On this day in 1923, a hero is born. Forrest L. Vosler would go on to serve in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. His bravery over the skies of Germany would earn him a Medal of Honor.
He barely survived the experience.
The winter of 1943 found Vosler stationed in England. He was then a 20-year-old staff sergeant, a radioman, and a gunner. He and his fellow airmen were conducting strategic bombing raids over Germany. Vosler’s first raid must have been intense! He later said that it left him “absolutely sure [he] was doomed” and that he should “sit down and write [his] folks a last letter.”
As it would turn out, Vosler didn’t have much time for that letter. A mission on December 20 would be his fourth—and also his last. Vosler was serving aboard a B-17 named Jersey Bounce, Jr, as it headed for Bremen, Germany.
Jersey Bounce successfully dropped bombs on a target, just as antiaircraft fire ripped into the plane. Two engines were lost, and the B-17 dropped out of formation. Jersey Bounce was now alone, an easy target for German fighter planes.
A shell soon exploded in the radio compartment near Vosler. He later said that his life briefly flashed before his eyes, but then he shook it off. He’d decided that he “might as well die standing up,” so he climbed back into the turret and began firing at the German fighters until another shell exploded near him. This one sent shrapnel into his eyes.
Fortunately, the German fighters had finally broken off their attack because they were running low on fuel. Now Jersey Bounce’s commander, 2nd Lt. John F. Henderson, just needed to keep the B-17 in the sky.
But it was up to Vosler to repair the radio. Someone had to send a distress signal.
Vosler felt his way back to the radio compartment and got to work. He was lapsing in and out of consciousness, and he was having trouble seeing—everything was a big blur. He’d have to work on the radio by touch.
Would you believe that he did it? He sent a distress signal, hoping it was enough.
Meanwhile, Henderson had barely made it to the English Channel. He ditched the B-17 into the water, and the crew scrambled out onto the wing of the plane. Those who were not wounded worked to get a raft readied.
By this point, Vosler had been wounded in his legs, thighs, chest and eyes. His vision was almost gone, and he was only semi-conscious. Nevertheless, he sensed that the tail gunner, also badly wounded, was slipping off the wing and into the water. Vosler grabbed him, quickly, holding the gunner with one hand and the plane’s wire radio antenna with another.
How did he hold the weight of two men? Yet he did. Other crew members finally rescued them with rafts—and then the whole crew was rescued from those rafts a few hours later. Miraculously, Vosler’s distress signal had gotten through.
Vosler spent the better part of a year in hospitals. He “felt like a heel for leaving while his friends were still serving,” he would say. But by then he was totally blind in both eyes—and he would stay that way for months. Ultimately, one eye was removed, but doctors were able to save some vision in the other eye.
By the time Vosler was awarded his Medal of Honor in 1945, he’d been promoted to Technical Sergeant. But he was surely thrilled that he could see President Roosevelt at his Medal ceremony.
P.S. The photo is of the 358th Bombardment Squadron flight crew. Vosler is second from the left on the bottom row. Henderson is the last man on the top right.