Another day, another daylight mission to Germany for the USAAF bombers based in England. This time the target was the Leuna oil refinery at Merseburg, Germany, part of the programme to strangle the fuel supplies of the Wehrmacht. Although escorting fighters had dramatically reduced the losses amongst the bombers by this time, it was rare that missions were completed without casualties.
A/C #007 was observed to have one engine smoking as it went over the target. It dropped back and took over the lead of the second element of the low squadron and gradually lagged further and further behind. Friendly fighters were all around and when last seen the A/C was under control and appeared to be in good condition.
This A/C later was seen over Wesermunde by a flight of P-38s from Station 337, 479th Fighter Group. A jet-propelled E/A was attacking and was driven off by the P-38’s. The B-17 was escorted until it reached the Frisian Islands where the P-38’s were forced to return to England because of a shortage of gasoline. When last seen all engines were operating and the A/C was headed for home at 10,000 feet.
The Nazis were losing the battle over Germany but they pinned their hopes on technical advances. The ‘vengeance’ weapons, which Hitler had boasted about, which so many Nazis continued to believe would miraculously transform the war, were starting to appear. As well as new Jet fighters was a unique aircraft.
The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to become operational, capable of up to 700 mph. Allied intelligence was aware that they had begun flying on the 28th July, and Allied fighters were on the lookout for them. Operationally the speed of the Me 163 proved not to be a great advantage in combat with conventional fighters.
The limping B-17 survived the encounter with the Me 163 but was still stricken. The full story comes from Lt Robert Fulkerson who was Navigator on B-17 Bomber ‘She-Hasta’, flying with the 351st Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group from England:
July 29, 1944, the 100th Bomb Group target for the day was the Leuna oil refinery at Merseburg, Germany. This mission was the second day in row that the 100th bombed Merseburg. As a navigator with the 351st Squadron, 100th Bomb Group, this was my fourth mission having recently been assigned to the 100th on July 17, 1944. Our Crew was flying the B-17 “She-Hasta”. Bill Greiner was flying as a replacement pilot on his “last” mission and Jim Coccia, our regular pilot, was flying as co-pilot.
Once in Germany and arriving at the IP, we flew to the target at the altitude of 26, 000 feet. As we approached the target, we encountered a very dense, black carpet of flak. The flak was so thick one would think that one could walk on it! We lost one engine as we dropped our bombs and encountered other damage forcing us to leave the formation. The entire low squadron of the 100th A-group failed to return home along with two of the B-group of which we were one, accounting for eight B-17’s lost.
Flak had knocked out the oxygen in the nose of the aircraft forcing the bombardier and me to retreat to the radio room. I had given the one walk around bottle of oxygen to the bombardier and told him to go on to the radio room and that I would follow him. Upon entering the entrance to the bomb bay my parachute harness caught on to something and became entangled. Still being at altitude and without oxygen, I soon passed out. Fortunately for me, John Vuchetich, our flight engineer, who was in the top turret saw me and plugged in my oxygen mask. Upon recovering, I noticed that the bomb bay doors had not completely closed and upon passing out I had dropped most of my navigational aids out the bomb bay doors.
With a map or two I proceeded to the radio room. By this time we had lost a lot of altitude and while limping along, encountered more flak at about 10, 000 feet. Another engine was lost and Bernie Baumgarten, one of our waist gunners, was severely wounded in his abdominal area and upper left leg. Shortly after this, near Weserbunds, Germany, a squadron of P-38’s appeared on the scene. Apparently they had spotted a Me 163 KOMET rocket fighter on our tail. The German pilot, on seeing the squadron leaders P-38, turned in his direction until he saw the squadron leaders wingman and decided to turn away. The P-38’s pursued the Me 163 and the squadron leader made direct hits and the Me 163 went down.
We continued on our way still losing altitude and soon spotted water and decided to ditch our aircraft. Hopefully it was the English Channel but it turned out we were farther north and the water was the North Sea. We ditched the B-17 around noon, July 29, 1944. After surviving the ditching, John Vuchetich our flight engineer and I were the last two of the crew to leave the aircraft. We had remained in the radio room in hopes of saving the wounded gunner. Since the nose hatch had been opened earlier and the ball turret repositioned for ditching water was rushing in fast and furiously.
I soon realized the situation was hopeless and told John to exit the top hatch. As I climbed out the top hatch, Bernie, half covered with water, called out my name. What a feeling! From the top hatch I could see that the B-17 was at about a forty-five degree angle to the sea and the wings were half covered with water. As I dove into the sea and started swimming towards the two dinghies, something touched my feet. Looking back I saw it had been the tip of the B-17’s rudder that had touched my feet and the aircraft disappeared from sight. Eight of us survived the ditching and Bernie went down with the B-17.
We spent four days at sea. On the second day, a sailing vessel appeared on the horizon and seemingly heading in our direction. As it became closer, we fired flares and pistols into the air in hopes of attraction their attention. The ship became close enough that we could see a flag painted on the hull and took it to be Danish. What seemed like eternity, the ship proceeded on its way, choosing to ignore us and left us floundering in our frustrations.
The two dinghies had been tied together to prevent our being separated. During the second night, I was awakened by the angry sea and found our dinghies starting to break apart. At about the same time, John, who was in the second dinghy, awakened. He and I sat the rest of the night with our arms interlocked together. Finally daylight arrived. We had won our battle. That night has to be one of the worst nights in my life.
During the four days at sea we could hear aircraft flying over but the overcast prevented us from seeing them and in turn preventing them from seeing us. Late afternoon on the fourth day at sea, land was sighted. Separating the two dinghies, we raced, paddling to shore, firing flares into the air only to be met by German soldiers who took us prisoners. We were told, “For you the war is over!” Actually it was only the beginning. We had landed on Ameland, one of the Frisian Islands north of Holland.
We had no food while at sea and when the Germans finally gave us some food the following day, it had been over five days since we had eaten! The Germans gave us cold potatoes and cold gravy served in two mess kits from which the eight of us took turns eating. After a few days in Holland, of all places in solitary confinement in a convent, nine months in Germany as POW’s, which included two forced marches, General Patton and his forces liberated us at Mooseburg, Germany, April 29, 1945.
The full account can be read at 100th Bomb Group
Contemporary US briefing film about the ME 163 using captured German footage, it was thought the Japanese may have acquired the same technology: