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The “Duke” Gwin Crew

The Edward P. “Duke” Gwin Crew

by Donald H. Reichel, Robert B. Landino, Joseph M. Griego, Norman D. Heilbuth

Dedicated to the Memory of :

Edward P. Gwin Pilot
William C. Danielson, Jr. Radio Operator
John W. Disher Spot Jammer
Raymond R. Uhler Ball Turret Gunner

The Original Crew

We came together in Rapid City, South Dakota, in June 1944. The original crew was:

2nd Lt.Edward P. Gwin – Pilot (P)
2nd Lt.Donald H. Reichel – Co-Pilot (CP)
2nd Lt.Robert B. Landino – Navigator (NAV)
2nd Lt.Stewart P. Laidlaw – Bombardier (BOM)
Cpl.William C. Danielson, Jr. – Radio Operator (ROG)
Cpl.Herbert Hamann – Engineer (TTE)
Cpl.Earl S. Hamilton – Ball Turret Gunner (BTG)
Cpl.Norman D. Heilbuth – Waist Gunner (WG)
Cpl.Charles T. Maedel – Waist Gunner (WG)
Cpl.Joseph M. Griego – Tail Gunner (TG)

These are a few of the thoughts and experiences encountered by us (The survivors) during our tour of duty, cut short on our 31st mission..

After our 10th mission our (original) Bombardier, Lt. Stewart Laidlaw, was made Group Bombardier. He was replaced by Sgt. David Ackerman. Sometime in February 1945 the Ball Turret Gunner, Sgt. Earl Hamilon was grounded for medical reasons and was replaced by Sgt. Charles Koon.

Recollections of Donald H. Reichel:  The Co-Pilot

Upon arriving in England in late September 1944, we were assigned to the 100th Bomb Group, 351st Sqd. Everyone told us it was called “The Bloody Hundredth” because of all the losses it had incurred. They said we didn’t have a chance of finishing all of our missions. What a way to start a tour!  We were also told we would have to drop one waist gunner. Ed Gwin and I talked it over and decided it would be Charles Meadel, as he was the youngest, having just turned eighteen (18). He was shipped out and we lost track of him.

We were assigned to fly “The All American Girl”, a plane that had already seen many, many missions. Our first mission was on October 30, 1944. It was to be Merseburg, but we bombed the alternate. Just so we wouldn’t be disappointed, our next mission was also Merseburg. I guess the first mission is always the most memorable, and this certainly was. As we approached the target we thought it was clouded over. How wrong we were. It was flak from all the flak. We we got close enough, we could see the red bursts and hear the “WHUMP WHUMP”, and also feel the jolts from exploding shells. We didn’t take any serious hits, but still had quite a few holes in the ship. I remember vividly seeing an anti-aircraft shell coming up from under the nose of the plane. It must have been near the top of its trajectory and slowing down. Ed Gwin and I watched it go above us and explode. We spoke if that many times after. We hoped that would be as close as a shell ever got to us.

Missions from then on never seemed quite as bad, until December 31, 1944. Hamburg was the target. It was out 13th mission. Flak was heavy and coming off the target we had a head wind of about one hundred (100) MPH (Miles per hour). It seemed like we stopped. That’s when the Me 109’s hit. Our P-51 escort was nowhere around. The attack of the 109s seemed to go on forever. Just before the attack broke off a 20MM shell hit the plane, exploding right behind me. It wounded me slightly but knocked me unconscious. Gwin told me later that I was ‘out’ for about twenty (20) minutes. Our plane had over three hundred (300) holes in it. One in the left wing was big enough for the Crew Chief (M/Sgt L. Holland) to crawl through. (That’s the day the 100th lost 12 planes) I spent only three (3) days in the hospital and since we had a standdown of three (3) days, I was able to join the crew for our next mission.

After about ten (10) missions our Bombardier Stew Laidlaw was made a lead crew Bombardier. David Ackerman joined the crew as Togglier. About the same time, Earl Hamilton was grounded with a bad back. Charles Koons replaced him. Sometime in January 1945 our plane “The All American Girl” was lost in action, and a new plane was assigned to us. Ed Gwin named it the “Sweet Nancy” after his wife.

We had our tail shot off”

Our next most memorable missions was on March 18, 1945. This was our 31st, and final mission  although we didn’t know it that morning. Berlin was our target. Our C.O. (Commanding Officer), Major Harry F. Cruver, was leading the group that day and the Gwin crew was in the high flight. We were all relaxed and figured we would have our 35 missions in within the next two weeks. Everything started out fine. Ed Gwin and I always took turns flying, thirty (30) minutes of flying and thirty minutes to relax. I had just taken over the controls when someone yelled ‘Bandits’. I saw tracers going past our plane. I remember thinking “watch it guys, don’t hit us.” Suddenly the nose of the plane came up and it shuddered; it then ‘mushed’ and fell off on the right wing. I gave it full left rudder and aileron, but the controls were gone. I then cut both left engines and put full power on the two right ones which kept us from going into a tight spin by bringing the right wing up somewhat. I looked at Gwin and he said, “Let’s go,” and motioned with his hand to get out. I got our of my seat and grabbed my chute. I looked back and saw Herb Hamann, the engineer, was out of the top turret. He was on his hands and knees feeling around. I found out later that he had forgotten to take off his sun glasses and couldn’t see. He was feeling for his chute. Bob Landino, the navigator and Dave Ackerman, the togglier were already by the hatch. I looked up at Gwin and he had his chute in his hand ready to put on. Just then Landino opened the hatch and he and Ackerman bailed out. Hamann was all set to go by then and he poked me in the back. Since I was in his way I bailed out and he bailed out right after me. Gwin was right behind him. Why he didn’t get out I don’t know. The only thing I can figure out is that he went back in the plane to check on the rest of the crew. We were going down too fast for him to have time to do that. We were already below 10,000 feet when I bailed out.

Floating down, I could hear the firing of machine guns and the sound of the planes fading off into the distance. The quiet after that gave me the loneliest feeling of my life. I came down in a plowed field and took off my chute. There was a small clump of trees and bushes near me. I ran into the bushes and looked around. There were about twenty (20) or thirty (30) Wehrmacht soldiers coming toward me from one direction, and about twenty (20) from the other direction. There was nowhere to go. The one group already had Landino and Ackerman. I thought of my .45 automatic and figured I didn’t want the Nazis to get it and shoot some Americans with it. I saw a pile of rocks, so I pulled some away and buried the gun. I walked out of the bushes then and gave myself up. They searched me and found my holster with no gun in it. I told them it must have fallen out when I bailed out. One of them said I was a bad soldier for not taking better care of it.

The marched me back to the town of Braatsch and one old man kept yelling at them to shoot us. I could speak German so I understood what he said. He ran up and hit me in the back. Some of the soldiers pushed him away and told me that a month before they would have shot us all, but they had gotten orders not to harm anymore POW’s.

They brought us together and put us in an old building which had at one time been a firehouse. There was Landino, Ackerman, Hamann, Heilbuth, Griego and myself. This is when I found out why the plane’s controls went out. Joe Griego told me that the tail of the plane was completely shot off. They kept us there overnight and the next day put us in a truck and drove us to the town of Stendal. On the way they stopped where our plane had crashed. They showed us what they said were four (4) bodies and told us it was Gwin, Danielson, Disher, and Uhler. That was the first we knew of Gwin being killed.

In Stendal they put us in a jail and kept us there several days. It was here I found out we had the ‘distinction’ of being one of the first planes shot down by the new ME-262 jet.

Landino and I were put on a train and sent to Oflag 79 at Brunswick. It was a British camp. There were only thirty (30) to forty (40) American POW’s there. Landino and I were the only Air Force officers. The rest were Infantry, most having been captured in the Battle of the Bulge. We were given a wooden stool each (every POW had one). We kept it with us at all times so it wouldn’t be stolen. We were also given a small stove which had been made out of a large tin can. This was to be used to cook our own food and boil our own water for tea. Once a week we were allocated fish. On that day all the fish were taken to a main mess hall and made into a soup with potatoes. The British called it fish kedgeree.

We all had free run of the camp, and we spent out time exercising, reading books, (they had a good sized library), and talking about food. We also swapped recipes. There was a British Indian officer there, who had been a chef at a large hotel in Bombay, India. He gave us some recipes for curried food and Indian desserts.

I found there were a lot of dandelions growing around the camp so I started picking the greens to make soup. It took about two days for the word to get around that they were nourishing, and from then on, you couldn’t find a single dandelion in the camp. The second week we were there, the British put on a stage play which they had been rehearsing for a month or more. It was very good and extremely funny; especially funny were the men dresses as women.

The British called the German guards “Goons”. When any guard was walking around camp, the cry would go out “Goon up”. This was especially true in the late afternoon. That’s when we got the daily radio news. The British had a radio hidden somewhere in camp and would keep up with the war news. The radio had been smuggled in piece by piece by one of the guards. Every afternoon one of the Brits came around with the news report, along with a map of Europe, so we could see the armies progress.

Days, for the most part, passed slowly. There was a British Major in our barracks who had spent four (4) years of WW I in a POW camp, and had been captured at Dunkirk in WW II. That meant he had spent almost nine (9) years as German POW.

One day a group of A-20’s bombed Brunswick. We saw one shot down by flak. We were afraid they would bomb us by mistake, they were so close, but we lucked out. It was agreed upon by the British and American Senior Officers, that if the British forces liberated the camp, then the Brits would leave first. If the Americans did, then the Americans would be first out. I believe it was on the morning of April 19, 1945 that a cheer went up. The gates were thrown open and a U.S. Army jeep drove into camp. The Sergeant on the jeep asked if there was anyone there from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I said, “Yes.” He told me that he had been a Brewmaster at Schlitz Brewery, and that they had just liberated the Brunswick Brewery. He invited me and the other Americans to a “Liberation party” at the German Commandant’s house. That was quite a party.

Two days later we were flown to Camp Lucky Strike in France. Landino and I tried to get back to the 100th but were told we couldn’t go. I understand that about two weeks later they allowed it. By that time, however, we were aboard a ship homeward bound. We spent one month as POW’s.

The surprise of my life came after we made a stop in England to pick up others being sent home. As I was walking down the deck someone yelled, “My God Reichal you’re dead. I saw your plane go down.” It was Capt. Tom Hughes. He brought us up to date on the 100th.

Our ship was the first ship to land in Boston Harbor after Germany’s surrender. American soil never felt so good.

On our 31st and final mission Sgt. Raymond Uhler had replaced Sgt. Charles Koons who was ill. Sgt. Uhler was from the crew of J.L. Wofford. Sgt. John Disher was from the crew of H.S, Bucklew and assigned to us for that one mission as Spot Jammer.

Sgt. Koons was reassigned after we were shot down and went on to complete his tour.

Recollections of Joseph M. Griego:  Tail Gunner

Upon reaching the IP on March 18, 1945 mission to Berlin, we were attacked by ME-262’s. They approached from 3  o’clock high. Suddenly everything got very quiet and I couldn’t hear the planes engines. I turned around and saw that the tail section had been shot off, and I was floating down alone. I had to shed my flak vest, get my chute from beneath my guns, snap it on, and head for the exit, which was not the gaping hole created by the tail separation from the rest of the fuselage. After I cleared the tail I pulled the rip cord but my chute failed to open. I had to rip off the cover and pull it out like a sheet. It finally opened and I had just enough time to choose a patch of forest between three villages. I chose the forest patch to come down in because I had heard the villagers were mistreating captured airmen. My canopy got caught in the tree tops and I was hanging forty (40) feet off the ground, and unable to get down. I was suspended between two trees, and couldn’t reach either one. I hung there until soldiers from the Wehrmacht sent one of their group up to pull me over to one of the trees. Upon reaching the ground, I was stripped and searched. I was then marched into a village where I was placed in a little garage where the rest of the survivors of our crew were being held. The next day we were all put into a truck and taken to Stendal where I was placed in a cell and held until I was interrogated three days later. After that I was taken from my cell with three other flyers, not members of our crew and marched around for five (5) days until I was placed in a Stalag with American ground troops. About thirty (30) days later our entire camp was evacuated, and from then until April 25th the Germans kept marching us around. On that date we were liberated by the 104th Division (USA). We were sent to Camp Lucky Strike (France), and from there we were sent home.

Recollections of Robert B. Landino; Navigator

March 18, 1945:  As Navigator in B-17 #338861, Sweet Nancy, it was my 31st mission. The target was Berlin. There were about twelve hundred (1200) bombers up that day. It was a smooth flight until we neared Salzwedel (Germany) at about 11:15 AM, when all hell broke loose. We peeled off in what seemed like a flat spiral or spin. We were at about 28,000 feet. I immediately went to the hatch below the pilot. Realizing we were too high to bail out I returned to my Navigator’s position where I watched the altimeter until we were down to 10,000 feet. I then went to the escape hatch which I opened and rolled out. As my chute opened, the plane passed over me. I was between two layers of clouds. As I descended I saw other chutes. I finally broke through the lower clouds and could see I would land in a farmer’s plowed field. As I landed, there was a farmer waiting for me with a rifle aimed at me. As I pulled my chute together I noticed that it had fifty (50) to one hundred (100) holes in it. The farmer did not seem hostile to me, but he locked me in a chicken coop until two Luftwaffe officers got me and marched me off to a small building which I believe was their headquarters. They asked me if I was hungry, and I said, “Yes.” They gave me a plate of stew. I was put into a small room with no windows, and was interrogated by a German officer who spoke with a British accent. He said that he had gone to college at Oxford, England. After that I was taken to another building and reunited with the rest of the crew. The next day we were put into a truck and transported to Stendal. I remember walking through the town to a train station. Enroute the German soldiers had to protect us from the civilians who swore at us, and called us every filthy cuss word in the English language.

Don Reichal, the Co-pilot, and I were put on a train and taken to Braunschweig, where the two of us ended up in Oflag 79. My POW number was #2225. We were liberated a month later by the 125 Infantry Division, USA.

Recollections of Norman Heilbuth: Waist Gunner

It was March 18, 1945. The target was Berlin. One minute we were sailing along smoothly, and the then there was a big explosion, and our tail was gone. An ME-262 had shot it off between Joe Griego, the Tail Gunner, and myself. I thought for sure Joe had it. I had my chute in the spent cartridge bag, and when we went into the spin it fell out and slipped along the floor. I started after it fearing it was going to fall out of the plane where the tail had been shot off. Thankfully it slid until it hit the housing for the tail wheel. I grabbed it and snapped it onto my harness. I pulled the red door handle and immediately the door was gone.  I tried to get out but got caught half in and half out by the slip stream. I got my foot behind the door casing and got myself back into the plane. The next time I threw myself through the open door. By that time we were so close to the ground that I broke my ankle upon landing. A French slave worker working on the farm got to me first. I gave him my .45, figuring they weren’t going to shoot me with my own gun. Soldiers and the farmer whose farm I landed on, came up and told me to pick up my chute, and we headed into town. I took about three steps and the pain in my foot was so great, that I sat down and told them I couldn’t walk. The farmer went over to a nearby tree, cut off a limb, trimmed it, and gave it to me for a crutch and carried my chute. When we got into town I saw Joe Griego and was really happy to see he had made it down OK. After they got the six of us who survived together, they asked our names. When the heard Heilbut, Reichel, Hamann and Ackerman, one of the soldiers said, “Ach du lieber, how come your fighting us with German names like that?”

When we were in Black Pool on flak leave, I won a celluloid matchbox cover with picture of Hitler being held in a fist, and the fingers on the fist had the names of the United States, England, France and Russia printed on them with the caption ‘In the Allies grip’. The soldiers made me empty my pockets and when they saw the matchbox, one of them yelled out, “Der Fürher.” I thought they were going to do something to me, instead they all laughed about it and kept it. They took me to a hospital and fixed up my foot and then sent me to a Stalag. When I got there someone yelled my name. I didn’t recognize him and so I asked him who he was. It was a fellow who had was in gunnery school with me. He weighed over 200 lbs. at school, and was down to about 130 lbs. That scared the hell out of me.

My stay in Stalag I was routine, except when the Russians liberated us. Another fellow and I went into town and were asked by the Germans whether the Russians or Americans were coming. The had flags to wave for whomever showed up. We walked down to the shores of the Baltic Sea to get an idea about how far it was to Sweden. At the shore we came across a family that had been killed. It looked like a grandmother, mother, a girl about two, and a baby in a pram. They had all been shot through the head. We couldn’t tell who had done it, whether the Germans or the Russians. We were sure they had not committed suicide because there was no gun there.

After the war I mentioned to a friend of mine that I had been in Stalag I. I found out then that he was one of the Pilots that flew us out of the camp.

Mission Log Edward P. Gwin Crew

Date

Nbr.

Target

Comments

10/30/44

01

Merseburg

Bombed alternate

11/02/44

02

Merseburg

Very heavily defended

11/09/44

03

Saarbrucken

11/29/44

04

Hamm

12/02/44

05

Coblenz

12/04/44

06

Freilburg

12/05/44

07

Berlin

Flak filled skies & fighers

12/24/44

08

Kaiserlauten –

Bibkus Aerodrome

12/25/44

09

Kaiserlauten

12/24/44

10

Fulda

12/28/44

11

Coblenz

12/30/44

12

Kassel

12/31/44

13

Hamburg

Reichel wounded, Gp lost 12

01/07/45

14

Cologne

01/21/45

15

Mannheim

02/03/45

16

Berlin

02/06/45

17

Chemnitz

02/22/45

18

Dresden

02/23/45

19

Treuchtlingen

02/25/45

20

Munich

02/26/45

21

Berlin

Heavy flak as usual

02/28/45

22

Kassel

03/02/45

23

Ruhland

03/07/45

24

Siegen

03/08/45

25

Frankfurt

03/10/45

26

Dortmund

03/11/45

27

Hamburg

Nothing like the last time

03/12/45

28

Swinemunde

03/14/45

29

Oranienburg

03/17/45

30

Ulm

03/18/45

31

Berlin

Final Mission – they shot our tail off!!!