398th Bomb Group

No Forgetting Christmas Eve Mission

Lou Stoffer
Engineer/Gunner, 600 Squadron

December 24, 1944- mission to Coblenz [Koblenz]. Since our last mission on December 15, we had been sitting on the ground waiting for improving weather. Everyone knew a maximum effort was coming up. The Germans had launched the Battle of Ardennes (Bulge). Things were in turmoil in Belgium and our armed forces needed air support badly. On December 23, along about 1600 hours, word came down that tomorrow’s mission would not go. Sitting around the pot bellied stove in our Nissen hut our crew decided to go to Hitchin for a few hours relaxation.

I had made it a point not to go out before a mission, as I felt it to be an omen of bad luck. But now, the mission had been scrubbed so we went out and had a great time. Francis Harrod, who usually was a loner, came along and in the course of the evening became acquainted with a young lady, and set up a date for the following evening. We had to run to catch the last train at 2200. The station was about a mile from town and we almost missed it. When we got to Royston we got the word that the mission was on. Everyone knew it before we ever got to the base at Nuthampstead.

A few hours later we were ousted form our sacks and sent to briefing – Coblenz. Then the usual getting our gear together…..oxygen mask, parachute, flak suit, flak helmet, Mae West, escape kit and some nourishment to sustain us, generally a candy bar and maybe an orange. Then the wait outside the equipment room for a ten-wheeler truck to come along and take us out to the plane. Free of charge and no tipping allowed.

Our plane was at the edge of the 600th area not far from the engineering tent. We were assigned a war weary B-17 with lots of missions under its belt. On one of these missions the vertical stabilizer had been nearly shot off by a runaway top turret gun. The plane looked unique with light brown vertical fin, patch holes covering various flak holes. It had so many holes in it that the air literally flew thru it. We had flown it several times so it was no mystery to us.

This was our crew’s 18th mission. Don Grinter had five less. The night before I had written home to my mother stating tomorrow I would be over the hill on the downward slope. This was a bad omen, as I had never said anything as to what we were doing before. We were fueled and loaded with 100# Bombs. It was frosty that morning and we had lots of frost on the wings. Grinter asked for deicing fluid, but was told none was available. How about brooms to sweep the stuff off the wings? The same answer, none available. At that moment Grinter, with great foresight, had the engineering officer sign our flight log as the facts were stated.

Since this was a maximum effort mission, we would have to take off even if one wing was missing. About this time the mission was delayed a short time and David Flores decided to go back to the hut and get his dog tags as he had forgotten them. Flores asked me if I needed something from our hut, I told him I could use a towel. On this mission Flores, who was a washed out navigator, was being checked out by Harrod as a navigator. John Conrad, who flew as our navigator on later missions, also was a staff sergeant.

Flores was excited and elated at his chance of becoming a navigator. He and Harrod were getting things organized in the nose, checking this and that. At engine start I handed the crew chiefs each a cigar as was my custom and ritual, even though I didn’t smoke. They lit them up and would give us a good luck wave. The start was smooth and we moved out traveling the south perimeter to the north-south runway. We moved up a spot at a time as each plane took off. As we reached the end of the runway we interlocked one plane west, one plane east, but when the west plane (Sponholtz crew) was to move in position he hesitated, (40 years later James Brockman of the Sponholtz crew confirmed this fact) and we moved out of position filling his position.

One plane after another roared off, at the usual interval. Here we stood with engines roaring, brakes set. In 30 seconds we moved out, thus began Grinter’s 13th mission. Half way down the runway Grinter heard a report of black smoke on the end of the runway. He was later to remark he almost aborted the take off. Another plane had just crashed (Zimmerman). Everything was normal as we hit 120. As we lifted off the plane began a slow roll with the left wing vertical to the ground. At 300 feet altitude, with super human strength, Grinter and Jim White wrestled the control column to the right and brought the plane level. The Fort began to vibrate and shake as the props bit into the air in a violent stall characteristic, losing altitude. Back in the radio room the crewmen immediately assumed the approved ditching position sitting on the floor, interlocking legs back to the front. We dropped into a bank at the end of the runway losing our gear, bounced into the air, pancaking into the Gypsy Farm Oak Forest, plowing into large trees like they were mere match sticks. We were on fire after the first bump.

As we settled to a stop Grinter pulled the main switch cutting the power. I had ducked behind the armor plate of the co-pilot’s seat. When we came to a stop, I looked around Grinter and White seemed OK and I mentioned we ought to get out. For some reason I took the route through the fiery bomb bay back to the radio room. Grinter and White just jumped out forward, as most of the nose was gone. White ended up on the ground with his leg wrapped around his shoulder, it was badly broken. (He spent the next four years in and out of hospitals.) I continued through the bomb bay and into the radio room. Here the others were fighting to open the top escape hatch as the back of the plane was on fire. Also, the ball turret had mashed up and jammed the radio room door so it could not be opened. With unknown strength, Harold Johnson broke out the overhead hatch and out we went one by one until I was last. My shoulder had been separated and I could not use my left arm. Also, some object had hit me on the back of the head causing a lot of pain. I came out of that hatch like a rocket, climbing on smoking radio gear. Even with one arm, I actually think I cleared the hatch but I landed badly on my separated shoulder with my foot caught in a lost wing panel and all the time this wing is on fire. I could not move, when a voice came to me.

“Stoffer, if you are going to move, move now.” I moved. At that moment John Contento and Kenny Kiser came back to assist me. About this time a ground crew man came up and led to an ambulance. Contento and Kiser went to the front of the plane and assisted White and pulled David Flores out of the nose. Harrod was caught in the wreckage and couldn’t be removed. For his effort and for his complete disregard for his safety, Contento received the Soldier’s Medal.

Other ground people arrived and helped in the rescue effort. Probably not more than two minutes had passed between the time of impact and the time of explosion. I was lying in an ambulance maybe 30 seconds when the whole thing went up – nothing but garbage and tinsel a thousand feet straight up. The blackest cloud you ever saw.

It took me about two seconds to get out of that ambulance and run with everyone else to the middle of the airfield. There was a mess of bombs left that could go off with the heat of the fire even though they were not armed. Out in the middle of the field we turned around and looked at the plane. Out of the fire came Grinter…untouched, unscratched, and nonchalant, but of course in shock. On our way to the base hospital the bombs began to explode from the heat of the fire.

While at the hospital we learned Flores and Harrod had died. Jim and I were transferred to the 4205 US Hospital Plant, Walpole Estate across the road from the 91st Bomb Group at Bassingbourn. After a few days Jim went home to the US in a cast, head to toe like a mummy and spent several years recuperating. I spent eight days at the hospital while the rest of the crew went Scotland on flak leave. On Jan 20 the crew resumed flying missions.

The night of the crash the boys went back to the Cock Pub in Hitchin and had the painful duty to tell Harrod’s date that he was gone. She took it extremely hard. Flores was buried at Cambridge Military Cemetery. I have paid my respects to him on three visits to his gravesite. Harrod was returned to the US and is buried in a private cemetery. The crew went on and each man completed his combat tour. We had 30 people who flew with us at various times. We left two other aircraft in questionable shape, one in St. Thrond, Belgium, and one at Woodbridge, England. These sustained considerable combat damage and it is doubtful if they ever flew again.

As a result of the Nuthampstead crash no one ever again took off in the nose in Grinter’s aircraft. This was one rule we stuck with. We came to the base on Oct. 5, 1944 with four crews as replacements. By the time we finished our tour on April 1, 1945 only eight of the 40 crew members of those four crews were left. The rest were either casualties or prisoners of war.

Transcribed from Flak News by Raymond J. Borys, 600 Squadron.

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Printed in Flak News Volume 4, Number 4, Page(s) 6, October 1989

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