit, Michigan in the spring of 1943 when he was drafted into the Air Force which was the start of a very long one and a half years. After basic and specialized training in several different States, the group left for Molesworth, England where the 359th Squadron was stationed as part of the 303rd Bomb Group.

The 359th crew flew out of Molesworth and had several close calls. On their seventh mission, their lead plane got hit by flak and blew up and the assistant lead plane caught on fire from a hit and went down. Stan's plane, called Special Delivery limped back to base at Molesworth. Their Bombardier was dead and the plane was so badly damaged, it was junked. They flew other planes in the group until they finally got a new one. On the 32nd mission flying near Hannover, Germany, their plane was hit by fighter aircraft and crew was forced to bail out. One crew member, T/Sgt. J.E. Jeter, Jr. lost part of a leg but all survived the crash. The tail gunner had shrapnel in his head and the navigator took shrapnel in his face and legs. Later Stan learned that the member of the crew who had lost part of his leg was shot twice more by civilians while on the ground but he survived to tell his story.

On the ground the crew were caught by civilians and taken to a village where they were picked up by German soldiers. In the morning they were marched out and stood outside a mess hall where the Germans ate while the prisoners waited. No rations for them. They were marched down the middle of the street to a railway station. The street was lined with civilians on both sides who spat on them, hit the poor tail gunner on his bandaged head and shouted, "Luft gangsters." At the Railway station the guards stood apart from them fearing the civilians would shoot at them. They took a train to an airbase where they were interrogated one by one. Stan asked the guard if they didn't feed prisoners in Germany. This resulted in getting them their first food since leaving England on their mission. Then they were shipped by rail to an interrogation center in Frankfurt "where they really gave it to us," Stan said. They were there for four or five days during which they learned three things from Stanley Gurka; his name, rank and serial number.

From Frankfurt they went to Wetsclar where they were shipped off to different prison camps. Stan went to Stalag Luft IV in Grostychow, Germany near the Polish border. By now it was November 1944. In February 1945, the Russians started coming up from Poland so the prisoners were marched out towards the Baltic Sea. They were ferried out via an island and then marched on to Rostock. They were forced marched around Germany for about 500 miles, being driven into barns at night to sleep and fed little except a potato or two at night from the farmers and a slice of bread during the day. Stan and two other prisoners escaped but were caught four days later. They were taken to a village jail overnight and in the morning a German guard came for them but first he beat them up badly. They were then put on a railway car to Berlin where they rode a streetcar with their guards to another railway station and finally ended up in Luckenwalde in Stalag IIIA. On April 21st, 1945 they were liberated by the Russians but were alarmed when they learned a few days later that the Russians planned to ship them to Odessa and send them home by ship. They wanted no part in being shipped off by the Russians so Stan and others "borrowed" some bicycles and made it to the Americans about 50 miles from Luckenwalde. He said they finally had a decent meal. By now it was May 1945. The Americans took them to LeHarve where they boarded a ship back to the USA. Stan ended up in Miami in a convalescent hospital where he stayed until August. In November of 1945 he was discharged in Miami and headed back to civvie life in Detroit.
A Test of Courage
When I resumed to the States in June of 1945, I would not talk to anyone about my overseas experiences. Working with people in the Military and civilian life, they never knew I had been a Prisoner of War in Germany. My family and I were transferred to England in December 1955, for a three year tour of duty. I refused to visit Molesworth, the home of "Hell's Angels" and to this day I do not know why.

I remember a little about Dyersburg, Tennessee, where I took my B-17 training and going overseas in a troop ship without an escort, Do not remember much about Molesworth or the 303rd. On our 11th mission (our ninth that month) to Wiesbaden, Germany on August 15, 1944, after dropping our bombs we were attacked by enemy aircraft and shot down. The painting "A Test of Courage" by Keith Ferris shows a Lt Klaus Bretschneider in his FW-190 shooting at aircraft B17G #446291, the aircraft I was flying in as Top Turret Gunner.

The Tail Gunner and the Waist Gunner were killed in the aircraft. The rest of us bailed out. Our co-pilot, Lt. King, according to the Germans, died five days later. I do not know where or how. I don't remember seeing the plane going down. I landed in a field of rutabagas (never realized I could eat so many of them) and was met by an angry group of civilians charging at me with closed fists and sticks, after about 15 minutes of their confrontations (seemed like years) A Luftwaffe soldier rescued me. I spent the night in the local jail - there were other Americans there, too. The next day they took us on a march that lasted for days, along the way we picked up more Americans, the group grew larger.

Four of us carried a wounded American Major, when bayonets were drawn to encourage us to run. After many, many days of marching and being packed into boxcars like sardines, without food or water, I arrived at Stalag Luft IV in September of 1944.

Life at Luft IV was not a pleasant one. Rooms were crowded, some of us had to sleep on the floor, insufficient heat and no bath room facilities inside. The thing we missed the most was food. The small rations and the infrequent delivery of Red Cross packages put us on a very lean diet. Our lives were interrupted with roll calls and searching of the barracks often. Time passed slowly; Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's came and went. Gunfire from the Eastern Front could be heard, getting louder everyday. I believe it was the 6th of February, 1945 that we were forced to leave the camp (Luft IV). Before leaving each of us was given a Red Cross package. We were marched in all kinds of weather, frigid temperatures, rain etc. - sleeping outside, or in barns, whatever shelter was available. We were vastly overcrowded in many of the barns. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Food was scarce and some days none at all. When we did get something to eat, it consisted of a cold boiled potato and maybe a slice of bread. Our main topic of discussion was food. One night while we were in a barn, some Polish workers gave us their rations of potato soup and bread. The next morning they gave us their lunch rations. It was an act of kindness that will never be forgotten. Three of us tried to stay together; you had to if you wanted to survive. We kept looking out for each other. Everyone had diarrhea most of the time and it was impossible to contain one's self. Our bodies were dirty and covered with lice. Somewhere along the way, we traded a piece of soap for some peas. Weeks later, we found a lady at one of the farm house stays, who cooked our peas with a piece of meat. It was the most delicious meal we had in a long time. (I still remember it).

It was a sad day when we heard of President Roosevelt's death. But it was a happy day, about two weeks later, the 26th of April, 1945 when our death march ended at Halls, Germany when we were rescued by our American forces. I'll never forget that day. When I was shot down on the 15th of August, 1944, my weight was about 155 pounds. On April 26, 1945, I weighed 100 pounds. We were given K&C rations, they tasted like Manna from Heaven, and we had plenty of them. We were deloused, had hot showers, clean clothes, then off to Camp Lucky Strike for more delicious food, wonderful people, great entertainment, and rest and relaxation. I began to feel human again.

I arrived back in the States in June 1945, met a wonderful girl, who helped me get through a lot of bad times, we were married 29 October, 1945, raised five wonderful children, now have nine grandchildren. I retired from the Air Force August 1962 as Master Sergeant after 21 years of service.

Martin M. Harbarger (358) Flight Engineer