The Wizard of Koz

wizard of Koz

With a deep roar from her twin 18 cylinder, 1,920 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines, the B-26 Marauder “Wizard of Koz” sped down the runway.  Based at Stansted Army Air Field, Bishop’s Stortford, England, they were off on their second mission of the day.  That morning they had flow a bombing raid at Le Ploy Ferme, France.  This second mission of the day was the thirteenth mission flown by this aircraft and crew since arriving in England.  Twelve more missions and they could be rotated home.  It was late afternoon, Saturday, April 22, 1944, and the “Wizard of Koz” had taken to the air for the last time.

The “Koz” was an aircraft of the 344th Bomb Group.  The unit had been a replacement training group, training crews for assignments in other B-26 groups.  When the newly reorganized United States 9th Air Force was shifted from the Mediterranean to the European theater of the war, needs changed.  The increase in missions against targets in Europe required additional units rather than just replacement crews. The 344th Bomb Group was assigned to combat duty with the 9th Air Force.

The 9th Air Force was given two priorities; 1) flying tactical operations in support of the invasion of France (Operation Point Blank), and 2) flying bombing raids against V-weapons sites (Operation Crossbow).

Stationed at Hunter Field in Georgia during their role as a training group, the 344th was commanded by Colonel Reginald Vance.  As 1944 began the group prepared themselves and their aircraft for transfer to England and their new role as a combat unit.  Their deployment was flown over what was known as the “southern route.”

Leaving the States from Morrison Field in Florida, they flew to Trinidad in the Caribbean.  The next stop on the route was Natal, Brazil, followed by a leg to Ascension Island for fuel.  The adventure progressed as the men continued across the Atlantic Ocean to Dakar, Africa, and then on to Marrakech, Morocco, for a final fuel stop.

The “Wizard of Koz” was in the 495th Bomb Squadron, under the command of Major Jens Norgaard,  They arrived in England on Friday, February 11, 1944.  Their squadron had been preceded by the 494th, 496th, 497th Squadrons, and by the 344th Bomb Group’s headquarters section.  The trip covered over 10,000 miles and took more than 60 hours of flying time.

With a white triangle on her tail identifying her as part of the 344th, “Koz” also carried the tail number 295910 painted in yellow.  Along the sides of the aircraft near the tail was further identification; a star and the squadron assignment “Y 5” and “F”.

The 344th had only a few days to settle in before flying their first mission.  Their first assignment, on February 29, was a diversionary mission that earned the “Koz” a duck painted just below the cockpit widow. The duck represented the decoy nature of the mission.

After sitting grounded through a period of aborted and cancelled missions due to bad weather, the 344th and the “Koz” experienced their first actual bombing mission on March 6.  The mission was the bombardment of the airfield at Bernay St. Martin, France.  The flak was very heavy and four aircraft returned with flak damage.

Two days later, on March 8, the group suffered the loss of two aircraft and crews.  Still inexperienced and taking off in bad weather, the two aircraft had collided.  The rest of the group went on to the target at Soesterburg, Holland.  The aircraft all returned safely with no additional losses.

Bad weather, morning missions, flak, afternoon missions, and more flak became a daily routine for the crew of the “Wizard of Koz” and the rest of the 344th Bomb Group.

The “Koz” was a Martin B-26B-50-MA, constructed at the Glenn L. Martin Middle River, Maryland plant, under contact AC-31733. She cost $239,655 to build, had a wing span of 71 feet, a length of 58 feet 3 inches and a height of 21 feet 6 inches.

The B-26 had many unique characteristics and exhibited a large number of firsts in aircraft construction.  It was one of the first combat aircraft to use plastics on a large scale; over 400 parts were made of plastic.  Rohm and Haas Company produced the nose from a revolutionary new material they invented, called Plexiglas. Crews referred to this nose as “the greenhouse.”  The aircraft had flexible tracks to move ammunition to the tail gunner.  These tracks were produced by Lionel, the toy train company.  This was also the first bomber to employ an electronic bomb release.  The first B-26 took to the air on November 25, 1940.

The target for what would prove to be the “Wizard of Koz’s” final mission was a V-1 rocket site at Siracourt, France.  Siracourt is located less than five kilometers west of St. Pol, France.  This particular V-1 site was one of three from which the Germans intended to launch unconventional weapons, chemical or biological.

     The “Wizard of Koz” was nicknamed after her commander, Captain Henry Kozlowski.  The aircraft sported unique and flashy nose art, that of a leprachaun-like wizard, long hair tied back with a bow, and riding a bomb amid bolts of lightning.

Siracourt is surrounded by open farming country with few trees and little to no natural cover.  The Germans completely rebuilt the town in order to use it to obscure the launch site.  All the homes were built from prefabricated materials and all were identical.  Intelligence had supplied more than adequate target information.  Siracourt had a geometric configuration unlike any other French village.  The launch building was located in the northeast section of the village and faced 30 degrees to the east.

The V-1 was the weapon the Germans hoped would change the course of the war, a flying bomb.  The rocket was 25 feet 10 inches long with a wingspan of 17 feet six inches and a body diameter of two feet, eight inches.  The launch weight was 4,860 pounds with the warhead weighing 1,870 pounds.  The range of the rocket was about 150 miles, easily putting London at risk.

Target time for the B-26 raid on Siracourt was set for 1800 hours.  The bombing altitude was to be 12,000 feet.  The formation flown was a box of 18 aircraft, in three tight groups of six aircraft each.  After take off they established their box formation and then proceeded to Dungenes, on the coast of England.  They then crossed the channel towards France, passing over the French coast about five miles south of Hardelet.  From there the flight headed southeast for Royon and then on to the target at Siracourt.

The “Wizard of Koz” was a box leader and therefore had a crew of eight instead of the usual six.  It was necessary for the radio/gunner to maintain radio contact at all times so another gunner was added to the crew.  The navigator/bombardier position was also divided, so both a navigator and a bombardier flew in the “Koz.”  It was important for the bombardier who was responsible for the accuracy of the whole box to be able to concentrate fully on the bomb run.

Captain Henry Premyslaus Kozlowski, pilot of the “Koz,” was an army brat.  His father was Colonel Karol B. Kozlowski, stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco in California.

The co-pilot was Second Lieutenant Lester Winfield Hauck, from Stamford, Connecticut.  Navigating was 22-year-old Second Lieutenant Gilbert J. Gorski, from Racine, Wisconsin.  The bombardier was was Second Lieutenant Gordon Lester Raschke, from Chicago, Illinois.  In the radio compartment was Technical Sergeant John Kopinski, also a Chicago boy.  The tail gunner was Staff Sergeant William Brockdorf from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The waist gunner was Staff Sergeant Everett Trueman Smith, from Kirkwood, Missouri, and the gunner manning the top turret was Staff Sergeant Charles Hubert Gast, from Ripley, Ohio.

There was a slight late afternoon haze over the target.  The flight was met with the usual heavy German anti-aircraft fire.  Almost immediately after dropping her bombs on the target trouble began for the “Wizard of Koz” and her crew.  One of the bombs was hung up in the bomb bay.  Just as Sergeant Kopinski kicked the bomb free and away, the “Koz” took a direct flak hit at the radio compartment.  Bombardier Gordon Raschke was watching through the bomb sight as the bomb Kopinski freed fell away.  The force of the blast of flak threw Raschke against the sight, knocking him unconscious and displacing his jaw. Sergeant Brockdorf was the last to see Kopinski, “a shadow crumbling in the flames of the radio room.”

With the situation desperate, Captain Kozlowski fought to maintain control of the “Koz,” gaining precious time for the crew to bail out.  Staff Sergeant William Brockdorf bailed out through the waist window, as did Staff Sergeant Charles Gast.  Brockdorf saw Staff Sergeant Everett Smith sitting motionless at his position, “apparently aghast,” although he had no visible injuries.  Brockdorf said that it looked as though Smith would not jump.

In the cockpit, trapped by the flames, Second Lieutenant Lester Hauck and Second Lieutenant Gilbert Gorski fought to escape the doomed aircraft.  When Hauck turned to the sound of the blast all he could see was a wall of flame where the radio compartment had been.  Lieutenant Gorski grabbed a fire extinguisher but realized at once that it was futile.  Escape became paramount.  They first tried to get the nose wheel out of the way or to make a hole they could squeeze through.  They tore at the metal of the plane viciously.

In desperation, Gorski stuck his arm into the flames of the radio compartment trying unsuccessfully to get a hatchet.  Hauck soon realized that the ditching hatch in the top of the cockpit was the only way out.

The flight manual for the B-26 Marauder states; “You are a dead pigeon if you try to escape from the open hatches in the top of the pilot’s compartment during flight.  If the engine propellers don’t get you, the vertical fin or stabilizer will.”

    The men in the cockpit had no choice but to take the risk.  As Hauck climbed up to the ditching hatch Gorski helped him.  Just as Hauck went through the hatch to freedom, he realized that although Gorski had been franticly struggling to create an escape route from the “Koz,” Gorski would not be following.  His parachute had been in the inferno that was the radio room.  Hauck made his way through the hatch and away from the “Wizard of Koz.”     Fliers from other crews in the 344th witnessed the last moments of the “Wizard of Koz.”  Lieutenants John Hegg, Alfred Freiburger and Donald Deffke reported that the aircraft stayed in formation for about thirty seconds after being hit.  The aircraft then pulled to the left and held a straight course for another minute or so.  It seemed to be heading back to formation, when, at about 5000 feet of altitude, it broke up and burned.On the ground Jules Delattre was working in a field.  He looked up and saw the burning aircraft break up and rain down on his village, Rebreuviette.  The largest part of the aircraft came down on the village pub, “Le Petit Paris,” near the Rebreuviette train station.  Two women in the pub,  Aline Balavoine and Rose Nicot were killed as the burning wreckage slamed into the pub.  A burning wing came down on the Canettemont Road in Rebreuviette, while the remains of the tail crashed into the La Canche River.  German authorities reported that the crash took place at 7:43 p.m.Three parachutes were spotted soon after the “Koz” was hit.  Jules witnesseed the race between the French underground and German troops in the area to get to the survivors.  The Germans were the first to get to them.  Delattre reported that he observed a German officer offer a cigarette to one of the downed flyers, only to have the flier insult the German.  “Furious, the German brought his hand to his gun…but he stops his movement short, understanding the airman’s feelings at having seen the majority of his crew killed.”Hauck, Brockdorf and Gast were all captured almost immediately after parachuting to the ground.  German reports indicated that they were all captured not far from the crash site, near Fervent, France.  Hauck had been slightly injured and was taken by the Germans to a hospital at Arras, France.  All three were then delivered to a POW camp.  Their war was over.Captain Kozlowski’s headless body was found near the destroyed shell of his namesake aircraft. He had probably taken his chances with escape through the ditching hatch, and lost.  His parachute had not opened in the air.  The Germans reported that the chute had burst open by impact with the ground.Gorski’s body was found in the cockpit of the wreckage.  Most likely he had been killed when the plane blew apart. They reported him “broken and flak riddled.”Lieutenant Raschke’s body was found crumpled up in the nose of the plane. He probably never regained consciousness from the initial blast.  His parachute was in the radio compartment fire and his fate, like Gorski’s, had been determined by the initial hit that had set the radio room ablaze.

Technical Sergeant Kopinski’s body was “charred beyond recognition” according to German reports, and was also found in the wreckage of the aircraft.

Staff Sergeant Everett Smith’s body was never found.  Men from other aircraft reported seeing a man bail out whose chute did not open.  That may have been Smith.

The last flight of the “Wizard of Koz” is at best a footnote to the combat actions on that April day in 1944.  The aircraft and her crew were not extraordinary.  They did not individually accomplish anything distinct, but instead, like the majority of those who served, dutifully added their best effort, and their lives, to a struggle on behalf of each other, their nation and future generations.  Their demonstration of sacrifice is all the more noteworthy simply because these men were not extraordinary.

On May 8, 1995, in Rebreuviette, France, across from the site of the pub where the wreckage of the “Koz” came down, a memorial was placed honoring the men of the “Wizard of Koz” and the two civilians who were killed that day in April, 1944.

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