Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bandits at 6 o'clock

   “It was just like the battle in 'Wings,'” George Collar said of the Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944. “You’d hear those guns shooting and you could hear stuff blowing up and planes blowing up and bomb bay doors come floating by, and you could see the fighters sailing in on these guys. It was just like the movies. Better than the movies.”
   “Wings," a silent film about aerial combat in World War I, was the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1927.
   Collar was a bombardier on the Kassel Mission. His B-24 was one of 25 shot down that day and he became a prisoner of war. Bill Dewey, the pilot of one of the 10 bombers that survived the initial battle, once mentioned that he'd probably seen "12 O'Clock High" two dozen times.
   The Kassel Mission was supposed to be what was called a “milk run.” It turned out to be one of the most spectacular air battles of World War II.
   These are some descriptions from the survivors:

    “The tail gunner broke in on the intercom with ‘Bandits at 6 o’clock level, ten or twelve across.’ ”

    “Planes were going down – some in flames, others just exploding. The air was full of 20-millimeter shells. I thought the whole German Air Force was in the air at the same time. The first pass that they made took most of the squadron with them.”

    “There were planes blowing up. I saw engines go flying out of their holes. I saw parachutes. Parts of planes.”

    “The leading Liberator, on fire from nose to tail, came swinging toward us like a severely wounded animal, then peeled away as if to pick a spot away from us to die. The next bomber moved up in its place. Then we were hit ourselves.”

    I looked east and saw what looked to me to be over l00 fighters coming down in waves. I saw planes on fire, fliers bailing out, many with chutes also on fire. It couldn’t have taken over a few moments and looked to me like the whole 445th was wiped out. It is a memory and a vision I’ve carried for over 50 years.

    “The Liberator with the engines on fire on the left wing came up from below us to explode after it had reached our level. A human form fell out of the orange colored ball of fire. As he fell through space without parachute or harness, he reached up as if to grasp at something.”

     “I looked down on the lead group and there’s a bunch of FW-190s coming in, nine or ten of them abreast, shooting at them. And by that time we’re getting hit.”

    “The 20-millimeter shell tore through the bomb bay, ripping off the doors and severing fuel lines. Two fires started simultaneously in the bay. What strange mystery of fate kept us from exploding I’ll never be able to fathom. The engineer threw off his parachute, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and put both fires out before the 100-octane gas had been ignited. Then he attended to the leaks from which fuel was pouring out like water from a fire hydrant. Gasoline had saturated the three of us in the ship’s waist, and we all had a difficult time moving about. The two waist gunners were slipping and sliding as they sighted their guns.”

   George Collar and Bill Dewey devoted much of their lives to gathering documentation and preserving the history of the Kassel Mission. Together they formed the Kassel Mission Memorial Association, which, along with the efforts of German historian Walter Hassenpflug, was responsible for placing a monument in Germany with the names of 123 Americans and 18 Germans who perished in the battle. Collar and Dewey have both passed away, and Hassenpflug, who was an 11-year-old boy at the time of the battle, is in poor health. The so-called "next gen," or next generation, with people like Linda Dewey, Bill's daughter; and Doug Collar, George's son, spearheaded the formation of the Kassel Mission Historical Society.
   It was the dream of Bill Dewey and George Collar to one day write a book about the mission. In 2000, I drove to George's home in Tiffin, Ohio, and sat down with George and Doug Collar and Bill Dewey, and we discussed what should go into a book about the Kassel Mission. Bill said he'd like to model it after "Black Sunday," a coffee table tome about the Ploesti raid, with pictures of all the crews and charts and firsthand accounts.
   As was often the case with George, the conversation went off on an occasional tangent. One such tangent involved the Dessau Mission of Aug. 16, 1944, five weeks before the Kassel raid.
   “That Dessau Mission was my first mission,” remarked Bill. “I didn’t know any better. I guess that was the worst flak anybody had ever seen, because it was from railroad guns [antiaircraft guns on rail cars along the path the bombers were flying], and I didn’t know that that’s not the way it would be for all 35 missions.”
   “We never got to the target that day,” said George. “We had supercharger trouble and we started back. And in the meantime there was a guy in the high high right squadron who flopped over and came right down on top of Captain Carlisle’s plane, and as they came past, they almost wiped out Baynham’s plane. And they think the plane was upside down because they found footprints on the ceiling. And the bombs went up and came down in the bomb bay. They hadn’t dropped the bombs yet; they were flopping around on the shackles.”
   “One of the best stories we’ve got to put in,” George said a bit later, “is that story about Hunter’s crew, when they crashed in France [on the Kassel Mission]. They got hit in the gasoline tanks and gasoline was siphoning out of the bomb bay and coming up into the photographer’s hatch in the waist, and they said they were sloshing around in six inches of 120 octane gas. And there was a guy that deserved a medal – and he got one, too – a guy named Ratchford – he was the engineer. He went down in the bomb bay, imagine that, with gasoline shooting all over, and he repaired the leak. And they crash-landed, and they never even caught on fire.”
   “You know, these stories,” Doug Collar interjected. “I remember at Friedlos, getting ready for the ceremony [the dedication of the monument in Germany 1990]. I’m kind of eavesdropping, and these 18, 19 year old GIs are saying, ‘Do you believe these old farts?’
   “One of them says, ‘I can’t believe it, these guys are up there flying around, shooting .50-calibers at each other, no pressurized cabins. Jesus Christ!’
   “I’m listening, and the thing about it is, when you tell the story, the guy flying upside down, the footprints on the ceiling, bombs flying around, gasoline pouring out: this is the stuff that the average citizen has no comprehension of today. They see pushbutton warfare in the Persian Gulf – it’s all electronic. And I think this is the essence of a lot of these stories. These are unbelievable today.”
   After a few more anecdotes, the discussion took a somber turn, as the two principals placed the mission in the perspective of military disasters.
   “I’ll tell you what I think about this mission,” George said. “It was a big defeat for us and nothing to brag about, and I always said there was never anything written about it because they were trying to forget it.”
   “That’s right,” Bill said. “A coverup.”
   “I don’t know if it was a coverup,” George said. “They just said, 'Let’s kind of wash it under the rug.'”
   “Yeah,” Bill said. “Like that battleship that went down in ’45. The Indianapolis [actually, it was a cruiser]. That was a terrible thing.”
   Doug Collar suggested stressing the teamwork among the crews.
   “The thing that comes across time and again,” he said, “is that this is a team operation. It’s the training, but also the esprit de corps. Everybody had a job to do, they knew what they were supposed to do. I think that comes across on the Kassel Mission a lot.
   “Another thing the team concept manifests itself in is in what’s happened since 1986, in the fact that these guys are like a family 50 years later.”
   One valuable member of that family, Bill and George pointed out, is the young Belgian Luc Dewez, the author of the first, and so far the only, book about the Kassel Mission, “The Cruel Sky.”
   “Luc, he calls me, my … what does he say in here?” George said, opening his copy to the dedication. “‘To George. Don’t stop talking. Don’t stop researching. Dear boyhood hero. Dear friend. From Belgium. Stay my wordy friend.”
   “When I read that I thought, ‘You sonofagun!’” George said. After a round of laughter, all agreed that Luc meant “My worthy friend.”
   “You know, another thing about this team concept,” Doug said. “When I introduced Luc at the banquet [at the Savannah reunion of the 8th Air Force Association in 1999], I made remarks about how this is a team effort and the Allies are part of this, and he was representing the role of our Allies in Belgium: his father fought in the underground. Well, he didn’t show up at the Saturday night banquet, and everybody was worried about him. Then we came back, and when the bus came in, he was standing there passing his book out at 11 o’clock at night in the hotel.
   “I said, ‘What happened to you?’
   “He said, ‘Well, you mentioned we’re part of a family, part of a team effort.’ And he said, ‘Web Uebelhoer’s legs were swelling up and he needed medical help, so I stayed here with him. I’m part of the team.’” [Web Uebelhoer was the pilot of the deputy lead plane on the Kassel Mission, and had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair at the reunion.]
   Despite the exhaustive research conducted by George and Bill, there was actually a bit of serendipity involved in the formation of the KMMA.
   “I’ve got to give credit to my wife for this,” Bill said, “because we were at a reception at Norwich City Hall [in England] and she heard these two people talking about going back to Germany and meeting the German pilots, and it was Frank Bertram and Reg Miner talking with some other people. She grabbed ahold of them and said, ‘My husband always wanted to meet the German pilots.’ And so she introduced me to Frank, who had been in our 445th but I didn’t know him. So I’ve got to give credit to my wife.”
   “I remember back in ’87,” George said to Bill, “we went to that mini reunion down in Dayton and I met you.”
   “You said, ‘I want to see you,’” Bill replied. “You were sitting in the auditorium.”
   “And you know,” George said, “the funny part of it was, after Woolnough [editor of the 8th Air Force News] published the “Kassel Mission Reports” [actually, KMMA published the “Reports” that were articles originally carried in the 8th Air Force News], there was a letter in the 8th Air Force newsletter from a guy who said he had a friend that was killed in the Kassel raid and somebody ought to do something about putting up a monument, so the nucleus of the monument really started with him.”
   “He was a B-29 gunner, wasn’t he?” Bill recalled.
   “They’d gone through gunnery school together,” Doug said.
   “He said, ‘If anybody wanted to put up a monument, I'd be glad to donate,” Bill said. “And that's where I got the idea of a monument.”
   “Anyway," George said, “I looked at the name. There was nobody with that name on the Kassel Mission.”
   “We never heard any more from him,” Bill said.
   “He never sent in his money!” George said.

The Kassel Mission Memorial in Friedlos, Germany
For more on the Kassel Mission, please visit, and think about becoming involved in the Kassel Mission Historical Society, to help keep the memory of this important piece of World War II history alive.



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