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.
July 29, 1944: A Day to Remember
by Lt Robert Fulkerson, Navigator
351st Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group
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.
AND NOW FOR THE REST OF THE STORY
The evening of November 18, 2003, I received a telephone call from a Jeff Grosse, a writer in Cincinnati, Ohio who informed me he was researching an incident that occurred during World War II involving P-38’s from 434th Squadron, 479th Fighter Group, a B-17 bomber and a German Me 163 KOMET rocket fighter on July 29, 1944. The writer told me he had obtained my name from Missing Air Crew Reports (MACR) and wanted to talk to a survivor of the B-17. He also told me Art Jeffrey, the P-38 squadron leader, and Dick Simpson, his wingman, were alive and furnished me with their addresses and telephone numbers. I called both men and thanked them for saving our lives on that eventful day in July 1944. Art flew 82 missions in World War II, stayed in the Air Force and retired a Full Colonel. Art was the first pilot credited with shooting down a Me 163 and had fourteen victories to his credit ranking him among the 8th Air Force Aces. He told me his group was called for a special briefing a half hour earlier than usual at 3 Am on July 29, 1944, to be briefed on the Me 163 that had just gone operational for the first time on July 28, 1944. Lo and behold, late that morning Art’s squadron spotted a Me 163, the Me 163 that had just spotted us!
The 479th Fighter Group will be holding their annual reunion meeting in Denver the fall of 2004. The two P-38 pilots have invited me to join them at their meeting. Needless to say, it will be a thrill for me to have the opportunity to meet them in person and thank them for saving our lives on July 29, 1944, some sixty years later!
P. S. Chuck Harris, 8th AFHS member living in Colorado Springs was the Lead Pilot for the 100th Bomb Group B-Group at Merseburg, July 29, 1944. I was flying with the B-Group but did not know Chuck at that time. I met Chuck for the first time several years ago at one of our 8th AFHS functions at the Air Force Academy.