The Arhweiler Mission; December 23, 1944. Story by Bob Mynn

[Note: This is a copy from a defunct website]

Little has been written about the costly battle that was fought on Saturday, December 23, 1944, between Luftwaffe fighters and Martin Marauders of the 391st Bomb Group. Official reports are very sketchy on the subject, yet 391st BG veterans know that on this day they and remembered comrades stood up to the very worst that a desperate enemy could throw at them and came through with honor. There follows an attempt to chronicle the action, using accounts and recollections from survivors, supported by information from official documents.

The events leading up to this strong Luftwaffe attack on the 391st are well known, and followed constant Ninth Air Force attacks, by medium bombers and fighter/bombers, on German supply lines and railway communications. Less commonly known perhaps is the important potential for support that was still possessed by the German State Railway system at the time. Despite the constant attacks by Allied aircraft, German railways were still functioning with remarkable efficiency. Under the command of Gen. Rudolph Gercke, repairs to damaged track, marshalling areas, and bridges were carried out with such competence that installations that had seemingly been completely destroyed, were frequently back in full operation the day following their "destruction". Proof of this aptitude for rapid recovery is clear when we see that between September 16 and December 15, 1500 troop trains and 500 supply trains brought forward 12 armored and 29 infantry divisions, with 1420 tanks and assault guns, together with 15,000 tons of ammunition and nearly five million gallons of motor fuel. No mean performance for any railway, never mind one suffering constant harassment from the air.

The essential importance of the GSR to German military aspirations was basic knowledge to the Allies; it was to further motivate both the strong U.S. Ninth Air Force and the ailing Luftwaffe.

Kicking their heels at their base at Roye-Amy in France, as a result of several days of appalling weather, aircrew of the 391st had not flown a mission since an attack on the defended village of Harperscheid, Germany on December 15. Despite the weather they were up at 5:00 AM, breakfasted, briefed, and taken to their hardstands, where they went through the normal procedures for take off. Then they sat anxiously in their planes, often for up to two hours, before getting the message that the mission had been scrubbed. They had flown the group"s 200th mission on the 12th, only 10 months after its first mission, but now they could only sit and wait. At this time, many of the original crewmembers had completed their tour of duty and had been rotated home. A number of replacements had flown one or two missions only and were therefore, very inexperienced. The group"s B-26"s, as with all groups, were a mixture of veteran ships, which had been flown over from the States to their first European base at Matching, Essex at the beginning of the year by the original personnel, and were mostly B- 26B-45-MAs, painted in the original O.D. and gray, though some carried the less familiar "blotched" camouflage, and were from the batch bearing 42- 95... tail-numbers, produced at the Martin factory in Baltimore. As the original veteran ships became thinned out, a good sprinkling of "silver" replacement ships were to be seen in every 391st BG formation. Sadly, the veterans were about to be thinned out some more!

As Saturday, December 23, 1944 dawned, Ninth Air Force Bomber Command was gaining confidence that the orders they had been putting out daily would this day be implemented. The meteorologists had reported a break-up in the thick cloud that had for so long grounded Allied aircraft when they had been sorely needed over the Ardennes. Messages from the 99th Bombardment Wing at Beaumont went speeding to the five Marauder groups in its command. Out of these messages the 391st drew the mission for which it had been briefed the day before, and which had been cancelled. Many of the crews considered this would be a "milk run", an easy trip to a German railway bridge and back, a bridge at a place called Arhweiler.

Situated between Koblenz and Bonn, in the beautiful Eifel region, Arhweiler sat to one side of a branch line from Cologne with its munitions production facilities. The single-track railway crossed and recrossed the river Ahr just outside the town of Arhweiler, and ran, indirectly, on into Belgium. It had the potential of being an important supply route and Ninth Bomber Command wanted all such supply routes cut. Interestingly, the Command had seen some merit in the target on a previous occasion, well before "the Bulge". On October 8, they had sent the 394th BG to Arhweiler, but from then on, it had remained unmolested by the "bridgebusting" Ninth.

The briefing was merely a "freshener" to bring crews up to date. A degree of urgency was imparted; this was an important mission. The bridge that was to be the primary target was one of three RR bridges over the river Ahr at this point. The primary (middle) bridge was a four span 160 foot one, with 32-foot masonry tiers. Its destruction was to be "another step in the plan to isolate the present counter-offensive from its source of supply and force the enemy onto the highways, where he is already hampered by lack of fuel, and where his vehicular equipment will be more vulnerable to fighter attack." The usual "flak-report" was provided, crews being warned not to wonder into the Euskirchen area and to keep clear of Trier, as both places were exceptionally well defended. Warnings were given that the Luftwaffe had 400 single-engined fighters "available" and were apparently making an all-out effort to support the counter-offensive. There would be Pathfinder support, as cloud was expected to persist over the target. The full quota of serviceable aircraft would take part. The bomb load was to be 4 x l000 lb General Purpose bombs per ship. A P-47 escort was to be provided just in case.

Formation orders gave the lead position to Capt. Edward M. Jannsen, of the 575th BS, flying "Silver Star" 42-107743, O8-W, a B-26C. Leading the low flight of the 1st Box was Lt. Clarence E. Mickelson, of the 574th BS, in 43-34309, 4L-C, a B-26G replacement. An important late change of personnel took place as Lt. Ward Smidl, co-pilot of "309, was inside the aircraft fastening his seatbelt. A jeep drove on to the hardstand and out of it leapt Col. Donald Brandon, 574th BS executive officer. He pushed his head into the pilots compartment and said to Smidl, "Didn"t you know you were not supposed to fly today?" Smidl replied, "No sir, my name was on the battle order." Col. Brandon then said, "Your crew has been flying lead lately so I'm going to fly in your seat, just to see how things are going along. You can go along as... navigator, or whatever!" Smidl climbed out of the seat and back into the radio-operator/navigator"s compartment. This was to be his 19th mission and he wasn"t going to miss adding this milk run to his tally. Events were to make him very sorry that he had listened to the "milk run prophets".

Leading the second box would be Capt. Joseph Boylan, of the 573rd BS, who was flying another of the group"s original ships, 42-95825, coded T6-B and known as "Easy Dog 99." "Easy" carried a crew of seven, including another Captain, the bombardier, Capt. Lester "Bill" Smith.

The morning was well advanced by the time the message came through that finally prompted the countdown to the mission. Start-up and taxi-out was routine, followed by an uneventful take off by all the participating aircraft. 32 heavily laden Marauders bellowed and splashed their way down the streaming runway and into an unyielding gloom. Two spare machines remained at dispersal; there had been no serviceability problems with the assigned aircraft as each climbed laboriously up through the murky clouds. Once on top of the dense overcast, and in clear sunshine, the planes drew together, creating the kind of close formation that would provide the force with maximum protection should the Luftwaffe decide to challenge this further encroachment over its territory. At their prescribed rendezvous the formation of 32 planes met and absorbed into their number the two ships from 1st Pathfinder Squadron that were to lead them to the target, one to each box.

The mission had been of "milk run" potential so far, but that was due for change. Having taken off at 10 am, the formation was scheduled to meet up with its fighter escort at 11:30 am. There was no sign of the P-47s at the rendezvous over St Vith, and the formations started on a 360-degree turn hoping that the P-47"s would be in sight when the maneuver was completed. Since this hope proved fruitless, the formation simply tightened up a little more and continued on its way. Shortly afterwards the formation encountered some unexpected flak, pre-f light intelligence reports had not indicated that the Germans had advanced that far. As was the norm, the German gunners were concentrating much of their fire on the two Pathfinders. Capt. Jannsen in the lead had no response to his radioed attempts to get "his" Pathfinder to take evasive action and it continued, incomprehensively, straight and level until, inevitably, it received a direct hit and pulled out of the formation. Most significantly, the weather began to break, the gloom giving way to minimal cloud cover and then to almost unlimited visibility. In view of this vast change in the weather, the other Pathfinder aircraft left the formation, thus following standard procedure, and made way for both box leaders to use their own bomb-sights and signal the whole formation to drop its bombs in unison. At about this time, Lt. Wilbur P. Stevenson and 2nd Lt. John J. Kollar, pilot and co-pilot of 4L-B, in #4 slot behind Mickelson, and also carrying a bomb-sight, noticed that the bomb bay doors of the low flight lead plane were open. Kollar radioed this plane and asked why their bomb bay doors were open when the target was still 45 minutes away. The reply came from Col. Brandon himself, "Lieutenant, you take care of your plane and we"ll take care of our plane, please maintain radio silence."

On board the low flight lead, Lt. Smidl opened the door that led to the forward bomb bay and found it bright with light from the gaping bomb bay doors. The flak which had come up at them so prematurely had scored a hit and damaged the plane"s hydraulics, and, as the crew belatedly scrambled to get into their flak vests and don their helmets, they were, after a few minutes, able to get the bomb doors to close.

Though aware that the lead plane"s bomb doors had now been closed, Stevenson, in 4L-B, and Kollar, discussed the situation for a while and came to the conclusion that they should ask the lead plane to order the formation to drop their bombs on a signal from their plane instead of the lead. Again breaking radio silence, Lt. Kollar explained to the Lt. Colonel that his plane may have suffered some damage to its hydraulic system and they would not be able to reopen the bomb bay doors for the bomb run. Col. Brandon replied, "Lieutenant, we will take care of our plane, maintain radio silence, and that is an ORDER."

Keeping a guarded lookout for enemy fighters, the crews drew nearer to the initial point at Koblenz, plainly visible where the Moselle joined the Rhein. The crews, knowing that the Luftwaffe was still capable of springing a few nasty surprises, flew on through the flak, which to Ninth Bomber Command crews was, by a wide margin, the greatest adversary.

As though to confirm this viewpoint, the intensity of flak increased. The target was near; the bomb-run began. In the lead ship, Capt. Jannsen had big trouble. His Bombardier, Lt. John Garfield, was having great difficulty finding the target due to freshly fallen snow and a haze. His bombsight told him that bombs dropped now would overshoot. There was nothing for it but to make another run!!

During this time Capt. "Bill" Smith, bombardier on the second box lead ship, realized that the first box was moving away from the target, and directed his pilot, Capt. Joe Boylan to change direction. This change of direction was too late for the second box lead, T6-B, and the other two planes of its element (T6-T & T6-C), to make an accurate run, and bombs were salvoed into open fields. Crewmembers who were not directly involved with the absorbing task of target location became aware that, mercifully, the vicious flak had stopped. Before their minds had had time to fully retain this gratifying fact, something even more deadly grabbed their highly charged attention. German fighters were now shooting at them!!

FW-190"s and ME-109"s of Jagdgeschwader 2, 3, and 11 had been given the task of stopping the 391st formation. Flown by mainly inexperienced replacement pilots, led by a gallant sprinkling of seasoned fliers, the force of 60 plus tore into the Marauders. First collectively, then in pairs and in threes, from every angle they carried out their attacks.

Charged with supporting the Wehrmacht"s drive for Antwerp, the Luftwaffe had, like the Allied Air Forces, been hampered by the impossible flying weather of past days, but unlike the Allies, it was putting its build-up of aircraft into the air for defensive purposes, and now one of its tasks was to defend the bridge at Arhweiler.

Starting at 1155 hours an estimated sixty ME-109 and FW-190 fighters bored into the 391st Bomb Group and in serried ranks ten or twelve abreast tore through the formations. The second box was the first to feel the fury of Luftwaffe attack, the low flight being singled out for head-on, beam attacks, and in-Line attacks from the rear. Led by 42-95927 "Pops Wagen" coded 4L-N and piloted by Lt. Jack Chism, who, along with his regular crew, had just made "lead crew" and were being checked out by the 574th BS Commander, Major Loesch, who was in the co-pilot"s seat. Following the confusion at the head of the formation, the low flight had bombed a secondary target north of the primary, had fallen behind the main formation, and were now exposed to the furious onslaught of determined Luftwaffe fighter pilots who, taking advantage of the element"s loose defensive pattern, were boring their planes in between the Marauders, so close that the Marauder crews could clearly see the pilots inside, and ammunition links falling from the wings. Overwhelmed, one crippled Marauder after another fell from the sky. 2nd Lt. Edward Donnelly, flying old hand "Powerful Katrinka", 42-95841. Lt. Dale Detjens flying "Snakes Revenge", 41-35010, with two "chutes emerging. Capt. Clyde Brown flew another old hand "Sky Hag", 42-95865. Lt. Paul Matus piloting unnamed 43-34361 was watching an FW-190, minus its left wing, curve past at one o"clock high heading for Dale Detjen"s plane, he didn"t see it hit as his attention was distracted by his co-pilot 2nd Lt. Bill Young telling him that the right engine was on fire, he ordered Young to shut it down and use the extinguishers. The plane was falling off to the left and he managed to straighten out. Tracers were still streaking at him as he struggled to keep the Marauder flying, and through the barrage he saw a Me-109 fly straight into the tail of the #4 plane in his flight. 42-107597 was a silver replacement ship, a B-26C flown by Lt. Ralph Lesmeister and the impact immediately rolled the plane over so that it was upside down. Succeeding in getting the ship back onto an even keel, Lt. Lesmeister found himself the subject of a concentrated attack by both FW-190s and ME-109s which came in to within a few feet, firing all the way, would half roll before coming in for another run. Still trying to control the plane, which was locked in a 30 degree dive, due to the tail being jammed and partly destroyed, Lt. Lesmeister, tried to break loose the controls by pushing against the instrument panel with his feet. It was then he saw fire in the right engine and knowing he could never raise the nose for a landing, called for a bail out. The radio had been shot out, along with his instruments, so there was no response to his call. He tried the bail out bell, which, thankfully worked and the crew began to abandon the doomed ship. Because the hydraulics had been shot out, the nose wheel door couldn"t be opened, the air-bottle took care of that and the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Albert Stark, and the Bombardier, 2nd Lt. Carl Pollock, jumped. In the rear, S/Sgt Frank Stanton, waist gunner, had been knocked unconscious by a German shell, and believing there was no other way, the top turret gunner, S/Sgt Glare Oliphant, snapped Frank"s parachute on him and bundled him out. He was to wake up on the way down and pull the cord. Lt. Lesineister himself let go of the controls and the plane went into a near vertical dive. Shedding his flak jacket and helmet, he dragged himself back to the bomb bay and dived through the still-open doors.

Meanwhile, protected by his armor plated seat and still the subject of a concerted attack by several German fighters, Lt. Matus had his top canopy shattered and saw his instrument panel start to disintegrate as dials, and springs were hammered out onto the pedestal. The radios behind him blew up and blue smoke filled the cockpit and streamed through the shattered canopy. Needless to say, the radio chatter and crackle ceased. His Bombardier, "Bo" Cline, popped his head out of the nose compartment and said his gun had jammed. Matus told him to get out of there and go to the back and check on the rest of the crew. He was able to hold the plane level though it was falling like a leaf. Bo Cline came back and told him the rear bomb hay was on fire. Putting on the bail-out bell, Matus told Cline to go back and signal if he heard the bail-out bell was working. All this time the plane was being attacked from about 9 o"clock high, and from 11 o" clock low. Cline"s signal assured Matus that the bail-out bell was working and he opened the bomb bay doors, and Cline jumped. Next to jump was co-pilot Bill Young as Matus struggled to keep the plane level and control its desire to roll to the right. He was able to maintain control with aileron but came to the conclusion that he would never make it to the bomb bay himself. He decided to drop the wheels and go out through the nose wheel hatch. With the hatch open he noticed that the nose wheel was not locked and was swinging back and forth. He unlatched his seatbelt and, holding the plane level with his left hand, stood astride the hatch, and, as the wheel came up he kicked it out and tried to determine how much time he had to let go of the control wheel and drop. At this point the plane"s forward motion was practically nil and the nose wheel came back about two thirds of the way. So he tried, still hanging onto the control wheel, to get into the hatch and stand on each door with the nose wheel swinging between his legs. With his right foot he kicked out the nose wheel and let go of the control wheel to drop. Immediately, the plane tipped to the right and inertia held him firmly against the right side of the hatch. He reached up, grasped the control wheel and straightened the plane up whilst still standing on the nose wheel doors. Desperately he turned the wheel to the right, past level flight, the ailerons responded, and as the plane tipped onto its left wing, he let go of the wheel, kicked the nose wheel and dropped, just as the plane came back to level flight. He has just cleared with most of his torso, when the nose wheel hit him hard on the left ear. He was momentarily stunned but managed to pull the D-ring of his chute and, in a moment was on the ground, whilst his stricken plane exploded on coming to earth among trees of the Schmidheimerforst. Of the seven planes of the lower element, only 42-95252 T6-Z "Little Gal", the only 573rd ship in the element, and 42-95927 4L-N "Pops Wagen" remained. Five planes of the 574th BS had gone down.

In the lead, Jannsen, under fierce attack by fighters, was making a 360-degree turn in preparation for a second bomb run. Soon his right wingman, Lt. William J. Kirton, in "The Grinning Gremlin", radioed him that his, Jannsen"s, right wing was on fire, the main fuel tank had been penetrated. Jannsen continued leading his flight over the target, released his bombs and became aware that the Gods must be smiling on him, for the self-sealing had done its job and the fire was out. Now, however, he was getting calls from the other ships that they were having trouble formating on him and, at this moment the fighters broke off their attack and he was able to do a little damage assessing. He discovered that his right engine was on full throttle, whilst the left engine was pulled back to idle. He didn"t know that the throttle arm on the right engine"s carburetor had been shot off, allowing the engine to go onto full power. Concentration on the target and the attention from the fighters, had made him forget to crank in trim to compensate for the change in power, and his right leg was shaking with the strain. Re-trimming the plane made things more controllable and Jannsen was able to make a difficult landing back at base. Later his crew chief discovered a 20 mm shell that had lodged between two fuel lines and failed to explode.

Leading the second box, 42-95825 T6-B "Easy Dog 99" of the 573rd, was not Capt. Joseph I. Boylan" s regular ship, but he and she were now in the thick of it. Boylan looked out of his side window and saw the plane on his left take a direct hit and explode in a ball of flame. His eyes met those of the unsuspecting co-pilot at the instant he was engulfed by the explosion and the plane disappeared without trace. Lt. Clayton B. Abraham, his crew, and T6-T 42-107747, were gone in an instant. "Easy Dog 99" too was about to end a short but distinguished career during which she had flown over 100 missions as, whilst retiring from the target, both engines were shot out and fire enveloped the ship, flames feeding into the radio gunner"s position from the burning wing tanks. Capt. Boylan rang the bail-out bell and the three gunners in the rear went out from the waist positions, whilst the five crewmen in the fore part of the ship went out through the nose wheel opening.

Flying just behind the formation leader in the first box was another of the 574th squadron"s original ships, 42-95798 4L-K piloted that day by 2nd Lt. Jack Haynes on his 36th mission, though his first in the left seat. In this plane and split from his usual crew, with which he had flown 25 missions, tail gunner S/Sgt. Wendell A. Fetters knew only two of the other men in the ship. His regular pilot, Lt. Bert Ryan, along with his regular Bombardier/Navigator, 2nd Lt. Allen Rouse, were aloft in the same flight and had along a "green" crew gaining combat experience. Forced into making a second bomb run, the plane carrying S/Sgt. Fetters released its bombs and turned off the target. Now Fetters could see that enemy fighters were attacking the main formation and he watched as they shot down Marauders from the low box and then worked their way up to the high box. The first to come in on his ship was a FW-190, and directly behind that was a ME-109, with two more behind and a little below the first two. Sgt. Fetters hammered away with his .50s and thought the first FW went down. But it had already severely damaged the Marauder and killed its pilot. From his vulnerable position in the tail, Sgt. Fetters continued defending his plane as 20mm shells burst around him, leaving him with splinters in his face and right leg. By the time the fourth ME-109 went through he knew that he was losing the uneven battle. He looked behind him to find the plane on fire and no sign of any other member of the crew. He hadn"t heard the bail-out bell or any message over the intercom and found that the microphone jack linking his headset to the fuselage connection had been shot away. He went back to get the other gunners and by now the fuselage was full of smoke and fire. He felt for the engineer gunner but he wasn"t in his turret, vacant too was the radio gunner"s position. Hurriedly putting on his chute, he leaped from the right waist gun position. As he jumped head first, a leg strap of his parachute caught in the front sight of the waist gun and he hung suspended in the fire from the burning plane. The slipstream tore the goggles from his head and he lost their protection as the fire scorched his face. An eternity passed before he finally tugged his leg free and fell clear of the plane. He was still in a lot of trouble however, as having delayed deploying his chute until he was closer to the ground, he pulled the ring and nothing happened. As a result of the wet take off, water had splashed into the plane and his chute was now frozen. He was forced to tug it from its pack manually... and, thankfully, it deployed only just in time and he crashed heavily into the top of a tree, breaking his left ankle. Sgt. Fetters didn"t know at the time that his former pilot Lt. Bertram Ryan, who was flying 42-95818 4L-L "Lady Chance", had been killed with his new crew when the experienced "Lady" plunged burning to earth.

Now under heavy attack, and mortally wounded, with a damaged propeller on the only good engine causing violent vibration, the lead ship of the low flight was becoming a sitting duck as gun after gun suffered malfunction and damage. In the tail, gunner S/Sgt. Robert Buckley received a 20mm shell in the middle of his chest and died almost immediately. In the top turret, S/Sgt. Jay Troup"s face was lacerated by fragments from an exploding 20mm shell, and with his ammunition jammed in its can which had been hit, he went back and attempted to use Sgt. Buckley"s gun, but it was inoperative. The bail-out bell now sounded and he prepared to conform, as did fellow crewmen Messel, Peters, and Weibking. As the others began leaving, Troup discovered that his chute was on backwards and, having changed it round, got out of a plane which was now at little more than 2500 feet. 2nd Lt. Ward Smidl, his hopes of notching up a milk run definitely a memory upon which he didn"t want to dwell, had poked his head into the pilot"s compartment to see if he could help and been told to get the rest of the crew out of the plane. He made his way to the rear but couldn"t squeeze between the bomb racks whilst wearing his parachute. He had on the pilot"s combined one-piece chute and harness that prevented him from squeezing past the bomb load, which was still hanging from its racks. He had, therefore, to completely remove his parachute and thread past, the chute draped over his arm. Once in the empty rear bomb bay, he refitted his chute and went out of a waist window. Lt. Mickelson and Col. Brandon died when they tried to crash-land the plane.

Another 574th ship to go down from the first flight was 44-67826 4L-U, a B- 26G on its first mission and piloted by Warren E. Gray who was "breaking in" a novice crew. Gray stayed at the controls, despite an almost complete loss of power, until other crewmen had bailed out, before parachuting himself.

In 4L-B, Lt. Wilbur P. Stevenson and his co-pilot 2nd Lt. John Kollar were the subject of the unwelcome attentions of five FW-190s which came in at 6 o" clock low. In the tail, gunner, Sgt. Louis Verdeal had watched Marauders of the two lower flights of the second box being systematically shot down by enemy fighters. He alerted the waist gunner and prepared for incoming fighters. He was surprised to see the Focke Wulfs in a tight V formation, 3 low and two high. The width of their formation and their bullet pattern looked able to cover, at least, two Marauders. To Sgt. Verdeal, looking down their gun barrels, the thought occurred that his plane was going to get it all. The fighters couldn"t miss hitting a vital spot, and with such a concentration of firepower, they had only to make one pass and his bomber, along with others, dropped out of formation badly damaged. Verdeal had reason to be glad that the last bulkhead on a B-26 was made of "1/2 inch armor plate, with two hinged doors to charge the guns and a hinged bullet- proof glass door for the optical gun sight. Beyond this were the guns in their plexiglass enclosure. The armor plate bulkhead shuddered with the impact of the many rounds of mixed ammunition hitting it, the bulletproof glass turned opaque as 3 rounds crystallized it instantaneously. His guns stopped operating and he unlatched and swung the glass doors aside to survey the damage. The slipstream whistled through the shattered opening as the entire plexiglass enclosure had disappeared, and the hinges, with bits of plexiglass attached, were flapping in the wind. He thanked God that the armor and glass had withstood the pounding. He didn't have to look forward to know that the plane had been hit hard, since smoke from the right engine was streaming past his right window. He noted that the plane that had been flying on their right wing was no longer there; in its place was a German fighter. It was sufficiently close for Verdeal to see the pilot"s face; the German was keeping his plane below maximum depression of the Marauder" s turret guns. The waist gunner got a few rounds in before his gun jammed and they started going down with the right engine blazing. The "bail-out" order never came, as the intercom to the tail was out, yet there was no question in Sgt. Verdeal's mind as to what came next. He looked forward and saw the top turret gunner drop out of his turret. Snapping his chest-type parachute onto its harness, he moved quickly forward. The two gunners were already in their chutes, had swung the left waist gun aside and were preparing to dive from the waist window. Verdeal realized that with this much fire the plane could blow up or go into an uncontrolled dive at any moment. Diving through the smoke passing the right waist window or waiting his turn at the other window were his options, he quickly swung the other gun aside and went out through the smoke. Thanks to its gallant pilot remaining at the controls, five crewmen had escaped from the doomed Marauder, but it was too late for Lt.. Stevenson, he crashed to his death in the burning plane.

Flying to the right of Lt. Ryan in "Lady Chance", silver Marauder 42-107720 41-R, was to escape the full wrath of the Luftwaffe, for, although damaged, its pilot Lt. Woods, was able to land it safely back at Roye-Amy.

Similarly spared, 43-32025 08-S, an almost new B-26G, of the 575th, landed back at base in the grateful hands of Lt. Horstman. Of the mainly 574th seven ship first box low flight, only two remained.

With complete impartiality, the "109s and "190s had been cutting into the high flight of the first box. Capt. Herschel Harkins, 575th commander, was serving as observer in the element of six planes led by "Scrumptious" 42-95847 08-H, another of the group"s veteran Marauders. Piloted by Capt. Breeseman, "Scrumptious" suffered considerable damage during a fierce pass by the attackers that left Capt. Breeseman, co-pilot Lt. Curtis, T/Sgt. Dickinson, top turret gunner, and S/Sgt. Burns, tail gunner, severely wounded. Taking over the controls, the experienced Capt. Harkins was facing the future with the odds stacked against him.

Fighting back ferociously, several enemy fighters fell to her guns before 100 mission veteran "Fifinella" 42-95932 08-T, right engine ablaze, fell from the formation and headed earthwards, taking her replacement pilot, Lt. Clark Tavener, and most of his crew to their deaths, only two managing to parachute. Her original crew had rotated back to the U.S. in September. Another of the 575th"s ships was flying on Lt. Tavener"s left wing at the rear of the flight and was a further victim of the concentrated assault that had been unleashed on the Group. Piloted by Lt. William Kloepfer, old "Miss Behavin'", 42-95844 08-D, plunged earthwards out of control and still carrying its crew. The loss of these two ships left a gap in the formation that allowed the determined German fighters to get at the plane in the center of the formation. Several of them attacked 42-107671 08-L, piloted by Lt. James Gatlin, Jr, leaving the luckless B-26 with one engine burning and the other motionless, six crew members parachuted from the stricken plane during its short journey to earth. Of the three remaining Marauders from the flight, a B-26G flown by 2nd Lt. Donald Sharp, 43-34440 08-Q, now felt the full weight of the enemy fighters cannon and machine gun attacks. With the right wing ablaze, following a hit on the engine, and hydraulic systems shot out, Lt. Sharp ordered the crew to bail out. 2nd Lt. Raymond Hedstrom, the co-pilot, attempted to warn the crew through the bail-out bell and interphone, but neither would work. Having verbally alerted the Bombardier, Hedstrom crawled through the burning bomb bay to give direct warning to the crew in the rear of the Marauder. Then he, and three other crewmen parachuted from the rear of the burning plane, while the selfless pilot remained at the controls and died when the plane plunged into the ground. Flying on the right wing of "440, Lt. Heslep in another B-26G 08-X, survived the onslaught, and helped by the likelihood that the Luftwaffe attackers must now be short of ammunition, brought his damaged plane back to base. Resolute old "Scrumptious", her crew claiming four German fighters, staggered back in the skilled hands of Capt. Harkins, to crash-land at base, her four wounded brought home by a plane so badly shot up that she would never fly again.

Leading the high flight of the second box, Capt. James May, flying 43-34451 T6-D, slowed his plane and allowed the other five ships to close in and tighten the little formation. The six ships made the most of the formidable fire power their good discipline afforded them, and the German fighters elected to find easier targets after a few attacks from the rear had met concentrated resistance from the Marauder tail gunners. The flight was also able to offer welcome protection to Lt. Frank Dillard"s "Oh Frankie" 42-107806 T6-C, on his 65th mission and from the second box lead flight, now on single engine and out on his own following the loss of the box leader, Capt. Boylan, and the sudden demise of Abraham"s plane. All the Marauders from the second box high flight landed safely back at base, the crews wondering why they had got back before the others. Not until the debriefing did they discover the extent of the Group"s losses, and how fortunate they had been. Capt. May was among the wounded, being treated for a bullet in a calf muscle. Damage to the Flight"s aircraft was comparatively light. But overall, the 391st had been badly battered, and had lost 16 Marauders and their crews. The plane"s gunners had done a remarkably courageous job, some of the B-26s were seen to go down with their guns still blazing and they were credited with shooting down 16 enemy fighters during the engagement. Almost certainly there were more, many gunners were no longer in a position to make claims.

That this was a significant air battle there can be no doubt. It was, in fact, a unique battle as, unlike most earlier, unescorted, Eighth Air Force Vs. Luftwaffe battles, this one was fought by one Ninth USAAF group that was numerically outnumbered by the opposition. It illustrates the vulnerability of the twin-engined bomber of the time, despite tough construction and plenty of guns, and supports the wisdom of those military planners and designers who, prior to WWII, understood the advantage of providing four engines as an aid to indestructibility. Another aspect that may have had a considerable effect on the Group"s ability to fight back that day, relates to the number of gun malfunctions reported by crews. In common with other Ninth Bomber Command groups, the 391st. had discontinued the regular air-testing of its plane"s weapons. Assigned to French bases, they no longer had to undertake the flight over the Channel, and had lost the opportunity that this afforded them to test their guns. Testing over the territory of a friendly ally was considered too dangerous, and, anyway, the risk from German fighters was small, the .50s were becoming superfluous!!

Despite its huge losses the Group was able to send 21 Marauders to attack the defended village of Neuerburg in the afternoon of the same day, and these planes carried out their mission without loss or casualties among the crews.

Of the 32 aircraft dispatched on mission 203 to Arhweiler, only 16 returned and practically every one of those was damaged, several being write-offs. For the Ninth Air Force such very heavy battle losses were rare, and to surpass a 50% loss rate we have to recall the second Ijmuiden mission by the 322nd BG.

For its determination and courage during the course of the mission to Arhweiler on 23 December 1944, as we all know, the 391st Bomb Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation, scant acknowledgement of the great sacrifice made by those brave young men of the group who were not turned back by powerful odds and who gave their lives attempting to destroy a target which, like many another, was of controversial value to either side.

Official sources don"t record how many of the 99 crewmen who were shot down survived the demise of their aircraft and became POWs. Remarkably, no connection with the mission was made when, at the end of the war, men were "processed" and returned home to the U.S. Not until 1974, when the 391st Bomb Group Association was formed, did the opportunity occur for a handful of Arhweiler survivors to meet and discuss the mission together. They discovered they knew little about the way things happened that day in December 1944. Through the years, more and more of the men long thought to be dead, and whose USAAF career ended on 23 December 1944, have been found, and each has added his proud story to the scant official record. The writer has been privileged to meet many of these men and been able to record their stories. Inevitably, memories that have lain undisturbed for 50 years are subject to "time wear", and the same story can be told, with complete sincerity, in several different ways. Armed with a great many personal accounts, the writer has been able to cross check and compare, to discuss the various anomalies with the men who were there. Too many were involved for me to list you all, I hope I have been able to convince you of my respect for the way you conducted yourselves on that calamitous day.

Therefore, to all my friends of the 391st BG Association, I dedicate this narrative, a long-overdue dossier on the mission that officialdom forgot.

(Data on the GSR from "Battle of the Bulge", by General Napier Crookenden.)