Ringmasters

By Allan G. Blue (Summer, 1964)

A History of the 491st Bombardment Group (H)



PART IV  •  Misburg


On the 25th of October 1944, a sleek P-51 Mustang from Steeple Morton dropped its gear at North Pickenham, home of the 491st Bomb Group. Pilot Getz, former Liberator driver, had stopped by to give the old crowd an envious peek at his new mount. Getz, one of several 491st pilots who did fighter tours after completing their missions with the 491st, was assigned to the Second Air Division Weather Scouts, an outfit composed entirely of former B-24 pilots, and whose job it was to precede the 2ADs Liberators on each mission to report on weather conditions at the target. In the good-natured banter that afternoon Getz' former associates would not concede that Weather Scouts were really fighters, even though they flew Mustangs. A month later, however, there wasn't a man in the 491st who wasn't convinced in all seriousness that the Weather Scouts were among the "best damn fighters in the world."

The events leading to this change of heart began in the late hours of 25 November as the teletype in Group Ops began ticking off the field order for the following day's mission. The Eighth would be after four major targets in Northern Germany. Objective for the 491st: The one remaining oil refinery still in production at Misburg. The target was no stranger to the Group -- it was over Misburg on 12 September that the 491st had lost Sparrow and Eckard. But that was over two months ago and the Group just wasn't losing airplanes these days. Still, there were some who noted that the strike at Misburg would require deeper penetration into Germany than any of the other targets for the following day.

Briefing was at 0530 and by 0904 thirty-one aircraft were up and forming. At 1012, 44-40162 A+ aborted with a gas leak and, shortly after the formation left the English coast at 1030, another aircraft, 42-95341-W, turned back with no radio. After a few minor adjustments to cover the holes thus opened, the 491st formation was as shown:

LEAD SQ
(855th)



Metcalf-Parmele
622 L





Elliott
482 M+

Bridges
746 V



Martin
296 H+

Murf
680 V+

Hunter
156 F



Campbell
114 F+

Greer
462 L+

Fandell
164 J+

LOW SQ
(854th)



Haney
735 Z-





Weitz
117 J

Wentzel
294 G-



Warczak
253 R-

Rath
459 F-

Lenning
610 I-

Vukovich
108 A-

Simons
172 H-

Wynn
007 S+

Meuse
271 K-

HIGH SQ
(853rd)



Stewart
530 -F





Eclund
534 B

Moore
205 -G



Butler
485 K

Bennett
073 -B

Budd
167 -O

Hite
884 -X



Cloughley
212 -I

Stevens
464 -Y


At 1111 hours this formation crossed the enemy coast as a part of the bomber stream. At almost the same time, some 150 enemy fighters attempted an attack on the B-17 groups at the head of the column. The Fortresses at this time were just approaching Dummer Lake, the point where the stream would split into segments to attack the four different assigned primaries. The German fighters were successfully driven off by the B-17s' fighter escort, assisted by additional area coverage fighters called in to help. The action, however, drifted southward with the Fortresses as they headed for their targets at Alten Beden and Bielefield.

For the 491st the mission was uneventful until some 45 minutes later when it passed the Dummer Lake area. At 1155 three enemy jets were observed flying parallel to the formation about 2000 yards to the left. They made no move to attack but stayed with the Group long enough (it was reasoned later) to chart its strength, course and speed.

The IP, which the 491st reached at 1226, was the town of Wittingen. Located some 16 miles east and north of the target, it thus marked the deepest point of penetration and, in effect, the Group would bomb on the way out. Just prior to the IP-turn a large number of enemy fighters appeared in the distance, southeast of the bombers. They made no move toward the Liberators but were "just playing around in the clouds" as if daring the Mustangs and Thunderbolts to come over and mix it up. The chance seemed too good to miss and the entire close fighter escort, consisting of 197 P-51s and 48 P-47s, went storming after the Germans, estimated at from 150 to 200 strong. In a matter of minutes they were fully engaged, leaving the B-24s on their own. Area coverage fighters, as noted above, had already been diverted to meet an earlier appearance of the enemy.

The Air Commander, 854th CO, Lt. Col. Parmele, now faced a decision only he could make: "...whether to uncover his three squadrons in the face of imminent enemy attack or to preserve the Group formation and meet the enemy with a united front. Realizing that superior bombing results could only be achieved by uncovering, he unhesitatingly ordered this maneuver." The 491st wheeled into the Big Turn and came out on the bomb run. Almost immediately a chance mishap occurred in the lead aircraft of the low squadron -- the nose gunner brushed against the bomb toggle switch with his shoulder. (At this stage of the war most Lead and Deputy Lead aircraft carried an extra, or pilotage, navigator who normally occupied the nose turret. This put four people in the nose compartment of a B-24 which was considered overcrowded with three.) The entire squadron, as briefed, dropped on their leader and 30 tons went down into open fields 15 miles short of the target. In order to avoid further exposure to flak, which had become heavy since the IP, the low squadron veered away from the formation and angled for the rally point south of Hanover, bypassing the target.

Premature bomb release of 42-51735, lead plane of the low squadron, at Misburg on 26 November 1944, figured prominently in events that followed. (Photo - Winston)
 channel

This opened a gap between the lead and high squadrons and the low squadron was now off to the left by itself. With all fighter escort lured away, the stage was set for disaster. It came swiftly.

As if by prearranged signal, which it undoubtedly was, the flak suddenly ceased and another, previously unseen hoard of 100 plus German fighters (nearly all FW 190s) struck the high squadron like a scythe. They came in line abreast from six o’clock high, 10 to 15 at a time. The second pass took out the two B-24s of the high right element, Stevens and Budd. Moments later, just as the squadron was approaching the release point, Moore and Stewart were hit badly but managed to make it over the target before going down. Hite, Cloughley and Eklund followed soon after. The two remaining aircraft, Butler and Bennett, tried to join up with the lead squadron but only Bennett (ARK ANGEL 44-40073) made it.

The fighters now swung southwest and turned their attention to the separated low squadron, pressing their attacks home with almost reckless determination. They obviously wanted to finish their slaughter before the decoyed fighter escort could disengage and return. The pattern was the same, wave after wave in line abreast, followed by individual attacks from almost any angle to finish off the cripples. One FW 190 came screaming down from 6 o'clock very high and sliced through a few feet of space between the Lead and Deputy Lead Liberators. The crew of the latter, AIRBORNE ANGEL, estimated the German missed their plane by less than ten feet. Warczak's unnamed B-24 blew up (Warczak did not survive this one, his second B-24 explosion in two months) and a few moments later Wynn's SCARFACE also exploded. Vukovich's B-24 fell off in a vicious spin that trapped everyone inside.

However, the Liberator gunners were scoring too. T/Sgt. Gerald Burbank, top turret with Lanning, tracked an FW 190 as it came in from 4 o'clock. He opened fire at 700 yards. At 500 yards he began getting hits in the cockpit area and the 190 stopped firing, the pilot undoubtedly dead. The e/a continued to bore in, the nose going down just before a collision seemed inevitable.

Burbank's own plane had problems. Its bomb bay doors had not been open during the low squadron's premature release and as a result two of the doors were left dangling below the aircraft. The sight of the mangled metal of a cripple brought the fighters like flies.

In the lead bomber 1st Lt. Lester Faggiani blew up a 190 from the nose turret. Faggiani was the pilotage navigator but hadn't taken time to swap places with the regular nose gunner. At the other end of the plane, tail gunner S/Sgt. Donald Newsholme flamed another 190 while S/Sgt. Walter Jarzynka in the right waist took care of a third, sending it down in an uncontrolled spin.

The fighters accounted for three more B-24s before leaving the low squadron for more unfinished business. HARE POWER (Weitz) went down with its bomb bay on fire. First Lt. Robert W. Simons' GREASE BALL caught a fusillade of 20 mm explosive shells that killed two gunners, knocked out all communications and most of the controls, and set fire to the bomb bay. The plane dropped like a rock with only three of the crew able to get out. HOUSE OF RUMOR (Meuse) was also burning. As the pilot rang the bailout bell, bombardier 1st Lt. Harry W. Sonntag went through the plane making sure that everyone had the word. "I found Yuzwa (NG), Caruso (LW) and Byrnes (TG) completely ignoring the order to bail out. Yuzwa (S/Sgt. Samuel Yuzwa) absolutely refused to stop firing and put on his parachute." Sonntag was blown out while checking the rear escape hatch and the three gunners went down with the plane.

 Harepower
 Grease ball
HARE POWER (Weitz) went down at Misburg with its bomb bay on fire. (Photo - Godshall)
GREASE BALL, 44-40172 and Lt. Weidenkoph's original aircraft, was lost on the Misburg mission with Lieut. Simons and crew.
(Photo - Dan Winston)

Meanwhile the lead squadron, having reached the target unmolested, bombed with good results. With at least some warning as to what was coming, they had tucked it in as tight as possible and the gunners were ready when the first wave of fighters hit. Again they came in from 6 o'clock. S/Sgt. Michael F. McNamara, right waist gunner in Martin's aircraft, flamed an FW 190 on the second pass and S/Sgt. William E. Marsden, left waist in the same plane, exploded another soon afterward.

First Lt. Thomas J. Talbot, a bombardier manning the nose turret in Murff's plane, BIG'UN, also got a destroyed on one of the early passes as a 190 came in high, over flew his target and began his breakaway too late. Talbot picked him off going away and the pilot bailed out. The gunners in PADDY'S WAGON, flown by Lt. Campbell, were busy and accurate, with top turret, right waist and left waist each claiming a kill. Top turret and right waist in Greer's #462 shared a 190 and waist gunners in both #482 and #164 got probables.

Understandably, the radio had been filled with suggestions that the fighters return and do their fighting where it would do the most good. However, the first to respond to the urgent call were eight P-51s of the Second Air Division's Weather Scouts. Led by Bob Whitlow, who was to become the first Athletic Director of the Air Force Academy, the eight Mustangs waded into the 100 plus enemy fighters, broke up the coordinated attack and kept the 190s busy until reinforcements arrived. When they did, it was a fairly good turkey shoot, resulting in claims of 47-1-20.

With the pressure off, the remaining 12 B-24s of the 491st reassembled into a single formation and headed for home. The concentrated attack on the bombers had lasted only 15 minutes, with some sporadic passes for an additional ten. The high squadron had been completely wiped out and the low squadron had lost seven out of ten. (Lanning managed to make it over Belgium where the crew bailed out.) Due in large part to the timely appearance of Whitlow and company, however, all nine Liberators of the lead squadron were, if not wholly intact, at least still airborne.

The first returning aircraft to land was Greer. His plane had two flat tires and came to a stop at the intersection of two runways, blocking both. One by one the others came in, nearly half of them with wounded or dead aboard. The reaction of the ground crews at the hardstands of the 853rd Squadron are described below -- hardly award-winning prose but nonetheless authentic.

"Today nine crews departed on ops. The ETR was 1600 hours. A few minutes after the ETR a squadron and a half of the 491st planes appeared over the field but, as none of our ships were among them, we waited for the second formation to appear. But the clock moved around from five, to ten, to fifteen minutes and then to half an hour... At first it never occurred to us that maybe our ships had gone down. But gradually, after we had checked and rechecked with the tower, gradually we began to realize that such a thing could happen -- that maybe it had happened. We fought the thought for a long time, tried to make ourselves believe that the ships had come down in France or Belgium, or at least some of them would come back... But after interrogation, there was no hope left at all. Reports vary as to the number of chutes seen. One gunner estimates 95% of the men got out. Others are not optimistic. A reasonable estimate would seem to be between 50-75% of our 84 men got out safely..."

Hope ran higher than reality. Of the 84 men of the 853rd, 50 were already dead and many of the rest badly injured.

Stevens had been flying his first mission since 20 June, when he crashed at Dover as previously described. Just after the first fighters hit, his engineer, F/Sgt. Joseph L. Boyer, yelled, "They're coming in again!" An instant later he was killed by a 20 mm shell, his body falling out of the open bomb bay doors. Moments later the plane exploded. Stevens, blown clear, again survived.

THE MOOSE (1st Lt. Warren Moore) was hard hit on the first pass, which left #2 burning, the bomb bay on fire and the intercom and hydraulics out. "Our engineer (T/ Sgt Francis S. Hawkins) went into the blazing bomb bay and opened the doors manually. He must have been burned badly." (Moore) Bombardier George K. Patten had been manning the nose turret and had tracked an enemy fighter too far, jamming the turret. Navigator Ross S. Houston worked frantically to try to crank the turret back so that Patten could get out but it was no use. Two explosions in the aft section sent the plane down out of control and Houston was forced to leave Patten trapped. Five survived.

Stewart's crew were on their 30th mission. Five managed to bail out before IDIOT'S DELIGHT blew up.

Butler's DORTY TREEK was shot to a shambles in the air. "There were two more fighter attacks between the time I ordered bailout and the time I left the aircraft. Yergey (B) and Fuller (RW) were dead, Callicrate (LW) had a bullet through his arm, Jones (E) and Ostrander (CP) were badly burned, and Trombly (TG) had been shot through the hand. The aircraft was covered by fire and all the engines shot out when I left the plane." Kamarainen (Radio) was beaten by civilians when he landed, but survived.

Bennett, in ARK ANGEL, succeeded in joining up with the Lead Squadron. "He slid underneath us. His whole Martin (upper) turret was missing and there was a large hole in the right wing. He couldn't keep up and was last seen at 1258 hours still losing altitude." (Fandell) Nobody knows what happened after that; nobody in ARK ANGEL lived.

 Arkangel
 Firebird
Another loss at Misburg was ARK ANGEL, 44-40073. Originally Lt. Box's aircraft, it went down with Bennett's crew. Note reversed group letter "Z". (Winston)
FIREBIRD (Budd), also down over Misburg. (Photo - Godshall)

Little is known also of the events aboard PROBLEM CHILD (Hite), FIREBIRD (Budd) or Cloughley's unnamed B-24. Of the 28 men manning these planes, 24 were KIA. German records do state that the wreckage of these aircraft, together with Warczak's from the low squadron, were so close together that it was impossible to determine what bodies belonged to what B-24. The remaining 853rd aircraft, Ecklund's, faired better; the entire crew bailed out and were taken prisoner.

Casualties in the other squadrons brought the total 491st bill for Misburg to 90 KIA and 52 POW. Verified claims were 7-11-3, which of course did not include any enemy fighters downed or damaged by aircraft which were shot down.

A Sidelight on Misburg is given in a letter from Col. William M. Shy: "The night prior to Misburg we were working up the mission in Group Ops. After the field order came off the teletype, Jack Merrell came down to go over the mission. Meantime, Capt. Verle Pope, our Intelligence Officer, had looked into his crystal ball and established that there was a large number of German fighters in the area adjacent to our target, and that they had been acknowledged through intelligence channels as having quite a potential left. These boys had been rather inactive for a while, and 8th AF believed that they were being held in readiness for one big effort. At this stage of the game our Group had never sustained a concentrated fighter attack, and Jack said he thought we had better shakedown our gunnery equipment and include a strong specialized briefing for the gunners going on this mission. This was exactly what was done, and Jack personally gave the gunners hell the next morning, since the night's efforts had turned up some careless housekeeping in regard to turrets and cleaning of gun barrels. I am sure that some of our crews returned home from this mission as a result of Jack's efforts with the gunners that night. This was typical of his leadership and foresight. I saw a few gunners go up and shake hands with him after landing back home the next day."

A final Sidelight on Misburg comes from the Control Tower Log entries for Monday, 27 November:

0050 Alerted.

0530 Briefing.

0849 17 A/C off on ops...

1725 Sixteen replacement B-24's arrived from Stanstead. Shades of Dawn Patrol.

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