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Complete Story of the Bombing Mission to the Engers RR Bridge 2/14/1945

Story of the Bombing Mission to the Engers Railroad Bridge, February 14, 1945, including eyewitness accounts.
First, to give an idea of the Medium Bomber missions over Germany on this day, here is a summary:

14 Feb 1945
“In Germany, 600+ A-20s, A-26s, and B-26s attack rail bridges, a marshalling yard, communications centers, an ammunition dump, a prime mover depot, and several targets of opportunity in morning and afternoon missions aimed primarily at obstructing enemy movement and supply; fighters fly armed reconnaissance over wide areas, escort the bombers…”
– Jack McKillop, Combat Chronology of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Specifically, also taking place on February 14, 1945, this is an account of one of the most harrowing and unforgettable B-26 bombing missions in the European Theater, probably only surpassed by the very first B-26 missions of May 1943, one of which saw all eleven B-26s on a mission lost, and the late December 1944 missions in support of the Battle for the Ardennes, or Battle of the Bulge..

.In a short span of only about 25 minutes, 8 Marauders were shot down over the target, with the eventual casualty totals 43 men downed, 24 killed, 19 captured as Prisoners of War.
Most bombing missions consisted of 36 planes. This was a “Maximum Effort” mission of 54 planes. It was a joint mission, combining planes from the 387th Bomb Group, nicknamed the “Tiger Tails” for the yellow and black stripes on the tail, and the 344th Bomb Group, nicknamed the “Silver Streaks” for the planes’ mostly unpainted fuselages.

 

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The first 3 planes lost were from the 387th, the remaining 5 were from the 344th. The mission number for the 387th was probably Mission 290, for the 344th was Mission 200 . The 387th planes left from Station A-71 near Clastres, France, and the 344th left from Station A-59, near Cormeilles-en Vexin, France.
There are eyewitness accounts of this mission from various sources, which will be included. Some involve planes that were lost, some do not. Some portions of these accounts have been found on this website, http://shopwornangel.imaginarynumber.net. Also there will be some brief official reports for this mission. Each plane will be listed in the order it was lost, with any additional information found about crew members and their fate. The chronology of the planes lost was determined from the times listed in the Missing Air Crew Reports, or MACRs, the MACR sequence numbers, and the cross-referenced witness statements in those MACRs.

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An excerpt from the book 344th BG (M) “Silver Streaks”  (p45) edited by Lambert D. Austin gives important details:
“Two missions were flown February 14, the morning mission being the 199th for the Group….no losses or damage resulted. In the afternoon of the 14th the Railroad bridge at Engers was attacked. Seventeen (17) Aircraft dropped 34 tons of bombs with generally excellent results, though clouds and haze were rapidly obscuring the target from view. The attack being visually, by flights, on converging axis of attacks and the weather closing in did not allow all of the Aircraft to drop on the primary target. However, on the way out to Base, two (2) Aircraft bombed at Bullay on briefed secondary and four (4) on the Railroad bridge at Ellers, another briefed secondary target, while one plane bombed the town of Burenbach as a casual target.

The attack on the Euskirchen bridge (my note: I suppose it shall be Engers, as the intelligence report said ) was met by severe and accurate flak by enemy defenses, five of our Aircraft being shot down, 21 Aircraft damaged Category “A”, seven Category “B” and 31 of our personnel listed missing and six wounded”.

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THE 14 FEB 1945 MISSION TO ENGERS RR BRIDGE
Donald Leigh
495th Bomb Squadron, 344th Bomb Group
Scratch One Bridge At Koblenz

 

 

 

 

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The crew of Y5-V (Rum Buggy II, a B-26), 495th Squadron, knew what was coming on that late winter Valentine’s Day morning in Belgium. Flak map overlays distributed at briefing showed that on the assigned bomb run, twelve miles along the Rhine River, the 344th Bomb Group would face intense antiaircraft fire. Intelligence reported one hundred twelve 88 millimeter guns along the route and thirty five more at the target, the 1,237 foot Crown Prince Wilhelm Railroad Bridge at Engers, Germany, just outside the city of Koblenz.
Captain J. W. Cotton, Pilot, and 1st Lt. Don Leigh, Bombardier, leading the high flight, discussed the ‘prospects’ and decided that since flying the usual evasive action to confuse German gunners would be pointless in what was sure to be a solid barrage, to fly a straight-in bomb run taking maximum time for sighting. This tactic would provide greatest bombing accuracy and the quickest possible route through flak.

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Fifty years later Leigh vividly remembers that the sky was bright blue at 10,500 feet and visibility at the IP was excellent, but despite the customary roar of the Marauder’s (B-26) 2,000 horsepower engines there was a strange sense of silence as he called for Cotton to roll out on course for the bomb run. The lull before the storm was sure to come. And it came.

From declassified Missing Air Crew Report: overlay showing the Bomb Run Map, red X general area where planes crashed or made forced landings. Hand-drawn locations are approximate. Underlay is a current Germany map.

 

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Skilled enemy antiaircraft fire was a daily fact of combat crew life, of course, but no one on this crew had experienced the intensity and unremitting barrage thrown up by the German gunners on this five minute bomb run from IP to target.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oily flak puffs, punctuated by bright strawberry-red flashes, melded into a nearly dark sky, and the constant g-r-r-r-u-m-p of close explosions was accompanied by a continuing hail-on-the-metal-roof sound of smaller fragments hitting the fuselage. Later, after return to base, an amazed crew counted 272 holes of varying sizes in the tough old B-26!

 

THE TARGET

 

Ground-level view of the Crown Prince Wilhelm Railroad Bridge at Engers, Germany, originally built around 1917

 

Automatic bomb run camera photo from Donald Leigh, Jr showing results of that mission. Taken at 10,800 feet. The caption reads:
One of the 344th’s better efforts. Taken February 14th, 1945 over the bridge at Engers (Koblenz). Crew of Y5-V (Rum Buggy) led 2nd flight, 1st box. Our results pictured. Crew: J. W. Cotton, Pilot; Moe Edwards, Co-pilot; Don Leigh, Bombardier-Navigator; Joe Cirrin, Radio-Gunner; Walter Gillaspy, Engineer. Many of the group will remember that day. Intelligence reports said 112 88s on the bomb run and 35 at the turn off.
-Don Leigh

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High Resolution photo from that bomb run, taken a few seconds after the Don Leigh photo above.

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Captain Cotton’s steadiness and concentration under unrelenting fire made it possible for Bombardier Leigh to conduct an unhurried and precise sighting operation. The target was hit dead center. Leigh remembers (to his embarrassment, today) announcing on the intercom, “Bombs away,” followed by the corny cliché, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” But never was a diving turn off a target more welcome.

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Two ships in the flight of six went down on the bomb run. The complete 344th group lost five Marauders and their crews and planes received nearly 100% battle damage. Rum Buggy crew members, in addition to Leigh and Cotton, who shared the memorable mission, were: E.E. Edwards, Co-Pilot; W. E. Gillaspy, Engineer; J. Cirrin, Radio; and D. Ramsey, Gunner. All of them can remember a Valentine’s Day on which love was absent. (Leigh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission).

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Information about the 387th Bomb Group and this mission.
The 387th Bomb Group (Medium) of the Ninth Air Force was based at Station A-17, Clastres, France. Clastres was located on the northern edge of the village of Clastres, about seven miles south of the city of Saint-Quentin, France. The 387th Bomb Group (M) was one of eight U.S. Army Air Force B-26 Marauder groups deployed in the European Theater of Operations. Know as the “Tiger-Striped Marauders” or “Tiger Tails” because of the distinctive diagonal yellow and black stripes painted on the tails of their aircraft, the groups was made up of four squadrons: 556th, 557th, 558th, 559th Bomb Squadron (M).

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The 387th Bomb Group (M) moved to Clastres in early November 1944 to keep up with rapidly advancing Allied troops. The group quickly set up a tent city and lived in tents near the runway. The operations tent was near group headquarters. It was furnished with wooden benches and a large map of western Europe. The map was marked with a grease pencil bomb line depicting the most advanced position of the Allied ground forces. A colored string stretched between pins showed the course to the target.

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Members of the groups spent their spare time improving their quarters, including building floors, furniture and improving the tent heating systems. Building materials were scrounged from many sources including wood from bomb crates found at a German bomb dump in the nearby woods and nails form the charred ruins of an old German hanger. Crews also had the pleasure to visit local villages which had recently been liberated. Here they were able to meet the locals and purchase souvenirs of their time in France.

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Wed, 14 Feb 45 – Mission 289: Xanten troop concentration & road junction, morning
Wed, 14 Feb 45 – Mission 290: Engers railroad bridge, afternoon

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“The Xanten and Engers missions were both flown on February 14th. Led by Captain R. N. Gunn the formation, supporting British troops, laid bombs in excellent pattern inside the target area of the communications center at Xanten. In the afternoon the floor of the heavily defended railroad bridge at Engers was pierced by 1,000 pound bombs, but was not destroyed. On these missions Lieutenants J. P. McClung, G. W. Patterson, Jr. and E. I. Walker showed outstanding flying skill in bringing back their badly damaged planes.”
– History of the 387th Bombardment Group (M) AAF, p. xxx.

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The Kron Prinz Wilheim railroad bridge, that spanned the Rhine River at Engers, Germany, was one of, if not the most notable flak concentrated target that the 387th BG undertook, while conducting combat operations during WWII. The Group’s bombing accuracy on the mission was superb, scoring direct hits on the span, but unfortunately, faulty fuse settings prevented this critical target from being destroyed.

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2nd Lt. Edward Walker managed to fly the battered “Sweatin’ Five” back to A-71. He landed the plane, but due to damage to the hydraulic system, the aircraft’s nose gear failed to extend properly. Consequently, “Sweatin’ Five” ran off the end of the runway and nosed over. Lt. Walker, and his crew, were not injured.

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– Peter Crouchman, Alan Crouchman, Robert C. Allen, William J. Thompson, Jr., 556th Bomb. Squadron, B-26 Marauder Reference and Operations Guide, p. 30.

Listing of the planes lost in chronological order

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1.) 41-31710, 387th BG / 557th BS, MACR# 12341 “General Sherman” 4:15pm
2nd Lt. Peter Gregorchuk (P) – POW
2nd Lt. Carl W Heline (CP) – killed
T/Sgt. Philip Philander Griffee (B/N) – POW
Sgt. Dominic Di Blasio (R/G) – POW
Sgt. William Braxton Harbour (E/G) – POW
Sgt. Howard L Nelson (TG) – POW

Photo of the General Sherman, taken earlier in the war at Chipping Ongar (Willingale) Essex, England, showing more than 25 missions.

 

Apparently the first plane shot down on the mission, the “General Sherman” was probably flying as the Number #5 plane in the #3 flight of the first box. The plane was on its 52nd mission. Most of the crew were replacements that had arrived via the Northern route in early December, 1944. The brutal winter limited missions and kept existing crews from rotating out until late January and February, 1945. For some in this crew it was only their second or third mission.

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While on the bomb run, very close to the target, a direct hit of flak knocked out the left engine and set it on fire. The unsung hero of the downing of the General Sherman is undoubtedly the Pilot that day, Lt. Peter Gregorchuk. Through quick reaction and teamwork, the two pilots kept control of the plane long enough for them to drop their bombs over the target. Then the order came to bail out, as they broke formation and veered down to the right. First the Tail Gunner Nelson, then the Radio man Di Blasio, then the Engineer Harbour all bailed out the right waist window. Then the plane began to spin and Lt. Gregorchuk put it into a dive to try to extinguish the flames, which he did, and he regained control.

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During that spin and dive Lt. Heline, the Co-pilot, was having difficulty freeing himself, and the Togglier Griffee was able to help free him. Then Lt. Heline, immediately followed by Sgt. Griffee, bailed out through the bomb bay doors after the plane was brought under control. The plane again began to spin, but Lt. Gregorchuk was able to regain control once more, and was able to make a safe emergency landing in a field very close to the North bank of the Rhine, about 2 km southeast of Neuwied, Germany. He reported having a hard landing and a pretty good bump on the head, but he was OK. The plane reignited and burned, but not beyond recognition.

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Through the skillful flying of Lt. Gregorchuk, all 5 crewmembers were able to safely exit the plane and parachute to the ground without serious injury, at a time when three planes were shot down within 3 minutes; there was absolute chaos and destruction all around them; bombs falling and exploding, extreme flak, machine gun and small arms fire from the ground, pieces of planes falling, burning, and crashing.

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I believe all of the crew were captured almost immediately. Some were placed in a stone building on the East bank of the Rhine near Koblenz. Five hours later Sgt. Harbour was brought in, with one broken ankle. 12 days later, they saw Lt. Gregorchuk and Sgt. Griffee safe, all of them in the Prisoner of War camp at Moosburg. With the exception of Lt. Heline, all 5 crewmembers safely returned to the States after the war.

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Some of the reports in the MACR for the General Sherman are incorrect, specifically the German reports about the plane. Two pages about the General Sherman were found misfiled in another MACR for this mission, with incorrect crewmen listed. From information obtained through personal letters, interviews and inquiries through the Missing Aircrew Research and Investigation Offices after the war, this is what we know about Lt. Heline.

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We know he parachuted safely and was captured on the ground, within a mile of where the General Sherman was landed, by a German civilian. This civilian issued sworn statements that the flier he captured was positively identified as Lt. Heline. Shortly thereafter an SS trooper took custody of Lt. Heline from the civilian and marched him toward Neuwied, as more bombs continued to fall, which caused the civilians to take shelter. At that same time, as reported by an eyewitness, several civilians who had gathered took shelter in an existing bomb crater. Almost immediately another bomb fell in or very near that crater, killing perhaps a dozen or so civilians. Unverified as yet, but reported in late 1945.

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Declassified war crimes files in the British Archives in London show that Lt. Heline, immediately after being taken into custody by the SS trooper, was taken by car by 2 SS men about 8 miles NNE to a place between Rengsdorf and Strassenhaus (where the SS/SD had recently set up offices and residence). By this time it was near sundown and getting dark. The car was stopped and Lt. Heline was marched into the woods and executed by one of the SS/SD soldiers with a single gunshot to the back of the head. He was later found and buried in the church cemetery in Rengsdorf. 15 months later he was moved to his final resting place at the American Military Cemetery at Margraten, Holland.

 

Crash of the General Sherman as told by Sgt. Nelson

On 14 February 1945, the 387th Bomb Group received operational orders to attack the railroad bridge at Engers, Germany.  This was to be mission 289.  From the 557th Bomb Squadron, 2nd Lt. Peter Gregorchuck was the pilot the B-26B-21 Marauder 41-1710 nicknamed the “General Sherman.”  The aircraft had identification markings of KS-A.  About 16:00 hours they were over the target and encountered heavy flak.  The pilot called for the crew to bail out.  In an eyewitness statement from Missing Air Crew Report 12341, Sgt. Howard L. Nelson stated that all three gunners bailed out the right waist window.  The toggler left the ship by the bomb bay doors.  The pilot and co-pilot remained with the aircraft and crash landed near Sayen, 9 kilometers north of Koblenz, Germany.  All were captured by the Germans.  Nelson says that he meet Sgt. William B. Harbour, the engineer/gunner and the others about five hours after the crash in a stone building on the east bank of the Rhine at Koblenz, Germany.  One of Harbour’s ankles had been broken when he landed on the ground.

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Sgt. Howard L. Nelson

 

2.) 44-67915, 387th BG / 558th BS, MACR# 12342 -plane not named? 4:16pm
1st Lt. Robert J Tobin (P) – POW
2nd Lt. Clayton J Smith (CP) – POW
S/Sgt. Vance R Van Deusen (B/N) – POW
S/Sgt. Harold A Mueller (E/G) – POW
S/Sgt. Robert C Becker (R/G) – POW
S/Sgt. Leo R Mossman (TG) – POW

S/Sgt. Harold Arthur Mueller

S/Sgt. Robert “Bob” Mossman

S/Sgt. Robert C. Becker

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The second plane shot down on that cold Wednesday, February 14, 1945, 44-67915, probably was not named. It is not clear where the crew bailed out, or if they were able to stay with the plane as it tried to make it back to base. The MACR states the plane crashed near Echternach, Luxembourg, which is on a course which would take it back home, but is approx 500 km from the target.

From another on that mission:
Air Combat Diary of S/Sgt. David Castrellon
9th Bombardment Division, 558th Bombardment Squadron, 387th Bombardment Group
United States Army Air Force
#29 Clusters-St. Quentin, Fr. Base A-71

Date – February 14, 1945
Time – 4 Hours
Mission – Crown Prince Wilhelm Bridge at Engers north of Coblenz

Crew – Lt. Fallon, Lt. Moser, Sgt. Reardon, T/Sgt. Bothwell, S/Sgt. Dick, S/Sgt. Castrellon

Remarks – Definitely too Rough for us!! Saw two planes go down in flames over Rhine – 2 chutes opened. Flak heavy & accurate. We got 4 hits. One missed fuel tank by 1 inch. Hit bridge. I really sweated.

Load – 4 – 1,000 Lbs. Demos.

3.) 42-96164, 387th BG / 558th BS, MACR# 12343 -plane not named? 4:17pm
2nd Lt. Eugene P Pucket II (P) – killed
1st Lt. Wayne R Smith (CP) – killed
S/Sgt. Andrew O Wallace (B/N) – killed
S/Sgt. Edward V Wesolowski (E/G) – killed
S/Sgt. William Lynn Peyton (R/G) – POW
S/Sgt. William H Uhlemeyer (TG) – POW

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Here are two video clips of Sgt. Uhlemeyer recounting his experiences of that mission:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VaERmEHZq4 part 1
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw7_vx7ndDc part 2

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It is interesting to note that his treatment was decent when captured that day, probably because he was an enlisted man, not an officer.

Joseph O. Stevens
559th Bomb Squadron, 387th Bomb Group
A Valentine’s Day Mission
It was February 14, 1945 and at briefing I saw the reconnaissance photos of our target – a railroad bridge at Engers, Germany. I was to fly the No. 2 position in my flight and the ship I was to fly was a new one in our squadron named “The Texas Queen.” (TQ-G; Serial Number: 44-67916).

From son of Joseph Stevens: I have attached the picture he has of the “Texas Queen”, formerly “Black
Boy”, Ser. 44-67916, Sq. designation TQ-G. The aircraft was taken on 49 missions and survived the war. My father flew this ship twice, and was in it on 2/14/45 over Engers, Germany

 

TEXAS QUEEN
B-26G-15-MA Serial Number 44-67916 “Texas Queen” TQ-G
387th Bomb Group 559th Bomb Squadron