Freedom Is Not Free
It’s July of 1941. The United States is trying to maintain a neutral position, but Europe’s war is looking more and more imminent for the US. President Roosevelt puts out a call for the development of a War Plan from the Departments of the Army and Navy, just in case. At that point, Hitler’s Nazis occupied almost all of Europe
Then Pearl Harbor was attacked and America was dragged into the war. It was to be a ground war as always, but Hitler’s Luftwaffe air force was decimating Europe and we realized a ground war would not save the day this time. The only way to defeat Hitler and destroy Germany’s (and Japan’s) ability to wage war was to take to the skies with a vengeance.
American ingenuity went to work and created a most impressive and daring response: the B-17 Flying Fortress! By the time these never-before seen behemoths arrived in Europe, they were each carrying as many as a dozen 50-cal machine guns in addition to their bomb loads. All ten crew members, including the radio operator, was trained as a gunner. The B-17s would fly in large groups, have to get past the pesky Luftwaffe pilots trying to shoot them out of the sky before they got to their targets, and get the hell out of Dodge through a sky full of lead. It was not a day in the park.
One tail gunner, Sgt. Merlin Miller, described a trip home after dropping their bombs: “Half a dozen enemy fighters, maybe more, would get behind each of us and string out, going in one right after the other at our group of 20 bombers . . . there were lots of parachutes floating through the air, sometimes through the formation. You could see oh, 40 to 60 parachutes in the air at once sometimes. . . And sometimes there’d be pieces of planes just floating through the formation from blown-up bombers, blown-up fighters, long columns of smoke everywhere. You could see where we’d been, actually follow our track over the mission just by looking back and following the columns of smoke coming up from the ground.” www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part2/13_vosler.html
Back then, pilots and crews who completed 25 bombing missions got a ticket home. Few heavy bombers completed that milestone. They were huge targets, they were relatively slow and they had lengthy distances to cover. Finding dedicated crews for the new heavy bombers called for a special breed of fighting men who understood that the odds were stacked against them, and yet they stepped up to the challenge anyway. One young airman, when asked why he chose to fight in the air replied: “It’s the only place in the military where you can retreat at 300 miles per hour.”
Enter this week’s hero: Forrest Lee Vosler, called Woody by his friends, 18 years old when war was declared in December 1941. At that time, only men 21 and over were being drafted, so Woody got his father’s permission to enlist for pilot training.
His scores weren’t good enough for the initial pilot qualification, but he did score very high for radio training. He graduated after eighteen weeks of intense instruction in radio procedures, equipment and Morse Code and fully absorbed the official spiel in the US Army Air Force pamphlet: “A day will come in combat when the job of getting home is up to the radio operator. . .”
Schooling finally complete, following specialty training at Flexible Gunnery School, he was eager to be assigned a flight crew. Then he ran into a brick wall: he was 3 inches beyond the max height of 72 inches — too tall to get into flying status!
Not to be deterred (and speaking to the caliber of young men back then), he went back to retake his physical. Says Woody, “I happened to arrive there at the noon hour, and I was waiting; everybody went to lunch. All the officers and doctors were at lunch and I had to sit there in my shorts waiting for them to come back. I noticed that the height and weight man had brought a box lunch and he was eating it instead of going out with the rest of them. I walked over to him and said, “You measure the height and weight?’
He said, “Yes, I do.”
I said, “I’ve got a five dollar bill here if you put down 72 inches on my form.”
He said, “You’re on.”
I handed him the money and I’m on my way to Harlingen, Texas.
“I got down to Harlingen and I was going to get another physical; they gave you a physical every time you moved. I bumped my head going in to get the physical. A captain standing there said, ‘Just a minute, Sgt. – come over here. How the heck did you get down here? I’ve seen hundreds of people go through this door and they don’t bump their heads if they’re under six feet.’
“I told him the story. He made me get up on the scales and got the height down. They finally recorded it as six feet one and a half inches. He sat down and said, ‘I don’t know . . “
I said, “I’ll tell you, sir, what I’m NOT gonna do. I’m not gonna bribe you. I know better than that.’
“He laughed and said, ‘You really want it, don’t you?’
I said, ‘I certainly do.”
He said, ‘I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you a crack at it. The only reason we limit height is because we think you can’t get into the turrets, and you have to be able to man all the positions on the ship. If you can do them somehow, more power to you. If you can’t, you’re gonna wash out anyway, but you’re welcome to try.” www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part2/13_vosler.html
Woody proceeded with training and the bombers continued to be wiped out of the sky. In one sortie, 20 bombers took off with P-47 escorts. Seven were forced to abort due to technical difficulties. The short-range escorts were forced to turn back nine minutes from target. Immediately, more than 200 enemy fighters pounced on the bombers, wiping out 12 of them in a matter of minutes. Only one plane dropped its load and limped home with a shot-up crew and a badly damaged plane.
Woody watched the bombers take off day after day, and watched almost none of them return. He must have been fearful, but he never waivered waiting for his turn.
On December 20, 1943, nearly 500 heavy bombers took off for Bremen, Germany, 21 of them from Woody’s group, not expecting much resistance based on the last two missions. Boy, were they wrong.
Woody finally got his chance and was assigned to the Jersey Bounce. On his fourth mission, the plane and crew reached the target of Bremen, Germany on schedule. The bombers in the group flew through concentrated, accurate and intense flak from the ground as about 125 German fighters attacked the formation in the air.
Woody was wounded in his feet and hands when a 20mm shell exploded near his legs. Staggering back to help the severely wounded tail gunner, Woody took over the gun and was hit in the chest and face by another 20mm shell as he laid down a steady stream of fire from the tail gun. Pieces of metal lodged in both eyes, impairing his vision so badly that he could only make out blurred shapes. He continued firing. During the battle, his radio was damaged by the flying shrapnel. With blood running out of his eyes and unable to see, he repaired his radio by touch, then sent out distress signals despite several lapses of unconsciousness as the bomber dropped out of formation and lost altitude.
Jersey Bounce was in serious trouble, but the 10-man crew refused to surrender. They knocked down most of the attackers in their disabled plane until the last one was dispatched by Woody.
“My first burst knocked pieces on the left side of his wing off. I was actually after the engine or the pilot. I moved the gun rapidly over to try to get him. I was firing as I turned, and went right across the stabilizer of Jersey Bounce and put a hole in it, because this gun had no stops. Our plane seemed to be flying all right, so I didn’t bother Henderson (the pilot) with a little thing like hitting the stabilizer.” www.homeofheroes.com/wings/pat2/13_vosler.html
Although seriously wounded, Woody’s training took over and his mantra kept replaying in his brain: ‘A day will come in combat when the job of getting home is up to the radio operator.’
Jersey Bounce was flying so low trying to make it to the relative safety of the North Sea that they were attracting ground fire. The struggling bomber, on two engines and shredded from nose to tail, tried to stay airborne by throwing out all essential equipment to lighten the load. Ammo, tools, machines – anything that added extra weight to the plane was jettisoned. Woody, so severely injured, offered to be tossed overboard as well, but his crew declined his request. At long last, the pilot looked down and saw only white caps. They had made it! The pilot dropped to wave-top level, trying to gauge the best moment of impact. Ditching in the sea was an extremely dangerous proposition and few attempts were successful. In the radio room, Woody continued to punch out codes to maintain communications for the rescuers.
The plane miraculously ditched in the North Sea and came to a stop. The crew assembled life rafts and rapidly deployed them in the water as Woody crawled out on one of the wings under his own power, dragging the seriously wounded tail gunner. The unconscious tail gunner started sliding down the trailing edge of the wing into the water until Woody grabbed him around his waist while using his other hand to grab an antenna wire to keep both of them from sliding off into the frigid water. The rest of the crew quickly rushed over to secure both men. They rapidly pushed away from the ditched plane in two rafts so they wouldn’t be sucked down by the vacuum when Jersey Bounce sank. They sadly watched the nose dip, lifting the tail high in the air as the sea claimed Jersey Bounce.
The crew was rescued by a Norwegian coaster which transported them to a PT boat. All crew members survived, but not a single bomber in Woody’s group of 21 got home.
Forrest Lee “Woody” Vosler was only the second enlisted airman in history to receive the Medal of Honor. He became blind in both eyes, but went on to serve as a counselor with the Veterans Administration for 30 years taking care of “his guys”. He died of a heart attack in 1992 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
And this story, along with thousands of others, is why we stand for the National Anthem, my friends, in heartfelt respect and appreciation for all they endured for our freedom. If you happen to see someone wearing “the hat” that signifies they are a veteran, PLEASE, as Patriotic Americans, go up to him/her, shake his/her hand, and say “Thank you.”