LAST MISSION OVER BERLIN
Date: June 21, 1944. Time: 0500 hours.
Orders of the day: 448th Bomber Group, 712th Squadron, 20th Combat Wing, 2nd Bombardment Division, , 8th United States Army Air Corps, Seething Airfield, Norfolk, England.
Mission: Entire 448th Bomber Group consisting of more than 100 B-24 Liberator bombers to attack Berlin, Germany from altitude of 18,000 feet.
After breakfast, officers and crews were briefed on the mission. The room was filled with crew members as the briefing officer waited for the room to settle down. Flight Officer
Robert J. Branizza, the navigator, sat with the other members of the crew. Pilot, 2nd Lt. Cleve “Jack” Howell and Co-Pilot, 2ndLt Arthur B. Majestic listened with Bombardier, 2ndLt
Victor D. Dolecek as the mission for the day was revealed to the officers. Branizza had gotten to know his fellow officers when they were training together on B-24s in Casper,
Wyoming. They picked up a new B-24 in Topeka, Kansas and were ordered to fly to England as replacements. The four commissioned officers, and the enlisted members of the
crew had flown over the South Atlantic and arrived in May, 1944. They were assigned to the 448th Bomb Group, 712th Squadron. They had taken the Southern Route over the
Atlantic. They had started their flight from Kansas with the new B-24 and flew to West Palm Beach with stops at Trinidad and Balem, Brazil. Next, they flew over the South
Atlantic to Dakar, Senegal in Africa. Branizza earned his wings as a navigator during that long flight over the Atlantic. The lives of the ten young crewmembers depended on his
training and knowledge of navigation. The next leg of the trip was to Marrakech, Morocco and then to Seething Airfield, England.
There were 36 B-24 Liberator Heavy Bombers in each of the four
squadrons of the 448th. Branizza and the rest of his crew had flown on four previous missions since their arrival. They received their
baptism of fire on those four missions. They flew their first mission on D-Day, June 6, 1944. They had participated in the attack on Fortress Europe in support of the ground troops hitting the beaches in
Normandy. Branizza recalls that their target was in France and he remembered looking down on the English Channel and seeing the invasion fleet. He was able to see the bombardment by naval gunfire
even from such a high altitude.
They flew three more missions over France in early June as the ground troops fought their
way through the hedgerows of Normandy. The Air Corps required air crews to complete 30 missions before they would be rotated back Stateside to train airmen. The completion of 30
missions would be no easy task. It was believed that the casualty rate in the 8th Air Force was nearly 50 per cent.
The enlisted members of the crew were: Crew Chief, Staff/Sgt Bertill S. Johnson, from Indiana, Radioman, Staff/Sgt Herschel O.“Ham” Hamblin, from Virginia, Gunner, Sgt
Sammie D. Vinson, from Alabama, Gunner, Sgt George D, Grubisa, from New Jersey, and Gunner, Sgt James L. Vajgyl. Sgt Alexander Istvanovich had pulled guard duty the previous
night and did not fly on this mission.
Photo courtesy of Robert J. Branizza
Standing L. to R.
Pilot 2ndLt. Cleve J. Howell, CoPilot 2ndLt Arthur Majestic, Navigator 2ndLt Bob Branizza, Bombardier 2ndLt Victor Dolecek
S/Sgt Bertill Johnson, S/sgt Herschel O Hamblin, Sgt Sammie Vinson, Sgt George J. Grubisa, Sgt James L. Vajgyl, Sgt Alexander Istvanovich
Today would be their fifth mission and it was the first time they would be bombing Germany. The target was Berlin. They knew that they would be facing the fierce attacks of
German fighter planes. The anti-aircraft batteries defending the German homeland would send up a shield of deadly flak when the 448th was over Berlin.
Records show that the first combat mission of the 448th was flown on December 22, 1943 and the target was Osnabruck, Germany. Also, on March 6, 1944, the 448th took part in the
first large scale attack on Berlin.
When Branizza was a student in Evander Childs High School, he had studied the German
language as part of the school curriculum. Part of the language course included the study of the maps of Germany. So he knew a little about the city of Berlin. That knowledge would
serve him well that day in June of 1944.
The aircrews knew what they faced on today’s mission as they sat and listened to the plan
for the attack on Berlin. Branizza and his fellow crewmembers hadn’t the opportunity to visit Seething, the nearest town to the airfield. The invasion of Normany and the missions in
support of the ground troops was a high priority. Sadly, none of them would get the chance to visit Seething.
The sky was already bright as the officers rode out to their aircraft past the rows of B-24
LIberators. Branizza chatted with the other officers as the truck bounced along onto the airfield. He glanced at “Jack” Howell, and “Art” Majestic. He thought about the tension that
he could also detect between them. “But, there can only be one pilot,” he said to himself. Branizza was 23 years old and the others were just as young. He remembered that there was
an unspoken feeling of invincibility about them. They were young and full of confidence. The truck came to a stop next to their B-24 LIberator and they jumped off with their gear
and parachutes. They had instructions not to board the aircraft until they got the signal that the mission wasn’t cancelled.
It wasn’t long before the control tower fired the flare to assemble for takeoff.
The crew chief, Sgt “Bert” Johnson and the other crew members were suited up for the
mission. They had the new heated flight suits and the officers and crew entered through the bomb-bay doors into the aircraft. Branizza and Dolecek went towards the nose of the plane.
The bombardier and navigator would sit on a small padded seat during takeoffs and landings. When the aircraft was airborne, they would crawl through into the nose of the
plane to their positions. The bombardier would also be the forward gunner during this mission. The door behind him was closed and the navigator was just behind him. When
the mission was confirmed by the flare fired from the control tower, the Liberators taxied into position.
448th BG prepare for mission. Note the tail wing markings.
Photo courtesy of 448th BG Collection http://www.seething.org.uk/448th.html
Branizza remembered the captain who had flown with him on a training mission in
Wyoming. He and the training captain were in the small navigator’s compartment behind the nose of the B-24 Liberator. Navigators had no room to be seated during the flight. They had
to stand during the mission as they used the small chart desk. Overhead was a small plexiglass bubble that the navigators used to sight their navigation instruments. The
navigators used an “Octant” to shoot the sun or the stars during missions. They also were trained to use the E6B computer with the Octant. Actually, the E6B “computer” was a hand
held device with cailbrations that helped the navigator compute factors such as drift and altitude. In the photo below the navigators “bubble” can be seen directly behind the nose of
the aircraft and in front of the windows of the cockpits. He recalled that during that training flight, he and the training captain were monitoring the radio and and didn’t hear that there
would be a practice exercise that would simulate the order to bail out of the aircraft. However, when the alarm was sounded to abandon the aircraft, he and the training captain
thought the alarm was genuine. The captain had a chestpack parachute available, but Branizza reached for his chute that was crammed in a corner of the crowded cabin. As he
reached for the chute, he pulled the ripcorp by mistake and chute opened inside the compartment. He and the captain made eye contact and Branizza read the message in those
eyes. Fortunately, Branizza and the captain could see the pilot behind them and when they signalled to him, he gave the signal that the alarm wasn’t for real. Branizza knew that he
would have bailed out by manually opening the forward nose wheel door and jumping out the bottom of the aircraft. That incident was to serve Branizza well in combat. He learned a
valuable lesson that would save his life. He would wear his backpack parachute whenever he flew combat missions.
Photo courtesy of 448th BG Collection http://www.seething.org.uk/448th.html
Records of the 448th Bomb Group show that over 100 B-24 Liberator Heavy Bombers took
part in the mission of June 21, 1944. As they gained altitude over the English Channel, Branizza looked out of the small window over his chart desk and saw the heavies assembling
for the flight into Germany. As they climbed higher, the temperature inside the aircraft got extremely cold. It would be hours before they arrived over the target. There would be no
opportunity for personal necessities during the flight. How many hours to arrive over the target, make the bomb run, and then return to Seething Airfield?
The flight into Germany was uneventful. No Messerschmitts, no flak. Branizza was later to learn that the 448th Bomb Group’s mission was also to be a diversionary tactic to deceive
the Germans. A second large group of heavy bombers were flying another mission to bomb Germany without returning to England. It was an experimental tactic to see if the bombers
could proceed into Russian occupied territory for refueling and re-arming. It was thought that the main German defense would be directed against the 448th and the other heavies
would have a better chance to drop their bombs on the target and successfully fly to Russia. For some reason, the Germans were not deceived and the Luftwaffe concentrated their
attacks on the other bomb group headed to Russia.
Branizza noticed small airbursts of enemy flak as they approached the outskirts of Berlin. He
looked out the small window and in the distance he thought he saw a column of black smoke rising from Berlin. What he actually saw, was a thick blanket of exploding anti-aircraft shells
over the city. That thick blanket of flak was what the 448th would be flying into.
Photo courtesy of 448th BG collection. http://www.seething.org.uk/448th.html
It wasn’t long before the 448th was over the target area. Branizza felt the concussion from
the exploding flak as they continued towards the target. The lead aircraft bombardier was the key to the mission. The other B-24s in the squadron would release their bomb loads
when he dropped his bombs. Branizza remembers when the flak hit the number two engine. He looked out the window and could see that the inboard engine had been opened like a tin
can. Fuel was pouring out and covering the wing. It seemed like the lifeblood of the Liberator was being bled out of the destroyed engine. The pilot, Jack Howell, feathered the
engine and what was left of the propellor shook in the wind. Howell struggled to keep the aircraft under control. He made the decision to order the crew to bail out. At the signal to
abandon the aircraft, Branizza opened the door to the nose and signalled to Dolecek. Dolecek nodded his head that he understood. Branizza quickly pulled the manual handle that opened
the wheel well door and the air rushed into the small cabin. He looked through the opening down 18,000 feet. He grabbed the sides of the opening and dove into the wind. He still had
his face mask on as he fell from the stricken plane. He had the presence of mind to remember not to pull the ripcord of his chute unti he had fallen free of the attacking bomber
group. Also, the flak was intense and the quicker he fell, the safer he would be.
He fell from 18,000 feet until he thought he was low enough to pull the rip cord. He
estimated that he was at about 5,000 feet when he did. When the chute opened, he turned to watch the 448th Bomb Group fade into the distance. They had dropped their bomb load
and the target area was filled with fire and explosions. He remembered having a feeling of loss as he watched the 448th disappear from his view. He drifted down into an area that he
knew was the famous Tiergarten Zoo and park on the outskirts of Berlin. The idea of landing in a zoo didn’t thrill him. The irony of being killed by a lion was a fleeting thought to the young airman.
When asked if he hesitated to jump from the plane, Branizza said he never gave it a second thought. He knew that he had to jump or die in the doomed plane. The writer remembers
serving in the US Army and recalls the fierce pride that airborne troops have. They wear their airborne wings on their uniforms. They get their wings after weeks of intensive
training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The wash out rate reflects the elite character of airborne troops.
For that reason, it is an amazing thing to consider that air crews that served in the 448th and
other units of the 8th Air Force had no parachute training. To jump from a damaged aircraft during combat and fall 13,000 feet before pulling the ripcord is quite a feat.
Branizza landed safely in the Tiergarten area in broad daylight. The air raid was still in progress, and the entire population had taken refuge in the air raid shelters. Branizza was
able to roll up his parachute and conceal it in the brush. Yet, he heard a motorcycle nearing his position and he hid until he felt safe. He worked his way away from the city of Berlin
into the countryside. He was still wearing his flight suit and used concealment until nightfall. He remembers that he still had his clumsy sheepskin lined aviator boots on. He had tried to
reach for his regular shoes before he dove out of the aircraft, but wasn’t able to grab them.
He planned on evading capture by making his way to the sea and perhaps find a small boat
and sail to the Swedish coast. It was a forlorn hope, but the only one he had at the time. He would be able to avoid capture for six days. He hid out in the fields during the day and tried
to travel at night. He lost his way a number of times and was forced to travel by day. During those six days, he saw a group of agricultural workers working in the fields. He
noticed that they had baskets of food nearby. Branizza managed to grab some of their food and fled back into the forest. At one point, he was able again to snatch some food from
other work parties when he was confronted by an axe wielding worker. The suspicious worker asked him some questons in German and Branizza responded in German that he
“didn’t know”. At last, after six days, he was again confronted by two men riding bicycles. They were suspicious of him and grabbed his arm. They noticed his watch and shouted at
him accusing him of being a “flyer” in German. Branizza used the little German he knew and denied that he was a flyer. But he couldn’t conceal his physical condition, the flight suit and
the aviation boots. One of the men left to call the “police”. Branizza hurriedly continued away from the second man. Branizza was exhausted and discouraged. The Air Corps
had trained air crews that if they had to surrrender, to surrender to older Germans. When he saw a German couple seated at a picnic table outside their house, he approached them and in
halting German made them understand who he was. They gave him some cherry drink and told him to stay with them until the German police were notified. That ended his escape plans.
Branizza spent the rest of the war in prisoner of war camps. After being interrogated in Frankfurt, he was sent to one of the Luftwaffe prison camps. First, he was in Stalag Lufe
III Sagan in Eastern Germany. When the Russian army was threatening the Germans on the Eastern Front, he was moved to Stalag Lufe Seven A, Mooseburg. While in those camps, he
was happy to meet his Pilot, Jack Howell who had survived. Howell told him that the Liberator had been hit a second time and that the aircraft went into a roll. The other crew
members couldn’t bail out because of the roll forcing them against the bulkheads of the plane. However, Howell and his co-pilot Art Majestic finally steadied the plane and gained
enough time which enabled them and the crew to bail out.
Records of the 448th Bomb Group and the American Monuments Commission reveal that
only Branizza and Howell survived. Sgt George J. Grubisa, is buried in Plot C, Row 13, Grave 24, in the Ardennes American Cemetery; Neupre, Belgium. The Co-PIlot Lt. Art
Majestic, the Bombardier Lt. Vic Dolecek, Sgts Bert Johnson, Herschel “Ham” Hamblin, Sammie Vinson, and James Vajgyl were recorded as missing in action. Their bodies were
never recovered. Those men are memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Netherlands American Cemetery, Margraten, Netherlands.
Photo by NY Cop Online Magazine Bob Branizza on right with Ed Reuss
Today, Bob Branizza is retired and plays golf with the Earlybirds Golf Club at South Shore Golf Course on Staten Island. He and I attended the annual party that the club gives at the
end of each golf season. I wish to thank him for sharing a part of his life with me and the readers of this site. We can never thank him and those who served with him during World
War II enough for the lives that we live today. I was born in 1940 and during the late 40s Hollywood produced motion pictures such as “Twelve O’Clock High” with Gregory Peck
and “Command Decision” with Clark Gable. Also, the television series “Air Power” narrated by Walter Cronkite documented the deeds of the 8th Air Force in World War II. I can
recommend those films and TV shows to anyone who wants to know more about the men who flew those terrifying missions in Europe.
The author would like to thank Patricia Everson, historian of the 448th Bombardment Group, Seething, England. Patrcia was a nine year old when the 448th BG arrived at Seething
Airfield in 1943. The photos above are from the website of Seething Control Tower http://www.seething.org.uk/448th.html Please visit this web site to view more on the
448th Bombardment Group.
Copyright © 2006 Edward D. Reuss
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