Friday, December 20, 2013

TFH 12/20: Technical Sergeant Forrest L. Vosler, USAAF

Forrest Lee Vosler was born in Lyndonville, New York on July 29, 1923. During 1942, as his friends from his hometown were being drafted for World War II military service, he decided not to wait for his name to be called, and volunteered by enlisting in the United States Army Air Corps on October 8, 1942.

Vosler had hoped to be a pilot, but his poor performance on the required aptitude tests saw the Air Corps send him to be trained as a radioman instead. Then, he faced another challenge. At the time, there was a 6-foot height limit to be approved for flight status; Vosler was 6' 3". He had volunteered to fight for his country, and his determined requests to be assigned to a bomber unit eventually paid off.

The service relented on the height restriction and deployed him to England for service with the 358th Bombardment Squadron of the 303d Bombardment Group (Heavy), part of the United States Army Air Forces' VIII Bomber Command, the forerunner of today's Eighth Air Force of the United States Air Force and Global Strike Command.

After Vosler's first combat mission to bomb Bremen on November 26, 1943 (83rd mission of the 303d), he was convinced that there was no way he'd survive his 25-mission tour of duty. At the time, the average crewmember longevity was eleven missions.

On December 20, 1943, Vosler boarded Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress 42-29664, named Jersey Bounce Jr., with his nine crewmates for what would be his fourth mission (303d mission 90) over enemy territory.

Jersey Bounce Jr. was piloted that day by Second Lieutenant John F. Henderson. Henderson had just been promoted to aircraft commander in the crew, and the previous crew commander, Captain Merle R. Hungerford, flew the mission as the co-pilot.

The other crewmembers were:

  • Sergeant Ralph F. Burkart, Left Waist Gunner
  • Sergeant George W. Buske, Tail Gunner
  • Second Lieutenant Woodrow W. Monkres, Bombardier
  • Sergeant Stanley E. Moody, Right Waist Gunner
  • Sergeant Edward Ruppel, Ball Turret Gunner
  • Staff Sergeant William H. Simpkins, Flight Engineer
  • Second Lieutenant Warren S. Wiggins, Navigator

Then-Staff Sergeant Vosler, nicknamed "Woody" by his comrades, was the radio operator, doubling as the ship's top turret gunner. On the way into the target, Jersey Bounce Jr., was struck by a Nazi flak burst that took out one of the bomber's four engines. From his vantage point in the top turret, Vosler witnessed two fellow bombers be blown out of the air by anti-aircraft fires and enemy fighters. Of the twenty crew aboard those two planes, nine men lost their lives.

Right after they unloaded their ordnance on the target, Vosler's plane was struck by another anti-aircraft blast, knocking out a second engine.

Departing the Bremen target area, Jersey Bounce Jr.'s loss of two engines meant the pilots couldn't maintain formation and fell behind. The stricken bomber was pounced on by enemy fighters who relentlessly pummelled the plane with machine gun and cannon fire as the crew fought valiantly to defend themselves.

Vosler was wounded by a 20mm shell that exploded beneath his turret in the radio compartment, perforating his legs and thighs with shrapnel wounds and knocking out the radios. A short time later, another fighter attack scored a direct hit on the bomber's tail, severely wounding the tail gunner, Sergeant George Buske, and removing those vital defensive guns from service.

The German fighters reacted quickly to Jersey Bounce Jr.'s new rear vulnerability and focused their attacks from behind. Vosler abandoned his top turret, and got back to the tail where he rendered immediate aid to Buske, and then took up his fighting position and got the tail guns back in action. While manning the tail guns, he was struck by another cannon shell blast and had his face and eyes blown full of metal fragments. Even though he had almost entirely lost his eyesight, he remained at the guns and fired at what he could see through the pain.

Finally, as Jersey Bounce Jr. got back over the North Sea, the German fighters were running low on fuel and gave up their pursuit. The bomber's gunners were credited with shooting down at least four of their attackers, but the crew wasn't home free yet. The hundreds of holes shot by the enemy into the plane also caused them to lose fuel, and they'd run out before reaching England.

Vosler volunteered to bail out if lightening the plane would help get it back to a friendly airfield. His request was denied. The pilots told the crew that they'd have to ditch into the sea close to the English coast.

Knowing that their possibility of rescue from the icy waters would be much higher if their location was known, and that the only person who could possibly get a message out was himself, Vosler, with blood dripping from his face and eye wounds, dragged himself back to the radio station.

Working only by touch and feel, Woody Vosler managed to get one of the damaged radios back into operation and issued a distress call. The crew didn't know if it had been heard when Jersey Bounce Jr. plunged into the North Sea within sight of land.

The uninjured crew members struggled to get their life raft inflated while Vosler and Buske waited on one of the plane's wings. Buske, by then unconscious from his wounds, started sliding off into the frigid sea. With what little remained of his strength and in near-total blindness, Vosler held onto his stricken comrade with one arm and an antenna wire with the other until they could be loaded into the raft.

Not long afterwards, boats arrived to rescue the crew. Vosler's distress call had been heard.

After being returned to shore, Vosler and Buske were taken for medical care as their comrades were returned to base. During their post-mission interrogation, the crew of Jersey Bounce Jr. to a man told the story of their two wounded crewmen. Buske was decorated with the Silver Star.

Forrest "Woody" Vosler, promoted to Technical Sergeant in the days following the mission, was nominated for, and deservingly received, our Nation's highest honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (T-Z):

Photo from Military Times' Hall of Valor
VOSLER, FORREST T. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Technical Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Corps. 358th Bomber Squadron, 303d Bomber Group. Place and date. Over Bremen, Germany, 20 December 1943. Entered service at: Rochester, N.Y. 

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry in action against the enemy above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a radio operator-air gunner on a heavy bombardment aircraft in a mission over Bremen, Germany, on 20 December 1943. After bombing the target, the aircraft in which T/Sgt. Vosler was serving was severely damaged by antiaircraft fire, forced out of formation, and immediately subjected to repeated vicious attacks by enemy fighters. Early in the engagement a 20-mm. cannon shell exploded in the radio compartment, painfully wounding T/Sgt. Vosler in the legs and thighs. At about the same time a direct hit on the tail of the ship seriously wounded the tail gunner and rendered the tail guns inoperative. Realizing the great need for firepower in protecting the vulnerable tail of the ship, T/Sgt. Vosler, with grim determination, kept up a steady stream of deadly fire. Shortly thereafter another 20-mm. enemy shell exploded, wounding T/Sgt. Vosler in the chest and about the face. Pieces of metal lodged in both eyes, impairing his vision to such an extent that he could only distinguish blurred shapes. Displaying remarkable tenacity and courage, he kept firing his guns and declined to take first-aid treatment. The radio equipment had been rendered inoperative during the battle, and when the pilot announced that he would have to ditch, although unable to see and working entirely by touch, T/Sgt. Vosler finally got the set operating and sent out distress signals despite several lapses into unconsciousness. When the ship ditched, T/Sgt. Vosler managed to get out on the wing by himself and hold the wounded tail gunner from slipping off until the other crewmembers could help them into the dinghy. T/Sgt. Vosler's actions on this occasion were an inspiration to all serving with him. The extraordinary courage, coolness, and skill he displayed in the face of great odds, when handicapped by injuries that would have incapacitated the average crewmember, were outstanding.

Woody Vosler's war was over. He lost one of his eyes but eventually regained eyesight after surgeries to his second. After recovery and regaining partial sight, his Medal of Honor was presented to him by President Frankiln D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office at the White House on August 31, 1944.

Vosler shakes the hand of the President upon receiving the Medal of Honor
George Buske also survived his wounds suffered on December 20, 1943 but suffered a very long and painful recovery. He passed away at age 83 on December 7, 2003.

Of the other crewmembers saved by Vosler that day, Henderson (d. 3/28/1991, age 81), Hungerford (d. 11/23/2004, 86), Monkres, Simpkins (d. 7/14/2010, 86), and Wiggins (d. 6/17/1994, 72) were all shot down on subsequent missions and captured by the Germans as prisoners of war until their liberation in May 1945. From records, Moody and Ruppel are shown to have survived the war, but I wasn't able to find any information on them.

Sergeant Ralph F. Burkart was killed in action on January 11, 1944.

Forrest Vosler was discharged from the Army Air Forces in October 1944 and later served for 30 years as an employee of the Veterans Administration in Syracuse, New York. He passed away at age 68 on Feburary 17, 1992 and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to any specific links included above, the memorial web site for the 303d Bombardment Group (Heavy) was an invaluable resource for this post.

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