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"We Remember Bonn"
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We Remember Bonn

In Memory of Melvin Alderman
Lt. Grafton N. Smith Crew

by Al Dussliere


published in the Hell's Angels Newsletter July, 1991
Copyright © 303rd BGA, Hal Susskind, Editor

December 18, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, we began our tour of duty with a mission to Koblenz, Germany. From the beginning up to January 10, 1945 we flew eleven more missions. Our next mission would be #13.

We hit a very rough one, Bonn, Germany - #13
27,000 ft., minus 50 to minus 68 degrees, Length?

Another ship collided with us - Flak and collision made a wreck of "Buzz Blonde." We lost the nose - the right wing was wrecked - horizontal stabilizer a mess. Because they had no other choice Ed and Bill bailed out - Instruments fairly well gone ...We lost altitude and headed west using the sun for navigation. Crossed front lines at 6,000. Flak was intense and accurate. Smitty and Alderman are doing a wonderful job. Finally sighted a landing strip. Smitty and Alderman gave us a choice of bailing out or sticking with them. We stuck. Together they made the most beautiful, wheels up, landing possible. After realizing we were safe we realized we had lost two of our buddies. I know they are OK. We landed in Luxembourg, 10 to 15 miles from the front lines. Town shelled every night. Spent 4 nights and days in Luxembourg. Flew to Paris and spent 5 days there and arrived back at the base Sat.   (from the diary of Al Dussliere, armorer/gunner)

MISSION NUMBER 13

About four or five o'clock in the early morning hours of January 10, 1945 we were awakened with the cheery message, "You're flying today." The normal routines of wash, shave and breakfast followed. After breakfast we went to briefing, where we learned the primary target for the day was an airfield at Bonn/Hangelar, Germany. After briefing, some of us made our way to the Chaplain of our choice, before we gathered up our gear and caught a ride to our plane. Most of the time we had flown A/C 42-39875, Buzz Blonde, and that was our plane assignment that day. We loved that plane and more so the ground crew who kept her in great condition all the time. We were a little more nervous than usual about this mission because it was #13.

The takeoff was uneventful in spite of the snow on the field. Assembly into the formation was routine, if assembly can be considered a routine matter. The mission was uneventful until we reached the IP. Here and in the target area there were 2-3/10ths middle clouds, tops 16,000 feet, and 8-10/10ths thin cirrus clouds with dense persistent contrails. The conditions made formation flying and bombing difficult. The first run over the target accomplished nothing because the lead ship could not get its bomb bay doors open. We came around again for a second pass, but a B-24 formation came across underneath us. They were on time and on course; we were not, therefore we went around again. On the third pass, the flak guns zeroed in on the squadron quite well. We took some minor hits.

We were the left wing aircraft in the high element so the pilot G.N. Smith was flying right seat. At the IP he moved us down and in the trail of our element lead. Our high element lead was supposed to "tuck in" to the right wing aircraft of the squadron lead. This would put us close to the right of the right wing aircraft of the second element. It seems as if we made a 360 to the right followed by a short bomb run. The pilot was concentrating on his element lead aircraft. Very shortly after "bombs away" the squadron started a strong left turn, which turned us into a blinding low angle sun. At full power and almost in the contrails of our element lead we began moving to our left and up to our left wing position on the high element lead.

After "Bombs Away", the bombardier, Bill Dohm, leaned over to look out the glass nose to see the bombs hit, but lo and behold, what he saw was not what he expected to see. Instead of bombs falling there was the cockpit of another B-17 directly below the glass nose. It was so close to the Buzz Blonde he thought he could have reached down and shook hands with the engineer in the upper local turret. At this time he grabbed the "mike" button and called out on the intercom, "Pull up, pull up." Knowing this B-17 would be coming through our nose very shortly he jumped up and started a rapid exit to the catwalk. He yelled to Ed Gardner, the navigator, "Get out of here, get out of here." By this time he was beside the navigator.

The next thing that he recalled, he was on his back (head toward the tail) looking up into the cockpit. There were some ammo belts on his legs, the navigator down around his feet and a terrific blast coming from the front which was so strong he could hardly move. His helmet and oxygen mask were gone as well as his right glove. He guessed he left the glove stuck to the "mike" button. (Having volunteered several times in the pressure chamber during flight training to remove his oxygen mask to demonstrate the reaction of someone passing out from lack of oxygen, he was aware of what would happen to him and the navigator very soon if they were without oxygen very long.) He attempted to get the attention of someone in the cockpit for a "walk around" bottle of oxygen. He guessed they were too busy attempting to get control of the aircraft because they didn't get the oxygen. He and the navigator were right next to the escape hatch. He yelled at the navigator to release the hatch door and bail out. He released the door but did not bail out. He yelled again but he still hesitated. He thought he must have pushed the navigator out so he would be able to bail out. He couldn't move so he stuck, as much of his upper body out of the hatch hoping the windblast would suck him out. This must have worked because he did not remember leaving the aircraft.

The navigator saw the bombardier jump from his place in the nose, tear off all his connections and dive through the opening in the catwalk. The navigator looked to the nose and saw a black shadow, which was the vertical tail of a B-17. He got out of his seat as a collision occurred which smashed the entire nose section away to within four or five inches of the #1 bulkhead. He was spread-eagled against it, thinking he would be crushed. But at that moment we broke away and he backed into the catwalk aided by the terrible force of the bitterly cold wind.

Somehow the navigator had disconnected his heated suit, intercom, oxygen and lost his helmet and gloves. He raised himself into the flight deck and beat on the engineer's legs. He didn't respond in any way. Back in the catwalk the bombardier made motions to release the hatch door and bail out. It was then that the navigator realized that his chute was still in the nose (he hoped). Reaching into the right hand corner by the bulkhead he found the chute still there. He hooked it on the left side of the harness but could not attach the right side. Once more he tried to attract the engineer, but to no avail. He could see the pilot and co-pilot (Melvin Alderman) intently trying to fly old Buzz Blonde and slid back into the catwalk and released the hatch door. The bombardier motioned once more to bail out, and he agreed, because he was beginning to black out. He moved toward the escape hatch as everything went black.

Ray Miller, the ball turret gunner, called out over the intercom. "Someone just bailed out, someone else bailed out. What the hell's going on up there?" He was told to get out of the ball and in record time he did.

Reacting spontaneously, the pilot pulled back on the wheel, which pitched us up at a strong angle. The collision must have banked us to the left because we were banking into the aircraft of our low element. Pulling back again on the wheel we went over them into the clear beyond. When we tried to bank back right to stay with our squadron we found the ailerons were jammed in fixed position, luckily neutral. It was necessary to use the rudder for turning. It was effective but slow. We were to the left of the squadron but going in the same direction.

The crewmembers behind the bomb bay felt a tremendous jolt and heard an extremely loud noise. Most thought we had been hit by a direct burst of flak. In the waist area anything that was loose flew about. Al Dussliere, the waist gunner, was thrown forward but able to maintain his balance. He returned to his gun at the right waist window. Looking out he could not see any of the other planes in the formation and he could feel that we were pulling away to the left. He looked forward inside the plane and could see the radio operator, George Parker, who appeared to be OK. Then he looked to the rear of the plane and saw Mel Howell, the tail gunner, who also appeared to be alert and manning his guns. The wing was battered and bent and the horizontal stabilizer was a tangled mess but we were still flying and apparently in some semblance of control.

The pilot at some time during the action looked down between the pilot and co-pilot seats and saw the bombardier lying on his back without helmet or oxygen mask. They had been ripped off because of the collision. There was nothing anyone on the flight deck could do to help him. A little later he was gone. About this time the pilot realized a flap of fuselage was bent back and lying against the lower half of the windshield. At the same time he realized Number 3 engine was shaking like hell, so he feathered the prop. Looking to the right he noticed the right wing was bent in two pieces, drooping down like a wounded bird. This was the reason for the aileron jamming. About three inches were gone from the tips of Number 3 prop.

The engineer, D.L. Massengill, flying with us as a replacement, found some GI blankets and gave them to the pilot and co-pilot to wrap around their legs to shield them against the minus 68 degree wind rushing in through the open nose. The engineer was sent back to the waist to get out of the wind and inform the rest of the crew that we were going to descend to a lower altitude where it would be warmer. With three engines we couldn't keep up with the rest of the squadron.

After being pushed out of the plane the navigator said his next conscious memory was of hearing popping sounds. He opened his eyes to a grey quiet world in the clouds. He was somewhere over Germany falling freely. The popping was in his ears.

He tried to hook the chute on the right side of the harness, but with frozen hands it was an impossible job. He debated as to when to pull the ripcord but decided that he must see the ground first. Finally he broke out of the clouds; the earth appeared to be far away. He tried once more to hook the chute - it frustrated him. He touched his ears and found they were frozen crispy hard. He pushed on his right ear and the cartilage cracked.

Then it was time to try pulling the ripcord, which took many attempts because he could not use his hand. At last he hooked the little finger in the ring. The parachute opened well, but he was left dangling by one set of ropes. So far so good. He was over open country and thought possibly he could evade capture. Suddenly he heard the sound of bullets zinging by, then heard the sound of gunfire. He looked around and saw a group of men beyond some trees; they were the source of the fire. He oscillated the parachute wildly as he came down into a snowdrift on a hillside. When he dug out of the snow there were many irate German citizens with rifles pointed at him, who were being exhorted by a Major of the SS to shoot the "terroflieger", "luftgangster", "Amerikanischer"!!

It was not to be, for several Luftwaffe personnel drove up in a German version of a jeep, ran over to him, helped him carry his chute and assisted him into the jeep. They drove away while the Major excoriated his rescuers.

The navigator was now a POW. He wondered what had happened to the bombardier, to the rest of the crew and to Buzz Blonde. For the navigator it would be many months later, after the war was over, before most of the questions would be answered.

When the bombardier regained consciousness he didn't know where he was or what was happening because he was falling with his back facing the ground and he was looking up into the sky. He looked over his shoulder and returned to reality when he saw the ground coming up and he knew where he was. He thought he was below 18,000 feet, the oxygen level, but how far he didn't know. He estimated he was at about 10,000 feet. At this time he thought it time to start opening his chute. It was a good thing because when he tried to grasp the ripcord he could not bend his fingers. His right hand was frozen as hard as a rock because of the missing glove. He guessed it must have remained on the "mike" button when he called out, "Pull up, pull up." With his right hand out of commission, he grabbed the ripcord with his left hand and pulled like "hell". The "Man" upstairs must have helped because the chute opened and down he floated.

It wasn't long before he hit the top of a barn and rolled off. His "welcome committee" was right there to welcome him to his new life in Germany.

Without a navigator or maps it was decided that we should head south toward France, stay on top of the clouds until jumped by fighters, then drop into clouds to frustrate them. The tail gunner assisted in keeping the plane on course by reporting the position of the sun. About the time we got down to the tops of the clouds there were no more clouds, also no fighters. At about 6,000 feet we were given the opportunity to bail out. The pilot and co-pilot were going to stick with the plane so the rest of the crew chose to do the same. During this period the co-pilot saw a C-47, "Gooney Bird", taking off from an airstrip, which we assumed, was on friendly acres. We had no radio reception at all from the time of the collision. Even with the condition of the plane it was decided to attempt a landing.

When we turned downwind to the strip and extended the landing gear the pilot heard a clear voice in headset say, "17, if you're going to land here, pull up your gear; this is a fighter strip. Land alongside the strip. We need to keep it going". The gear was retracted and the voice said, "Good Luck".

Using the rudder for directional control, the first approach was not "lined up". A "go-around" by turn needle and mag compass got us headed in the right direction, but just above the trees. The strip was out of sight for almost all of the next approach. After a few fervent prayers to Jesus, there was the strip in beautiful alignment. Reducing power and setting it in the snow on its belly was a strong sense of relief. Letting it toboggan to a slow stop nearly 180 degrees to the left was, by contrast, almost fun. During the landing our plane demolished a number of small light aircraft parked along the side of the runway.

The five gunners were in the radio room in crash positions. As the plane slid down the side of the runway, the snow stormed up inside the plane as if we were in a blizzard. Later we jokingly told the pilot and co-pilot that it was the smoothest landing they had ever made.

As soon as the plane came to a halt the gunners jumped from the plane and realizing there was no fire leaped up on the wings to assist the pilot and co-pilot in exits through their respective windows. Ground personnel met us and informed us we were in Luxembourg.

Buzz Blonde was a mess. Most of the nose was gone, the right wing was wrecked, the horizontal stabilizer a disaster, the ball turret was practically inside the waist of the plane with the support column pushed through the top of the fuselage and the belly smashed in from the landing. If we had known the extent of the damage we might not have had the extreme confidence we had in the ship. Using what equipment he could scrape together, the radio operator got word back to the base that we were down, fortunately in friendly territory.

The realization then hit us that we had lost two of our buddies.

We spent four days in Luxembourg and five days in Paris before returning from "MIA" to the 303rd on January 20.

On January 22nd we flew our 14th mission to Sterkrade, Germany. We were hit with about 17 minutes of intense and accurate flak over the target. The toggleer and the tail gunner were wounded, number 3 and 4 engines were shot out and the rest of the damage to the plane so severe we were forced to make an emergency landing in Ghent, Belgium. The plane, Cheshire Cat was a mass of holes. (This is another story.)

The rest of the missions were not as eventful as 13 and 14 except for our 32nd mission to Hamburg, Germany on March 20, 19455, when we were hit by about 30 ME 262 jets. Luckily we survived that too.

The 35th and final mission for most of the original crew was to an airfield at Furstenau, Germany on March 25th.

During his forced vacation in Germany the bombardier was entertained at four different sites: Memmingen, Obbermassfield, Nuremburg and Mooseburg. His transportation between these sites was not the kind he would recommend, rail (40 and 8 boxcars) and mostly foot power. The last change of "hotels" was from Nuremburg to Mooseburg. He walked those 91 miserable miles in ten days. He remained there until liberated by General Patton's Army. No more bedbugs, lice or fleas.

After his capture the navigator was taken to Oberursel, an interrogation center located near Frankfort on the Main. A few days later he met the bombardier. They were together just a few minutes and then separated. The navigator was taken to Wetzlar for two days and then taken by train to a prison camp at Barth. He remembered that when the prisoners were being marched from the train to the camp they were pelted with snowballs thrown by German children. The last part of April the German guard left the camp and the prisoners were on their own for three days until the Russians arrived. The prisoners were flown out of the area in the middle of May by B-17s of the 8th Air Force.

The faith expressed in the diary about our two lost buddies, "I know they are safe," was rewarded. We learned months later that Gardner and Dohm were prisoners of war. Mel Alderman was killed in action in a mid-air collision on his 35th and last mission a few days after the rest of us had completed our missions. Smith, Gardner, Dohm, Parker, Howell and Dussliere got together for the first time after the war was over in Chicago in 1950. We still see each other on a regular basis.

[Author' Note: I am extremely happy to report that our pilot G.N. Smith was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in October 1999 for the heroic actions he accomplished January 10, 1945 on our 13th mission. We began the effort to obtain this award for Smith in 1987.]

[Sources for this article include Mission Reports from the National Archives, Washington, DC, recollections of crew members and a diary of missions kept by one of the members of the crew. The G.N. Smith crew flew with the 427th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group.]