This story was submitted by 2nd cousin of S/Sgt. Robert H. Fisher Jr., who was a crewman on a B-24 Liberator with the 8th Air Force, 93rd Bomb Group. He and his crew were last seen over the North Sea on 18 October 1943.
As members of the greatest generation march forth into their elderly years and continue to dwindle in number, it becomes the duty of later generations to remember and retell their stories of sacrifice, heroism, and victory during WWII. Though we can’t truly repay them, we owe them this for preserving the freedom we take for granted each day. However, what about the members of the greatest generation that have remained forever young. Never having grown old, tossing and turning in the middle of the night years after the war wrestling with memories and emotions from a time long past. Never having the chance to tell wide eyed grandchildren about the camaraderie, patriotism, fear, nervousness, homesickness, and longing for peace felt by themselves and their buddies when they were “over there”. In many of these cases, immediate family members have already passed away, and they have taken with them the scars, pain, and unfortunately the memories of loved ones lost while fighting for America. However, their stories need not be lost forever. They exist in the form of medals, photographs and mementos tucked away in dusty attics, as well as mission reports, personnel files, and unit histories that lay in wait in archive facilities all across the United States. They are waiting for someone to use them as pieces to a puzzle, to bring back to life the stories of members of the greatest generation who never had the chance to tell it themselves. This is one young man’s story, told 76 years after he sacrificed his life just days short of his 21st birthday. Thank you for reading his story, for if he has a home in the minds of men, then he is never truly gone.
Preparing for Combat
Robert H. Fisher Jr. was born in the Bronx, NY on October 31 st , 1922. He was the first child of Robert and Ruth Fisher. The family would grow in size quickly, and Robert would have two sisters, Eileen and Doris, and a brother named Donald. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Robert Jr. had just turned 19 and must have known war was in his future. He answered Uncle Sam’s call and enlisted in the Army Air Force on September 11, 1942. One of his first stops in training was Buckingham Field in Ft. Myers, Florida. Here he attended flexible gunnery school and learned all he would need to know to defend his bomber from the German Luftwaffe. He then attended radio operator school in Salt Lake City, Utah. The skills gained in Salt Lake City meant that in addition to serving as a gunner, he would be the assistant radio operator on his yet to be formed bomber crew. His first introduction to heavy bombers came at Davis-Monthan Army Airfield in Tucson, Arizona. He then went to Herington, Kansas where he was to meet the nine other crew members who would fight with him in a B-24 Liberator. From here, the newly formed crew would begin the journey over the North Atlantic to Station 104 which was a US Army air base in Hardwick, England. Hardwick was the home of the 93 rd Bomb Group. The group was subdivided into four squadrons, and Robert Jr. and his crew were assigned to the 328th Bomb Squadron.
Robert Jr. was part of a ten-man crew that flew in a B-24 Liberator. The pilot and leader of the crew was 2nd Lt. Roger W. Hayes. He was born in Mason City, Iowa, and his younger brother, Ralph, would also become a pilot and fly the B-17 Flying Fortress. Roger was only 22 years old, yet had a tremendous responsibility on his shoulders. The co-pilot was 2nd Lt. Eugene H. Cantrell from St. Louis, Missouri. The navigator, 2 nd Lt. Harry J. Linvill, hailed from Columbia City, Indiana, and the fourth and final officer of the crew was 2nd Lt. Gregory Bournazos from Ipswich, Massachusetts. Gregory was already a hometown hero because in early 1942 he was credited with sinking a German U-boat off the coast of New England. What made this an even greater accomplishment was that at the time, he was a gunner, and had not yet begun training to become a bombardier. He must have been a natural. The enlisted personnel consisted of Technical Sergeant Henry H. Howard Jr., the top turret gunner and engineer from Alhambra, California and Technical Sergeant Idus F. Coleman, the radio operator from Panacea, Florida. The four gunners were each Staff Sergeants, and were Robert Jr. from the Bronx, Robert J. Graff from Brooklyn, New York, Clifford A. Blais from Providence, Rhode Island, and Reuben L. Gareau from Hubbell, Michigan. Reuben was the oldest of the crew, having been born in 1906. Besides Reuben, none of the other crew members had reached their 30th birthday.
The Missions Begin
Robert Jr. and his crew flew their first mission on October 10th , 1943. The main bomber stream was to attack Munster, Germany. This was a somewhat controversial mission because the target for the bombers was the Cathedral in the city center. This is one of the first raids where the civilian population was targeted instead of industrial targets. For their role, Robert Jr. and the rest of the 93 rd Bomb Group were to fly a diversion over the North Sea. Their objective was to feint a bomb run and draw up the Luftwaffe units stationed in Northern Europe, thereby preventing the Germans from concentrating their full fighter force on the main bomber stream headed to Munster. About halfway through the mission, the oxygen systems for the top turret gunner and tail gunner failed, forcing Robert Jr. and his crew to abort the mission and turn back for Hardwick. Their second mission would take place on October 14th . This was the infamous “Second Schweinfurt” raid, home of ball-bearing factories that the Allies believed without which the Germans would be unable to wage war. The raid got off to an ominous start due to poor weather conditions over England which made it difficult for the 93 rd Bomb Group to form up with the other bomb groups. Due to the fact that the formation, which was much smaller than planned, would be an easier target for German fighters, the commander of the 93 rd Bomb Group turned the mission into a diversion toward Emden, Germany. Robert Jr. and his crew made it back to base, but over 60 bombers failed to return in what would be called one of the most intense aerial battles of the war. With 10 men in each bomber, there were over 600 empty bunks in England that night. Quite a sobering outlook on life for a rookie crew with two missions under their belt.
18 October 1943
Robert Jr. and his crew would be awoken early on the morning of Monday, October 18, 1943. Once again, the 93rd Bomb Group would be flying a diversion for a formation of B-17’s that were to bomb marshalling yards and a metal works plant in Duren, Germany. They would have no fighter escort, so the gunners would be solely responsible for repelling any enemy attacks. Though no primary target was assigned, the bombers did carry six 500lb bombs, and were given permission to attack any enemy shipping convoy encountered over the North Sea. For reasons unknown, possibly sickness, 2nd Lt. Eugene H. Cantrell, did not fly as co-pilot on this mission. Instead, 2nd Lt. Roger W. Hayes took the co-pilot seat, and 1st Lt. Charles R. Hutchens of Shreveport, Louisiana was assigned to lead the crew. Lt. Hutchens had joined the 93rd Bomb Group only a month or so before Robert Jr.’s crew, and had flown two additional bombing missions in September. Lt. Hutchens had a wife and two young boys at home in Louisiana. He was 24 years old. Robert Jr. and his crew were assigned to fly in a B-24 that had been around since the 93rd Bomb Group began combat operations in late 1942. Her name was “Shoot Luke”. The original crew of Shoot Luke had rotated back to the states, having completed 25 missions. Though war-weary, she was a trustworthy bird that had brought her crews back from over 40 missions. The bombers departed Hardwick at 10:41 AM, and were to join up with three other bomb groups. The lead group however, the 389th, had a number of turn backs due to mechanical issues, thereby causing the entire group to abort the mission. The original 80-strong bomber formation, was now down to 60 bombers. As the formation proceeded over the North Sea, contact with Messerschmitt 109 fighters was made around 1:20 PM. Most of the crew reported that the attacks were not overly aggressive, and that the fighters loitered just out of range of the gunners, waiting to make attacks on stragglers. At about this time, it was reported that Shoot Luke fell behind the formation. Some crewmen said it appeared the bomber was peeling off to abort. This is when Shoot Luke was jumped by three or four Me-109’s. As the enemy attacks occurred, the bomber was last seen descending into a cloud layer, presumably in an attempt to lose the fighters. None of the other bomber crews reported seeing Shoot Luke emerge from the clouds, and no radio contact with Robert Jr. and his crew was established. After the disappearance of Shoot Luke, the Luftwaffe was seen heading back to base. The rest of the mission was fairly uneventful, however some aircraft did take minor flak damage when they flew near the West Frisian Islands. The ten young men who had departed England on only their third mission were now listed as missing in action. One can only imagine the anguish and heartache felt by 2nd Lt. Eugene H. Cantrell. His nine closest friends at Hardwick were now gone. As he lay in his bunk that night, the sight of the three empty beds where just hours before Roger, Harry, and Gregory had slept, must have been almost too much to bear. Unfortunately, Lt. Cantrell would also lose his life on December 22, 1943 on a mission to Osnabruck, Germany. The B-17’s of the 1st and 3rd Air Divisions that had been headed to Duren were recalled due to the poor weather over the target. Therefore, the mission was attempted by the 8th Air Force once again on October 20, 1943.
The Luftwaffe’s Side of the Story
German fighter control detected the large formation of B-24’s over the North Sea and scrambled a unit known as JG 3 to intercept the bombers. JG 3 was based at Schiphol Airfield in Amsterdam, and its primary objective was to protect the fatherland from the never ending onslaught of American bombers. Sixteen Me-109’s took off at 12:40 PM from the airfield which was already becoming enveloped in fog. Many of the fighters were unable to locate the formation due to the overcast conditions over the North Sea. A small portion of the squadron did however spot the formation. Three of these pilots were Squadron Commander Paul Stolte, and his wingmen, Robert Roller and Rudolf Schroder. When they saw a B-24 off to itself, they quickly raced in for the kill. Though they did not know it, they had just targeted Robert Jr. and the rest of the crew of Shoot Luke. They made two attacks, however they were forced to break off when the bomber descended into a layer of clouds. Though they may have hit the bomber, it is not clear if they could confirm having shot it down as records indicate that they lost sight of Shoot Luke just as the American bomber crews did. In addition, they had spent much time searching for the bombers, and were now running low on fuel. None of the sixteen fighters of JG 3 would have the fuel to return to Schiphol, and the multiple layers of clouds below them made it nearly impossible to find alternate landing fields. They were going to have to descend through the fog and hope for the best. Most of the sixteen Me-109’s would never fly again as a result of the forced landings, and four of the squadron’s pilots were killed, including two pilots who attacked Shoot Luke, Paul Stolte and Rudolf Schroder. Robert Roller would be the only pilot who attacked Shoot Luke to survive the encounter. Quite a disastrous day for the Luftwaffe. Robert Roller would later be shot down and killed over Caen, France on July 18, 1944.
The families of the crewmen of Shoot Luke would receive the dreaded missing in action telegrams in late October of 1943. Unfortunately, their hope for the safe return of their sons and brothers would fade a year later when the Army Air Force notified the next of kin that the crew was now presumed dead. The final resting place for the boys of Shoot Luke would be the bottom of the North Sea. Each crewman would be awarded a Purple Heart and an Air Medal posthumously, and are commemorated on the Walls of the Missing at the Cambridge and Netherlands American Cemeteries. A website has been created to honor the sacrifice of these young men. It has the documents, photographs, and letters that were used to tell Robert Jr.’s story. The link to the website is below. Thank you for taking the time to remember my cousin and the nine other men who gave their young lives for our freedom.