Mission #18 - July 28, 1943:
This is the mission where my father, Alvin Neff, RBC Tail Gunner, watched as his best friend, Don Gordoni, was killed. My non-fiction story, "Finding Don Gordoni," is included on this website and can be found by clicking here.
The dark, leadened skies which shrouded Snetterton Heath at dawn were to portend tragedy. The group dispatched 21 Forts as early as 0545. The weather cursed climb-and-form-up procedures throughout the Wing. Everyone's timing was off. Briefing had planned the Wing as follows: the 388th would lead with the 100th low and the 96th high. But groups were late. Rendezvous points were missed. Emerging at last into the wild blue, the 96th found the Wing to be stretched to Kingdom Come. With as much speed as possible, the 96th struck out for the planned target, the Folke Wulf assembly plant some 80 miles from Berlin. Oschersleben would set a new distance record.
It would set some other records too.
Over the North Sea the entire bomber stream displayed nonsensical altitudes, unsure elements, mixed groups and straggling planes. Trying to follow route-briefing instructions, the Wing made a feint at the Friesian Islands, tried to execute a 180 degee turn toward England and then bank once more on the predetermined approach via Emden-Hamburg. To compound the situation, other bad circumstances began developing. The weather began closing in. Exceptionally strong north winds buffeted the Fortresses. Some drifted over the Luftwaffe Airfields and flak batteries of Heligoland. One B-17 received a direct hit from a 250 pound air-to-air rocket. These rockets were carried in launch-tubes under the wings of FW-190's and ME-110's which fired their 21 pound warheads from beyond the Fortresses' range. All three aforementioned Forts went down amid attacking E/A from Heligoland and Jever. Starting some 25 miles from the North German coast in the area of Wilhelmshaven, 60 E/A of various types began pressing attacks - mainly from behind. Determined to maintain course and altitude, the Wing entered a deep, wide, cloud-bank. But when they emerged, they were even more stretched out. Many aircraft abandoned the mission at this point. Bombers started limping home.
By 1530 the raid was over. Surviving 96th crews had landed either at Snetterton or another British haven. Of 21 Fortresses dispatched by the 96th, only 5 bombed the target. Ten planes aborted; but not with impunity because every one of them returned somewhat crippled. Even these aborts gave as well as they got. An analysis of Major Reynolds Benson's "Gunners' Claims" shows that even the ten aborting bombers accounted for 6 E/A desroyed, 7 probable and another 11 damaged. But the group-nightmare came with the realization that 7 planes did not return. This loss of one-third of our attacking force sent shockwaves rippling out from the group to Wing to Division to High Wycombe itself. In spite of the fact that Snetterton was a nest of distinguished visiting journalists at the time, none of them reported the loss. Wartime censorship intervened. Consequently SAF Public Relations tried to put the best foot forward by focusing on the only positive aspect of this "Battle Within The Clouds." The following is the PR release authorized by the 8th:
"A USAAF BOMBER FIELD, ENGLAND, July 28 -- Five Fortresses of this group, separated from their wing by heavy cloud formations, and buffeted by countless fighter attacks, refused to return to their base until they released their bombs and incendiaries on Germany. All but one returned . . . Captain Francis Madson . . . flying Lucky Lady shoved his ship into the lead tailed by Little Ceasar piloted by 1/L Cecil Walters and Gay Caballero piloted by 1/L Charles T. Mooreland . . . Reaching the interior of Germany, Madson led his tiny but determined formation until he saw another Fortress formation a few miles ahead. 'We gave full throttle and pulled up to them,' Madson related . . . A bombardier, 2/L Edward Quigley who was on Walters' crew, resumed his place on the guns. It was only while on the way back to England that Quigley reported he had suffered a deep and painful wound in the back by a fragment of .20 mm shell."
"'The fifth ship,'" the PR release concludes, without having even identified the fourth, "was lost near the English coast . . .'"
If that PR release did not read like a great victory, it surely did not even hint of the disaster which had struck the 96th.
That disaster really started about 0900 when the force approached the German coast. The 337th lead ship, Liberty Bell, came under attack. Flying with the pilot, Captain M.C. "Steamboat" Fulton, was his squadron commander, Major Virgil Emerson. Critically hit, the plane was abandoned over the North Sea, but near the German coast. Frank Cardaman witnessed the incident from Tarfu's ball turret.
"Major Emerson was on our left wing when the Germans hit us. Emerson leaned out the co-pilot's window and saluted just before the plane went into a dive."
EXCERPT FROM "FINDING DON GORDONI" :
Waist gunner Al Neff watched Liberty Bell's struggle from his window position in Lt. Jim Sanders' Rum Boogie. Neff's best friend, Don Gordoni, was aboard the stricken Fort. A Chicago lad, Gordoni had been the radio voice of Jack Armstrong (All-American Boy) during the early days of the program. When Gordoni's voice changed, he lost that job but developed a great singing voice.
"He'd sing everybody in the hut to sleep on many nights or after missions," Neff remembers. "Liberty Bell, having fallen out of the lead, was on our left and a little behind so I had a terrifying view of the whole scene . . . The right engine was on fire and those who bailed out pulled their rip cords too fast . . . most chutes burned as they opened." After the war, Neff visited Don Gordoni's mother. "Watching your buddy die is an unforgettable experience," Al Neff writes 46 years later. "I am close to tears even today when I think about Don and the way he died."
Actually, only bombardier Lawrence Wolford survived of the Fulton-Emerson crew. After liberation from prison camp, Wolford provided this testimony for squadron leader Virgil Emerson's mother: "We were flying at 19,000 feet near Heligoland when first attacked. For the same reason (being the lead crew) that we had Major Emerson as co-pilot, we had two navigators, Dean Howell and Dave Humke. Lt. Bob Anderson, our usual co-pilot, was flying as tail gunner. German planes attacked before we were aware of their presence. Bob Anderson fired a few bursts and then we were hit. This first attack by enemy planes killed Lt. Anderson and destroyed about half the plane's tail surface." Wolford goes on to explain his belief that this same burst further destroyed every gunner and gun behind the bomb bay. Fulton and Emerson dove to 7,000 feet hoping to lose the Germans; but Luftwaffe fighters hung on tenaciously. "Never have I seen such piloting as Major Emerson and Captain Fulton did with that crippled bomber," Wolford wrote. "But it soon became apparent that we must abandon ship."
Unable to drop life rafts, the men had to jump with faith in their Mae Wests. The two navigators joined Wolford in parachuting from the nose hatch. While still descending, Wolford could see the two navigators parachuting below him and he saw three men, two of whom he believed to be Emerson and Fulton, leave the plane before it struck water. That was the last he saw of any of the crew. Larry Wolford was in the water for over 8 hours before being rescued by a German air-sea plane. His captors treated him for shock for he suffered from over-exposure and exhaustion. And they promised to continue the search for his crew. At this point he lost consciousness until he came to hours later in a Friesian Island hospital. The body of Dave Humke was the only one recovered. It washed ashore on the German-Danish border a week later. The Germans provided full military honors.
After Liberty Bell was hit, Captain Joe Bender tried to exercise his responsibility as Deputy Lead. But Tarfu, as Frank Cardaman explains, had already been hit by cannon fire leaving a hole in the right wing "you could almost drive a car through." "We too left the formation," Cardaman concludes, "when our #3 caught fire." Tarfu would lose two more engines in the running battle homeward and would at last safely land on one engine.
With Liberty Bell shot down and Tarfu aborting, Lts. Bill Nance and Norville Gorse tried to take over the lead in the 337th's Dallas Rebel. Norville Gorse, although listed as co-pilot, was actually flying the Fortress. 1/Lt. Bill Nance was an instructor pilot and had decided to sit in the right hand seat today -- the better, he had thought, to keep tabs on the formation. But after the Group lost their lead and deputy lead, their formation came into heavy clouds just long enough to become separated from the Wing. It was severely attacked over the North Sea and the Friesian Islands and Dallas Rebel took the brunt of the attack. There was a fire in the radio room and it spread to gas leaking from a bullet-shattered wing. Lt. Gorse put the plane into a dive hoping to extinguish the flames. But the intercom wasn't working and he couldn't warn anybody. When the dive began, most thought they were doomed. So much so, that when Gorse levelled the aircraft, many began bailing out in spite of the advice of tail gunner, Sergeant Youngers. Those who did bail out did not survive the North Sea.
Eventually Gorse ditched the plane successfully and the surviving members crowded into a dinghy. This was not the first emergency situation for Lieutenants Norville Gorse and Joe Hudson, the co-pilot and navigator. They had their first "Geronimo!" that fateful day, May 13th, when Captain Rogers was killed while the Group was attempting to assemble for its first mission.
The six survivors of Dallas Rebel spent three days and two nights in the small dinghy until help came. And when it came, irony of ironies, it came in the form of a German Dornier Flying Boat. Joe Hudson had previously been sent to a British Intelligence School where he had studied POW escape procedures and secret codes. Although he was never to escape himself, Hudson made great use of his training in Stalag Luft III and VIIA.
The battle still raged aloft. Even when the Luftwaffe's time-detonating rockets failed to down a Fortress, it did the next best thing - it caused the bombers to spread out. Fortresses lost their defensive fire-power. B-17's turned for England in disarray. The Luftwaffe was having a turkey-shoot. Many Americans were flying their fourth mission in five days. They had been exhausted before they took off this morning. Not so the Germans. They were secure in the knowledge that they could always land, reload, refuel and continue the battle. Today's clash displayed remarkable Luftwaffe teamwork. Germans bounced out of the clouds on Lt. Steve Hettrick's 338th A/C 42-30401. The first pass reduced Hettrick's airspeed just enough to isolate him for the second pass. The crew bailed out over the North Sea; there are still no known survivors. A similar fate awaited Lt. Hugh Moore's 413th crew in 42-3326, Moore Fidite. Then the next crew to suffer casualties was that of Lt. Gene Wilcox in the 339th's 42-30351, Alcohol Annie. Co-pilot Phil Stratton takes up the story right after Annie had been hit.
"Number 3 has a gaping .20mm hole on top. The manifold pressure drops to almost nothing. Hell, numbers four and one are out. It's time to go home. At 9,000 feet we break into the open. No fighters in sight. We rip off the oxygen masks and breathe deeply. Nordenson (navigator) gives us a course for home.
But Annie is a long way from home and she's riding heavy on one wing. And no wonder, the wing is on fire. And there is still plenty of gas in it to explode! Wilcox and Stratton order everyone into ditching positions. The tail gunner does not respond. No way to check for him now, they are diving at 4,000 feet per minute in an attempt to ditch and escape before an explosion overtakes them.
Stratton continues: "We are down. I unfasten my safety belt, throw off my headset and pull the mike plug. My window is slightly ajar; I yank it open. Quick as I am, Wilcox is already climbing out his window. The nose sinks rapidly. The water is up to my waist. I scramble through the opening and find the wing with my feet. I hear a great crackling and look round to see Annie breaking in half. Mercer, Wilcox and Jorgenson are above the radio hatch. Mercer and Wilcox are struggling with the life raft. Suddenly Johnson's head appears in the opening. The plane is sinking rapidly. Wilcox, still struggling with the raft, is half underwater. Finally, it comes free and begins to inflate. Johnson swims past me heading west. I catch him, yank the cord inflating his Mae West and head him back toward the rubber dingy. Where are the others? Too late; Annie's gone taking with her Calvert, Holton, Holocombe, O'Neill and Lewis. They are all gone - gone forever. I look at my watch, it is only 0945."
Much later, in fact, not until just before midnight, these five survivors were returned to base by British air-sea rescue.
By 0945 when Phil Stratton was treading water, the battle was still being waged within the clouds. Somewhere up there the Germans found Lt. Deshotels trying to abort in his 42-3345, Paper Doll. Then they attacked Lt. Clarence Covert's 339th 42-30394. Covert did his best to ditch. But because he had to execute the ditching under enemy fire, the result was exceptionally hard. Four gunners were pinned in the wreckage and drowned. Among those injured while engaged in the aerial battle was Sgt. Charles Differdoll. Those who survived the ditching were the four officers and T/S Don Colvin, the engineer. They all saw the injured Differdoll in the water. But he drifted away in spite of their best efforts. It would take six hours before the Germans picked up the survivors. The Germans and Americans looked for Differdoll again, but to no avail.
By now the few enduring 96th planes had tacked onto a bigger flight of 94th Fortresses. This bastardized group was determined to hit the target. But together the two bomb groups numbered only 28, and there was a rule which stipulated that if a target couldn't be bombed by 30 planes, then it should be abandoned. The order to abandon was on the lips of the 94th's Colonel Castle when someone passed the word that there were more planes coming up from behind. Their nationality,
however, was not reported. At any rate, Colonel Castle pushed on to Oschersleben.
The final 96th testimony comes from Ed Quigley, bombardier aboard Lt. Cecil Walters' Little Caesar. There was nothing left of the lead squadron by now. The lead and his deputy had been shot down. The others had aborted. Over in the low squadron, Hugh Moore had been shot down and the others, heading for home, were running a terrible German gamut. At this juncture in the slaughter, Captain Francis Madsen had taken over the 96th lead from his high squadron position. He didn't have much of a group behind him; just Walters, Bob Hodson and Charlie Mooreland (and perhaps that mysterious 5th plane mentioned in the Press Release.)
Bombardier Quigley finishes the Oschersleben story from his perspective just before the approach to the target.
"Fighters were pressing home savage attacks. A Fort broke out in flames across all four engines. I saw 5 chutes open. A German fighter exploded, a ball of orange flame hanging in the air. Another Fort twisted out of control, an engine burning, its tail sheared off. In the nose of Little Caesar, empty shell cases were piling up - Jerry was coming in for the kill and was swarming all over our tiny four-ship element. I began firing from the right nose gun. A Yellow Nose dipped to go under. All the guns on Little Caesar were firing now. I could hear the pounding of the top-turret and the distinctive CHUG-CHUG of the Ball. Tracers were everywhere. I started to turn back to the nose guns when something smashed me in the back. I was thrown facedown upon the bombsight. I looked around. Sid Rosberger, the navigator, was sprawled on his back almost on the escape hatch; the unmanned guns were swinging wildly and smoke was pouring through the shards of plexiglas. Then Sid and I both got up. Walt, the pilot, was calling on the intercom. Told him everything was OK and got back on the guns. About ten minutes later when the Germans gave us a breathing spell, I knew that I had been hit. I put my hand under my jacket in back and showed Sid the blood. He took a closer look and said he thought it wasn't too bad. I went back to the fighters again."
Lt. Quigley eventually put his bombs on target. "I guess there must have been flak," he writes, "but I don't remember. We turned on the IP, the lead ship shot off its flares, and I opened the bomb bay doors. I tried looking for the target but it was too painful to bend over. The lead ship dropped and I let our bombs go too and closed the doors." On the way home, Quigley had time to think of his wounds for once. "When England appeared on the horizon," Quigley recalls, "I went into the radio room where I became scared for the first time. I started shaking and smoking my way through a pack of cigarettes. We came over the field, shot off a flare to tell the Sawbones to be ready with the Meat Wagon and came in. Walt pulled off the runway, leaned out the cockpit window and waved to me as I struggled between two medics. That's the last I ever saw of him."
The tragedy of Oschersleben did not end today. Quigley would be hospitalized for months; but tomorrow, as we shall see, the rest of his crew except for Sid Rosberger would be lost. In November when Ed Quigley returned to combat, the only person he recognized was fellow bombardier Ray McKinnon. "Dear God, Ray," Quigley would ask, "where is everybody?" McKinnon didn't have to answer. Inside the lonely Nissen the two charter-member bombardiers embraced and wept.
Remember Lt. Shelton who had to wrest control of his aircraft from an inflated life-raft on the 17th? Well, here he is again. He had lost number 2 engine during a concerted enemy attack and now number 1 was giving out. Exploiting whatever power he had left, Shelton dove and wrestled the controls for a levelling at only 200 feet. Here, while his crew fought off two successive attacks by fifteen FW's, Shelton executed evasive actions. But the condition of their plane was deteriorating. The warning to ditch was given. All loose equipment was jettisoned. Lt. Frank Wiswall was flying his first mission as Shelton's bombardier and was ministering first aid to Sgt. Knowles, the radio operator. Sgt. Knowles, although being doctored, was still radioing SOS signals. Eventually, Shelton managed to revive number 1 and to regain precious altitude. The alert to ditch was rescinded and Shelton's superb flying brought them home.
When the final toll was taken, it was revealed that 7 aircraft failed to return to Snetterton. Listed as MIA were the crews of Lts. Deshotels, Covert, Wilcox, Moore, Hettrick, Nance and Capt. Fulton. (Five of the Wilcox crew would be returned by Air-Sea Rescue.) Even so, by "lights out" there were seventy empty cots at Snetterton. In fact, the 96th had sustained the highest losses of both the 1st and 4th Bomb Wings. Some of those empty cots motivated Bill Thorns' diary entry: "Clouds broke up formations and enemy fighters accounted for a good many planes."