Ask Rufus: May 12, 1944, Smoky Stover Jr's Last Mission

 

The crew of Smokey Stover Jr., a B-17 of the 337th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group, at Snetterton Heath, England, on April 26, 1944. Staff Sgt. Charles Lee is on the right end of the back row. Staff Sgt. Rufus Ward Sr. is standing next to him. They were shot down over Germany 75 years ago today on May 12, 1944.

The crew of Smokey Stover Jr., a B-17 of the 337th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group, at Snetterton Heath, England, on April 26, 1944. Staff Sgt. Charles Lee is on the right end of the back row. Staff Sgt. Rufus Ward Sr. is standing next to him. They were shot down over Germany 75 years ago today on May 12, 1944.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

A B-17 from the 96th Bomb Group on a bombing mission over Germany in May 1944.

A B-17 from the 96th Bomb Group on a bombing mission over Germany in May 1944.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

Seventy-five years ago today my father, Rufus Ward Sr., then a tail gunner on a B-17 in the 337th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group based at Snetterton Heath, England, flew his last combat mission.  

 

His first combat mission was to Berlin. His last ended when his plane, Smokey Stover Jr., was shot down over Frankfurt, Germany. He was captured and held as a German POW until he was liberated on April 26, 1945.  

 

Like so many other members of the "Greatest Generation," my parents reacted immediately when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. My father was living in Washington, D.C., where he was attending George Washington University and working as a clerk for the FBI. He immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps. My mother was attending Virginia State Teachers College (now Longwood University) and came back to Columbus to attend MSCW (MUW) and work at the at Columbus Army Air Field hospital. She also flew in the Columbus Civil Air Patrol unit having been "the first girl to solo" in the unit. 

 

My father would seldom talk about his war time experiences, and when I would ask him about them he always just said "there were so many stories of heroism that were unknown outside of the POW camps because those stories could not be passed along and were thus lost to time." It was not until after he died that I found out his story was one of them.  

 

It was only about a month after he died that I started learning his story. A letter from a member of his crew appeared in the 96th Bomb Group Historical Association newsletter describing what he had done. Several years later I heard from Chief Justice Sharon Lee of the Tennessee Supreme Court, whose father, Charles Lee, was waist gunner on Smokey Stover Jr. In 2002, Manuel Van Eyck published "Silent Heroes," a book about American Air Crews lost during bombing missions to occupied Czechoslovakia, my father was included in the book's acknowledgments.  

 

On May 12, 1944, Staff Sergeant Rufus Ward Sr. was the tail-gunner on Smokey Stover Jr. That day his bomb group was sent on a mission to bomb oil refineries at Brux, and Zwickau, Czechoslovakia. His plane was assigned to fly in the "Tail End Charlie" slot of the bomber formation's "Purple Heart Corner." That was the most exposed place in a B-17 bomber formation as it was the last element in the last squadron in the last group of the combat wing.  

 

Tail-end Charlie was the name given to the last B-17 in Purple Heart Corner, which made it the last bomber in the whole bombing formation. The crew of Smoky Stover Jr. found out why their slot was called that on May 12. The 96th Bomb Group only comprised 3 percent of the heavy bombers on the mission, but 26 percent of the bombers lost were from the 96th. 

 

Near Frankfort, Germany, the 337th squadron was attacked by about 50 German ME-109s, FW-190s and even some ME-210 jet fighters. Smokey Stover Jr. was heavily damaged -- its left wing was almost shot away and two engines were on fire. A lost aircraft report made by a returning crew described Smoky Stover Jr. when last seen as, "left wing destroyed and went down out of control." My father told me communications had been cut to the tail, and he did not hear the pilot's orders to bail out. He was still firing his 50-caliber guns at a German ME 109 fighter when he suddenly saw his pilot and co-pilot parachute past his window.  

 

What my father failed to mention to me was that when he went to his escape hatch to bail out he saw the waist gunner and the ball turret gunner lying wounded and without parachutes further inside the pilot-less plane. He crawled into the waist of the burning out of control plane and assisted each of them with their parachutes and helped each bail out of the aircraft before he jumped.  

 

Justice Lee related to me what her father told her had happened when Smokey Stover Jr. was shot down: "The pilot rang the bell and ordered everyone to bail out of the plane but he (Charles Lee) lay unconscious. The tail-gunner of the plane, Rufus Ward, would not leave him and worked with him as the plane was going down. He saved Charles' life by placing a parachute on him and getting him out the door." Of the 26 aircraft from Snetterton on the May 12 mission, two returned to base because of mechanical problems (not unusual for patched up planes) and 12 of the remaining 24 were shot down. The survival expectancy of an air crewman at the base was six missions, and my father had been on his sixth mission. The month of May had seen the 96th Bomb Group suffer almost 125 percent casualties. Men and planes were being lost almost faster than the steady stream of replacements could be brought into action.  

 

All of Smoky Stover Jr.'s crew survived, though several were badly wounded. They were all captured and held in solitary confinement for 10 days except for interrogation. Ward and the other non-commissioned officers (all air crew members had to have at least the rank of sergeant) were sent to Stalag Luft IV, a German POW camp which was located in present day Poland. The officers were sent to Stalag Luft III (it had been the scene of the Great Escape of movie fame). 

 

Stalag Luft IV had opened in May 1944 and was designed to hold up to 6,400 air corps POWs. However, more than 10,000 American, British and Canadian airmen were sent there. Conditions there were anything but good. Charles Lee told his daughter, "... food was very limited. It was mostly a soupy mixture of rotten cabbage and bread made from sawdust. ... The barracks were made for 16 but usually contained 25 men." He also recalled horrible infestations of lice in the barracks. Red Cross documents confirm Lee's descriptions, even mentioning that the bread was made from rye and beets but contained about 30-percent sawdust and straw.  

 

As the war neared its end and Russian troops were fast approaching from the east, the Germans decided to abandon Stalag Luft IV. On Feb. 5, 1945, in the midst of one of the century's coldest winters, 10,000 POWs were marched out of the camp with limited supplies and little warm clothing. It was a 500-mile forced march, in often blizzard conditions, across Germany that became known as "The Black March."  

 

On April 26, 1945, my father was liberated at Bitterfeld, Germany, by a unit from the U.S. 104th Timberwolf Division. Near the front lines that April, Dorothy Stout (of Vicksburg) and two other Red Cross workers were on a German road in a "clubmobile" providing coffee, doughnuts and cigarettes to "combat soldiers." There they encountered 1,500 newly liberated Americans. Among the former POWs was my father, with whom Stout had mutual friends in Mississippi. She wrote a letter that day to Mae Puckett in Columbus and described him as dressed "in various parts of Jerry (German) uniforms" and having "quite long hair" and a "sort of Robinson Crusoe" appearance. Records show that when Ward was liberated he only weighed 91 pounds. 

 

I have had several friends tell me that during the 1970s my father was introduced to a former German Luftwaffe pilot who was in town to help a local industry with some equipment. They got together to talk and he turned out to be the ME 109 pilot who had shot down Smoky Stover Jr. on May 12, 1944. When my father realized that he immediately said "We need to go drink a beer together." Rufus Ward Sr. has been honored by Columbus Air Force Base naming a street after him.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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