22 February 1945 — Bieber, Germany
The 458th Bomber Group, 754th Bomb Squadron of the Eighth Air Force was based at Station 123, Horsham St. Faith, England. This airfield was located about four miles north of the city of Norwich and the 458th BG began operations in February 1944. An article that first appeared in B-24 Liberator Commemorative Edition, Vol. 2 No. 1, 1995 by George Reynolds titled The Iron Duke & Its Crew, tells the adventurous story of the crew being shot down and captured. The following is a portion of that article:
In the predawn hours of 22 February 1945, throughout the European Theater of Operations, ground and air crewmen were preparing for Operation Clarion—a maximum effort to deliver a coup de grace to the Nazi rail and communications systems. Some 2500 bombers and fighters of the U.S. Eighth, Ninth, Twelfth, Fifteenth Air Forces and the Royal Air Force were participating in the largest combined air campaign since D-Day over central and southern Germany and the Mediterranean area. However, today’s smaller, widely dispersed targets dictated individual Group sorties rather than a giant strike force that attacked Normandy. Weather was to be favorable.
A base “somewhere in England”: (Air Force Station 123, near Norwich and home to the 458th Bombardment Group, Heavy), it was one of the Eighth’s fourteen fields in East Anglia to launch B-24 Liberator elements in the massive operation. Their objective: Railroad marshaling yards at Peine and Hildesheim in central Germany.
At dawn a heavy overcast verified the local weather was not as forecast. But a weather reconnaissance P-51 had reported clearing conditions over the Continent and, at 0900 hours, thirty-eight B-24s of the 458th departed on its most unusual mission in eleven months of combat. Instead of the normal 25,000-foot flight level, bombing altitude was 10,000 feet. And worse, there would be no clouds to screen the bombers from those deadly flak batteries waiting in Germany.
The Liberators climbed over Alkmaar, Holland, and the Zuider Zee to 22,000 feet before breaking out for assembly into combat structure. To avoid midair collisions in the clouds, the aircraft had scattered, but eventually formed into two boxed forces of sixteen and eighteen ships. During the climb, four of the war-weary planes aborted with mechanical trouble. The sixteen-plane element headed for Peine, the other for Hildesheim.
Large breaks began appearing in the undercast over Germany, and the sixteen B-24s descended to 10,000 feet, heading southeasterly. Dortmund slipped by to the left while the formation skirted known flak areas. Crewmen marveled at how plainly they could see enemy territory today after flying over it “blind” in the past. Cologne passed to their right. Ahead, the initial point (pivotal), Eisenach, loomed on the horizon. Here, the armada would turn northward with their bombsights on Peine, but a smaller town had to be crossed first.
It was clear over Hersfeld when a puff of ranging flak crumpled under the formation where planes number 42-51215 B [flown by 2Lt Joseph E. Szarko and crew] and 44-10491 I brought up the rear. Suddenly, 215-B received a disintegrating blast in its bomb bay. One wing twirled away as though in slow-motion, and a parachute emerged from the waist section. But that crewman was drawn back into the inferno as a fiery mass plunged all ten men earthward.
Aboard 491-I, nicknamed Iron Duke, were the pilot, 2Lt William A. “Billy” Duke, 21; copilot, 2Lt Archibald A. “Bubba” Monroe, 21; navigator, F/O Richard M. “Dick” Eselgroth, 24; bombardier, F/O Albert E. “Al” Miller, 23; and the radioman, Sgt Albert M. “Luke” Lucas, 38. Other crew members included the flight engineer, Sgt Baldamore Garcia, 24, and gunnery sergeants, Charles “Chuck” Frazer, 20; Carl L. Johnson, 20; Charles E. Gretz, 19 and Alessandro S. “Pan” Panarese, 20. All of the men were single except Eselgroth and Lucas.
From the tail turret, Panarese called his sighting on 215-B, as required, by intercom to Eselgroth for entry in 491’s logbook. A moment later Iron Duke was slammed upward by three bursts of flak. Duke felt the controls go slack in his hands and knew they could not remain in formation. Nearly all of the ships left rudder had been torn away, a wing’s aileron vanished, holes appeared in the fuselage and severed control cables dangled in the waist compartment. Duke made a jagged right turn, then ordered Miller to salvo the bomb load. Their twelve highly explosive cylinders were screaming earthward immediately, and soon began bursting in the village of Meckbach. Mrs. Katherine Kraft was the only fatality when five homes were hit. Above, the pilots struggled to keep Iron Duke airborne while asking Eselgroth for a heading to the nearest friendly forces lines. Duke did not want to risk going back toward heavy flak areas along the Rhine with limited control and at such a low altitude.
The Iron Duke maneuvered easier minus the bombs’ weight, but it was impossible to hold a fixed heading with only the autopilot’s few cables intact. They were flying with a 30-degree yaw to the right, airspeed of 110 knots and with 20 degrees of flaps, were able to maintain 7000 feet of altitude.
Eselgroth called Duke and gave him a heading of 210 degrees. This would get them close to advancing American ground forces south of Frankfurt. Duke then ordered Eselgroth, Miller, and [nose gunner] Johnson to leave the nose section and come up to the flight deck in case they had to bail out.
The Iron Duke moved slowly on, and although the crew was on alert to jump, they felt good about reaching Allied lines before having to leave the ship. At 1315 hours, 491-I was north of Gelhausen, and Duke tried a turn southward to avoid flak batteries around Frankfurt. The response was almost nil. Lieutenant Erich Bauder, commander of a [German] railroad flak battery, saw a four-engine bomber approaching and posted his crew. They had four 128mm and two 20mm guns mounted on a flatcar at Mulheim station, near Offenbach. Bauder even felt pangs of pity for the men inside the aircraft, for he knew, at their speed and altitude, they could not escape from his deadly radar-controlled firepower.
A ranging shot exploded in front of and below the aircraft. Then three quick bursts put the Liberator out of control, and it began descending immediately. Eruptions under the left wing had ripped out a five-foot section of fuselage and started a hot fire in the waist compartment. Duke unwittingly agreed with Bauder—Iron Duke could not escape. He ordered his crew to bail out while some measure of control remained.
Over Gelnhausen, Miller was first to leave, followed by Garcia and Eselgroth. Then Johnson, Panarese, and Frazer jumped just before Iron Duke suddenly dropped its nose and fell earthward. Duke juggled the auto-pilot while centrifugal force glued him and Monroe to their seats. Gretz was still in the top turret. Slowly the plane responded to his coaxing and leveled off at 3000 feet. Duke sent Gretz out the open bomb bay and Monroe right behind him as puffs of flak continued to burst around Iron Duke. Gretz looked up and saw chutes, and then watched as 491-I made a sharp turn south-eastward.
People on the ground had heard the flak barrage begin, and they started to watch the course of events. Many saw chutes blossoming and a burning bomber bobbing its nose while slowly losing altitude. Southeast of Frankfurt, near the village of Hainhausen, Iron Duke dropped one wing just before it struck the ground, nosed over on her back and exploded with an intense rumble.
Meanwhile, Miller descended into an open field near Mulheim and was quickly captured by civilian police. He was marched through the streets toward Offenbach police headquarters. On the way, civilians began calling out threats and abuse to Miller, then attacked. Once, he went down and a hobnail boot opened a gash on his forehead. Finally the police were able to move him away from the mob and reached safety at headquarters. One of the officers said in broken English, “The people are enraged over killings by American aircraft.”
Garcia slammed into a large storage building with glass skylights on its roof. He was bleeding profusely when police came and moved him to an adjacent field.
As Eselgroth descended he saw that his spot would be a home’s backyard with several brick walk-ways and a picket fence. Fortunately he hit on soft earth. He untied his brogan shoes (these are better for walking than low quarter shoes worn inside the fur-lined flying boots from his chute harness and held one in each hand. Looking up, Eselgroth saw a gate and next to it a sergeant scaling the fence and wearing the SS uniform complete with drawn Luger.
[Sergeant] Max Ruchel approached to within ten feet and asked Eselgroth, “Have you a pistol?” Eselgroth responded, “No pistol”, while raising his hands still holding a shoe in each. The sergeant walked around Eselgroth, frisked him and called out for someone in the house to unlock the gate. Mrs. Juliane Kaiser, the property owner, unlocked her gate and Ruchel motioned Eselgroth to go out. “I should at least give that flier a cup of coffee,” Mrs. Kaiser thought as he started to the gate with raised hands.
As Eselgroth started through, a group of civilians reached the gate followed by soldiers from the flak battery. The mob screamed threats and insults first, then attacked with tools and sticks. Ruchel grabbed a soldier’s rifle and clubbed several of them back, then prodded Eselgroth into running down an alley while the soldiers retained the mob.
As they walked toward the town’s center, children along the way began spitting and throwing small stones at both men. Adults poured verbal wrath upon Ruchel for protecting an enemy flier while wearing the SS uniform. Ruchel left Eselgroth with members of the flak battery crew until police arrived. Then he was marched to the railroad station and seated on its frontal cobblestone roadway.
Johnson landed about 50 yards from Eselgroth. His chute caught on the gable of a house, stranding him several feet above ground. Some distance away an old man called out in broken English, “Hands up!” while he waved a handgun. Policemen came immediately, however, and carried Johnson to a nearby rail car for safekeeping.
Panarese bailed out the camera hatch in the rear fuselage, while flak burst around Iron Duke and shrapnel pierced his shoulder. He landed midway in the rail yard with his chute draped over a boxcar, suspending him 15 feet up. He pushed the chute’s harness release, fell to the ground supine and lost his breath momentarily. By the time he could breathe again a policeman was hustling him to the railroad station.
Later a truck came to carry Panarese to Offenbach hospital for first aid on his shoulder. Two other crewmen were already aboard. Garcia was very pale and continued mumbling, “Sanar…sanar,” (Spanish for cure or heal me). Miller was bleeding from a wound on his forehead. At the hospital, Miller and Panarese were treated, then presently asked to identify Garcia’s body as a member of their crew. A Dr. Wolf had given him a transfusion which had failed to save his life.
Lucas touched down with his chute tangled in an apple tree. Three forest workers were nearby and began making verbal threats. But a soldier, on leave, had seen the chute, started toward the airman and arrived simultaneously with the workers. He kept the civilians from harming Lucas until police arrived.
Frazer tumbled earthward struggling with a balky ripcord. At the last possible moment the canopy blossomed, breaking his fall. He landed in a thick, wooded area near the village of Bieber. Police and army troops searched for hours in vain, then finally gave up.
Gretz also came down in the open and to immediate capture by police. He had no encounter with civilians, and was allowed to retrieve his perpetual supply of candy bars attached to his chute harness, which he began eating promptly.
Monroe jumped and his chute opened immediately. Gretz waved from below, Monroe returned it and looked above to see Duke’s chute. Two policemen were waiting for him in a field near Bieber.
Duke landed shortly after Monroe, and policemen were in the field when he touched down. They carried Duke directly to the Bieber police station.
By 1515 hours, Eslegroth, Miller, Panarese, Gretz, Lucas, and Johnson had been captured and were seated on the cobblestone roadway at Mulheim railroad station. Miller and Panarese whispered to the others that Garcia had died. A crowd of both curious and hostile quickly gathered. Verbal threats and abusive language (in English) flowed from the people. The Americans became apprehensive about their safety until soldiers from the flak battery were posted to keep the civilians at bay.
One man, dressed totally in black, singled out Eselgroth for foul verbiage after one of the guards read the names aloud from their brown jackets. He kept ranting for several minutes. But a hush settled over the crowd when Lieutenant Bauder came from the battery and talked with the crewmen for a moment, asking whether everyone was alright. Pointing to Eselgroth’s nameplate he said, “Deutsche?” and he nodded affirmatively. “Why do you return to bomb the fatherland?” [Eselgroth responded,] “I’m an American, Lieutenant…we’re at war.”
The afternoon wore on, and the airmen began quietly surmising that they were being held here awaiting the arrival of Duke, Monroe, and Frazer. Gratification seeped in among the fliers over a good possibility that those not here had escaped captivity. The guards apparently spoke little or no English, for they would not answer simple questions from their prisoners. Using sign language, Eselgroth asked whether the quadruple-barreled 20mm gun had been the one that shot them down. One guard finally smiled and pointed to the 128mm guns.
At twilight, when the others had not arrived, the six crewmen were placed aboard a wood-burning truck and carried to a large jail near Hanau. Here they were lodged in separate cells overnight and the next morning were given black bread and coffee—their first food and drink in 24 hours. Next they boarded a train back to Frankfurt and spent the entire day in a bomb shelter beneath the railroad station.