TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on the Medal of Honor recipient.
Forrest Lee “Woody” Vosler was just 18 years old working as a drill press operator for the Rochester Products Division of General Motors on the day that lives in infamy. Over the next few months, older friends were drafted, but only young men over the age of 21 were being drafted early in the war. When Vosler turned 19 he decided not to wait any longer, getting his father’s signature and visiting the Army Air Force recruiter to enlist for training.
By Dec. 20, 1943, Vosler was a crewman for the 303rd Bombardment Squadron on a B-17 called “Jersey Bounce,” after the hit Big Band song penned by Buddy Feyne. Shortly after dawn, the bombers at Molesworth and other airfields across England began taking off into the crisp morning skies.
The crew was flying their fourth mission and circled over England for hours as nearly 500 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators took off, formed up, and headed northeast at 10:40 behind the coastal boundaries of Great Britain for the half-hour trek over the North Sea. The leading squadrons crossed the coastline of Holland at 11:06 a.m., and the first enemy fighters attacked 12 minutes later. Pilots of the leading squadron of the 303rd reported more than 100 enemy aircraft that moved in to turn back the raid. It was a running battle that lasted for 58 minutes.
Jersey Bounce, one of the original planes in the 303rd, miraculously evaded the hail of flak from below and the onslaught of fighters all around to reach the target where Lt. Monkres announced “Bombs Away.” Almost immediately, Lt. Henderson turned his bomber in a 180-degree turn to head north, away from the inferno and over the North Sea.
While making that adjustment to retreat at 300-miles-per-hour the sturdy bomber that had survived 28 combat missions shuddered and began to lose power. First, engine number one caught fire and number three gave out. The pilot skillfully put out the fires in time for the arrival of what seemed like the entire German Luftwaffe.
At first, the German fighters attacked the planes who were flying at higher altitudes whose engines hadn’t given out. Every single one was shot down. Soon, the Jersey Bounce was all alone and taking hits. The tail-gunner, George Buske, who had grown up near Vosler in upstate New York, announced on the interphone, “I’m hit.” Vosler remembered: “There was a lot of shrapnel coming through the aircraft. I don’t know where it came from, but to the best of my belief it was pieces of our aircraft...I was hit in both legs.”
Vosler recovered his courage and mounted his gun. All of the gunners had their hands full as the skies were so thick with German Messerschmitt fighter planes it was hard to miss. Meanwhile, the Jersey Bounce was taking so many hits that Vosler’s gun was the last one still serviceable. After knocking out one more enemy plane, Vosler pulled his goggles over his eyes and scanned the heavens for more targets.
There were so many holes in the plane it was quite cold – so cold, the morphine that his fellow crewmen tried to give the injured tail-gunner was frozen. Vosler pushed his fogging goggles up on his forehead so he could see just as an incoming 20mm shell slid the opposite direction down the side of his flex-held fifty to strike the breach and explode. Vosler fell backwards, blood streaming from scores of openings in his shredded flight suit.
Vosler was badly hurt. Besides major wounds in his chest and hand, smaller shrapnel wounds were evident everywhere else. Ed Ruppel recalled: “He was shrapnel from his forehead to his knees, everywhere. There was blood all over him, coming from all those little shrapnel cuts. There was no place where you could put your hand and stop the blood. I knew he was hit badly in the eyes, too, because I could see the white stuff running down below one eye and onto his cheek.”
It was the wounds to his eyes that bothered Vosler the most, not only for the sheer horror of being in the battle of his life and unable to see clearly, but because he believed he had lost half his face and was permanently disfigured. The plane, equally damaged, had no instrument panel and had to be flown at tree-top level. It was obvious that the battered bomber, struggling along on only two engines and shredded from nose to tail, would never make it back to England.
Priority now became staying airborne long enough to cross the hostile coastline and reach the North Sea. The pilot ordered all unnecessary equipment jettisoned to lighten the load and increase that prospect.
The Jersey Bounce’s crew had only one chance for survival; Vosler radioing for help. Indeed, the words Vosler heard as a trainee rang true: “A day will come in combat when the job of getting home is up to the radio operator.”
But what chance did they have with a blind, incapacitated radio operator and a damaged radio on a plane barely in the air? Find out next week in part two in the Tinker Take Off.
Sources include: HomeofHeroes.com, history.net, usafeenlistedheritage.org, 303rdbg.com, arlingtoncemetery.net, and AF.mil