30.11.1944 546th Bombardment Squadron (H) B-17G 43-37713 1st.Lt. Hugh L. Evans
Operation: Zeitz (Mission #731), Germany
Date: 30th November 1944 (Thursday)
Unit: 384th Bombardment Group (H), 546th Bombardment Squadron (H), 1st Air Division, 8th Air Force
Type: B-17G *
Serial No: 43-37713
Location: Rebgeshain in the district of Ulrichstein
Base: Grafton Underwood (Station #106) Airfield, Northamptonshire, England
Pilot: 1st.Lt. Hugh Legar Evans O-819397 AAF Age 24. Murdered (1)
Co Pilot: 2nd.Lt. Thomas Knapp Kohlhaas O-835664 AAF Age 20. Murdered (1)
Navigator: 2nd.Lt. Charles ‘Chuck’ Rinkovsky O-769179 AAF Age 24. PoW **
Togglier: S/Sgt. John Julius Norstrom 37565839 AAF Age 21. PoW **
Radio/Op: T/Sgt. Reginald (NMI) Gwin 34724601 AAF Age 20. PoW **
Engineer: T/Sgt. Milton Benjamin Erich 39394770 AAF Age 24. Murdered (1)
Ball Turret: S/Sgt. John Joseph Bellovary Jr. 35099113 AAF Age 21. Murdered (1)
Waist Gunner: S/Sgt. William Hilton Haskell 11085902 AAF Age 32. PoW **
Tail Gunner: S/Sgt. Lester Hebron Russell Jr. 11117467 AAF Age 21. PoW **
One of the two Waist gunners was removed from crew complements starting on the 7th June 1944 and then both from 23rd February 1945.
* An anecdote provided by Fred Preller from the 384th BG Association, describes that after the crew flew 43-37713 to England they had decided to name the aircraft "Grewsome Crewsome". However, upon arrival in England the aircraft had to be modified to the latest operational standards i.e. "Theatre Mods". Undaunted, the crew took the name for themselves and had flight jackets painted with the name and a design. The design showed a bomb at about 45 degrees heading down to the right with 3 or 4 crewmen riding it - dressed in Pilgrim costumes - hats, tailcoats, and shoes with giant buckles.
** Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, Prussia now Poland.
The original 2nd.Lt. Robert D. Hughes’ crew photograph which was taken at Avon Park Army Airfield, Florida, on which 1st.Lt. Evans was the Co-Pilot. (Courtesy Chas. Siffert and the 384th BG Association).
Standing L to R: 2nd.Lt. Joseph Gabriel (Bombardier); 2nd.Lt. Evans; 2nd.Lt. John C. Rasmussen (Navigator); 2nd.Lt. Robert D. Hughes (Pilot). Front: L to R: Sgt. Charles W. Siffert (Waist Gunner); Sgt. Russell Jr.; Sgt. Bellovary Jr.; Sgt. Arlington Burns, Crew Chief (Top Turret); Sgt. Erich
Note: 1st..Lt. Gabriel, 1st.Lt. Rasmussen, 1st.Lt. Hughes and S/Sgt Burns completed their tours and returned to the USA. Sgt. Siffert was transferred and returned to the USA after the War.
Photograph of the enlisted men on 2nd.Lt. Robert D. Hughes’ crew (Courtesy Chas. Siffert and the 384th BG Association)
Standing L to R: S/Sgt. Russell Jr., S/Sgt. Edward F. Klanke (Radio Operator), S/Sgt. Burns. Sitting L to R: S/Sgt. Bellovary Jr., T/Sgt. Erich. Front: Sgt. Siffert.
Note: S/Sgt. Klanke was on the original combat crew but on this mission he was flying aboard the lead B-17G, 44-8401, SU:X. He completed his tour as a T/Sgt. and returned to the USA.
REASON FOR LOSS:
B-17G 43-37713 took off from Grafton Underwood on the 30th November 1944 to bomb the synthetic oil refinery at Zeitz-Troglitz. The formation encountered intense and accurate flak over the target but there was no enemy fighter opposition reported.
43-37713 was last sighted flying at 24,000 ft still in formation in the vicinity of Wintersdorf, Germany. It was believed that the aircraft was hit by flak over the target however there were no official eye-witness reports that confirm that belief or when the aircraft left the formation.
After S/Sgt. Haskell returned home he wrote a letter to Rose Nuzzo, the sister of S/Sgt. Bellovary Jr., in which he described the circumstances of the loss of the aircraft:
“When we started our bomb run to Marburg [sic] we lost our #1 engine due to a mechanical failure. We were nearly unable to maintain formation with the group on three engines but kept going. We encountered intense very accurate flak near the target area and were hit several times. We dropped our bombs early and left the formation to get out of the flak and try to make it back to our lines. We had several more hits and lost two more engines which left us with just the #4 running. Being so far into Germany we couldn’t make it and crashed somewhere near Leipzig [sic]”.
It was reported that the aircraft made a forced landing near Rebgeshain in the district of Ulrichstein which is some 27 miles east of Giessen in Germany.
After returning home Lester Russell gave an interview to Lyman Gilmore for the Antrim Historical Society Oral History Projects. The following has been extracted from the narrative of the interview:
The crew were given instructions to bail out but they took a vote and decided to stay with the aircraft. They had more faith in the pilot and the B-17 than in their parachutes because of the statistical odds of 3 out of 10 parachutes failing.
To prepare for the forced landing, the ball turret had to cranked up to let the gunner out, then the turret was disconnected so that it fell away from the aircraft. As much ammunition as possible was jettisoned and the 'Norden' bomb sight was destroyed. In preparation for the landing they then took up their crash positions in the radio room. Lester didn’t recall the impact, just a tremendous amount of noise which seemed to go on forever as the aircraft was getting ripped up on an open hillside. As far as he could tell no one was really hurt, just shaken up.
1st.Lt. Evans, 2nd.Lt. Kohlhaas, T/Sgt. Erich and S/Sgt. Bellovary left as a group, and by the time Lester got out of the aircraft he just caught a glimpse of them disappearing into the woods. T/Sgt. Gwin and S/Sgt. Norstrom took off by themselves. Lester along with 2nd.Lt. Rinkovsky and S/Sgt. Haskell evaded capture for two days before being caught by an armed German civilian whilst they were trying to break into a barn for shelter.
They were taken by a Wehrmacht soldier to an Giessen Airfield (2¼ miles ENE of the town centre). On the second or third night Giessen was bombed by the RAF and extensively damaged (Note: there was an RAF raid on Giessen on the 6th/7th December). Bombs also fell on the airfield close to where they were being held. The Germans had taken cover leaving the three airmen locked in their cells. They decided to get out of the cells and knocked down the doors only to be thoroughly beaten for their troubles. They eventually ended up at Stalag Luft 1 which was liberated in May 1945. Lester Russell arrived back in the States on his mother’s birthday, the 20th June 1945.
He continued to serve in the Army during the Korean War and the beginning of the Vietnam war but did not serve overseas again. Lester Russell finished his military career as an illustrator (his original training was as a photographer) with the Joints Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and retired as a M/Sgt in 1966.
Official records report that some of the PoWs were at unknown camps. However, in his personal memoir T/Sgt. Gwin stated that he and the other four PoWs were held at Stalag Luft 1.
(1) The fates of 1st.Lt. Evans, 2nd.Lt. Kohlhaas, T/Sgt. Erich and S/Sgt. Bellovary Jr. were unknown until a Military Commission was convened at Heidelberg in Germany on the 12th, 13th and 15th October 1945.
Two German civilians, a Karl Bloch* and a Karl Neunobel, were charged with, acting jointly, and together with other persons whose names are unknown, at or near Beltershain, Germany, on or about the 1st December 1944, wilfully, deliberately and wrongfully encouraging, aiding, abetting, and participating in the killing of Thomas K. Kohlhaas, a member of the United States Army, and three other members of the United States Army, whose names were unknown, each of whom was then unarmed and a PoW in the custody of the then German Reich.
* German researcher Horst Jeckel determined that this individual’s name was actually Block and not Bloch.
The court heard that on the afternoon of the 1st December 1944, four American airmen were captured by Neunobel and a man named Gustav Weber, who had been hunting rabbits in woods near Beltershain. The two Germans took the airmen to Beltershain, and eventually to the house of Heinrich Erb, who was Ortsgruppenleiter (local group leader of the Nazi Party) and Bürgermeister (Mayor) for the town.
Eventually quite a group gathered at Erb’s home, besides Erb, Weber, Neunobel and Bloch they included individual’s named Seip, Schneider and Huschke. Between 20:00 and 20:30 hours Erb ordered Bloch, Seip, and Schneider to assist him to march the four airmen to the nearby town of Grünberg which was 11 miles east of Beltershain.
They had only gone a short distance when Erb announced that the airmen were to be killed. All the guards had firearms of one type or another. It was agreed that Erb would raise his pistol, which was to be the signal for the five of them to shoot the airmen. After they turned off the road into a field, Erb raised his hand, and all except Neunobel fired one shot at the airmen from their respective weapons. Bloch fired one shot from a 9mm handgun, from a distance of 1½ to 2 meters.
Erb administered a Coupe De Grâce to each airman after which they all returned to Erb’s home. Later that evening they returned to the scene and carried the bodies away, dug a shallow ditch in a nearby woods, and there buried them. Erb searched the bodies and took from them various articles of clothing and belongings. They then returned to Erb’s home, where the loot was distributed among the perpetrators of the crime. Bloch received a wrist-watch and a pair of shoes.
The court found Bloch guilty of the charge and sentenced him to death by hanging. The sentence was reviewed and confirmed on the 17th November 1945. The sentence was carried out by M/Sgt. John C. Woods, assisted by Technician 5th Grade Vincent J. Martino on the 12th January 1946 at Bruchsal, which is in the district of Karlsruhe. Neunobel was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, however, at the same review his sentence was disapproved.
It is not known why Erb, who was clearly the principal instigator of the murders, or the other named individuals were not before the court to answer the charges.
At the time of the trial only 2nd.Lt. Kohlhaas’ remains had been positively identified. However, an examination of the remains determined that all four airmen had bullet wounds to the head, chest and abdomen, all inflicted from the rear, and all sufficient to cause death.
The Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) for S/Sgt. Bellovary Jr. (Courtesy of S/Sgt. Bellovary’s niece Nancy and her husband Harry DeCourcy) recorded that information about the unmarked graves of four American soldiers in the woods near to Beltershain was provided by Polish nationals. Personnel from the 309th Infantry Regiment (78th Infantry Division) found the unmarked graves. The bodies were disinterred under the supervision of the Inspector General of the 78th Infantry Division and initially evacuated to the US Military Cemetery #1, Eisenach on the 25th April 1945. After being transferred to the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten the remaining three bodies were identified as 1st.Lt. Evans, T/Sgt. Erich and S/Sgt. Bellovary Jr.
The four murdered airmen were repatriated and buried in cemeteries in their home states during January 1949.
(Left: Courtesy Anne Cady - FindAGrave)
1st.Lt. Hugh Legar Evans. Repatriated and buried in the Plot 11/603 S.H. Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Myer, Virginia. Born on the 20th May 1920. Husband to Rachel W. Evans of Columbus, Ohio, USA.
(Right: Courtesy 384th BG Association and Robbie Decker - FindAGrave )
2nd.Lt. Thomas Knapp Kohlhaas. Air Medal, Purple Heart. Repatriated and buried in Old Park, Block 1711, Space 4, at the Calvary Cemetery, Algona. Born on the 15th March 1924 in Algona, Kossuth County, Iowa. Son of John and Maude Ellen (née Knapp) Kohlhaas from Algona, Kossuth County, Iowa, USA.
(Left: Courtesy Joy Ross - FindAGrave)
T/Sgt. Milton Benjamin Erich. Repatriated and buried at the Cherokee Memorial Park, Lodi, California. Born on the 29th November 1920. Son of Walter G. and Katherine M. (née Pretzer) Erich in Thornton, California, USA.
(Right: Courtesy 384th BG Association and Anne Cady - FindAGrave)
S/Sgt. John Joseph Bellovary Jr. Repatriated and buried at Calumet Park Cemetery, Merrillville, Indiana. Born on the 23rd September 1923 in Indiana. Son to John and Julia (née Sipos) Bellovary from Gary, Indiana, 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’. Special thanks to Fred Preller from the 384th Bomb Group Association and to S/Sgt. Bellovary’s niece Nancy and her husband Harry DeCourcy for sharing personal letters written by crew members to Rose Nuzzo, the sister of S/Sgt. Bellovary Jr.