29.07.1944 349th Bomb Squadron (H) B-17G 42-107211 ‘The Liberty Belle’, 1st Lt. Carl C. Gustafson Jr.
Operation: Merseburg oil installation (Mission #503), Germany
Date: 29th July 1944 (Saturday)
Unit: 100th Bombardment Group (H), 349th Bombardment Squadron (H), 3rd Air Division, 8th Air Force
Type: B-17G The Liberty Belle
Serial No: 42-107211
Location: 270 metres south of Mannstedt, Germany
Base: Thorpe Abbotts (Station #139), Norfolk, England
Pilot: 1st Lt. Carl Christopher Gustafson Jr. O-757381 AAF Age 22. Murdered (2)
Co Pilot: FO. Michael John Nemerowski Jr. T-61730 AAF Age 20. Murdered (3)
Navigator: FO. Victor Irvin Kinkade T-2168 AAF Age 22. Murdered (1)
Bombardier: S/Sgt. Marccena F. Dottoviano 13088789 AAF Age 23. Murdered (1)
Radio/Op: T/Sgt. Anthony George Trebnik 36585057 AAF Age 20. Murdered (1)
Engineer: T/Sgt. Robert Eugene Fife 37507574 AAF Age 21. PoW *
Ball Turret Gnr: S/Sgt. Jack Gordon Kromer 36800796 AAF Age 21. Murdered (1)
Waist Gnr: S/Sgt. Frank Allen Caldwell 34623329 AAF Age 22. Murdered (1)
Tail Gnr: S/Sgt. William R. ‘Billie’ Ewing 35046190 AAF Age 24. Murdered (2)
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 4 Groß-Tychow, Pomerania, Prussia now Tychowo, Poland (Moved from Stalag Luft 6 Heydekrug. Moved to Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust and then to Usedom near Swinemünde).
Crew of ‘The Liberty Belle’ - Left to Right: 1st Lt. Carl C. Gustafson Jr., FO. Michael J. Nemerowski Jr., FO. Victor I. Kinkade, S/Sgt. Marccena F. Dottoviano (Courtesy of Herr Bernd Schmidt).
Crew of ‘The Liberty Belle’ - Left to Right: T/Sgt. Anthony G. Trebnik, S/Sgt. Jack G. Kromer, S/Sgt. Frank A. Caldwell, S/Sgt. William R. ‘Billie’ Ewing (Courtesy of Herr Bernd Schmidt).
Personnel from the 100th BG outside a Nissen hut at Thorpe Abbotts. (Courtesy American Air Museum Roger Freeman Collection)
John A. Miller, A veteran waist gunner of the 100th BG has handwritten on reverse: "July 1944, 349th BS- 100th BG. Lt to Rt Rear: Al Bridges (WG), Pat Madsen (TT), George McCleary (TG). Front: Larry Pratt (E), Marcena "Dottie" Dottoviano (TG) (KIA 7-29-44) Congratulating John A Miller (WG) on receiving DFC."
S/Sgt. William Ewing of the 100th BG in position inside his B-17 Flying Fortress. Image stamped on reverse: 'Associated Press.' [stamp], '212089.' [censor no]. (Courtesy American Air Museum Roger Freeman Collection)
Printed caption on reverse: "AMERICAN FLYING FORTRESSES WAIT FOR ZERO HOUR. Associated Press Photo Shows: Sgt William Ewing, side gunner and Assistant Radio Operator, from Keytesville, MO inspects the feed belt of his gun".
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the morning of the 29th July 1944 The Liberty Belle took off on the pilot’s 22nd mission to bomb the Leuna oil installation at Merseburg in Germany.
After dropping its bombs the left wing tank of the aircraft was hit by 20mm cannon shells from an Bf-109 and caught fire. T/Sgt. Fife who was in the top turret advised 1st Lt. Gustafson of the damage who then rang the bailout bell at 20,000 ft.
An after mission report recorded that:
"No definite information concerning the loss of this aircraft is available. The leader of the squadron was knocked out of the formation before the target by flak. The formation fell apart and all aircraft became stragglers. It is assumed that this aircraft was the victim of enemy fighters that attacked stragglers at 10:20 - 10:40hrs near 51 12N - 11 40E."
The Lat/Long is some 34 km NE of Weimar, Germany
The Liberty Belle crashed at about 10:40hrs and about 270 metres south of Mannstedt which is about 20 km NNE of Weimar, Germany.
The location of Mannstedt is within the Jägermeldenetz map (Fighter network reporting grid) location of 15 Ost/ Box MC.
The OKL fighter claims for the Reich, West & Südfront on the 29th July 1944, lists a number of confirmed B-17 claims at the above Jägermeldenetz location with a number close to Mannstedt. However, it has not been possible to positively associate a claim for shooting down ‘The Liberty Belle’.
In his Individual Casualty Questionnaire T/Sgt. Fife saw 1st Lt. Gustafson Jr. and FO. Nemerowski bail out of the aircraft. He believed that the other crew members had also bailed out but did not see any of them again after he himself had left the aircraft. He had no knowledge of where the aircraft crashed but to the best of his knowledge none of the crew were aboard.
German records document that T/Sgt. Fife was captured at around noon and that the rest of the crew were dead.
In Ref 1, T/Sgt. Fife described that he had landed in a grain field among female workers who beat him with the hoes with which they had been working. T/Sgt. Fife was taken into custody by a group of armed Hitler Youth and after some time led to a Russian Slave Workers’ Camp about a ¾ km away by an old German with a rifle. After a couple of hours, he was taken to the city jail of a nearby town and put in a cell. Two German officers came and tried to speak to him. On a chair T/Sgt. Fife noticed a cardboard box which held several billfolds which he recognized as belonging to the rest of his crew. One of the officers said, “There’s the rest of them. Kapoot!” He described that he had been taken to Dulag Luft “for a couple of trying weeks, eating sawdust bread and ersatz coffee” before onward travel to Stalag Luft 4.
The circumstances of the deaths of the eight crew members were not recorded. However, given the timing, the location and the proceedings of an American General Military Court and research conducted by a local historian seven of the deaths were determined to be as a result of hostile action on the ground after they had parachuted from the aircraft.
(1) The circumstances of the deaths of five of the airmen were determined by an American General Military Court which was convened at Dachau, Germany on the 20th and 21st February 1947.
Three German Nationals were charged that they did, at or near Ottmannshausen, Germany, on or about 29th July 1944, wilfully, deliberately and wrongfully encourage, aid, abet and participate in the killing of five members of the United States Army, whose identity was unknown, who were then and there unarmed and surrendered PoWs in the custody of the then German Reich.
Although the identities of the five airmen were not known to the court, it was later established by German researcher Bernd Schmidt that the five were FO. Kinkade, T/Sgt. Trebnik and S/Sgts. Caldwell, Dottoviano and Kromer.
The three accused were turned over to the US authorities by the Soviets who were the occupying force in Thuringia where the crime had been committed. The three, who were all members of the Nazi party, were:
Karl Grosch, who was employed by the SS as a locksmith at the Buchenwald Concentration camp;
Albert Hendrich, who was a former Blockleiter (Nazi party block leader) in Ottmannshausen;
Fritz Erich Hähnert, who was the former Bürgermeister (Mayor) of Ettersburg and a Ortsgruppenleiter (Nazi party local group leader).
The court heard that on or about the 29th July 1944 an American aircraft was shot down near the village of Ottmannshausen Kreis Weimar which in 1947 was in the Russian Zone.
Five American airman were captured and taken to Ottmannshausen in trucks for the purpose of being lynched and publicly shot. The Kreisleiter (Nazi party county leader) Franz Hofmann and Hähnert organised the plan for the mistreatment and public shooting of the PoWs. Hofmann then ordered Hähnert to tell the chief of the Landwacht (Home guard) to send some men to Ottmannshausen to gather a crowd at the house of a woman who had been fatally struck by a stray bullet whilst watching an aerial combat from her window.
Arriving at Ottmannshausen Hofmann led two of the five airmen into the house and confronted them with her dead body and her disabled widower. He called the airmen war criminals and implied that it had been these airmen who had killed the woman and incited those present to assault the airmen. Here the airmen were mercilessly beaten by a number of people including Hendrich and Grosch, who was a relative of the dead woman, who assaulted them with his fists and a stick.
All five airmen were then publicly shot, two by Hähnert with his pistol and the other three by Hofmann and unidentified members of the Gestapo. Later that day at 20:00 hrs the Bürgermeister (Mayor) of Ottmannshausen took Grosch, as a witness, to the cemetery to collect valuables and identity items from the bodies.
The bodies were buried the next day at 06:00 hrs in a common grave on the eastern edge of the cemetery at Ottmannshausen. Ottmannshausen is some 13½ km SW from the crash site. Three days later, on the 3rd April, the bodies were exhumed and taken to the crematorium at Weimar and cremated. Later five urns, unnamed but numbered, were buried in the grave formerly occupied by the bodies of the five airmen.
All of the accused fully and freely confessed their part in the commission of the crime. Hähnert and Grosch both made the same admissions from the witness stand.
The court found all three guilty of the charge and sentenced Hähnert to death. He was hanged at Landsberg on the 15th July 1947. Grosch was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was reduced to 25 years and then 22 years, and he was paroled in February 1954. Hendrich was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and he was released in January 1954.
Information provided by Bernd Schmidt found that Hofmann had died, on the 30th March 1945, in a Weimar hospital after having been shot in the stomach and left knee at a road block.
(2) The circumstances leading to the death of 1st Lt. Gustafson Jr. have never been officially established. It is however certain that at least his identity tags must have come into German hands, since his Army Serial Number (ASN) is recorded in two German documents.
Apart from the recorded ASN, which correctly identifies 1st Lt. Gustafson Jr. albeit for the spelling of his name, the date, time and location of his death recorded in the two German documents have been brought into question.
One reason being that there were so many crashes in Thuringia on that day that the Germans lost track of which dead airman or prisoner belonged to which downed bomber/wreckage, which they themselves admitted was the case.
Research conducted by local historian Bernd Schmidt of Weimar and Traugott Vitz has found records that may give a plausible explanation for his death and where he was initially buried.
After the war, the Bürgermeister of the Thuringian villages had to report to the Soviet Military Administration all graves of members of the United Nations.
In a document dated the 30th March 1948, the Bürgermeister of Guthmannshausen, a village not far from Mannstedt, where the Liberty Belle had presumably crashed, reported a grave of an American airman who had been "shot dead after bailing out". The grave contained an urn but no date was given for the shooting.
Bernd Schmidt has read through the register of cremations at Weimar. He found that there was one entry, and the only one during the war, annotated "Amerik. Soldat" whose ashes had been sent back to Guthmannshausen for burial. The cremation date was given as the 3rd August 1944.
He also uncovered a letter dated the 10th May 1945 and written in English by Guthmannshausen citizen Paul Steinacker which was addressed to the Allied Military Government at Weimar.
He wrote that “after an Allied raid on the Leuna works, near Merseburg last year, about the end of July on a Saturday morning”, an American officer had been captured, after bailing out, in the fields belonging to his village, and that he had been shot dead by “a Gendarmerie sergeant (=Wachtmeister), named Fritz Weiß, from Udestedt/Thür.” who had been “formally ordered to this repulsive action by the then Bürgermeister and Ortsgruppenleiter Müller” of Guthmannshausen.
Note: the 29th July 1944 was a Saturday which was when the ‘The Liberty Belle’ took part in a raid on Leuna. There were no other Saturdays in July when there was a raid on Leuna.
Steinacker wrote that the dead American officer was buried two days after his death, exhumed again after two more days and that he was told the American was to be cremated in Weimar.
Assuming that the American officer was killed on the 29th July, this would establish that he was initially buried on the 31st July, exhumed on the 2nd August and cremated on 3rd August which tallies with the cremation record.
The above description of events, albeit circumstantial, provide a very strong possibility that the American officer killed by Weiß was 1st Lt. Gustafson Jr., a man for whom there is no proper burial record anywhere in a KU report.
KU = German reports of crashed US Bombers.
From a letter of the Adjutant General to Gustafson's parents dated May 15th, 1946, it seems that at the time of writing a trial US vs. Fritz Weiß was being prepared, and that he was suspected to have killed Carl C. Gustafson. There is however no evidence that this trial was ever actually held, nor are there any traces of criminal proceedings against Heinrich Müller.
(3) Research conducted Bernd Schmidt found a document from a Lt. Col. Metz of the US Army Quartermaster Corps, which recorded statements by the Daasdorf Bürgermeister (Mayor) and two villagers concerning two American airmen who had been found near Daasdorf. The two had been interrogated at the local inn, and were then to be led to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Shortly after leaving the village, the villagers walking in front heard shots behind them, and on turning around saw the airmen lying on the ground, shot through their heads by the two policemen bringing up the rear. The bodies were taken to the village and, after an initial order to bury them had been revoked, were taken away to the Weimar Crematorium and cremated. Their ashes were returned some weeks later on the 22nd September 1944 in urns, unnamed but numbered, and were buried in the location formerly occupied by the two airmen.
FO. Nemerowski and S/Sgt. Ewing were to be buried on the 1st August 1944 at 18:30 hrs at Daasdorf bei Büttelstedt, some 3¾ miles WNW of Weimar, on the southern edge of the village cemetery.
Although the names of the two policemen who are alleged to have shot FO. Nemerowski Jr. and S/Sgt. Ewing were known, no records have been found that indicate that they had been apprehended or held accountable for their actions.
After the war seven urns were disinterred but as they could not be individually identified they were reinterred in Ardennes American Cemetery as unknown airmen in Plot V, Row 12, Grave 294; Plot Y, Row 1, Grave 19; Plot EE, Row 6, Graves 130 to 134.
Lt Col. Metz’s conclusion was that the two urns from Daasdorf bei Büttelstedt, and the five from Ottmannshausen, contained all the recoverable remains of the eight crew members of The Liberty Belle who died on this day. On October 20th, 1949, the Burial Information for the Group Burial of the Liberty Belle crew was amended to now include an eighth urn coded Unknown X-7630, hailing from Guthmannshausen and currently buried in Neuville-en-Condroz, Plot GG Row 5 Grave 115. It seems that the Army determined that this was the urn containing Gustafson's ashes.
On the 20th June 1950 the remains of the eight airmen were repatriated and received a group burial in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky, Common Grave I/177, 178, 179-180.
Above common grave marker (Courtesy Richard Clark)
1st Lt. Carl Christopher Gustafson Jr. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters). Born 25th August 1921 in Ruston, Lincoln, Louisiana. Son to Carl Christopher Gustafson and Willie Lee (née Hedgepeth) of Ruston, Lincoln, Louisiana, USA.
Above (Courtesy of The Boston Globe July, 27 1944).
FO. Michael John Nemerowski Jr. Air Medal (Oak Leaf Cluster). Born on the 19th June 1924 in Chelsea Massachusetts. Son to Mrs Sophie Nemerowski of Chelsea, Massachusetts, USA.
FO. Victor Irvin Kinkade. Air Medal (Oak Leaf Cluster). Born 13th January 1922 in Pike County, Illinois. Son to John S. and Ora Emily (née Guthrie) Kinkade of Cotton Hill, Sangamon County, Illinois, USA.
Above: (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph November 29, 1943)
S/Sgt. Marccena F. Dottoviano. Air Medal (4 Oak Leaf Clusters). Born in 1921 in Pennsylvania. Son to Mrs Rose Dottoviano of Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, USA.
T/Sgt. Anthony George Trebnik. Air Medal (Oak Leaf Cluster). Born 15th January 1924, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan. Son of Anton and Eva (née Burcar) Trebnik and husband to Mary (née Javorovich) Trebnik of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, USA.
S/Sgt. Jack Gordon Kromer. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters). Born 13th November 1922, Grand Rapids, Kent County, Michigan. Son to Mabel A. Kromer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.
S/Sgt. Frank A. Caldwell. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters). Born 16th June 1922 in Mississippi. Son to Frank Allen and Jessie (née Goodson) Caldwell of Baldwyn, Mississippi, USA.
S/Sgt. William R. ‘Billie’ Ewing. Air Medal (2 Oak Leaf Clusters). Born October 1919 in Alliance, Stark County, Ohio. Son of Harley Robert and Hazel F. (née Anderson) Ewing and husband of Mary Jeanne (née Haugen) Ewing of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA.
On the 56th anniversary of the murder, a stone was erected in Ottmannshausen to the memory of the five airmen murdered there. (Aircrew Remembered)
Translation of inscription: In honourable memory of five members of the U.S. Army Air Forces who were slain on July 29, 1944, and countless other U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in the fight for the liberation of Europe.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’. These authors are indebted to Herr Bernd Schmidt for liberal access to his vast collection of documents, and for his permission to publish his findings on this web page.
Bernd Schmidt and Traugott Vitz have written a brochure covering the murder case under the title "Der Fliegermord von Ottmannshausen", Weimar 2020, ISBN 978-3-96567-038-9. An English translation is available here.
1. Mary Kinkade Maddox, Kinkade. Kinkade. Kinkade - Three Brothers Who Fought For Their Country in World War II, Springfield (Illinois) 2002.
T/Sgt. Robert E. Fife with his memorabilia dated September 2008 (Courtesy of Herr Bernd Schmidt).
Short Bio of T/Sgt. Robert E. Fife’s military service
16.02.1943 - Drafted into military service
01.05.1944 - Embarked for England
29.07.1944 - Shot down over Germany
PoW at Stalag Luft 4
02.12.1944 - Marched across Germany
18.04.1945 - Liberated by the British 2nd Armoured Division.
03.11.1945 - Discharged from USAAF
03.12.1946 - Entered service with the US Navy at Naval Air Station Olathe, Kansas
24.11.1947 - Discharged from US Navy
24.04.1951 - Recalled for Korean War
23.07.1952 - Discharged.
Army Good Conduct Medal (AGCM)
American Campaign Medal (ACM)
World War II Victory Medal
Air Medal (3 Oak Leaf Clusters)
European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
Prisoner of War Medal (POWM)