“We were alerted early for a trip to Stuttgart on the morning of 24 September 43,” former bombardier Theodore Don recalls. It was a day that would cost the life of three of Don’s crewmates, and could easily have cost the 100th the entire crew if not for the quick and courageous response of some British seamen.
Adverse weather cancelled the mission, and the crew headed back to their sacks. Around noon they were recalled and briefed for a practice mission to take place with the entire Third Division. The bombers would be experimenting with Pathfinder bombing in the area of Wash.
Don’s crew, under Pilot John Gossage and Co-Pilot William Grier, had racked up their first mission, to Vannes, the day before. They headed out to their ship, the Laden Maiden (A/C 42-5861), only to find it still loaded with the 500-pound bombs that had been meant for Stuttgart. With no time to unload, they were assigned to another ship, Damdifino II (A/C 42-30259). There was only time to check the most important things. Their ten guns lay in the nose compartment of Laden Maiden. Some crews didn’t even have a full ten-man compliment, but Don was pleased to see all nine of his regular crew present. The navigator was sick, but had been replaced for this mission by J. Ward Dalton, bringing the number up to ten.
The take-off and assembly went according to plan. Major Robert Flesher and Captain Sam Barr led the high squadron. Gossage tucked his ship nice and tight to Barr’s right wing in the number two- position.
A different type of action was taking place at Yarmouth. As he climbed aboard his small ship, Donald Bradford wondered how the day’s mission would go. “I was leading a unit of six boats across the North Sea, bound for the coastline of Holland. We were expecting to meet a southbound enemy convoy containing a large supply ship that had been fitted out for the blockade running to Japan. Our orders were to sweep the convoy route until we found it, or dawn broke. If it was sighted, we were to sink it at all costs.
As always, when an important sortie had to be laid on, the weather was uncompromising. The wind was blowing hard and the sea had a nasty chop to it that foretold of a wickedly uncomfortable night. Still, there was no rain, which was a blessing. Although the clouds were low, they were white and feathery, scurrying hurriedly toward the east and showing intermittent patches of blue sky.
Thousands of feet above, as the group neared the target area, the clouds were 10/10 beneath them. With no guns to man, Tail Gunner Bruce Alshouse relaxed in the radio compartment with Radio Operator Mike Gillen, TTE William Humphrey, and the other gunners, Clyde Lovell, Ralph Schulte, and Francis Cooman. Don and Ward were doing their jobs in the nose of the aircraft. As he waited for the “prepare to bomb” signal, Don wondered how much further they had to go and why it was taking so long for the signal. “We were supposed to rendezvous with our friendly escort of P-47s near Wash, so when we spotted about ten to fifteen dots headed towards us from one o’clock, we naturally thought they were our fighters.”
They were rudely disappointed. The “sputtering” from the top turret of Barr’s ship alerted the crew, but the gunners were helpless. All Bruce Alshouse could think was, “Here we are over the North Sea with no guns!” The enemy fighters circled and came on the ship from the right. The attack was fast and invisible, coming out of the sun. The fuselage was ripped with machine gun fire from the bomb bay back, a 20mm landing directly behind the number three- engine. The oil tank was hit and flared up furiously.
“We were flying tight to Barr, who kept waving us away. We stuck to him like a leech because we thought he wanted us closer, but when we discovered the fire we banked away and lost altitude.”
Gossage intended to ditch his aircraft, however with the increasing threat of explosion, he ordered his crew to bail out. Ted Don opened the bomb bay doors and Bruce Alshouse looked down at the clouds swirling below them.
Meanwhile, with the sea dead astern, Don Bradford and his flotilla were charging along at about 20 knots. They were just approaching the halfway point across the North Sea when they picked up the faint sound of airplane engines. Bradford quickly signaled for all boats to reduce speed to six knots so that the line of creamy white speed wakes on the water would not attract the attention of possible German spotting planes.
As the noise became louder and louder, Bradford could hear an uneven beat and sputtering. “It was as if the engines were unhappy and liable to break down at any moment.” All eyes were aloft trying to spot the aircraft. From the sound, it appeared to be circling above the cloud layer right over the heads of the sailors. Then they saw it, nosing down towards the sea about half a mile away to starboard with fire licking one wing. “As we watched, spellbound, I saw the first specks plummet from the fuselage as the crew commenced to bail out.”
The sight of the floating parachutes broke the spell that was holding the captain as he followed the plane along its graceful glide to destruction. Bradford had a standing rule that on radio transmissions would be made except in the sight of the enemy. “Grabbing the R/T microphone, I broke my own rule as I passed out the order for the boats to scatter and rescue.”
In the stricken ship, Bruce Alshouse had watched the other gunners bail out before him. Alshouse, known as “Curly” to his crewmates, looked down into the rolling clouds. “We were in a dive at 250 mph when we started jumping. I was the last one to jump and was about 1,000 above the water when I went out. Just as soon as I pulled the ripcord and my chute opened, I hit the water. I inflated my life preserver, but it didn’t work. The waves were about fifteen feet high and my chute was dragging me across the sea.
Seeing all this, Bradford swung his fleet of six boats into action. He turned his own boat towards a cluster of three parachutes that were rapidly drifting away to the east. As his ship picked up speed, he could see the men drop into the water, one after the other. Through his field glasses, he could see that two were in serious trouble, unable to unhook their parachutes. “The wind was blowing them across the water like a couple of ten-meter class yachts with spinnakers set.”
There was only one course of action the sailor could determine that would enable him to retrieve these men. He would drive eastward at top speed, pass the, and then lie “beam on” in their path to let the wind blow them against the hull. It would take some precious time, but it was the only way he could see that men would have a chance. Soon a couple of waterlogged airmen were gasping and retching on the deck.
Ted Don remembers being in the sea around 45 minutes when he saw the boats. “I marveled at the fast action of Air-Sea Rescue. Two boats passed on either side of me while I was hollering my head off. They didn’t hear me and I thought I was lost. Then a boat came down the middle and picked me up. My only thoughts were that God must have directed them.” Don and Radioman Mike Gillen were both on board Captain Bradford’s ship.
Now the job was to find the third man. The turbulent sea did not promise a long life for the best of swimmers, even with a “Mae West” around his body. Without the white of his parachute to guide them, Bradford knew that is was going to be a difficult task.
As they quartered around, reports of success or failure began to come in from the other boats. Quickly totaling up the score, the captain realized that the man for which he was searching was the only man (of the eight parachutes he had seen) not accounted for.
Bruce Alshouse was getting exhausted as he struggled to keep afloat. “I went under several times.” He saw two of the boats going by in the direction the plane had been going, but like Don reported, they didn’t see him either. Then he saw another boat passing him by.
After a quarter hour of fruitless searching, Donald Bradford was becoming desperate. Time was short, and his operational orders were concise and clear – they had to be in a certain spot by a definite time – come what may. It looked as if the unfortunate Yank, if still alive, would have to be abandoned. As a last measure, he moved the ship about a half mile to the east and fired a red Very-Light into the air. It worked. “Faint on the wind we heard a shout and knew that he was somewhere upwind of us.” Steaming slowly to the west, the sailors fired a succession of lights and, guided by his shouts, we soon picked out a dark head occasionally showing in the water.
“A couple of my ratings, Emerson, the ginger-headed pom-pom gunner of Grosverner House, and Wilson, a radar operator and machine gunner, were over the side in a jiffy. Between them, and with the aid of a length of rope, we hauled the three parts drowned and completely exhausted man aboard.”
Bradford reformed his unit, and going full speed to make up for lost time, set a course for the starting position of their sweep along the Dutch coastline.
Bruce Alshouse had passed out as he was being brought aboard. “The next thing I knew, I was having my feet rubbed vigorously by two English seamen, but I still couldn’t feel my toes. After an hour of rubbing, my feet began to come to life.”
After the Coxswain and a first lieutenant, named Bill, had worked on the three survivors for a while, getting salt water out of their congested lungs and finishing up with rolls of blankets and the traditional Naval medicine – a drink of rum – they were fairly comfortable. Not all the boats could report such happy results. Gossage and Humphrey were alive on other boats. Grier and Ward had died from injuries, one after artificial respiration had been tried for nearly three hours.
Captain Bradford questioned Don. “I discovered that this crew was all new and fresh from the States. It was their first taste of sharp and sudden death. I was very astonished to discover that most of them had not seen the boats until we actually maneuvered alongside to pick them up. I had somewhat naturally assumed the Captain of the aircraft had seen us as he came out of the clouds and decided to bail out there rather than struggle nearer to the English coast.”
Don was surprised that what he had assumed was Air-Sea Rescue turned out to be British Motor-Torpedo boats, five English-manned and one Polish-manned, on a sortie to the Dutch coast. “During the night we played tag with the German shipping and the German “E” boats.”
“I learned later,” Don recalled, “that our pilot had stayed with the plane. He wanted to skim the water, make a splash, and try to put out the fire that way.” The maneuver didn’t work. The aircraft hit the water nose down. Somehow, while the nose was under water, Gossage managed to crawl out through a side window, leaving his shoe wedged beneath the rudder pedal in the process. “The ship floated for about five minutes and then dived for the last time.”
The remainder of the trip was uneventful. The weather lived up to Bradford’s expectations though, “and the fury of the wind and sea as they clawed and pounded the ships on the homeward crawl the following morning is something that lives in my memory still.”
“We berthed at Yarmouth in the early hours of the afternoon, wet, cold, sodden and dispirited – a glum crowd. As I had sent a signal to Base during our plod home, reporting the American survivors on board, there were a couple of small ambulances and a staff car waiting to pick them up and whisk them off to their airfield somewhere in Norfolk.
“They were a tough and friendly bunch and had practically recovered from their enforced bath by the time we berthed. AS we all had a drink in my small, wet cabin before we left, one of them turned to me and said, ‘Say, Captain, I guess you fellows need that rum that they hand out in that Navy of your to keep you from longing for that comfortable spacious bench in the park to sleep on.’ It was an apt, concise summing up of the crowded, uncomfortable conditions under which we lived.”
In a letter home to a friend, Bruce Alshouse summed up the experience.
“The five of us who are still alive feel pretty good, but we are being sent to a rest home for about ten days. Don’t ever razz me again about my big mouth because that is what saved me. The British crew couldn’t see me, but one just happened to hear me shout. The English sailors are swell people. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different. I owe my life to them. Don’t forget to say a prayer for the British sailors; I do it every night.”
“By the way,” adds Theodore Don, “we never did receive credit for that combat mission!”
*No trace of Clyde Lovell, Ralph Schulte, or Francis Cooman was ever found. Their names are inscribed on the Wall of the Missing at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery.