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James Otto.jpg

Sergeant James E. Otto

B-24 Nose Gunner

506th Bomb Squadron, 44th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force


     James E. Otto was born on 13 November 1925 in the small Philadelphia neighborhood of Elmwood. The youngest of five siblings, James and his family were supported by his father’s work as a machinist with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. A major employer and maker of essential equipment, his father retained the job throughout the Great Depression, allowing their family to ride out the financial turmoil as James matured into a young teenager. Less than a month after his sixteenth birthday, however, tragedy struck when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States went to war. His brothers jumped into the military quite quickly but James still had to wait until he came of age. Continuing in his high school career, the day before his eighteenth birthday, 12 November 1943, he followed in his brothers’ footsteps by getting permission to enlist in the United States Army, shipping off for basic training only a few weeks later. 

     Once fully equipped with the fundamental skills of army life, he volunteered once again, this time for service in the Army Air Corps. Selected as an aviation cadet, he went through rigorous training to become an aerial gunner for B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers, graduating later in 1944. Around this time James was assigned to his crew, which consisted of the following men: Lieutenant George F. Brown, pilot, Lieutenant Harl N. Flowers, co-pilot, Flight Officer Robert S. Thomas, navigator, Lieutenant James J. Barry, bombardier, Staff Sergeant Howard M. Burkhart, flight engineer and top turret gunner, Staff Sergeant Travis E. Nash, radio operator, Sergeant Robert E. Sampley, waist gunner, and Sergeant Earnest E. McAlpine, tail turret gunner. James, now a sergeant, was assigned as the nose turret gunner for the crew, meaning he would man the automatic dual .50-caliber machine gun turret resting right above the bombardier’s position in the forward-most spot of the entire plane. The job was dangerous, being completely exposed in the case of a head-on enemy fighter attack, but was nonetheless essential for the defense of the bomber. The crew went overseas on 5 January 1945, arriving in England a few weeks later. It was here that they received their final assignment as a replacement crew in the 506th Bomb Squadron, 44th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. The 44th was one of the longest-operating groups in Europe and also held one of the highest casualty rates. Nevertheless, James and his comrades were needed to fill their ships and continue the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. 


     James’ first mission came on 15 February 1945 when he and his shipmates flew aboard the B-24 The Hit Parade to bomb the Rothansee oil refinery near Magdeburg, Germany. A flight of thirty-one planes, with seven from the 506th, the mission was part of a 1,100 bomber raid keeping up a campaign against Germany’s oil production, making their single crew part of an over 10,000-man effort. Over the target James experienced flak for the first time as moderate and accurate German fire pounded away at the formation, nearly a third of their ships taking hits While the target itself was covered by clouds, their H2X radar allowed them to bomb accurately right onto the target below before returning home to Shipdham, the airbase for the 44th Bomb Group.

     His next two missions targeted a series of marshalling yards in hopes of disrupting German transportation capacity. The first, on 21 February, found the crew in Joplin Jalopy hitting the main rail lines of Nuremberg, the home of the Nazi ideology. Flak was much less intense on this mission but the cloud cover remained the same, forcing the planes to drop again by radar at roughly 21,500 feet above the target with very accurate results. Despite the inaccuracy of the enemy ground gunners, half of the planes in the formation still received battle damage, some serious enough to warrant early landings behind Allied lines in France or Belgium. Given a week-long break, James did not go up again until 1 March to hit more marshalling yards at Ingolstadt. Flying The Hit Parade in a smaller formation of only twenty-one planes, this was the first time James had to fulfill his role as a gunner when an ME-262 jet fighter swooped in to attack their formation from the rear, breaking over the low squadron and passing at the 11 o’clock position. The plane did not attack too long as friendly fighter support drove him off, with assistance from their B-24 gunner allies. It was a good demonstration, however, that Germany was not yet beaten and could put up some of their most technologically devastating machines in hopes of stopping the American airmen. Over the target, cloud cover remained an issue but they were able to bomb using smoke from a prior bomb group, hitting fifty locomotives being repaired in a shop, their main target. 


     On the evening of 2 March, the Germans brought James and the 44th Bomb Group a taste of their own medicine. After winding down from a dance held on base, a lone JU 88 attack aircraft strafed their airfield in England and a nearby road. While no one was injured on the base, they woke up to find a truck driver taking some of the local girls home had been killed on the road. For so late in the war, it was a shock to the flyboys used to being the only ones in the sky. Regardless, it surely gave them an extra incentive to hit hard on their next mission. The morning after, James underwent a near-identical run to his first mission, flying Southern Comfort III to strike the Rothansee oil refinery in Magdeburg for a second time. This time, the skies were not as clear. Once over the initial point, marking the final approach to the target, James, sitting in his nose turret, was able to witness a devastating aerial attack on the formation right in front of him. Attacked by ME-210s and ME-262s, he watched as multiple bombers went down in flames. P-51 escorts, helplessly slower than the German jets, put up a noble but futile effort to drive off the attackers. The enemy eventually broke off, but not without warning James of how much bite the Luftwaffe still had left. The run itself was full of accurate flak but strong hits were still had on the target, smoke reaching thousands of feet in the air. 

     The next few missions proved quite uneventful compared to his first four. A week after Magdeburg he flew on Sabrina III to destroy a railroad viaduct near Bielefeld via radar due to the heavy cloud cover. Unlike the previous missions, there were no fighters or flak to be seen. The next day he was back in Joplin Jalopy striking submarine pens at Kiel. Another target bombed effectively using radar, the flak was heavier on the bombing run but largely inaccurate and friendly fighters successfully kept enemy interceptors at bay. He flew the same ship on 12 March to hit the marshalling yards at Wetzlar with little opposition. On the 14th he and the 44th Bomb Group had quite a successful mission against marshalling yards in Gutersloh. This was one of their first missions where visual bombing was possible thanks to good weather, with an absence of flak assisting in the effort. While friendly fighters fended off the Luftwaffe, they achieved the highest percentage of hits for the entire mission and caused fires all around the target. 


     After a week of rest from flying James and his crew took Sabrina III to destroy an oil refinery at Hemmingstedt in a small eleven-plane formation. The mission itself was pretty easy, bombing the target using the smoke of the prior formation. Back at Shipdham that evening, they faced the German air force yet again. A “black alert” went out while all the men were relaxing in their barracks as a sole German aircraft was heard buzzing overhead. With the base ready for a fight after the last strafing run, the German decided to leave the Americans alone and gradually worked his way back toward the coast. This was the second time in two weeks that James encountered German forces not in the air but at his own airfield.

     The next morning, perhaps as a little payback, James’ crew struck an airfield at Achmer to clear a path for fighter squadrons planning to strafe the landing strip afterward. Although there was confusion along the initial point, they did find the target and dealt some heavy blows to soften the German defenses. On 23 March they took off again to hit more marshalling yards at Rheine. Flak reared its ugly head on this mission, leaving many planes in their formation with serious damage and several casualties. Two days later they had an easier time destroying underground oil storage facilities in Hitzacker, as they bombed visually with only meager and inaccurate flak, followed by another quick mission on 30 March hitting U-boat docks at Wilhelmshaven, under similar circumstances.

     A veteran of thirteen combat missions over Germany, James likely felt the war was coming to an end. German resistance lessened as missions went on and news from the ground forces told stories of deep drives into Germany on both fronts. On 1 April it was announced that nearly 317,000 German soldiers were surrounded by American troops, forming the “Ruhr Pocket.” As the Allies tried to take advantage of the desperate German fighters, it was yet another signal of the war nearing its close. Even so, the bomber crews still had a job to do. So long as Germany was fighting, they had targets to hit.

     James’ fourteenth mission began like many others. Waking up early in the morning on 5 April to eat breakfast and attend the mission briefing, he was told that their target for the day was marshalling yards in Plauen, Germany. This was a priority target for the 8th Air Force as they sought to cripple the German transportation network while its army was on the retreat. If they couldn’t hit the yards, they were told to hit any sort of transportation node nearby. Taking up a ship they had never flown before, Tinker Belle, pouring rain and clouds made the journey to the target extremely difficult. It was quickly decided they would use pathfinding ships to bomb successfully. While en route, however, something went wrong. As James rode in his nose turret keeping an eye out for enemy fighters, a loud sputtering noise signaled their No. 1 engine going out. Unable to restart the engine, the plane began to slow and they were no longer able to keep up with the formation. The decision was made to turn back around and head for England with an escort of three P-51s protecting them. While feathering the No. 1 engine, the ship descended several thousand feet and was now within the sights of German flak batteries. Opening up in full force, it was only minutes before the No. 2 engine was set aflame by German anti-aircraft fire with the remaining two engines on the right wing pouring heavy smoke. In the barrage of flak Lt. Brown, the pilot, was struck in his head by a piece of shrapnel but was able to keep flying. Despite the wound, his efforts to keep the ship level did not help much. Losing altitude quickly and with little hope of reaching home, he decided to try and crash land in Belgium behind friendly lines. Around this time even more flak burst with deadly accuracy, puncturing numerous holes in the ship and striking yet another crew member, radio operator Travis Nash. While manning his position a large piece of shrapnel tore through the plane and ripped off a large chunk of his head, killing him instantly. Around sixty miles from Cologne, the remaining crew were busy transferring gasoline when new flak batteries opened up and, now low enough to the ground, small arms fire began ripping into the hull. It was at this point that Lt. Brown realized there was no way they could make it to Belgium, ringing the bailout bell so the crew would finally abandon the ship. Unable to steer her away, the ship sat at around 3,000 feet when it flew directly over the American lines and into the German-held Ruhr Pocket.

     It was at this point that some German infantry below began peppering the B-24 with their weapons. James and the other gunners, not ones to take it on the chin, decided to return the favor by strafing the enemy troops with their turrets, turning the heavy bomber into a de facto gunship. They watched as German troops scattered into treelines as the hail of their .50 caliber rain struck. Quickly thereafter, the Germans retaliated, returning an even greater amount of counterfire from their machine guns, rifles, and submachine guns. As James’ nineteen-year-old mind furiously concentrated on pouring fire into the German positions, he failed to realize that all the other crewmen in his plane bailed out. Forgetting that the plane was indeed going down, he turned around to discover he was the only soul left aboard, save the expired Nash slumped over his radio. A few kilometers northeast of Wipperfurth and only a couple thousand feet from the ground, he quickly abandoned his post and jumped out through the nose wheel opening. At such an incredibly low altitude, he immediately pulled on his chute, jerking it open at a mere 500 feet above the ground. As he floated downward he watched Tinker Belle glide lower and lower before crashing into a fireball somewhere off in the distance.


     He landed moments later, of all places, in a tree. Hanging for a few minutes without any way of getting down, a squad of German soldiers eventually came up and cut him down. Taking him into custody, they led him to reunite with his other crewmen, making jokes along the way. In a postwar retelling of the story, James explained that one officer joked how “when we see a silver plane, it’s American, a black plane, it’s British. When we see no plane, it’s German.” While the Germans around him broke out into laughter, James nervously played along, uncertain of what was in store for him.

     The other crew members faced similarly unique challenges. Lieutenant Barry, the bombardier, recalled his chute suffering three gunshots before he reached the ground. The Germans who captured him, however, pointed in the opposite direction and told him to go to the American lines. Sure that they would shoot him for an attempted escape, he instead resolutely held up his hands and remained a prisoner. Sergeant Sampley, the waist gunner, hung upside down after his parachute also got stuck in a tree. He slowly worked himself down only to find a bayonet in his face thirty seconds later. Sergeant McAlpine, the tail gunner, was captured by a band of Hitler Youth boys who surrounded him as they led him to their local military officials. Ironically, the young Nazis saved his life from a mob of angry locals wanting to lynch him. Lieutenant Flowers, the co-pilot, was hidden by a local German farmer and evaded capture after reaching American forces a few days later.


     Lieutenant Brown, their chief pilot, tragically, did not experience such luck. Landing in a field near Kurten, he was quickly captured and taken to Odenthal to be turned over to the local Nazi Party group leader. This leader, Stephan Schodder, gave brown to William Aldinger, the Nazi Party district leader, who locked him in a cellar. While eating dinner Aldinger, an SS lieutenant, and two more Nazi Party officials decided that they were going to kill the captured American. Around 7:00 the next morning the group shoved Brown into a car and drove him to a bomb crater off the side of the road near Bergisch-Gladbach. The Nazis dragged Brown from the vehicle and threw him into the crater when Christian Menrath, the local party group leader, shot him four to five times with an automatic rifle. Brown fell to the ground and cried out only to have the SS officer shoot him once in the head, killing him. The story of Brown’s death was unknown to the U.S. Army and Brown’s family until 1947 when a local who witnessed the attack stepped forward. The two surviving perpetrators (one was shot shortly after the event and another broke his neck jumping from an American truck) were put on trial for their crime, found guilty, and hanged at Landsberg on 5 December 1947.

     James and the other survivors were rounded up and forced to march past their plane’s wreckage, viewing the body of Nash burning in a nearby tree. With no dedicated prisoner-of-war camps in the Ruhr Pocket, the German soldiers placed the airmen into a forced-labor camp of French and Russian slave laborers. To these Europeans, the Americans were kings. The prisoners began breaking out food they had saved for years, giving it to the flyers. They were so excited at the arrival that they even refused to work the day after the airmen arrived, to fully celebrate their quasi-liberators. The crew was imprisoned at the camp for nine days before a platoon of the 78th Infantry Division arrived, setting them and their newfound friends free from captivity. Two days later, the entire group was in Paris and from there, sent on to England. Shortly after their rescue, the Ruhr Pocket collapsed, allowing the American army to capture the largest German force to date. Only two weeks later the war was over.

     Two weeks after the war in Europe came to a close James was sent home. Although a mere nineteen years old, James had survived fourteen combat missions over Germany and a harrowing ten-day escapade as a prisoner-of-war in one of the last surviving pockets of German resistance of World War II. Although he would wait two years before hearing what happened to his commander, Lieutenant Brown, he was discharged from the service in December 1945 to begin his civilian life anew. Marrying his lifelong bride, Eileen, in 1948, he served a long career as an IBM machine operator with the local railroad, working as a clerk until his retirement. The couple ended up having four children of their own. James and his wife both passed in the 1980s surrounded by their kids and their many grandchildren.

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