Splasher 6 Newsletter
It happened only a week after my eleventh birthday. My grandmother, Nora Kobis, was told that her son Charles was missing in action on a bombing Mission into Germany. The family went crazy. Was it possible that he was still alive? What about the other crewmen? Ten men were on that plane. Someone must know the answers. Telephone calls and letters passed in a steady stream between the families of the crew. Someone said that three parachutes were seen leaving the plane. Despite their repeated attempts, Mom and the others never did learn what really happened to Charlie. The years passed but his memory did not fade. He was my uncle, one of only two that I had on Moms side, both lost in the War. I never did forget "Emden; December 11, 1943; Sugarfoot." Many years later, with retirement approaching, I decided to use those few bits of information to get the full story of what happened to my uncle Charlie. This is his story.
It was 2:30AM on the morning of Dec 11, 1943 at Station 139, Thorpe Abbotts Air Base, East Anglia, England. Ground crews were busy getting the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 100th Air Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, ready for the Mission to Germany later that morning. Each B-17 sat on the airfield in it’s own parking space called a "hardstand". Sugarfoot, the big Boeing four engine bomber at hardstand #2, was being readied for her 6th trip to enemy territory, having previously been to Wilhelmshaven, Germany on Nov. 3rd; Bremen, Germany on Nov. 13th, Rjukan, Norway, on Nov. 16th; Gelsenkirchen, Germany on Nov. 19th and Bordeaux, France on Dec 5th.
As the ground crews toiled to get Sugarfoot and the other B-17’s ready for the long trip to enemy territory, the flight crews were being awakened in the Nissan huts located at Site #1, about one mile due South of Sugarfoots location. Sugarfoot would be manned by ten (10) men from the 351st Squadron of the 100th Bomb Group. It was a typically cold morning in December as the officers and enlisted men dressed and headed to the Combat Mess for breakfast. After breakfast, which usually consisted of eggs and plenty of hot coffee, the men quickly moved to the briefing area where they learned that today they would bomb the submarine pens located in the port city of Emden, Germany. This promised to be a fairly easy mission as Emden would be within the range of American P-47 fighter planes, which would protect the big bombers from enemy fighter attack while in the target area. After the briefings the men quickly moved to an adjoining area where flying suits were donned and flight equipment checked. Then they hopped aboard trucks for the ride to the hardstands where the B-17’s were parked.
At hardstand #2 Lt. Jim Haddox, Pilot, performed the necessary pre-flight engine and instrument control checks, ably assisted by 1st Lt. John Wagner, Co-pilot. Other crew members went about their duties, including Lt. Albert C. Warford, Navigator, Lt. Ellsworth C. Power, Bombardier/Nosegunner and S/Sgt. Nicholas Tenaglia, Engineer. T/Sgt. C.J. (Charlie) Kobis, Radio Operator, checked communications ensuring that the intercom and radios functioned properly while Sgt. Kendall Morrow and S/Sgt. James Grosskopf, waist gunners, checked their guns and loaded 50 caliber ammunition aboard Sugarfoot. Sgt. Gonzalo Orta, normally the ball turret gunner, would fly as left waist gunner on this flight, trading places with Sgt. Morrow who was "the old man" on the crew at age 35. Sgt. Lyle S. Jones would occupy the tail gunners position in place of Sgt. Robert D. Abney, whose hands and legs were frozen when his electrical flying suit failed during the Bordeaux flight. The crew members knew each other pretty well by now, having become good friends since coming together as an Air Crew at Walla Walla, Washington, earlier in the year.
Shortly before 0800 hours the ground crews started cranking the massive 4800 horsepower Wright Cyclone engines on the 26 B-17 flying fortresses that would participate in this raid. Sugarfoot was designated as one of five "spares" that would be used to replace other aircraft should any of those aircraft be required to "abort" for any reason. The 100th Bomb Group would fly in the "high" position, above and to the rear of the 390th Bomb Group, which would be the "lead" Group for this raid. A total of 583 B-17’s and B-24’s of the 8th Air Force would participate in this attack, the largest group of aircraft ever assembled for a raid on Germany to this date.
At 08:15 hours the first 100th Bomb Group B-17 climbed off the Thorpe Abbotts runway and into the thick overcast that reached to 12,000 feet. Within 30 minutes all 26 bombers were airborne. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, straining B-17’s and B-24’s were emerging from the billowing mass into the most beautiful sunlight imaginable, climbing to their assigned assembly altitude and joining their respective Groups. The 100th Bomb Group assembled over their radio beacon, Splasher #6, at 0920, with the five (5) spare aircraft above the Group. At 0932 the 100th Group joined with the 95th and 390th Bomb Groups, the other two elements of the 13th Combat Wing. They were now flying at 12,500 feet. Shortly thereafter, at 0950 and 13,000 ft altitude, the 13th Combat Wing, led by the 390th Bomb Group, met with other elements of the 2nd and 3rd Air Division and proceeded in a Northeasterly direction across the North Sea toward Helgoland. The 13th Combat Wing, led by the 390th Bomb Group, would lead the attack into Emden.
Shortly after forming up at the rendezvous area, a call came over the radio to replace an "abort" from the 390th Bomb Group. Normally, an abort would be replaced by a "spare" from it’s own Bomb Group. However, Lt. Jim Haddox opened the intercom and said to the crew " Should we go guys?" and the crew all responded "Lets go." Haddox throttled up the engines and, upon overtaking the 390th Bomb Group, tucked itself into the #3 position in one of the lead elements.
The trip over the North Sea was uneventful. The weather was perfect but a bit cold at -50 degrees. Flying altitude was 26,000 feet. Crews kept warm in heavy flight clothes and electrical flying suits. Fifty caliber machine guns were checked in short bursts. Between 1024 hours and 1033 hours three of the 100th Bomb Group spares turned back. At the front of the formation, Major Ralph V. Hansel, Strike Leader, sat in the Co-pilots seat in the B-17 called "Six Nights In Telergma." Capt Donald Warren, 390th Group Navigator, and Capt Irving Lifson, 390th Squadron Navigator, sat in the nose of Telergma, giving the lead plane of the 390th Bomb Group two Navigators. Field Order #108, outlining the Mission, directed the bombers to feint, flying east almost to Helgoland, before suddenly turning southwest to cut back to Emden, making straight for the target. The object was to fake any German fighters coming up through the clouds into defending the Bremen-Hamburg area further to the East. Escort in the target area would be provided by P-47 Thunderbolts of seven different Fighter Groups, and P-51 Mustangs of the 354th Fighter Group, flying their third mission.
As they flew over the great expanse of the North Sea, Capt Lifson, sitting in the nose of Telergma, realized that the headwinds from the East were stronger than estimated and that the bomber formation , which had a set time to rendezvous with the fighters in the target area, might not make it if they went all the way to the planned turning point. He communicated this to Major Hansel who decided that the fighters might have better winds aloft data than the bombers and might be into the target area on a timely basis. Because of this, Major Hansel turned the bomber formation southwest to Emden earlier than planned. Unfortunately, the fighters were not there when the bomber formation came up on the target area.
As the bombers approached the North Frisian Islands, near the coast of Holland, the German flak batteries began to fire. Within five minutes Sugarfoot took a direct hit on the right side, between the #3 and #4 engines. The hole was " big enough to drive a jeep through". High octane aviation fuel poured across the wing toward the radio operators compartment, gravitating along the fuselage into the waist gun opening, on the right side of Sugarfoot, where Sgt. Jim Grosskopf was manning his 50 caliber machine gun. Grosskopf found himself being soaked in high octane aviation fuel! Simultaneously, the 390th Bomb Group was attacked by six twin engine ME-110 fighter planes that dived out of the sun firing rockets and cannons, knocking out the lead ship and three other B-17’s. Sugarfoot took a HARD hit in the nose that knocked out communications and caused an oxygen fire, impairing the oxygen supply to some of the crew. The noise was horrendous. Machine guns blasted away at the fighters. Flak burst around the ship. The big Pratt and Whitney engines roared incessantly. Suddenly, before the formation could re-assemble behind the deputy lead fortress, 30 more single engine FW-190 and ME-109 enemy fighters attacked the formation and shot down four more Fortresses.
Grosskopf sensed a possible explosion of the leaking aviation fuel and beckoned to the crew to get out. He threw live 50 caliber ammunition on the ball turret in an attempt to get Sgt. Morrows attention, and at Sgt. Lyle Jones in the tail of Sugarfoot in an attempt to get his attention. He noted C.J. Kobis tapping away messages in the radio room, with his back to the waist section, but with all the noise could not get his attention. He beckoned to Sgt. Orta, left waist gunner, to "c’mon, c’mon, lets go." Sgt. Orta looked at Grosskopf, seemingly ready to go. Time was of the essence. Delaying another moment could cost him his life. Sugarfoot was beginning to lose control. Believing that at least some of his comrades were behind him, he jumped out the excape hatch, counted to ten, then pulled his ripcord.
As he descended slowly toward the North Sea, Sgt. Grosskopf noticed two (2) or maybe three (3) B-17’s going down. He also counted about twelve (12) other parachutes and he assumed some of them were his crewmates. He watched with sorrow as Sugarfoot, with it’s right wing torn away, spiraled in a flat spin into the North Sea between Langeoog and Baltrum, two islands off the coast of Holland. As he descended toward what appeared to be another small island, Sgt. Grosskopf threw his 45 caliber sidearm and survival gear into the North Sea. Miraculously, he landed at the northern tip of Norderney island where he was taken prisoner by a young German soldier who pointed a rifle at him in a menacing way. Grosskopf ended up in a building with two other Americans, Captains Warren and Lifson, both of whom were Navigators aboard "Six Nights In Telergma." He was hopeful that some of his crewmates would show up as prisoners of the Germans, but, as fate would have it all nine (9) brave men perished in Sugarfoot, as well as most of the other airmen who parachuted into the North Sea. He remained in German custody for the remainder of the War, being held in an interrogation camp at Stalag Luft 1A then later at Stalag Luft 17B near Krems, Austria. He was liberated in May of 1945 after a march across Austria and part of Germany during the last month or so of the War.
Sgt. Gonzalo Orta and Major Ralph Hansels bodies were recovered from the North Sea the same day by the German rescue ship Hamburg at around 1400 hrs. Sgt. Orta was buried as an unknown in the cemetery at Langeoog, a small island off the Holland coast. He was identified after the war and reinterred in Ardennes Plot L-1-22. He was later returned to his native Texas at the request of his family and is buried there. Lt. Albert Warfords body washed ashore on or about 17 March 1944 and was buried in Langeoog Cemetery. He was later reinterred in Ardennes Plot 0-4-97. No other bodies were ever recovered.
The 8th Air Force lost seventeen (17) Flying Fortresses on that December day in 1943. Of that number, the 390th Bomb Group, the "Lead" Group in the attack, lost five (5) B-17’s with eight (8) others damaged. The 100th Bomb Group, otherwise known as "the bloody 100th" because of it’s unusually high losses in the air war over Germany, lost one B-17, Sugarfoot, with no other planes damaged. The various P47 Fighter Groups, arriving in the target area later than expected, accounted for 21 enemy aircraft shot down with a loss of 4 of it’s own planes. The 354th Fighter Group (P51’s) registered no kills of enemy aircraft on that day. Official records state that "The fighter cover was late and ineffective."
This story was written by Francis P. McDermott, nephew of Casimier J. (Charlie) Kobis, Sugarfoots’ Radio Operator. I could not have completed this story without the help of Mr. Jim Grosskopf, the sole survivor of the Sugarfoot crew, and Col. Harry Cruver, former Command Pilot, 351st Squadron Commander and Group Commander; both of whom provided invaluable information during a 100th BG reunion at Salt Lake City, Utah, in October, 1997. Because of their help I have the deep satisfaction of knowing that my uncle, along with the others, died a Heroes death on that winter day in December, 1943. The names and memories of those who died, and whose bodies were never recovered, are forever enshrined on a Tablet of the Missing located at the Netherlands Cemetery in the village of Masstricht, Margraten, Holland.