20.7.1944 709th Bomber Squadron B-17G ‘Mohawk’, 2nd.Lt. Gustavus H. Miller
Operation: Merseburg, Germany
Date: 20th July 1944 (Thursday)
Unit: 709th Bomber Squadron (447th Bombardment Group (H)), 8th Air Force
Type: B-17G Mohawk
Serial No: 42-31128
Location: About 1 mile south of Teutleben and about 6¼ west of Gotha, Germany
Base: Rattlesden (Station #126), Suffolk, England
Pilot: 2nd.Lt. Gustavus H. Miller O-755593 AAF Age 27. PoW Unknown camp
Co Pilot: 2nd.Lt. Donald G. Erwin O-704906 AAF Age? PoW *
Navigator: 2nd.Lt. Richard W. O’Donnell O-712893 AAF Age? PoW Unknown camp
Bombardier: F/O Lewis P. Martner T-123639 AAF Age 24. Survived (1)
Radio/Op: T/Sgt. Roger M. Potwin 32673451 AAF Age 22. Killed
Engineer: T/Sgt. Frank T. Witek 32745175 AAF Age 21. Survived (1)
Ball Turret: S/Sgt. John A. Scott 34609758 AAF Age 20. PoW **
Right Waist: S/Sgt. Joel W. Wilson 14120607 AAF Age 25. PoW **
Left Waist: -
Tail: S/Sgt. Reo Knight ‘Jack’ Scott 34770415 AAF Age 20. PoW **
One of the two Waist Gunners were removed from crew complements starting on the 7th June 1944 and then both from 23rd February 1945
* Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, Prussia now Poland
** 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).
Nose art for ‘Mohawk’ (credit: 447BG Association web site)
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the morning of the 20th July 1944 the Mohawk took-off at around 0650 hours from Rattlesden (Station 126) to join the mission to bomb the Leuna synthetic oil refinery at Merseburg.
Eye witness accounts reported that after dropping its bombs on the target the aircraft was hit by flak which set #1 & #2 two engines on fire, damaged the port wing and knocked off the wing flap. The aircraft was seen to dive away and then level off after which three parachutes were seen in the air. The aircraft was seen to dive again which appeared to extinguish the fires. It levelled off again and started to follow the formation with an escort of P-38 Lightnings. It was last seen losing altitude and entering clouds.
German documents reported that the aircraft crashed about 1 mile south of Teutleben and about 6¼ west of Gotha at around 1130 hours.
From the available Individual Casualty Questionnaires (ICQs) it has been possible to determine that all of the crew successfully bailed out of the aircraft. T/Sgt. Potwin suffered serious head and chest injuries when the aircraft was hit by flak. 2nd.Lt. Erwin helped him to bail out of the crippled aircraft. The supposition recorded by various ICQs was that T/Sgt. Potwin was mortally wounded. 2nd.Lt. O’Donnell witnessed the uninjured F/O Martner bail out of the aircraft. 2nd.Lt. Erwin reported that T/Sgt. Witek was not injured and was seen to bail out of the aircraft. The supposition was that F/O Martner and T/Sgt. Witek either perished whilst descending or on the ground. No official documentation has been found that provides any information specifically naming F/O Martner and T/Sgt. Witek and their fate.
2nd.Lt. Miller was captured near Gotha at about 1200 hours. 2nd.Lt. Erwin was captured near Trügleben to the west of Gotha at about 1230 hours. 2nd.Lt. O’Donnell, S/Sgt. Reo Scott, S/Sgt. John Scott and S/Sgt. Wilson were captured near Bad Liebenstein some 18 miles WSW of Gotha at about 1200 hours. The six airmen were transported to Dulag Luft, Oberursel and then sent to various PoW camps for the remainder of the war.
(1) It is not know what prompted an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the three airmen buried in Schweina. However, it resulted in a General Military Government Court being convened at Dachau, Germany during the period 27th June and 1st July 1946.
The location, the timing and the record of the events described by the court case makes it highly probable that this trial relates to the deaths of F/O Martner and T/Sgt. Witek.
Two German civilians, Julius Bodenstein and Edmund Kuerschner (Kürschner), were charged on one count, that, at or near Schweina, Germany, on or about the 21st July 1944 they wilfully, deliberately and wrongfully encouraged, aided, abetted and participated in the killing of an unknown member of the United States Army, who was an unarmed and surrendered PoW in the custody of the then German Reich.
Bodenstein was changed on a separate count of assaulting an unknown member of United States Army at or near Schweina, Germany, on or about the 20th July 1944. The court found him not guilty on this charge, predominantly because of the distance the eye witness was from the alleged assault and the use of a truncheon or night stick which the Gendarmerie did not carry at that time.
Bodenstein had been a Nazi party member since 1937 and at the time of the offence he was a Gendarmerie (Rural Police) Oberwachtmeister (M/Sgt.) in Schweina and in which he served since 1923. Kürschner was serving member of the Wehrmacht (German army) Reserve Battalion and was a member of the Nazi party from January 1942. At the time of the offence he was a Gendarmerie Wachtmeister (Sgt.) subordinate to Bodenstein and had held that position since 1943.
The court heard conflicting stories from the accused and various eyewitnesses, as to the circumstances of the capture of the airmen and the subsequent events that led to the deaths of two of them. However, it was established that three American airmen parachuted from an aircraft over Schweina, Germany on the 20th or 21st July 1944. Evidence presented to the court suggests that one of the airmen, believed to be T/Sgt. Potwin was dead when he was found and that the other two were captured, interrogated and locked in cells at the local jail.
The same evening at around 1900 hours the Wachtmeister (Sgt.) of the Guard, a man named Mueller (Müller), shot one of the two surviving airmen, believed to be F/O Martner, whilst allegedly attempting to escape. Although the court records indicate that Müller shot the airman no evidence has been found that an investigation into the circumstances of F/O Martner’s death was undertaken.
The court established that at about 2300 hours on the 20th or 21st July 1944 Bodenstein, Kürschner and the third airman, believed to be T/Sgt. Witek, transported the bodies of the two dead airmen in a cart to the burial hall at the local cemetery. It was here that Bodenstein claimed that T/Sgt. Witek struck him in the face and attempted to escape. Bodenstein fired one shot at the airman when he was in the doorway of the burial house and after pursuing him into the building he fired two more shots which were heard by Kürschner. When Kürschner entered the building Bodenstein claimed T/Sgt. Witek tried to choke him and it was then that he shot the airman. Kürschner saw that the airman had been shot in the back of the head. Bodenstein ordered Kürschner to shoot the airman again and although he protested he fired a shot into the back of the dead airman’s head. The bodies of the other two airmen were carried into the burial house after which the two accused left the cemetery.
The three airmen were buried at the Schweina cemetery on the 23th July 1944.
The court believed that much of the testimony of the accused was fabricated especially concerning the events at the cemetery prior to the shooting of the airman. On the stand Bodenstein gave several different versions of the shooting at the burial house. However, all were consistent in that he claimed that the airman was facing him when he fired the shots. This version of the events was contradicted by Kürschner’s own testimony in which he claimed that the airman’s wounds were to the back of the head and behind his right ear.
The court found both Bodenstein and Kürschner guilty of the charge. Bodenstein was sentenced to life imprisonment beginning immediately. This was later changed to a term of 30 years and he was paroled in June 1955. Kürschner was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment commencing on the 25th June 1945. The sentence was later reduced to 15 years. It is unknown whether he was paroled.
On the 26th June 1945 the three airmen were reinterred in the Netherlands American Cemetery. F/O Martner in plot RR-8-199; T/Sgt. Potwin in plot RR-8-200 as X-1106; T/Sgt. Witek in plot RR-10-226 as X-1107.
(left) F/O Lewis P. Martner. DFC, Air Medal (Oak Leaf Cluster), Purple Heart. Netherlands American Cemetery, Margraten, Netherlands. Reinterred in Plot N Row 1 Grave 6. Born in 1920. Son to Emer L. and Katherine E. (née Lorenz) Martner of Illinois and husband to Mrs Lenore T Martner, Chicago, Illinois, USA. (credit: Des Philippet)
(Right) T/Sgt. Roger M. Potwin. Repatriated and buried at the Valley View Cemetery, Ellington, Chautauqua County, New York. Born in 1922. Son to Gordon G. and Ethelyn Pearl (née Stafford) Potwin of Chautauqua County, New York, USA. The Roger Potwin American Legion Post, Ellington, New York is named in his honour. (credit: Ron Kinney, FindAGrave)
(Left) T/Sgt. Frank T. Witek. Repatriated and buried at the Holy Trinity Cemetery, Yorkville, Oneida County, New York. Born on 3rd December 1923. Son to Mrs Ann Witek, New Hartford, New York, USA. (Credit: Lorraine Canino FindAGrave)
Researched by Ralph Snape for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with thanks to Traugott Vitz for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’ and for his valued research and advice in compiling this report.