04.03.1945 826th Bomb Squadron (H) B-24J 42-51967 ‘Strange Cargo’ 2nd Lt. James M. Crockett
Operation: Graz, Austria
Date: 4th March 1945 (Sunday)
Unit: 484th Bombardment Group (H), 826th Bombardment Squadron (H), 49th Bombardment Wing, 15th Air Force
Type: B-24J Strange Cargo
Serial No: 42-51967
Location: NW of Graz, Austria
Base: Torretta field, Italy
Pilot: 2nd Lt. James M. Crockett O-795125 AAF Age? PoW *
Co Pilot: 2nd Lt. MacDonell Moore Jr. O-2062529 AAF Age 20. PoW * (1)
Navigator: 2nd Lt. Henry Baxter Bottoms O-499389 AAF Age 24. Killed (2)
Bombardier: 2nd Lt. Oscar Ragnar Ness O-2001567 AAF Age 23. Killed
Radio Op: Sgt. Steven Cudrak 13155400 AAF Age 22. Survived/Murdered (3)
Engineer: Sgt. Charles Rayford Westbrook 34637190 AAF Age 20. Survived/Murdered (4)
Upper Turret Gnr: Sgt. Carl Franklin Ober 13155400 AAF Age 19. Killed (2)
Nose Turret Gnr: Cpl. Harold Dwight Brocious 33709389 AAF Age 19. Survived/Murdered (3)
Ball Turret Gnr: Sgt. Levi Loyd Morrow 16215347 AAF Age 21. Survived/Murdered (3)
Tail Gnr: S/Sgt. Kenneth Eugene Haver 15014005 AAF Age 22. Killed
The B-24 had 10 crew positions. Crew complements evolved during the war and generally comprised 9 personnel who were typically, but not always, Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier, Navigator, Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, Radio Operator/Waist Gunner, Nose Gunner, Ball Turret Gunner/Radar Operator, Waist Gunner, Tail Gunner.
* Stalag 7a Moosburg, Bavaria (Work Camp 3324-46 Krumbachstraße and Work Camp 3368 Munich).
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the morning of the 4th March 1945 Strange Cargo took off from the Torretta field to join a formation of 79 B-24s on a mission to bomb the railway marshalling yards in Graz, Austria.
Torretta field, also known as Cerignola #3, was located approximately 14 km SW of Cerignola in Apulia, Italy.
The raid cut all the main tracks, badly damaged or destroyed freight cars and damaged several buildings and an overpass. The Strange Cargo was one of two bombers shot down the other being a B-17G 44-6351 from the 352 Bomber Sqn, 301st Bombardment Group, piloted by 1st Lt. William J. Bedzyk (6 KiA, 4 PoW), which crashed almost immediately between Gratkorn and Graz.
The Strange Cargo was last seen at 13:03 hrs over the target by two witnesses. Firstly, S/Sgt. Robert C. Fincham, 17119185 from 826nd Bomber Sqn:
“I was looking out of the waist window of aircraft #201 piloted by Major Claude A. Trotter, Jr., flying in ‘A-11’ position, watching the bombs fall, when I saw aircraft #61 starting to spin. The plane turned twice when one (1) chute came out and two turns later two (2) more, and shortly two (2) more. A little later one (1) more chute came out and just our aircraft went into a small cloud which blocked my vision, I believe one (1) more chute came out. Aircraft No. 61 was smoking as it went down but I did not see any flames”.
Secondly, Cpl. John Paradise, 12229520:
“I was flying the tail position in Baker 13. As we went over the target #61 dropped her bombs and about 15 seconds later a burst of flak burst to the left. Then a second hit the nose turret ripping it off the plane with the explosion. At that time she jumped up and down and I could see one (1) chute before she entered a spin. After that she went to her right and started her spin. About 3,000 feet below the hit she seemed to level off and I could see three more chutes. Then she started to spin again. At that time the vapour trails blocked my view and that's all I saw”.
The flak strike severed the aircraft’s nose and took with it 2nd Lt. Ness and Cpl. Brocious who were in the bombardier and nose turret positions respectively. Of the two only Cpl. Brocious survived. Five other crew members bailed out over the outskirts of Graz. S/Sgt. Haver could not free himself from the tail turret and perished when the aircraft crashed.
2nd Lt. Crockett and 2nd Lt. Moore Jr., were the last two to bail out and did so shortly before the aircraft went into a spiral dive and crashed on the slopes of the Plabutsch to the NW of Graz. (Extracts from Ref 1, pp 243-245)
(1) 2nd Lt. Moore helped five of the crew to bail out before he himself left at about 22,000 ft. When he pulled his rip cord his parachute failed to open but he continued to try and it was not until he had fallen to a height of about 300 ft that he succeeded in opening his parachute. He landed in a bomb crater near an air-raid shelter some 7 km away from where the other crew members had landed. He was pulled out of the crater and taken into a nearby air raid shelter by a member of the Luftschutzpolizei (Air raid police) and others from the shelter after which his wounds were treated.
About two hours later the police picked him up and took him to the police station at Gösting. He was held in a separate room under guard and had to endure a large number of onlookers from the surrounding area who wanted to see the Terrorflieger (terror flyer). No one showed any animosity toward him in fact children gave him food.
The police tried to hand over 2nd Lt. Moore to the Luftwaffe, but no one at the Thalerhof airbase apparently wanted to take responsibility for him. 2nd Lt. Moore was unaware that orders had been issued for every captured enemy airman was to be shot. Also unbeknown to him were the efforts of Oberleutnant der Polizei (1st Lt.) Franz Turber to thwart the order.
1st Lt. Turber was ordered to immediately take 2nd Lt. Moore to Attems Castle and en route he was to shoot him under the pretext that he was attempting to escape. However, he pointed out that numerous onlookers were constantly near the prisoner which postponed the execution of the order until after dark.
After nightfall Turber, his deputy Ernst Strohriegel and the Count Attems went to 2nd Lt. Moore. They handed him all his equipment, with the exception of his sidearm, and told him several times, "We are Austrians not Germans, don’t tell anyone”. The two policemen then led him along Straßengelstraße to the banks of the Mur river.
Once there, they shook the American's hand and gave him a signal to go north to reach the Partisans of Tito. 2nd Lt. Moore initially hesitated thinking that this was a ploy and expecting to be shot in the back. As he ran off towards the forest, he heard shots, but they were not directed at him. Apparently both the policemen had fired into the ground to simulate the murder of the prisoner. The following day, they informed their superiors that they had thrown the body of their victim into the Mur.
2nd Lt. Moore spent three nights wandering in the woods NW of Graz-Gösting, sustained by the food the children had given him. On the third night he reached the village of Plankenwarth, some 10 km west of the place where he had been held prisoner. When he tried to ask for help, he was immediately arrested again and locked up in a barn. Two days later Gestapo officials appeared, who returned him to Graz, but this time to the Gestapo prison in the city centre. 2nd Lt. Moore spent the night in a darkened cell before being picked up the next morning by Luftwaffe personnel without interrogation and taken to Thalerhof airbase.
There he met his pilot and friend 2nd Lt. Crockett along with a number of other American airmen and were shipped off to PoW camps. 2nd Lt. Crockett and 2nd Lt. Moore were liberated from Stalag 7a at Moosburg on the 29th April 1945 by elements of the 14th Armoured Infantry Division. (Extracts from Ref 1, pp 243-245)
(2) The assumption was that 2nd Lt. Bottoms and Sgt. Ober were two of the men on the six parachutes seen in the air to the SW of Graz. To date their remains have not been recovered so it has not been possible to determine how they perished.
(3) A US Military commission was convened in Salzburg, Austria between 12th and 18th June 1946, at which two German nationals were charged:
Firstly, a Markus “Max” Karl Lienhart, a former SS-Untersturmführer (2nd Lt.) in the Waffen SS was charged that he did, at or near Straßgang, Austria, on or about the 4th March 1945, wilfully, deliberately and wrongfully encourage, aid, abet and participate in the killing of three unknown members of United States Army, who were then unarmed, surrendered PoWs in the custody of the then German Reich, by shooting them with a gun.
Secondly, a Franz Lienhart, the father of Markus Lienhart, was charged with the wrongful assault on a member of the United States Army by striking him with his fists.
Research carried out by Georg Hoffmann (Ref 1, pp. 238-245; 342-346) established that the three unknown members of United States Army were in all probability Cpl. Brocious, Sgt. Morrow and Sgt. Cudrak.
The following is a summary of the events which has been taken from official records and Georg Hoffmann’s research.
The court heard that on the 4th March 1945 three US Air Force airmen parachuted from their crashing aircraft near to Straßgang which is some 4½ km to the SW of the Graz city centre and is today incorporated into Graz. Two of the airmen (probably Cpl. Brocious and Sgt. Morrow) were captured and disarmed by two police officers, Gottfried Einspieler and Karl Luley. While they were being held near to the location of their capture, an SS-Sturmbannführer (Maj.) named Wilhelm Schweitzer arrived by vehicle. It was claimed that he had ordered Einspieler to kill the airmen but Einspieler holstered his pistol upon hearing this command.
About this time Markus “Max” Karl Lienhart arrived on a bicycle from the direction of his father’s estate near Straßgang. He drew his pistol, pushed through the gathered crowd and shot the airman being guarded by Einspieler, then walked over and shot the airman being guarded by Luley. Neither of the policemen did anything to stop Lienhart from carrying out the shooting.
The court heard that the third American airman (probably Sgt. Cudrak) was captured by police officers and an unnamed SS trooper. While the airman was being escorted to the police station at Straßgang Franz Lienhart arrived and attacked the airman, beating him about the head, back and chest with his fists while he berated him. The assault was interrupted by the approach of a bomber formation forcing the SS trooper, policemen and the airman to take cover in the Straßgang police station air-raid shelter.
The police were then ordered to hand over custody of the airman to the SS. The airman was seen to be lead away by the unnamed SS trooper towards the location of the previous two shootings. Numerous witnesses saw Markus Lienhart accompanying the SS trooper and the airman. When they arrived at the location the airman was shot and killed. Lienhart claimed that he had not shot the third airman but had just accompanied the SS trooper back to the place of the first two killings where he witnessed the shooting of the third airmen. However, the court came to the conclusion that Lienhart had in fact shot the airman.
Lienhart was not a member of Schweitzer’s unit, but home on sick leave from the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen. He claimed that Schweitzer had ordered him to carry out the shootings, which was proven to be false.
Markus “Max” Karl Lienhart was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death. He was hanged in the courtyard of the Salzburg State court at Salzburg by an Austrian hangman on the 26th October 1946.
Franz Lienhart was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to 10 year imprisonment. He had been confined since the 16th May 1945 and whilst in custody had been involved in an accident with a vehicle which resulting in crippling injuries. Consequently his sentence was reduced to 3 years with hard labour. He died in 1957.
(4) The circumstances of the death of Sgt. Westbrook have not been found in any official documentation. However, research carried out by Georg Hoffmann (Ref 1, pp 242- 243) established that Sgt. Westbrook was a fourth murder victim.
In summary, after Sgt. Westbrook landed to the SW of Graz he was immediately arrested by Wehrmacht soldiers. En route to Graz Wehrmacht Leutnant (2nd Lt.) Franz Neidenik took command and announced that the airman was going to be shot. Despite the protestations of a Wehrmacht NCO, Neidenik attempted to shoot the airman but his pistol misfired. August Fuchs an SA-Truppführer (Sgt.), shot Sgt. Westbrook with his rifle after which Neidenik killed Sgt. Westbrook with a pistol shot to the head.
Neidenik was eventually brought before a court but was acquitted through lack of evidence. Fuchs was jailed by Russian authorities for other crimes. Upon his release he was tried by an Austrian court and found guilty but his sentence was suspended due to the time he spent in a Russian jail.
Sgt. Cudrak, Sgt. Morrow, Sgt. Westbrook and Cpl. Brocious were initially buried at the Central Cemetery in Graz.
2nd Lt. Henry Baxter Bottoms. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters), Purple Heart. Tablets of the Missing, Florence American Cemetery. Born on the 25th August 1920 in Margarettsville, North Carolina. Son of Henry Cleveland and Nellie B. (née Long) Bottoms of Margarettsville, North Carolina, USA.
2nd Lt. Oscar Ragnar Ness. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters), Purple Heart. Lorraine American Cemetery, Plot A, Row 14, Grave 29. Born on the 16th May 1922 in Washington. Son of John and Randi (née Hannem) Ness. Son of Mary A. (née Daughtry) Ness of Houston, Texas, USA.
Sgt. Charles Rayford Westbrook. Repatriated and interred at the Midway Cemetery, Franklin County, Mississippi. Born on the 5th January 1925 in Franklin, Holmes, Mississippi. Son of Charles Rayford and Mary Perdelia (née Montgomery) Westbrook of Bude, Franklin, Mississippi, USA.
Sgt. Carl Franklin Ober. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters). Tablets of the missing, Florence American Cemetery, Italy. Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Born on the 1 December 1925. Son to Harry Gish and Katherine Elizabeth (née Epler) Ober of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, USA.
Above: Grave marker for Sgt. Cudrak (Courtesy of Lab - FindAGrave)
Sgt. Steven Cudrak. Repatriated and buried at the Union cemetery, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania on the 19th August 1949. Born on the 20th December 1922. Son to Paul and Veronica Cudrak of Lower Burrell, Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, USA.
Above: Grave marker for Cpl. Brocious. (Courtesy of Find A Grave Contributor: Law-Miller Roots (#47103448))
Cpl. Harold Dwight Brocious. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters) Purple Heart, Citation of Honor. Moved on the 22nd April 1945 to the Lorraine American Cemetery, St. Avold, France. Repatriated to the Copenhaver Crossroads Cemetery, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Born on the 16th July 1925. Son to Robert Milo and Elva Clare (née Himes) Brocious from Pennsylvania, USA.
Sgt. Levi Loyd Morrow. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters), Purple Heart. Lorraine American Cemetery, Plot K, Row 28, Grave 13. Born on the 30th January 1924 in Emory, Rains County, Texas. Son of Levi Levin and Edna May (née Davis) Morrow of Emory, Rains County, Texas, USA.
S/Sgt. Kenneth Eugene Haver. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters) Purple Heart. Repatriated and buried Dover Burial Park, Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Born on the 29th July 1922. Son to Harry Van Buren and Phyllis (née Johns) Haver of Dover, Ohio, USA.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew. Thanks also to Traugott Vitz for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’.
1. Georg Hoffmann, Fliegerlynchjustiz, © 2015 Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn. ISBN 978-3-506-78137-6. - “Fallstudie XXIII: Der Fliegermord von Graz-Straßgang“, (pp. 238-245; 342-346).