Blinded by flak shrapnel, this airman helped save his B-17 crew
Radioman Sgt. Forrest Vosler thought he was going to die.
German fighters hit the B-17s and B-24s as they crossed the French coast, but it wasn’t that bad until they were over Bremen, Germany and Vosler’s Jersey Bounce and the rest of the 303rd Bomb Group began their runs. The flak was heavy. The formation’s escort fighters tried to keep the German fighters at bay, but the Luftwaffe pilots slipped into the contrails of the bombers and hit them from behind.
“As soon as we got over the target, they smashed hell out of us,” Capt. Don Gamble, commander of the 303rd Bomb Group said.
Vosler’s B-17 was able to complete her bomb run but by then, there were holes in one wing, an engine was ablaze, and the plane had been knocked out of formation. As she pulled out to head home, a 20mm shell hit the plane’s tail. Shrapnel flew through the body of the plane and Vosler was hit in both legs. He huddled in his radioman’s chair for a few minutes, “terribly scared” and feeling the blood run down his legs, before realizing, as he later said, “This is stupid… I’ve got to do something to protect myself or I’m not going to make it.”
Vosler, a western New York native, had volunteered for the Army Air Corps shortly after his nineteenth birthday, was picked for radio school and sent to Scott Air Field in Illinois and gunner school in Texas, then to England, and finally onto to Jersey Bounce for the Dec. 20, 1943 raid on Bremen factories.
At gunner school, he was told that, on a B-17, “everyone is a gunner.”
Vosler moved to one of the Bounce’s empty guns and began firing, knocking off chunks of a fighter’s wing with his first burst. He kept firing and when his goggles steamed up, he flipped them back to continue. Just then, another 20mm shell hit the Bounce. Vosler was knocked away from his gun, sustaining multiple small wounds and more serious ones in his hand and chest.
“He was shrapnel from his forehead to his knees, everywhere,” Ball Turret Gunner Ed Ruppel recalled, “There was blood all over him.” Vosler could see blood pouring through his right eye. The blood, he found out later, had been inside the eye.
“I [thought] I had lost the whole side of my face… I thought I only had half a face,” he said.
“I became very content, very calm, very collected,” he said. “I no longer feared death, [and] I slowly realized that if God didn’t want to take me at that particular point, then I had to go on and do the best things I could do.”
Almost blind, he returned to his gun until the Jersey Bounce cleared Bremen and then began trying — by touch — to fix the radio that had been damaged in the fighting. Pilot Lt. John Henderson took the Bounce as low as he dared, and the crew busied itself throwing out anything they could to lighten the craft — including damaged guns, ammunition boxes, and seats. As they scoured the plane for material to jettison, Engineer Bill Simpkins passed the radio room where Vosler was working.
“I looked him right in the face,” Simkins said, “and I saw there was stuff dribbling down his right cheek from his eye. He was in a daze, groggy, visibly shook up. He wasn’t normal.”
As the Bounce cleared the French coast and flew over the North Sea, Vosler, having fixed the radio, began sending an SOS and then a holding signal so rescuers could find the plane. With England in sight, Lt. Henderson put down in the water. As the crew climbed out on the plane’s wings, Vosler grabbed wounded tail-gunner, George Buske, who was slipping into the water and held him until a raft could be deployed.
Vosler spent the next several months in the hospital, part of that time completely blind.
He lost his right eye, but he survived.
Eight months later, in August 1944, he received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for, as his citation says, “extraordinary courage, coolness, and skill… when handicapped by injuries that would have incapacitated the average crewmember.”