16.08.1944 324th Bomb Squadron (H) B-17G 43-38012, 2nd.Lt. Vincent A. Fonke
Operation: Halle (Mission #556), Germany
Date: 16th August 1944 (Wednesday)
Unit: 91st Bombardment Group (H), 324th Bombardment Squadron (H), 1st Air Division, 8th Air Force
Serial No: 43-38012
Location: About 1½ km west of Witzenhausen, Germany
Base: Bassingbourn (Station #121), Cambridgeshire, England
Pilot: 1st.Lt. Vincent August Fonke O-764120 AAF Age 22. PoW *
Co Pilot: 2nd.Lt. Fred Willard VanSant O-767917 AAF Age 27. PoW *
Navigator: 2nd.Lt. Robert Warspite Simcock Jr. O-720024 AAF Age 22. PoW *
Bombardier: 2nd.Lt. Herbert Carlson O-769255 AAF Age? PoW *
Engineer: S/Sgt. Raymond Vernon Prange 19103105 AAF Age 22. PoW **
Ball Turret: Sgt. Charles Salomon Brudo 39200195 AAF Age 19. PoW **
Right Waist Gunner: S/Sgt. Wendell Oris Meenach 15104134 AAF Age 23. PoW ***
Left Waist Gunner: Sgt. William John Weaver 35893390 AAF Age? PoW ****
Tail Gunner: Sgt. Willard Milton Holden 37559251 AAF Age 21. Survived (1)
* Stalag 7a Stalag 7a Moosburg, Bavaria (Work Camps 3324-46 Krumbachstrasse and 3368 Munich).
** Stalag Luft 4 Gross-Tychow, Pomerania, Prussia now Poland (Moved from Stalag Luft 6 Heydekrug. Moved to Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust and then to Usedom near Swinemünde).
*** Unknown camp.
**** Stalag 9c Bad Sulza, Saxe-Weimar, Thuringia, Germany
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the morning of the 16th August 1944 the 91st BG took off from Bassingbourn on a mission to bomb the aircraft industries (Siebel-Flugzeugwerke GmbH) at Halle, Germany.
The formation was just east of Eisenach heading for the target when they were attacked by twenty-five to thirty Fw-190s and Bf-109s. The attack took the whole formation by surprise and the 91st BG lost six aircraft in the first pass of the fighters. All six including 43-38012 were from the 324th BS flying in the High Group. [Ref 1].
An eye witness account of the attack was reported by 2nd.Lt. Edward L. Witty O-821133, from the 324th BS:
“We were flying in No. 2 position of lead element, altitude 25,400 feet, time 10:00 to 10:10 hours. At this time we were hit from the rear at 5 o’clock level by approximately 25 enemy fighters. Aircraft B-17G, 43-38012, was leading the No. 3 element, and I saw 20mm shells hitting and exploding all over the aircraft. No. 4 engine caught on fire and aircraft seemingly went out of control. The ship then went into a shallow dive, rolled over on it’s back and exploded in that position with bombs on board. This aircraft disintegrated in mid-air and no parachutes were seen to come from it.”
43-38012 was last seen east of Eisenach, Germany at 10:00 hrs.
The aircraft wreckage fell to earth on the road from Witzenhausen to Ermschwerd, about 1½ km west of Witzenhausen at 10:15 hrs.
Aboard the aircraft Sgt. Holden reported that after testing his tail turret guns over the Channel that the left gun was inoperable. He was heard when he called off that fighters were coming in from the rear at six o’clock level and high. The last anyone heard from him was when he identified the fighters as German and was opening fire on them. The supposition by the crew was that he had been killed or seriously wounded during the fighter attack. It was very shortly after the attack that 1st.Lt. Fonke gave the order to bail out.
1st.Lt. Fonke believed that Sgt. Weaver, who had been wounded, and Sgt. Holden were aboard the aircraft when it exploded. However, Sgt. Weaver survived and was treated at Station Hospital #5 at Marzhausen. 1st.Lt. Fonke met up with all of the crew, except for Sgt. Holden, after they had been captured.
(1) The fate of Sgt. Holden was established at a General Military Government Court convened at Ludwigsburg, Germany on the 17th and 21st January 1946.
Justus Gerstenberg, a German national and former Hauptwachtmeister (M/Sgt.) in the Gendarmerie (Rural police) and a member of the SA and the Nazi party, was charged in that he did, in the vicinity of Gut Freudenthal and Gertenbach, Germany, on or about the 16th July 1994, wilfully, deliberately and wrongfully kill an unknown member of the United States Army, who was then an unarmed, surrendered PoW in the custody of the then German Reich, by shooting him with a gun.
SA= Sturmabteilung (Paramilitary arm of the Nazi party)
The court heard that on the 16th or 17th July 1944 there were a number of air battles over the villages of Gut Freudenthal and Gertenbach and several aircraft were shot down. One American airman landed by parachute in the vicinity of the villages.
One of the first individuals to arrive at the scene was a Richard Nestler, a local farmer. A Polish national, named Franz Kistella, who was working in the neighbourhood, started for the scene on foot, and while en route he was passed by Gerstenberg on a motorcycle.
Nestler testified that he found the airman lying on his back smoking a cigarette. He appeared to have an injury to his left hand but was conscious and otherwise appeared to be uninjured. Gerstenberg arrived at the scene and demanded to know why the airman was still alive. Meanwhile Kistella arrived at the scene but was prevented by Gerstenberg from approaching the airman while Nestler walked away.
Gerstenberg was seen to search the airman, presumably for weapons, and then to pull a pistol from his own pocket and shoot the airman between the eyes. Later that day he told a German civilian, a Wilhelm Seibert, to bury the airman, claiming that he had died because of the wounds to his left hand and leg. The following day Seibert recovered the body and in doing so found that the left leg appeared to be broken. He placed the body in a coffin and transported it in a wagon to a nearby village.
The next day Gerstenberg opened the coffin and removed the airman’s two ‘Dog Tags’, one of which he gave to Seibert. The body was then buried in the village cemetery. Seibert had a wooden cross placed over the grave and attached the ‘Dog Tag’ he had been given. The ‘Dog Tag’ was embossed with the name “WILLARD M. HOLDEN, 37559251, T43-44A”.
German documents record that the burial was in the village cemetery at Ermschwerd.
Gerstenberg’s defence was based upon a Pathologist’s report on the remains of Sgt. Holden. The report did not provide any evidence as to how the remains were identified as Sgt. Holden and the results of the examination did not find evidence of any fracture or gunshot wound to the skull. Other injuries found on the body were inconsistent with those described by eyewitness to the shooting of Sgt. Holden.
Although the evidence presented by the defence brought into question that the body exhumed was that of Sgt. Holden, the court concluded that there was competent and uncontradicted evidence that Gerstenberg did shoot and kill an American airman and that airman was Sgt. Willard M. Holden.
Gerstenberg was found guilty and sentenced to death. The sentence was approved on 6th June 1945. He was executed at the War Criminal Prison No.1 at Landsberg, Germany on the 12th September 1946.
Above. Grave marker for Sgt. Holden (Courtesy Michel Beckers)
Sgt. Willard Milton Holden. Purple Heart. Ardennes American Cemetery, Plot C, Row 10, Grave 227. Relocated to Plot B, Row 44, Grave 1. Born on the 2nd September 1923 in Clay, Minnesota. Son of Clinton Orland and Mathilda D. (née Mikkelsen) Holden from Sabin, Clay, Minnesota, USA.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with thanks to Traugott Vitz for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’.
1. The Ragged Irregulars of Bassingbourn - The 91st Bombardment Group in World War II - Marion H. Havelaar.
Above: WWII vet awarded Distinguished Flying Cross
Retired Col. Vincent August Fonke, who ended his 30-year career at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross July 20, 2007 for actions he took during World War II while a bomber pilot assigned to the 324th Squadron of the Army Air Corps' 91st Bomb Group. (US Air Force photo)
His DFC was awarded on his eleventh combat mission over Germany on the 16th August 1944 (this mission), which resulted in his and his crews capture and imprisonment as PoWs. His exemplary flying skills and devotion to his crew ensured their survival.
Col. Fonke served our country in three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. During the Korean conflict Col. Fonke was pilot of the B-36 long range bomber while assigned to the Strategic Air Command. He received a Bronze Star for heroic action and valour in Vietnam. Col. Fonke served three separate tours in Vietnam. He retired in 1970.
He passed away on 16th November 2011, aged 90. Buried Lafayette Memorial Park, Fayetteville, Cumberland, County, North Carolina, USA.