Ragged But Right lives up to its name

Friday, June 1, 2018

In 2011, I visited Mary Kathryn Feuers at her home just west of Arrow Rock. Mary, then in her 80s, was well prepared for my visit. She ushered me to her dining room table spread with old documents. In her usual no nonsense manner, she carefully handed me a tissue-thin, yellowing piece of paper about the size of an index card.

She said, “Do you remember V-Mails?” I had never seen one, but knew they were the standard stationery of World War II. For those who have never heard of V-Mail, the letter writer used a 7-by-9 1/8 inch special paper that could be folded to make its own envelope. After posting, the military opened and censored the letter and then photographed it on microfilm. Only the film was transported, saving valuable space and weight. After transport it was reprinted to a reduced size of 4 1/4-by-5 3/16 inches, just like the one I now held.

I carefully handled the fragile paper dated April 8, 1944, handwritten, in a cryptic script — it read: “Dear Mary, My address is still the same [New York, New York]. It may be a month or two before I get a letter from you. I am in England. I didn't get to see xxxxxxx (blacked out word) as I expected. About all the people we saw on the train were children and old people. As we stopped at rail stations, all the children held up their fingers in a V for victory. We threw them chocolate bars and gum. You can really tell they're in a war here...we are supposed to get passes soon. You know, they drink their beer hot and drive on the wrong side of the road. [They] do everything backwards. Boy, a letter would be o.k. now, especially from you. Love, Bob.”

Mary explained this was her first letter from Bob in weeks. They had begun dating before he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942. They had kept up a steady correspondence while he trained at numerous bases throughout the states. For Bob, a 23-year-old farm boy from Saline County, this letter would mark the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Seemed only yesterday he was driving horses and mules and enjoying high school football games.

Robert “Bob” Jacob Feuers, like so many of his generation, had enlisted rather than being conscripted, preferring to choose his service over being assigned. He received training at Coffeyville, Kan., Long Beach, Calif., Amarillo, Texas, Las Vegas, Nev., and Avon Park, Fla., eventually qualifying in gunnery and hydraulic maintenance. All that had been good, seeing the country and getting away from the farm.

On March 31, 1944, he departed via the Queen Elizabeth from “Last Stop USA” (GI for New York City), sailing for England. Arriving on April 6 at a port on the west of Scotland, he then boarded a train through England to his new home, Great Ashfield Base, located in Suffolk County, eastern England. There he was attached to the 8th Army Air Force, 549th Bombardment Squadron as a waist gunner on the legendary Flying Fortress, B-17. Bob felt fortunate as his crew's plane, the Ragged But Right, with the sexy pin-up painted on her nose, was in mint condition, having flown only two missions. Her crew consisted of 10 men under the age of 27, one being only 19. These 10 from different parts of the U.S. and of different backgrounds soon learned to share the boredom of remote camp life and the demands of flying five miles above the earth, in unpressurized cabins, in 60-degree temperatures, with a deafening drone, and with the ever present horror of enemy attacks.

Almost immediately upon his arrival at Ashfield, the Ragged But Right crew was in the sky. Within a few flights, Bob began experiencing motion sickness to the extent that he was switched from waist gunner to ball turret gunner. Curiously, curled up in that cocoon-like turret, hanging below the plane, he had no sickness. Although considered the worst position on the aircraft, there he settled in. A “weakness?” Yes. Bad luck? Perhaps.

Bob's crew flew eight missions between April 26 and May 12, 1944, six of which were over Germany, each taking heavy flak but avoiding damage. But on May 12 in a mission to target a plane repair factory at Zwickau, Germany, south of Leipzig, they encountered more than flak — about 60 German fighters hit their group formation. The tail gunner reported 20 B-17s behind them had gone down in flames. In later years, Bob's captain wrote how in this attack, one German fighter came in low and when it was just even with the props, Bob cut loose with rapid bursts and hit it directly in the engine.

But on this day, the day of their eighth mission, their lucky streak ran out. The enemy was too great in number to overcome. They took a hit, knocking out No. 3 engine and part of the rudder. Unable to maintain required speed, the pilot had to drop out of formation and lower to another formation for protection. Struggling to stay in this second formation, Ragged's bombs were released over a railroad line, not its mission target; yet the plane was still barely able to stay with the new group as they headed for the target area.

Then upon leaving the target area, anti-aircraft fire knocked out No. 1 engine and tore out a small section of the waist. With only two of its four engines working, staying in formation was impossible. Estimations of remaining fuel revealed a return to base was unlikely. They were sitting alone in the sky.

When about halfway out of enemy territory and while lightening their load even more in expectation of ditching in the Channel, they were attacked by two German FW-190s. This time, the tail end of the plane was blown out, and the whole ship from the radio room back was riddled with bullets. Having extreme difficulty controlling the ship, the pilot gave the order to bail out. The bombardier, navigator and the top turret gunner/engineer did just that. But when the pilot was informed three men were wounded and the left waist gunner was killed, he decided to try making it to England. Maybe, just maybe, with sheer physical force, transferring gas from one tank to another, seat-of-the-pants engine feathering and a whole lot of good luck, pilot and copilot could get them to the English shore.

Bob was not hit, a bit of good luck he attributed to his motion “weakness.” The entire plane except his turret was bullet riddled. Another bit of good luck came when the attacking German fighters made an unexplainable retreat. Perhaps, seeing the airmen bail out, the Germans thought they were through, which was very nearly true.

Miraculously the plane safely landed, just barely, into England. After its final inspection, the team reported “she was so full of holes that a rock, most likely, could have brought her down.”

From the 1997 memoir of Captain Neil Rosener, Ragged But Right's pilot, comes the recount of the human toll his crew experienced that day:

“Waist gunner Stoma was dead on landing; Waist gunner Goodman died the day after landing; Tail gunner Molten survived a serious arm wound. Those who bailed out, navigator Stores, bombardier Leichtman and engineer Mack were taken prisoners of war. Engineer Mack, as a prisoner, died of diphtheria, frozen feet and legs — for lack of medical attention. The surviving crew, suffering extreme battle shock and fatigue, was granted a 10-day leave for rest and recuperation. Departing with me [Cpt. Rosener] from London on the way to Cambridge, Sergeant Feuers became deathly ill with spinal meningitis.”

For that reason, Bob was not allowed to return to active combat. His lucky “weakness” had struck again. He was sure if he had flown again, he would have been killed.

Staff Sergeant Robert Jacob Feuers received the Air Medal for eight missions, one Oak Leaf Cluster and two Bronze Battle Stars. He returned to Saline County in 1944 where shortly thereafter, he and Mary Kathryn Moseley married. They continued to live in Saline County near Arrow Rock, farming for the next 58 years. Bob and Mary had two daughters, Linda and Barbara, and four grandchildren. Bob died in 2002 at the age of 83.

*It is not verifiable that the plane flown on this May 12 mission was the designated Ragged But Right. The crew was the original Ragged crew,” but it was SOP for crews to rotate planes, dependent on what was available and flight worthy.

This story first appeared in the Marshall Writers’ Guild book, “The Forties, a book of Poetry and Prose” (2011).