Merseburg...Dreaded Merseburg

This Target Would Prove Costly To The 398th

By Allen Ostrom

When Eighth Air Force veterans gather to talk about Nazi Germany’s great cities and their military targets of World War II the conversation usually starts with such well-known names as Berlin, Schweinfurt, Cologne, Munich or Regensberg.

The “MPI” for the bombardiers were initials for ball bearing plants, munitions factories, aircraft assembly plants, bridges or other targets as seen through their Norden bomb sights.

These “Main Point of Impact” targets were bombed as often as the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command at High Wycombe deemed necessary. And at a predicted cost in men and aircraft they held to be “acceptable.”

Thus, most combat airmen did not look kindly at seeing the long, colored yarn on the briefing room wall stretching from England, across the Channel, and zig-zagging across Germany to the likes of Berlin and Schweinfurt.

The air war over Germany, begun long before the first American GI was to set foot on Normandy, was to cost over 50,000 men. Some of these were trained at Rapid City, SD by the original echelons of the 398th Bomb Group during 1943-1944.

During the coming year of 1944-1945 the 398th would show 760 casualties as killed in action, wounded, prisoners, escapees, liberated or rescued at sea.

And there would be 153 B-17’s either shot down, abandoned on the continent or damaged so badly they would never fly again.

The 398th, while being the last of the B-17 groups to join the Eighth Air Force due to its crew training assignment at home, quickly found its share of dread at the mention of certain targets. And the sight of a long yarn.

But it would be a much smaller and lesser known city in eastern Germany that would bring on the deepest “groans” from the men of the 398th when the “target for today” was presented at briefing.

There was something special and ominous in the name “Merseburg.”

Dreaded Merseburg.

It would take its toll in men and machines. Even more than Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Kassel, Ludwigshaven. Or any of the others.

Merseburg, with its Leuna refinery, was an oil target. And ultimately, it was this denial of refined petroleum products that would be so instrumental in ending Hitler’s pursuit of world domination.

The 398th went to Merseburg eight times. Six times there were empty spaces at the hardstands when the group came home.

A ring of 400 anti-aircraft guns, twice the number protecting Berlin, had been brought into the Merseburg refinery corridor in a desperate attempt to protect Germany’s dwindling petroleum supply.

It was on November 21, 1944 that the 398th, especially the 603rd Squadron, would feel the full impact of this ring of protection. This was the day the German radio would beam the news toward England that Goering’s elite FW-190 fighter group, known to American airmen as the “Abbeville Gang,” had destroyed an entire squadron of B-17’s from the 398th Bomb Group!

“We got them all,” was the boast, reminding his listeners that the planes shot down carried a Triangle W on their tail.

The famed Luftwaffe fighters with the yellow spinners – plus four 20mm cannons – had found a lone, scattered, separated 603rd groping in the 9/10th weather. The Abbeville boys claimed the entire squadron. It wasn’t quite true, but almost.

“Where are the rest?” asked Col. Frank P. Hunter, 398th commanding officer, as he approached Lt. Warren Johnson, leader of the three-ship “squadron” as they returned to Station 131 more than eight hours after taking off that morning.

“There are no ‘rest’,” answered Johnson, as he identified his two wingmen, Lt. Ernie Spitzer and Lt. Harold Spangler.

At that point, completely spent after their long ordeal and narrow escape from fighters and flak, the trio was certain they were the only survivors of the day’s mission to Merseburg.

Col. Hunter himself, along with Chaplain James Duvall, had stood at the end of the runway early that morning and waved to each crew as the group’s 37 Fortresses took to the air starting at 7:51 a.m.

First off was Maj. Robert Templeman, 602 operations officer. He would be mission commander, with Capt. E.D. Scott in the pilot’s seat. Next came the 601st, led by Command of Aircraft Capt. Merwin Genung and aircraft commander Robert Brown.

Lt. Ken Hastings, who was soon to receive his captain’s bars, was the 603rd leader with pilot Ken Buzza. Others in the 603rd squadron that day were Lieutenants Joe Tarr, Staver Hyndman, Paul Rich, Robert Lehner, Fred Wismer, John Smith, John Aniello, Charles Howell and John Stevens. Plus Johnson, Spitzer and Spangler.

One of the pilots in Major Templeman’s 602 formations was Lt. M.E. Boswell, who would retire from the Air Force as Lt. Gen. Bosewell, deputy vice chief of staff.

Another pilot in the same squadron was Lt. Bill Comstock, who would retire as Colonel Comstock and later President Comstock of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association.

Howell was the last to take off (8:50 a.m.) due to engine problems. He did not slip into his position in the lead element until well over the North Sea.

For all three ships in the lead, plus one each from the low and slot elements, the mission would end at 12:15 p.m. One had to abort before reaching the IP when caught by a lucky flak burst, and two sustained enough flak damage to be forced into crash landings in France and Belgium.

It was in the area of Osnabruk that hints of things to come began to appear. First off, the leader’s VHF radio went out, limiting his contact with the wing and division leaders. Weather also was becoming a factor, as the heavy clouds and contrails at the prescribed bombing altitude of 25,000 feet were making formation flying difficult and hazardous.

And the German anti-aircraft had made a lucky, albeit critical, hit on the B-17 flown by Aniello. He was on his first mission. J. Gordon Blythe, who was Buzza’s regular co-pilot, was in the right seat with Aniello when flak caught one engine. Blythe was able to feather properly, but when they discovered that half of their oxygen also had been taken out by the flak burst, they decided to drop from the formation and return home.

It was now obvious that the weather was becoming “impossible.”

Hastings and Buzza, in the 603 high squadron lead, had trouble keeping Templeman’s lead squadron in sight. Templemen ordered the group to “keep climbing” in hopes that they would break into clearer skies.

The 603rd broke out at 29,500 feet… all alone. The 601st and 602nd were nowhere to be seen. And to add even further complications to the critical situation, Hasting had lost radio contact with the group. Then more electrical problems.

Radar navigator Irv Laufer, a decorated veteran from the Italian campaign, reported that his radar had been blowing fuses. He had only one left and he was saving this for the run from the IP to the target.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the 398th, the other groups in the wing had dropped to a lower altitude to find clearer flying weather.

And now another from the 603rd was missing. Smith, with an ailing engine, couldn’t keep up in the push for more altitude and had drifted out of sight. Luckily, he caught on with another group on the Merseburg run and tagged along as a grateful straggler.

Now nearing the IP at Nordhausen, still alone and with 11 still in a reasonable formation, the 603rd pressed on toward Merseberg. Now well within the ring of 400 guns, the sky began taking on an eerie, dark form as the 88’s exploded in mass profusion.

“We could hear the flak burst and smell the gun powder,” said one flyer. “Spent flak rained down on the planes like hail on a tin barn.”

Stevens was the next victim of the flak barrage. No. 1 engine was hit, which feathered out nicely. But when No. 2 went out and could not be feathered, the Fort began disappearing in the clouds below. This descent continued for three hours as Stevens and co-pilot Iz Rovinsky fought to keep their aircraft in the air while heading for friendly territory.

“We dropped the ball turret and every possible loose nut and bolt in hopes of saving her,” said Stevens. “But finally, we had to belly in some 30 miles southeast of Paris.”

Stevens recalled that “we flew those final hours at 110 mph indicated, with No. 3 and 4 engines at 52 inches HG and 2600 RPM.”

Engineer Bud Neidringhous did his part in keeping his craft in the air by releasing all the bombs by prying them loose from the shackles with a gun barrel. Niedringhous was killed in a crash of a C-47 at Chanute Field in 1947.

By now, Laufer had blown his last radar fuse and there was no hope of successfully bombing either visually or via PFF. Hastings, aware that the other squadrons might be beneath him in the clouds, asked navigator Oral Burch for a heading to a secondary target.

On the way to Erfurt, south of Merseberg, bombardier Chuck Wilbur discovered that his bomb bay doors were frozen shut, which he opened the hard way – manually. He scurried back to the nose and toggled the bombs. At least most of them. Three 500 pounders had hung up on the right side.

Wilbur again headed for the bomb bay. Straddling the cat walk, all the time considering a drop of almost 30,000 feet without a parachute, Wilbur released the inside bomb by hand, but needed a screw driver to pry loose the other two. One smacked him on the leg as it dropped.

Seeing the lead bombs go, the other bombardiers in the squadron followed suit.

If the 603rd was having problems, it was also nightmare time for Captain Genung and the 601st. By IP time, only seven were target bound, albeit hopelessly scattered. Five already had aborted for a variety of reasons, and the remaining took the “target of opportunity” route. They made their way home as best they could, with three making it only as far as Belguim and emergency landings.

Major Templeman’s lead 602nd pressed on to the target and made its drop on Leuna at 11:30am.

The drama of the day was still to come, however.

Charley Stankiewicz, engineer on the Johnson crew, was in the standard hand crank position with the bomb bay doors frozen open. He would soon be introduced to the business end of a 20mm cannon shell.

Tarr, monitoring the crew intercom, couldn’t get an oxygen response from either his waist or tail, so he dispatched ball turret gunner Harold Clyne for a look-see. Clyne helped Allison Dougherty switch his mask to the other side of the waist supply and then scurried to the tail where he found Bill Fleming “motionless and blue.” Ice had clogged the tail gunner’s mask, shutting off his life-sustaining supply.

The tail gunner soon “came to” and Clyne returned to the ball, where he would soon be looking at more trouble.

Pilot Tarr, realizing half of his oxygen supply was gone, brought extra walk-around bottles to the waist, just in case.

Fighter activity had been reported off and on for 30 minutes, first at 8 o’clock low and now at 2 o’clock high. The sky, murky as it was was filled with criss-cross vapor trails, the unique signature of high altitude combat.

It was indeed aerial combat! A squadron of German FW-190’s was having a head-to-head encounter with a squadron of P-51 Mustangs.

As to whether the FW’s had been stalking the Fortresses until flak activity had subsided, or whether they had stumbled into the formation as they scrammed out of their dog-fight with the P-51’s remains a matter of conjection. That the 190’s left their mark on the 603rd is a matter of record.

Two waves of five or six fighters each slammed into the formation, the fighter-bomber wings almost overlapping in the split second exchanges. Many of those who survived recalled seeing the iron crosses on the FW cockpits and even the faces of the Luftwaffe pilots.

All three planes in the lead element were hit by cannon fire. Buzza, his ship falling off to the right with one engine afire and Hasting fatally wounded beside him, ordered his crew to jump.

Hastings was found in the plane where it crashed near Eisenbach. The Germans buried him in the cemetery at Mossbach. The other crewmen were captured, sent to PW camps and ultimately returned to the U.S. These included Buzza, Wilbur, Burch, Laufer, George Spraggins, John McMenamin, Jack Madlung, David Morgan and Eugene Minchoff.

McMenamin and Morgan effected escapes from one of the marches between camps and found their way to Brussels and freedom.

The deputy lead, piloted by Lehner, received 20mm cannon hits in their right wing, sending their craft into a tight spin… and ultimate explosion. Lehner, killed in the cockpit, was the only crew member found in the wreckage near Erfurt. All the others were blown free. Some to safety. Others to their deaths.

Parachuting to safety were Ozie French, Kenneth Bachman, Rex Kellog, William Elliott and James Esterbrooks. Bachman, from his position in the ball turret, saw that a wing was ablaze and came into the waist and put on his chute. He was immediately pinned against the wall by the centrifugal force and soon blacked out from lack of oxygen. When he “awoke” he was tumbling in space, recovering just in time to pull his chute rip cord.

Killed as they fell without chutes, or possibly victims of angry civilians, were Virgil Register, Stanley de Layfayette and Henry Ference. German medical records reveal only two words, “found dead.” All were buried at Zimmernspura.

Howell, the third member of the lead element, also went into a violent spin with his left wing on fire. Only his radio operator, John Balling, and two waist gunners, Jose Echevarria and William Landrie, managed to survive. Bahling suffered a fractured skull as he landed and Landrie a broken ankle.

Howell, William Bryan, John Leyen, Robert Gaynor, Ralph Glancy and Brooks Atchison were all summarily listed as “found dead” and buried at Truegleben.

Landrie and Echevarria, tossed about the waist as the ship overturned, witnessed the ball turret come tumbling into the waist. Atchison popped out of the ball, put on his chute as the plane leveled off momentarily and led the others out the waist door.

Landrie, being marched to the Erfurt Air Base jail, saw someone hanging from a tree at one of the intersections. A single parachute cord around his neck and a group of people standing around.

“To this day, I believe it was Brooks Atchison,” said Landrie.

That Mersberg was a dreaded target had been quietly transmitted that morning to Bob Welty, co-pilot for Tarr. Welty met lead navigator Gaynor coming out of early briefing.

“I recall distinctly that his face seemed flushed,” said Welty. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“You’ve been there before,” he said.

Welty didn’t have to ask again. He knew it was Merseburg.

Dreaded Merseburg.

The second wave of Focke-Wulfs took out three engines on Wismer’s B-17. Just one pass and it was all over. With no chance of remaining airbourne all nine crewmen bailed out. All parachuted to safety and PW camp. Except one.

Waist gunner Marvin Clark was never seen again until his body was recovered from a common grave in Erfurt in 1948. Others on the Wismer crew included Eugene Reaves, Dave Levy, John Butler, Ahealeas Pares, Eldon Severson, Sam Luizzi and Herman Hager.

It was Hager, many years later, who would lead the way in developing the magnificent memorial at Nuthampsted which stands in memory of his buddy, Clark, and the many other 398th men who perished in the conflict.

Another B-17 caught in the second wave of the FW assault was piloted by frail-looking Paul Rich. Although small and very “youngish” looking, Rich had the reputation of being a gifted B-17 pilot.

Trailing in the slot element, Rich took a hit in his No. 2 engine and another in oxygen storage, igniting a major fire in the cockpit and the gangway. Veering sharply to the right and quickly exploding, only Robert Rasmussen and Earl Kearney escaped the fiery death plunge. Each man was blown free and each was fortunate enough to have had his chute partially hooked at the time of blow-out.

Buried at Pferdingsleben were Rich, Don McCorkindale, Robert Stuart, Clib Johnson, James Ault, Walter Miller and Milton Passmore.

Another 190 caught Hyndman’s plane, wounding navigator Ken Carlson and knocking out two engines and the hydraulic system. Despite these afflictions, Hyndman nursed his Fort as far as Bruges, Belgium where he made an emergency landing at an RAF fighter base.

The Air Force took notice of Hyndman’s action and awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1948.

Another of the second wave 190’s bore in on high element leader Johnson and planted a 20mm shell in the leading edge of the open bomb bay door, with engineer Stankiewicz in the hand-crank position. The shell splashed in the empty bomb bay, narrowly missing the engineer and radio operator Mario Procopio, but severing wires only inches away.

Co-pilot Lucy, who was flying, had just pulled up at seeing the plight of one of the lead element ships. This maneuver saved the Johnson ship from taking cannon shells in the nose or cockpit. While one hit the bomb bay door, others passed harmlessly beneath the fort.

The fighter passed within inches of Johnson’s left wing, then flashed down toward Tarr, trailing in the slot element with Rich and Spangler. Welty said he counted four 20mm tracers as they whizzed over his windshield.

“This guy passed over us so close I thought for sure he was going to ‘kamikazi’ us,” said the co-pilot. Also on Welty’s mind during the attack was the out-of-control Rich aircraft, which was beginning to fall into his own flight path. Welty kicked the rudders for just enough slip to avoid a collision.

Tarr, making his way from the waist to the cockpit after delivering walkaround oxygen bottles to his waist gunner, almost wound up in the bomb bay as a result of Welty’s plane saving maneuver.

With one engine feathered due to flak, his oxygen supply half depleted, and planes dropping from formation all around, Tarr scrambled back into the cockpit and immediately dove for the cloud cover below. With astute navigation from Walter Small, the crew returned along to Nuthampsted only 15 minutes after the “squadron” landed at 4:45 p.m.

After the second attack by the Focke-Wulfs, only Johnson, Spangler and Spitzer were still in their assigned positions in the dismembered squadron. “Form on me,” radioed Johnson, as he headed for cloud cover to escape the tormented scene.

If the FW’s returned (or were happy to effect their escape from the P-51’s) they found nothing.

“Give me a heading,” came the order from Johnson to his 20-year old navigator, Ike Thacker. And the trio struck out for home.

Larry Paul, co-pilot for Spitzer, flying one of the 603rd venerable Fortresses – 469Q – characterized the general condition of the three returnees with this description of old Queenie –

“We couldn’t even taxi her off the runway. Both tires were punctured and we quit counting the flak holes when we got to 250.”

For his part in leading the “little flight” back home to Nuthampsted as a squadron of three, the Air Medal was presented to Warren Johnson. That award came 41 years later, 1985.

Flak, fighters, courage, luck, fires, drama, gallantry, bail outs, sacrifice, weather, airmanship, death…

They all happened to the 398th this day.


See also:

  1. 398th Mission 21 November 1944 to Merseburg, Germany
  2. Recollections of the Mission to Merseburg 21 November 1944 by Bob Welty, Co-Pilot
  3. Merseburg Raid of 21 Nov 1944 and JG 301 by Eric Brown
  4. Crew Photos for some of the Crews mentioned above:
    1. Aniello's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 28 Jan 1945
    2. Buzza's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 9 September 1944
    3. Hyndman's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 9 October 1944
    4. Spangler's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 28 October 1944
    5. Spitzer's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 2 November 1944
    6. Tarr's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 9 August 1944


Originally printed in 398th Bomb Group Remembrances by Allen Ostrom, pages 9-12, published 1989.


Transcribed November 2007 by Scott Welty, son of Bob Welty, 398th Co-pilot 603rd Squadron. Lt Bob Welty flew on 21 November 1944 on the Lt. Joe Tarr crew and is mentioned in the above article.