TARGET: GOTHA, GERMANY

24 February 1944

Composite Recollections' of Several Crews
Route to Gotha
Route to Gotha indicating fighter support
392nd aircraft formation to target
392nd aircraft formation to target. Click to enlarge.

Myron Keilman, Deputy Lead, 579th Squadron:

At 5:30 a.m., 36 crews of the 392nd Bomb Group were briefed on the mission as follows:

PRIMARY TARGET: Gotha, Germany -population 51,000. The fighter aircraft assembly factory of the Gothaer Waggonfabrik AG which produced 75 completed aircraft per month.

LOCATION AND IMPORTANCE: Situated at the "V" junction of the railroad heading north and the main road heading northeast to Molschleben, 1 1 /2 miles northeast of center of Gotha. Factory has 2,200 employees in peacetime. Manufacturing Me. 110s, 210s, probably 410s and gliders, including twin-boom models. Factory makes all major components for own assembly plants, such as wings, fuselages, tail units, etc., and also supplies other Me. fighter assembly plants.

If the factory is successfully knocked out, it would result in the loss of 185 planes, figuring the approximately 35 aircraft under construction and production of 75 a month for two months. In addition, the loss of skilled employees would likely be large.

Runways on North Airfield approximately 1,050 and 900 yards.

Gotha was bombed by the 2nd Air Division, 8th AAF, on February 20th through 10/10ths cloud - results not known.

This was the group's 40th mission, so we took it all in stride. To most of us it meant another mission to be accomplished against a total of 25, then back home to safety.

In addition to the importance of the big plant to the German war effort, the intelligence officer briefed us on the fact that it was heavily defended by 88mm and 105mm anti-aircraft artillery like we had faced at Bremen, Kiel, Wilhelmshaven, etc., and that we were certain to encounter heavy fighter attacks all across enemy territory -400 miles in and 400 miles out.

After collecting our escape and evasion kits, oxygen masks, flak helmets, "Mae West" life jackets, parachutes and putting on our heated flying suits, we climbed aboard the 2 1/2-ton canvas-covered trucks for the cold ride to our B-24's dispersal pad.

It was still very dark as we made our airplane inspection, checking all the engine cowlings for loose fasteners; the turbines of the superchargers; the propeller blades, pushing them through to release any piston hydraulic lock; the fuel cells for being "topped up" and their caps for security; the guns and the gun turrets; ammunition quantities of 500 rounds for each of the 10.50-caliber machine guns; the bombsight; the 12 500-lb. bombs, their shackles, fuses and safety wires; the oxygen supply and regulators; signal flares; K-10 bomb-strike camera; and many other equally important things.

At 8 a.m. we started engines. At 8:15 the lead ship taxied to the takeoff position at the end of the 2,000-yard-long runway. At 8:30 a.m., as dawn was breaking, Lead crew pilot, Jim McGregor, revved up his engines to full power, checked the instruments, released the brakes and rolled forward, gradually gathering speed. Then 31 B-24s followed him at 30-second intervals. In the clear at 12,000 feet, the lead ship fired red and yellow recognition flares out of the Very pistol mount in the top roof of the flight deck. Flying deputy lead in Lt. Baumgart's ship; we pulled into position on Lt. McGregor's right wing. The group assembled and formed into three squadrons above radio beacon 21. Then we flew the wing triangular assembly pattern to above Kings Lynn.

Leading the 14th Combat Wing, we eased into Number Two position of the 2nd Air Division's bomber stream over Great Yarmouth, and while heading east over the North Sea and climbing to 18,000 feet, our gunners testfired their guns. In clear skies, we penetrated enemy territory just north of Amsterdam, Holland. At 235 mph true air speed over the Zuider Zee, the streaming vapor trails from our engines signaled our presence and our intent. It was a thrilling sight as we passed over the Dutch-German border, onward over Dummer Lake, our future Osnabruck target and southeast past Hannover's bombed-out airfields.

Paralleling our course to the right were the B- 17 formations of the 1st Air Division heading for their primary target, the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt. Still over the North Sea, B-17 Fortresses of the 3rd Air Division were en route to their targets on the Baltic Sea Coast. P-47 fighters covered us to the Hannover area, then P-38s and P-5 I s orbited above us to Gotha. Luftwaffe fighters made attempts to penetrate our formations but our "little friends" kept them at a distance, occasionally diving down for a "kill." Using our thick contrails as a screen, the German fighters often struck from below and from behind to attack a lagging bomber.

Turning to the southeast towards Gotha, the white snow-covered landscape 4 miles below looked cold and lifeless; only large communities, rail lines and an autobahn stood out in relief. Fighter attacks became more persistent. By the time we reached our Initial Point to begin our bomb run, the sky around our three squadrons was full of busy P-38s and P-51 s fending off the enemy fighters. Our little friends dived down past our lead ship, chasing the Me. 109s and FW 190s which were making head-on attacks. Our gunners got in a lot of shooting, too. The staccato of the turrets' twin .50s vibrated throughout the airplane. It was really frightening.

As we made a gradual left turn over our IP, red flares from our lead ship signaled "Bomb Bay Doors Open." Our bombardier removed the heated cover blanket from the bombsight. He checked his gyroscope's stabilization and that all bombing switches were "ON." Our high and low squadrons eased "in trail" and all seemed satisfactory - then pilotage navigator Lt. Kennedy, in the nose gun turret, saw the 2nd Air Division's lead wing formations veering off from the target heading. A fast and anxious cross-check with lead navigator Lt. Swangren, and with a recheck of compass heading and reference points, they assured command pilot Lorin Johnson that the primary target was "dead ahead."

Within minutes, lead bombardier Lt. Good called over the interphone, "I've got the target!" Lead pilot Lt. McGregor checked his flight instruments for precise 18,000 feet altitude and 160 mph indicated air speed, then carefully leveled the B-24 on autopilot and replied: "On airspeed, on altitude. You've got the airplane."

Making a final adjustment to his bombsight, Lt. Good took over control of the steering of the bomber with the Automatic Flight Control Equipment linked to his bombsight.

Lt. Good's target folder didn't contain a snow-covered, wintry view of the Messerschmitt Aircraft Plants. He had to use his keen judgment and trained skills in locating the briefed aiming point. Only his one eye, peering through the bombsight optics, could determine where to place the cross-hair.

He gave a running commentary to the command pilot and crew of what he saw and what he was doing in steering the lead B-24, and the following formation of bombers, to the bomb release point. But only he, the lead bombardier, knew for sure what was viewed through the bombsight.

At 18,000 feet, the temperature was 40 degrees below zero. Good didn't feel the cold as his fingers delicately adjusted the azimuth (vertical arc from zenith to horizon) and range controls. He rechecked that all the bomb and camera switches were in the "ON" position, especially the radio bomb release signal switch that would release all the bombs from the B-24s in the 392nd's formation simultaneously. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.

At 1:18 p.m., after being attacked by five FW 190s, B-24 #102, "Texas Refugees," commanded by Lt. Thomas Cox of the 576th Squadron and flying element lead in the high block, peeled away to the right with its #3 engine on fire. Five parachutes blossomed from the burning bomber before it exploded and crashed to earth at Ruhla, a small village 7 miles southwest of Gotha.

The five crewmen who died in that crash were Paul Stankan, navigator; Guy Haglund, bombardier; Richard Pryce and Martin Meshon, both waist gunners; and Richard Helbing, tail gunner.

At approximately the same time, #658, "Poco Loco," a 577th Squadron Liberator flying in the group's low block and piloted by John Johnston, suddenly exploded in midair while under fighter attack. Six parachutes emerged from the tumbling wreckage which crashed at Waltershausen, 4 miles southwest of Gotha. The four crewmen killed were Lt. Johnston; Daniel Kelleher, copilot; John Hight, radio operator and Mitchell Walla, waist gunner.

When the 88mm and 105mm flak shells started exploding near our formation, Lt. Good had already attained the synchronized bombing run with the wind drift "killed" and the cross-hair holding steady on the aiming point of the great manufacturing complex. The bombsight indices crossed.... "BOMBS AWAY!"

While the K-20 camera, located in the bomb-bay, was recording the impact of the bombs at 10-second intervals, Lt. McGregor retook control of the lead airplane and swung the 392nd formation on to the outbound heading and the Rally Point.

The bombs were smack "on target," but the battle wasn't over. No sooner had the 14th Wing left the target's flak than we were again attacked by enemy fighters. Strung out in trail and with several B-24s slowed down by flak damage, our three squadrons became vulnerable to vicious attacks. For the next hour or more, Me. 109s, FW 190s and Ju. 88s worked us over as our fighters strove to fend them off.

Gotha Bombing Photo
Gotha Bombing Photo

Albert Cook, Top-turret gunner/Engineer, #344, 577th Squadron:

We made it through to the target and released our bombs with the group, but during the bomb run our B-24 sustained fatal damage. Three engines were knocked out, two of which were on fire, and a fire in the bomb bay which was being fought by Ralph Bailey, whose regular position, ball turret gunner, had been taken by our radio operator, Robert Williamson, due to Sgt. Bailey's electrically heated flying suit shorting out and failing.

With only one engine, our heavily-damaged and burning plane went down in a long, controlled dive. I don't know when the gunners in the rear bailed out, but when we were down to 5,000 feet I heard our copilot, Beldon Black, say to our pilot, Marvin Schlossberg, "We better get out, too." I clipped my chest-type parachute on and told Ralph Bailey, still fighting the fire with a portable extinguisher, to bail out immediately. The bomb bay doors were still open and he jumped. I followed so close behind that we landed on a large, open field within 50 yards of each other.

There was snow on the ground, about 15 inches deep, where we landed and then we saw four German farmers coming towards us, about 100 yards away. We realized there was no chance to escape. The farmers didn't speak English, so we followed their directions to a nearby road.

Quite soon, an automobile pulled up and two German soldiers emerged. Bailey and I were searched by the soldiers, then driven to a nearby village and put in the basement of a school where we were reunited with the remainder of our crew. Only waist gunner James Allen was missing. He had been wounded during the air battle but had managed to bail out. We later heard that he'd been found by the Germans, taken to hospital, undergone surgery and lost a kidney but was doing well.

Our abandoned B-24 had crashed near Erfurt, a town about 15 miles due east of Gotha. Later that night we were taken by truck to a Luftwaffe air base near Erfurt with other American prisoners of war who had also been shot down, including survivors of other 392nd crews.

Shortly after bombing the primary target, B-24 #496 "The Jinx," a 577th Squadron Liberator piloted by Joseph Barnett, was last seen under fighter attack, part of its rudder shot away and on fire under the flight deck. Seven crewmen bailed out before the bomber went out of control and crashed at Oberufhausen, 18 miles west of Gotha. The three crewmen who were trapped in the tumbling B-24 and killed were Lt. Barnett; Charles Doyle, copilot; and Joseph Payton, engineer/top-turret gunner.

"During the intense head-on attacks, #527 "Black Widow," 576th Squadron and flown by Joseph Patterson, suffered fatal damage. Five parachutes emerged from the spiraling Liberator before it exploded in midair and crashed in the Bad Hersfel area, 25 miles west of Gotha. Those crewmen killed were William Shelton, copilot; DeWain Henderson, navigator; Alfred Feldman, bombardier; George Peterson, engineer/topturret gunner and Martin Connolly, radio operator.

Mervyn "Johnny" Johns, Pilot #511:

As we approached the target area we came under almost continuous head-on attacks by enemy fighters which flew right through our formations. We took several hits on the bomb run but nothing critical until after "Bombs Away," when #3 engine was struck by something pretty hefty. My copilot, Milton Henderson, and I tried to feather the propeller but it "ran away" out of control. The engine itself started burning and at about the same time we also lost #4 engine, so we took up a hopeful heading for Switzerland.

I tried to extinguish the fire in #3 by diving until our air speed went past the red line. After three unsuccessful high-speed dives, with the altimeter unwinding too fast to read, we were rapidly running out of altitude and decided to bail out. Milton Henderson stuck with me and helped to control the aircraft with the power on the left side only. After allowing time for the rest of the crew to bail out, I cut the power back and Milton went back through the plane. He called me from the waist position on the intercom, reporting that the rear was empty and that he was leaving.

I acknowledged and immediately left the cockpit, checked to see that the nose section was empty before bailing out through the open nose-wheel doors. As the airplane was quite low by the time I got out, my parachute failed to open properly. Very fortunately it "streamed" sufficiently to slow my descent before I crashed into trees and my chute got hung up in the branches. I loosened the harness and dropped down about six feet into snow. I tried to conceal myself in a clump of nearby bushes, but was soon spotted by several German Home Guardsmen and taken prisoner.

Of our 10 crew members, eight made it to various POW camps in eastern Germany and Austria, but my engineer, Jack Indahl and armorer/gunner, Felix Zerangue, were either killed during their bailouts or on the ground.

The abandoned and burning B-24 crashed and exploded at Wehrde, a small village about 50 miles southwest of Gotha.

Vern Baumgart, Pilot, #475 579th Squadron:

I was flying deputy lead, so I didn't see what was going on so much in our group. But I have vivid recollections that the lead of the 445th Bomb Group, flying off to our left, were really getting their teeth kicked in. At one time I could see three of their B-24s in various stages of descent, from the one that was starting down to the one that hit the snow. And I remember thinking, "Boy, that snow is deep down there."

Later I read, I think in "Stars and Stripes," that the Germans claimed they couldn't even get to the downed airmen. So I saw more of the losses of the 445th Group than I did of our own.

'One of the other 392nd Liberators was shot down during withdrawal. Robert White, piloting #192 of the 577th Squadron, and eight crewmen bailed out before their bomber crashed about 100 miles west of Gotha following fighter attacks, which started an intense fire in the bomb bay. Richard Wenzlaff, radio operator, was fighting the fire and tragically failed to bail out in time.

Lt. Clifford Peterson, Pilot #981, 578th Squadron:

During the intense air battle with the enemy fighters, both on the way in and on the way out, it became a fight for survival. Bombs were released on the primary target and the fighter attacks continued. While in the target area and during withdrawal, seven of our B-24s went down after sustaining fatal damage. After flying #5 in the six-plane section of the 578th Squadron, I slid into the #4 position at the rear of the four-ship diamond formation and was able to stay tucked in close. Luckily, we escaped damage from the attacks.

Myron Keilman:

The interphone was alive with excited calls of enemy action. Headon and tail attacks, in singles and "gaggles". Rockets, 20mm canon shells, and machine gun fire were all encountered as the battle progressed. Seven of our B-24s were shot down and many of us were shot up, but it wasn't all one-sided. The gunners of our 22 surviving B-24s claimed 16 German fighters were destroyed.

Ed Wittel, Pilot, 578th Squadron:

During the air battle we were badly shot up by flak and fighters; two engines shot out, bomb bay doors blown open, both waist gunners mortally wounded by 20mm cannon fire, and down to 10,000 feet.

Fortunately, three P-47 fighters escorted us all the way to the Dutch coast. We crossed the North Sea and were given a heading to an airfield which turned out to be Lakenheath, Suffolk, an RAF Bomber Command base.

When I touched down on the main runway and applied the brakes, only the right wheel brake engaged briefly, but enough to veer us off the runway at about a 45-degree angle. The plane went all the way across the grassy area and ended up in takeoff position at one end of an intersecting runway.

Because we didn't have radio contact, having turned off all electrical power, the Lakenheath control tower started flashing me a green light, indicating permission to take off." A few minutes later however, a truck with several British airmen came over to us and gave assistance.

After taking out two severely injured gunners, John Polovich and Donald Miller, to the base hospital, the rest of the crew were taken to the mess hall to eat and arrangements made for our accommodation at Lakenheath that night. The British were always great to us. Sadly, our two gunners died in the hospital from their injuries.

Myron Keilman:

At 3:30 p.m., seven hours after takeoff, our group landed back at Wendling. Total Eighth Air Force losses were 49 bombers and 10 escort fighters. Also, 121 German fighter planes were claimed as destroyed.

Clifford Peterson:

After we'd landed back at Wendling, our bombardier, Lt. Edmund Brown, calmly informed me that he'd forgotten to take his parachute to Gotha: "I didn't tell you, Skipper, because I know you would have turned back immediately. It didn't worry me too much until I saw all those other planes going down around us."