Berlin Mission - April 29, 1944

© Copyright Annette Tison 2014 - All rights reserved

BERLIN: 29 APRIL 1944

8AF called for a massive strike against the Friedrichstrasse Railroad Station in Berlin—751 bombers from eight B-17 and four B-24 Combat Wings—arranged into three forces. The 252 Liberators were the third force.

Per the Intelligence Annex, the mission was “a concentrated effort on this target alone with the idea of striking a really damaging blow at these facilities. This target is a key point in the city’s passenger traffic system. The city is ringed and crossed with elevated and underground [lines]. This target is one of the few places where passenger facilities may be considered an important target for air attack. Tremendous dislocation would be caused to employees of war industries by disruption of these facilities. At this point these facilities are most vital, for the main East/West-North/South lines cross.”

Fighter support by sixteen groups from 8th Fighter Command (593 planes), four groups from 9th Fighter Command (183 planes) and two RAF Mustang Squadrons (24 planes) would ensure continuous escort for all units while over enemy territory.

Most of the first force had a fairly routine mission, except for the 385th and 447th BGs. Radar equipment in one of their Pathfinder aircraft failed completely and it only worked sporadically in the other. As a result, they veered to the south on their way to Berlin. Off-course and unescorted, the Wing was hit hard for over 30 minutes in the Brunswick area by an extremely determined and aggressive force of about 125 enemy aircraft.

Except for that Wing, the B-17s had ample fighter protection to the target. The B-24s were not so fortunate. They met 60-80 enemy aircraft northeast of Hanover. These fighters attacked for 10 minutes and then, after reforming, attacked for another 20 minutes as the bombers neared Berlin. They finally broke off after the formation made its final turn to the target. In less than 25 minutes, five B-24s had crashed and many more were damaged.

The B-17s were generally protected on the withdrawal. Again, it was the Libs that suffered. None of the Fighter Groups assigned to protect the B-24s on the return trip located the Libs when scheduled. As a result, nearly 100 enemy fighters found them near Hanover and hit in strength until the P-47s assigned to sweep the withdrawal route arrived in the Dummer Lake area. Sporadic attacks were then made until the bombers reached the Zuider Zee.

On the Continent, 8AF lost 26 B-24s, 38 B-17s, and 14 fighters. Several more crashed in England. The 580 Liberators and Fortresses that made it to Berlin dropped over 1,408 tons of bombs with “fair to good” results.

The 392nd Bomb Group

The 392nd provided 18 ships, with four flying as part of the 44th BG formation per 8AF orders. The bomb load was five 1,000-pound General Purpose and three 100-pound incendiary bombs per plane.

The gunners briefing was at 4am, the officers briefing at 4:30, and the navigators briefing at 5:30. Crews were at their stations at 6:25, started engines at 7:05 and taxied at 7:10. The first plane, #42-52642, Short Round, under the command of 577th lead pilot Capt Robert D. Copp, took off at 7:25. 2AD’s Liberators departed the English coast at 9:23 and almost immediately began falling behind schedule due to an unpredicted wind shift.

When 579th plane #42-100261, Sweet Chariot, was north of Amsterdam, a large oil leak in the #3 engine was spotted. Pilot 2/Lt Dewey L. Gann Jr. turned back, landing at Shipdham. Inspection revealed that an empty shell case, ejected when ships in front of him test-fired their guns, had severed the propeller feathering line. The line was replaced and the crew landed at Wendling at 11:22.

The First Attack

At about 11:04, 50 German fighters in double line abreast attacked the 392nd’s formation while it was north of Hanover. The P-47s could not engage as they were running low on fuel. Most of the P-51s that were supposed to replace the P-47s had mechanical problems and turned back at 11:16 without ever finding the B-24s.

#42-100100, Double Trouble, with 578th pilot 2/Lt Gerald E. Rogers, was already falling back due to engine problems. German fighters scored a direct hit on the nose with a 20mm shell, demolishing the nose turret, killing bombardier 2/Lt Fred J. Kane and sending a line of bullets down the middle of the plane. It caught fire and the bailout bell soon sounded.

Eight survivors were captured almost immediately. The fate of 2/Lt Rogers remained a mystery until 1947, when his remains were found in a forest some distance from the crash site with his parachute still intact.

When the fighters attacked, 576th pilot 2/Lt Leo E. Ofenstein, in #42-110062, was flying just to the left and slightly behind 2/Lt William T. Kamenitsa, also 576th, pilot of #42-100371, Doodle Bug.

Sgt Oliver R. “Bud” Guillot, Kamenitsa’s left waist gunner, recalls, “We had just gone through heavy anti-aircraft fire and I could see heavy flak up ahead of us that was shooting at the first wave of heavy bombers that were over Berlin.

Suddenly, a German fighter’s shells hit the Ofenstein plane. It lifted #062 up, maybe ten to fifteen feet, and blew it forward! Pointed in the nose up position above us, it rolled over, came down and hit our wing. The last time I saw them they were in a steep descent to the left with their left wing much lower than the right.”

Ofenstein’s #1 and #2 engines were gone and a third engine was on fire. Left waist gunner Sgt Hyman J. Hatton was first out the escape hatch between the waist and tail positions, expecting gunners S/Sgt Arthur M. Smith, Sgt Robert W. Rowlett and Sgt Oliver G. Schmelzle to quickly follow. Both Hatton and Smith remember that as Schmelzle was putting on his parachute, it unexpectedly opened up; he was gathering it together when they jumped.

Smith got out just as the plane jerked into a tight spin. In his last glimpse around the plane, he saw Schmelzle and Rowlett stuck to the bulkhead by centrifugal force. Both went down with the plane.

Navigator 2/Lt David J. Purner sat on the edge of the nose wheel hatch and jumped as soon as he heard the bailout bell. Ofenstein had lowered the landing gear as a sign of surrender, so when Purner slid out the hatch he ended up astride the mudguard just above the wheel. Centrifugal force kept him pinned there. At less than 1,000 feet, he was blown free when the ship apparently exploded; he didn’t remember pulling the ripcord but suddenly saw his parachute open above him.

After landing, he buried his chute and then lay in a grain field until right waist gunner S/Sgt Smith joined him. Together, they watched the B-24s fly away. Purner and Smith evaded capture until German civilians found them at 10:15pm on 1 May.

On 29 Apr 2000, Purner told the Johnson City [Tennessee] Press that “Civilians captured me, and that was not a pleasant situation... They had a rope around my neck, and we had resigned to the fact that we were going to be hung.

Two older German men armed with Luger pistols managed to persuade the young hotheads in that mob that we should be held for military interrogation.”

While standing between the pilots, radio operator S/Sgt Roy L. Kennett saw 20-30 fighters attack, starting a fire that quickly spread into the bomb bay—a frightening sight with 5,300 pounds of bombs still on board. Kennett tried to put the fire out but realized it was futile. As he stood on the catwalk, the bomb bay doors opened. Kennett looked toward the flight deck and saw copilot 2/Lt John J. Wall motioning for him to get out.

Kennett went to the flight deck, snapped on his parachute and tugged at engineer S/Sgt Vitold P. Krushas’ feet where they dangled from his top turret. Finally, he recalled, “I gave up and figured [Krushas was] going to ride the ship down. I didn’t know what [he] was doing and I had to bail out. Things were getting pretty risky there.” The pilots were still working furiously at the controls when Kennett went out the bomb bay.

Krushas had climbed down from his turret when he heard Ofenstein yelling over the intercom for the crew to bail out.

He went forward to the flight deck and witnessed the pilots’ Herculean efforts to keep the ship flying. Then, he thought, “Hey…we’re in battle! I’ve left my post!” He was back UP in his turret when Kennett grabbed his legs.

When he descended from his turret for the second time, Krushas saw the top of one wing was on fire. At the flight deck, the gas in the fuel sight gauge was also ablaze and burning gasoline was falling on his parachute pack. He yanked the chute out, snapped it on and, with no other options, dived off the flight deck, slipping neatly between the bottom thousand-pound bombs. He landed in a tree where some parachute cords wrapped around his neck and left him unconscious. His life was saved when an old German climbed up and cut him loose.

Hatton and Krushas were quickly captured and eventually put in a large room with many other American airmen. Krushas vividly remembers German fighter pilots walking through the room asking, “What plane were you in?” as they tried to find someone from the planes they had just shot down.

Ofenstein’s right wing broke off about ten feet of Kamenitsa’s left wing and his entire left aileron. Copilot 2/Lt George E. Graham Jr. immediately salvoed the bombs while Kamenitsa fought to keep the plane under control. Because of the missing wing section, the plane kept circling to the left. To compensate, Kamenitsa put full power to the left engines and reduced power on the right engines. This did not let them fly straight, but it did prevent their going into a full spin.

Guillot recalls, “Kamy came on the intercom and announced he had some control of the airplane but couldn’t get the air speed to maintain flight. ‘I see a field below us and I am going to attempt a landing in it. You can bail out or you can ride it in with me.’ We chose to stay with our pilot and the plane. He made a high speed bumpy landing but during the rollout there was a dirt farm road crossing our path that took out our nose gear and stood our B-24 on its nose. Navigator 2/Lt John J. Caulfield, bombardier 2/Lt Gene A. Miller and radio operator S/Sgt Joseph R. Trivison were killed in the crash landing.”

The survivors were eventually taken to an air raid shelter in Hanover where someone commented that their friends on the Rogers crew were probably already back in England drinking beers in their honor. Then the door opened and the captured members of that crew walked in.

Meanwhile, men in 2/Lt Roland E. Sabourin’s crew saw 2/Lt Robert R. Bishop, aboard #42-110105, pull away from the formation; his “right elevator was shot up badly. No chutes.” Both crews were in the 578th.

Guillot remembers that when the dust settled after his own plane crashed, he saw a huge fire and black smoke near a farm house a few hundred yards away. He was sure it was a bomber from his own Group, perhaps Ofenstein’s.

That plane was actually Bishop’s. German witnesses remember the dogfight between the fighters and the bombers and then the B-24 spiraling down toward the horse pasture below. They confirmed that no one bailed out. About an hour after impact, at least one bomb exploded in the wreckage, destroying most of the plane and sending debris far and wide through the little town.

After the war, the remains of bombardier 2/Lt Thomas Digman and engineer Sgt James T. Blong were identified and buried per their family’s wishes. Names of the other eight men were listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Netherlands American Cemetery.

In 2003, German researcher Enrico Schwartz investigated the crash site and found bone fragments and the name tag from ball turret gunner Sgt John P. Bonnassiolle’s flight jacket. Digging by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in 2005 and 2007 unearthed more bone fragments.

DNA testing eventually identified remains of 2/Lt Bishop, Sgt Bonnassiolle, waist gunner Sgt Michael A. Chiodo and tail gunner S/Sgt Ralph L. McDonald. In 2010, they were buried with full military honors in their home towns.

On 26 Oct 2011, the other remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Identified remains of navigator 2/Lt Donald W. Hess and radio operator S/Sgt Joseph J. Karaso were buried in individual caskets. Per his family’s wishes, the identified remains of copilot 2/Lt Arthur W. Luce were buried in a third casket with all other remains that could not be individually identified.

Nearing Berlin

As they left Hanover, the bomber formation was widely scattered. Several Groups approached Berlin simultaneously from different headings, causing more disorder.

When 577th deputy lead 1/Lt Floyd Slipp was about 75 miles from Berlin, #42-7495, Axis Grinder, was hit by flak and he had to feather the #3 engine. Fifteen Me-109s came from above and the east, forcing the gunners to look directly into the sun as they fired. The Lib was hit by five 20mm shells, seriously wounding navigator 1/Lt Robert J. Beatson and left waist gunner S/Sgt Walter J. Kolczynski.

Ball turret gunner S/Sgt James M. Buzick later recalled, “One of the explosive shells had hit the ammo can of my ball turret and the ammo started to explode. The explosion was so strong it broke the inch thick Plexiglas on the ball turret that I used to sight through. I’m not sure what happened next but I found myself out of the turret and in the waist area ... trying to help the wounded waist gunner, and putting on my parachute. We later found the butt end of a 20mm shell lodged in my left machine gun, which was situated only inches from me when I was in the turret. I did not have a scratch…

“I tried to get [Kolczynski] to lie down so that I could take over his guns. Blood was running down his legs from a wound… He refused, saying, ‘No damn German is going to shoot me and get away with it!’ He stayed at his gun the whole way back.”

Slipp salvoed his bombs and left the formation. Soon after, two Me-109s spotted them and attacked. Slipp dived for the cloud cover below, staying in the clouds for miles. They flew so low across Holland that two crewmen remember that German soldiers in a windmill shot at them with rifles.

Axis Grinder crossed the English Channel just above the water and actually had to gain altitude to get over the English cliffs. The Slipp crew landed at Wendling at 1:16pm. 2/Lt John W. Reed IV, 577th, was flying on Slipp’s left in #42-7546, Alfred II. His plane was also badly damaged during that attack—the hydraulic system was knocked out, gas tanks punctured, controls shot out, #2 engine shot out, #4 engine bad, right rudder shot off, and there were hits in the bomb bay, cockpit, and radio compartment as well. Reed made a sharp turn out of the formation and jettisoned his bombs. A crew check revealed everyone was okay.

The pilot got the plane back to England, realized he couldn’t land the plane safely and ordered the crew to jump. At about 1:20, eight bailed out and landed near Beccles, Suffolk; another jumped out moments later and landed near Ingham, Norfolk. Reed then set the automatic pilot and bailed out. The plane flew on for several miles before it finally crashed and burned near Walcott, Norfolk, at 1:29. The only casualty was 2/Lt Reed; it was believed he hit the plane while exiting and was unable to open his parachute.

Berlin

Copp approached Berlin with just four planes; the rest had merged with the 44th.

Because the winds were both stronger and more northerly than predicted, the bombers were considerably behind the established time schedule. As a result, the B-24s had no fighter escort from just west of Berlin on the way in, through the target area and for more than 200 miles on the withdrawal. German fighters harassed the B-24s all the way to the coast. Attacks were particularly strong in the Dummer Lake area and the German focus on stragglers caused two more 392nd BG losses.

2/Lt Bert W. Wyatt, 579, was flying #42-7510, El Lobo. It crashed at 1:45 in a forest near the small town of Dinklage, Germany, about 230 miles due west of Berlin with all ten men killed. Several residents remember hearing the sounds of a gun battle but could see nothing because of the clouds. Another saw El Lobo in the air just before it impacted; neither right engine was working and thick black smoke was coming from the forward part of the fuselage.

577th pilot 2/Lt Fred Shere, aboard #41-28759, crashed about 15 minutes after Wyatt and just 15 miles west. They were hit by flak just after bombs away. Shere feathered one engine but could still keep up with the other planes. A short time later, German fighters came through the formation, knocking out two planes above Shere’s and causing another engine to windmill. No longer able to stay with the formation, he headed toward England alone, steadily losing altitude.

Sgt Joe B. Maloy’s ball turret had been raised; as soon as he climbed out, he took over the right waist gun of wounded Sgt Thomas L. Hampton. Maloy recalled the last attack was by three fighter planes: The crew shot one down, another abandoned the assault and the third, which caused the fatal damage, attacked from below and to the left.

In his story, Mooning Frankfurt, navigator 2/Lt Patrick J. Ryan says the nose turret was out and the intercom was silent. He knew the flight deck had taken a lot of damage and wasn’t sure if the pilots were even flying the airplane. Then the bailout bell sounded and Ryan went out the nose wheel hatch. As he hid his parachute in a bush, Maloy came “hot-footing across the field… There were a lot of people chasing him and by the time he got to me, he was gasping and wheezing, blood was streaming down his face, and I thought he must be seriously wounded. In the minute or so it took to convince me that his wounds were slight, the German people were on us…

“We were surrounded by people from a nearby village. A young boy was acting as interpreter. The first question he asked was, ‘Do you want to go to Berlin?’ We said, ‘Hell, no, we just came from there.’ That probably was not a good thing to say because they immediately shook a few pitch forks at us.’ The two men were taken to the village jail where they found three of their gunners.

Engineer S/Sgt Orlando Friesen had a tough time escaping the plane. When the hydraulics went out, his top turret was stuck in an awkward position. He tossed his parachute down (he had been sitting on it) and squeezed out of the turret as quickly as he could. A glimpse onto the flight deck revealed copilot F/O Milan R. Zeman and radio operator Sgt Fonzy M. Wilson Jr. were already dead and the pilot was dying. Friesen then sounded the bailout bell. After putting on his parachute—a difficult job since the plane was in a steep dive—he jumped. The B-24 was quite low and he hit the ground hard. He didn’t really become coherent until he was in Stalag 17B.

Tail gunner Sgt Marvin O. Morris spent about two months in a German hospital and later told Maloy that the downed German pilot came to visit him there. He’d been hit during their gun battle and the two men compared war wounds.

Back to Wendling

At some point, 579th pilot 2/Lt Bernard Fryman’s plane, #41-29427, Ready Willing and Able, was severely damaged. Fryman nursed it back to Wendling and began a landingpattern circuit over the field. At 3:22pm, the plane suddenly exploded and then crashed two miles south of the base, killing the entire crew.

Next to return was 576th pilot 1/Lt George E. Jones in #42-110097. Bombardier 2/Lt Harry E. Thomas recalled that about 11am, he saw a dozen enemy aircraft attack a B-17 formation two miles away. When the friendly fighters went out to engage, 40 German fighters came in from above. About 10 or 12 seemed to target Jones’ ship. Thomas, in the nose turret, fired at an FW-190 until it caught fire and exploded about 150 yards off the left wing. S/Sgt Henry E. Marvin then destroyed another FW-190 from the right waist.

Jones released his bombs on Berlin while under attack by 50 enemy fighters. During the melee, a bullet cut through his oxygen line and he had to use portable oxygen bottles for the rest of the mission. Another bullet came through the left side of the nose turret between Thomas’s neck and shoulder, passed by navigator 2/Lt Jack C. Morris’s head and hit copilot 2/Lt Richard R. Sandoz in the right ankle, nearly severing his leg.

Radio operator T/Sgt Ralph E. McAdams pulled Sandoz onto the flight deck. He cut away the bloody flying suit and applied a tourniquet to the mangled leg. McAdams sprinkled sulfa powder, the only antibiotic available, onto the wound and tended to Sandoz the rest of the trip.

Jones was attacked again by four enemy aircraft that swooped down from 11 o’clock high. S/Sgt William C. Surber, who had moved from the ball turret to the left waist gun, shot the right wing off an Me-109 as tail gunner S/Sgt Vincent H. Rossi fired at four more Me-109s.

As they neared the Zuider Zee, Thomas said seven Me-109s began “playing around and picking on stragglers. We were all nearly out of oxygen at this time and were really sweating out the coast and leaving so we could drop down below the formation. I was worried about George giving out of oxygen, as there was no one to keep an eye on him. We finally saw the clouds break and the beautiful Channel.”

When they got back to Wendling, Thomas fired three red flares, signifying injured on board, and they landed without flying the traffic pattern. They pulled off the runway into a revetment as soon as they slowed down and Sandoz was quickly taken away by ambulance. The doctor later told Jones that Sandoz would have died if it had taken even 15 minutes longer to get him medical attention.

The Jones crew was later credited with destroying three enemy fighters, the most of any 392nd crew that day.

576th pilot 2/Lt Donald D. Prell landed #41-29433 one minute after Jones. Bombardier 2/Lt Hervey E. Stetson and engineer T/Sgt Donald G. Backus drove three Me-109s away as they turned toward Berlin; they experienced intermittent attacks from Berlin all the way to the Dutch coast. Five planes then touched down within four minutes. At interrogation, Capt Copp’s men reported seeing five B-24s go down but only 10 parachutes.

2/Lt Walter S. Brunn’s crew, 579th, had flown 12 missions with the 15th AF in Italy before being transferred to the 392nd in mid-March 1944. They enjoyed living in Nissen huts rather than tents, as they had in Italy! While returning from Berlin aboard #41-29448, Carol Ann, enemy fighters put a hole in the #3 gas tank. As engineer T/Sgt Thomas R. Hassett hurriedly transferred the remaining gas to another tank, copilot F/O Henry L. Reinbold prayed that they wouldn’t get hit again while all that fuel was pouring out. Their luck held.

579th pilot 2/Lt Charles L. Bell , flying #42-7472, Bull Bat, reported smoke rising up to 18,000 feet from Berlin. 2/Lt Roland E. Sabourin recalled, “The German fighters had a field day with our formations. The timing for our fighter cover replacements was off perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. Evidently, the German ground radar picked up this delay and directed their fighters, so enabling them to strafe the formation, and they literally did strafe them. You could see them up ahead. They looked like little birds, swallows. The next thing you knew they were coming through the formation firing at you.” His crew, 578th, flew in #42-110028.

578th copilot 2/Lt James A. Green, on 2/Lt George L. Bridson’s crew, recalls that after getting out of Berlin “there were many single ships trying to re-gather into a semblance of protective formation. This was not as easy as it would seem because if your aircraft couldn’t be positively identified the formation just wouldn’t let you join up… On the long flight back we finally did manage to get close enough to another formation for some protection, but not near as much as we would have liked. After crossing the English Channel we made our way back to our home base alone and didn’t find out until the next day who in our Group didn’t make it.”

#41-29131, Flying Patch, with 576th pilot 1/Lt Edward F. Wittel, was the last plane to land, at 3:44pm. Right waist gunner Sgt Bert Prost remembers watching Ofenstein’s plane hurtle over Flying Patch and hit the ship on his other side.

According to radio operator T/Sgt Cletus M. Jeffcoat, this mission “was the longest time over enemy territory. We had a big headwind and it took us a long time to get out. We made it back to the field and couldn’t get the wheels down.

After a while we got them down, but not locked. We began to think we were going to have to bail out. We finally got them locked and came in on three engines. We were all in the back for crash landing. We thought we had no brakes, but our auxiliary system worked. Everyone was sweating us in, had lots of other crews to come out to our plane. Really drew a crowd. No one hurt, thank God.”

Fortunes of War

Of the 181 men who departed Wendling on 29 Apr 1944, 71 did not return. Four of their 18 planes were survivors of the Friedrichshafen mission. Three of them—El Lobo, Double Trouble, and Doodle Bug—were shot down. There was no photo coverage of the 392nd’s lead section, but those flying with the 44th BG hit 7½ miles southwest of the primary target.

Much of this article comes from research by Greg Hatton, whose father Hyman was a survivor from the Ofenstein crew, and Annette Tison, whose uncle 2/Lt Douglas N. Franke was killed with the Wyatt crew.