The air war over Europe was a bloody affair for Allied pilots flying bombing missions over occupied Europe and Germany. Large bomber formations were savaged by flak and/or German fighters. Losses were so heavy that any crew that survived 25 missions were sent home. Few did.
Things would soon change, however, as the P-51 Mustang fighter, a superior aircraft design married with the superior British Rolls Royce Merlin engine became the most dominant aircraft in the sky. And the P-51s could fly all the way to Germany with the bombers and return with them. Tactics would change also as American fighters would fly “sweeps” ahead of the bombers hitting Luftwaffe fields to catch the fighters on the ground giving the Mustangs near-complete control of the skies by 1944.
But in late-1943, things were still looking bleak for the bomber crews. On December 20, 1943, the 358th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group out of Molesworth, England flew a combat bombing mission to Bremen. And during that mission, a year before the pivotal Battle of the Bulge, one American airman, Tech Sgt (SFC) Forrest L. Vosler would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Vosler was born on July 29, 1923, and at the time of the mission was just 20 years old. He was born near Lake Ontario and grew up in Rochester, NY where he’d been a Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and Assistant Scoutmaster.
At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was working as a drill press operator in a GM plant. He enlisted in the Army with the hopes of becoming a pilot. But he failed the entry tests and was assigned to the Radio Operator and Mechanics School and the Aerial Gunnery School in Texas. First and foremost, every crew member on a B-17 Flying Fortress was a gunner first. Most of the B-17s carried between 10-12 .50 caliber M2 machine guns to defend the aircraft and the group.
Vosler at 6’3 was deemed too tall to serve in B-17s (6’0 was the maximum) but he bribed the doctor at his physical to allow him to continue. He was promoted to Sergeant at the completion of his training in late May 1943. In October 1943, he was transferred to England where he was assigned to the 358th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group (Hell’s Angels), located at Molesworth, England, about 90 miles north of London.
At approximately 8:30 a.m. on December 20, 1943, Vosler, now a Staff Sergeant took off on his fourth combat mission. His aircraft, on its 28th combat mission, was a B-17F named the “Jersey Bounce Jr.,” and had been delivered to the Army from the Boeing plant in January and delivered to the squadron in England in March of that year. She had already been flown by eight other crews and would have been considered a “Lucky ship.”
The first 19 days of December had seen England blanketed with fog, rain, and winter storms, so many missions were scrubbed, but on the 19th the weather began to clear and the 8th Air Force called for a “maximum effort” bombing mission to Bremen on the 19th. Earlier missions to Bremen that month has seen light flak and fighter attacks. The mission on the 20th was seen as more of the same. That was mistaken.
By 10:40 a.m. the number of circling B-17s and B-24 Liberator bombers had swelled to 500 and they soon crossed the North Sea and were headed for Holland and then the northern coast of Germany. To confuse Luftwaffe fighter directors, bomber formations would not fly straight at their targets. Some bombing groups would fly diversionary sorties while others took circuitous routes intended to mask the true target. Secrecy was so important that bombing groups flying diversionary missions would not even know it until they were recalled on their way to a target.
The first German fighters (about 100 in total) attacked the first bomb groups over Holland shortly after 11 a.m. The running gun battle lasted nearly an hour. Captain Don Gamble, the 303rd Group Leader who was flying in the B-17F Sky Wolf later recalled: “We were doing fine until we started our bomb run. The formation was perfect. As soon as we got over the target, they smashed the hell out of us. That flak was plenty accurate and there was lots of it. Our (fighter) escort tried to keep the (enemy) fighters out, but they sneaked through the contrails where we couldn’t see them.”
Jersey Bounce, Jr. had flown unscathed from the flak from below and the fighters to reach their bomb run. But as soon as bombardier Lieutenant Monkres announced: “Bombs Away,” the big bomber shuddered and began to lose power. There were four bombers that were damaged and were out of the formation. German fighters swarmed and one by one, they decimated them and shot them down until Jersey Bounce Jr. was the last.
A German fighter hit the tail with exploding 20mm shells that wounded one of the crew members (George Buske) who called out on the intercom that he was wounded. Vosler, in an interview later would recall, with the Home of Heroes:
“There was a lot of shrapnel coming through the aircraft. I don’t know where it came from, but to the best of my belief, it was pieces of our aircraft…I was hit in both legs.
“I stood there for a few moments, terribly scared…I could also feel the blood flowing down my legs.
“Several things went through my mind. One of them was that there was no question about my getting the Purple Heart. My next thought was that ‘This is a very serious business I’m in, and I’ve got to do something to protect myself or I’m not going to make it.’ Survival is paramount to anybody in combat, so I immediately sat down in my chair (at the radio desk) to try to avoid being hit again. I figured I’d got an armor-plated chair and it curled up around my back.
“As I sat there contemplating my next move, I thought how silly my actions were because I didn’t know where the next bullets were going to come from. I had to have the chair facing the right direction, or this wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t going to stop any bullets. So, I figured:
“If this is the way it’s going to be, at least I’m going to die standing up. I’ll do the job. I might as well just get up because I’m not going to protect myself with this chair. This is stupid!”
Vosler opened the hatch and added his machine-gun fire to that of the top turret gunner, but there were so many German fighters that it appeared the sky was full of them. However, due to the skill of B-17s gunners, they had already one confirmed kill, and three more probables as the German fighters were getting as good as they were giving.
Vosler cut loose with his .50 caliber and hit two fighters with the same burst.
“My first burst knocked pieces on the left side of his wing off. I was actually after the engine or the pilot. I moved the gun rapidly over to try to get him. I was firing as I turned, and I went right across the stabilizer (of Jersey Bounce) and put a hole in it because this gun had no stops. Our plane seemed to be flying all right, so I didn’t bother Henderson with a little thing like hitting the stabilizer.”
Vosler’s goggles fogged up and as he pushed them on his forehead, another exploding 20mm shell exploded on the breach of the machinegun and wounded him badly in the chest and his face, damaging the retina on his right eye. At first, Vosler panicked thinking he was going to die right there. But he quickly regained his calm, saying he beseeched God to forgive him for “his bad days” while remembering his good ones.
The Jersey Bounce Jr. had been damaged so severely and flying so low to the ground that they were receiving ground fire. The pilot, Lieutenant Henderson knew the B-17 wouldn’t make it back to England on just two engines, but headed out over the North Sea beyond the enemy’s reach.
The crew was throwing everything overboard that wasn’t nailed down to lighten the weight. Vosler, crouched over his radio set, barely able to see, waiting to send an SOS after the aircraft was over the ocean, encouraged his fellow crew members to toss him overboard as well.
Vosler sent an SOS to England and they responded by asking for a holding signal for 20-30 seconds to pinpoint his bearing. They kept sending signals until they were only about 60 miles from the English coastline, where they were met by four British Search and Rescue aircraft. Henderson decided to ditch in the ocean and the British alerted a nearby Norwegian trawler.
After ditching in the frigid water of the English Channel, the stricken aircraft was quickly filling with water. The crew scrambled out on the wings. As the crew placed the severely wounded Buske on the wing, they tried to inflate the life rafts. But the unconscious Buske began to slide off the wing and into the water. And the nearly blind Vosler once again jumped into action.
“I yelled to the pilot, but I could see he wasn’t going to respond fast enough. They had pulled the life raft out and it was floating on top of the wing, and Henderson was busy trying to cut the cord on the life raft so it wouldn’t go down with the airplane. I knew Buske would be in the water in a fraction of a second.
“I jumped and held out my hand at the same time. I grabbed the antenna wire that runs from the top of the tail to just forward of the starboard radio compartment window. I prayed that it would hold, and I was able to grab Buske around his waist just as he was going into the water, sliding off the trailing edge of the wing.”
The trawler picked the crew up and transported them to British PT boats that transported the crew to the hospital. Buske somehow managed to survive multiple surgeries and eventually returned to active duty, finally being discharged in September 1945. He died in 2003.
Vosler spent almost a year in the hospital, eventually regaining his sight partially. On September 6, 1944, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was discharged from the Army Air Corps in October 1944. Having lost one eye and with blurred vision in the other, his skill as a radio operator got him a job as an engineer at radio station WSYR, in the Syracuse, New York, area. He attended the College of Business Administration at Syracuse University and was accepted into the Sigma Chi fraternity.
Blindness in one eye and blurred vision in the other made studying difficult and he withdrew before graduation. He then worked for the Veterans Administration for 30 years. He could still spot a pretty girl okay and married Virginia Slack in 1945, they would have two children together.
Vosler died in Titusville Florida in November 1992 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The 303rd Bomb Group may have flown the most missions of any bomber group in the 8th Air Force in Europe with 364 combat missions against enemy targets. The 303rd would also report 165 aircraft lost in action. There is also a good case to be made that a plane and crew from the 303rd may have beaten the famous Memphis Bell in completing 25 missions by six days.