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92nd Air Refueling Wing's 70th anniversary steeped with history -- Ten heroes; one Medal of Honor recipient

  • Published
  • By Daniel Simmons
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, I recently had the privilege of interviewing the sole remaining member of a 92nd Bomb Group B-17 crew that flew the most incredible and famous mission in our wing's history.

Sergeant Gene Ponte was the right waist gunner on a B-17 nicknamed Ruthie II during a bombing mission over Hanover, Germany on July 26, 1943. Ponte's copilot on that mission, 2nd Lt. John "Red" Morgan, would earn the Medal of Honor that day for his heroic actions in saving the crew.

Morgan's pilot, 1st Lt. Robert Campbell, received a mortal head wound during a German fighter attack, but he did not die immediately. In a crazed condition, he fell over the steering column and clamped his arms around the controls. The aircraft was now in danger of crashing, but Morgan wrested control from the pilot and pulled it back into the formation for protection. The young officer then flew the bombing mission for two hours with one hand on the controls and one hand fighting off the mortally wounded pilot.
Although the pilot died when the aircraft landed back in England, all other crewmembers survived.

Morgan's story has been well documented, but what happened to the other crewmembers during the mission is less well known. Their story goes a long way in explaining why Morgan had to fend off the wounded pilot by himself for so long. Their story also reveals that Morgan wasn't the only hero on board the Ruthie II that day.

The German fighter attack that struck the pilot also hit the top turret gunner, Staff Sgt. Tyre Weaver, shooting off his arm at the shoulder. Gravely wounded, Weaver fell out of the turret and down to the floor and began bleeding heavily. The navigator, 2nd Lt. Keith Koske, rushed to him and tried to administer medical aid. Koske quickly realized that Weaver would die from loss of blood before the crew made it home. The navigator felt that the only course of action was to have Weaver bailout where he could hopefully receive medical attention from the Germans. Koske prepared Weaver for the trip down, ensuring he had oxygen and a functioning parachute, and helped him through the forward escape hatch. As Koske hoped, Weaver became a Prisoner of War, received medical attention and survived. During my interview, Ponte was adamant that the bailout decision saved Weaver's life. Morgan agreed and said, "Koske made a decision that took guts and brains...there ought to be some medal for what Koske did."

While this was going on, and while Morgan was struggling with the wounded pilot, the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Asa Irwin, was in his position in the front of the aircraft, manning the nose guns and preparing for the bomb run. Ponte suspected that Irwin had no idea what was going on in other sections of the crippled B-17, so he continued doing all he could to protect the aircraft and complete the mission.

In the rear of the aircraft - what Ponte calls "the tourist section" - the situation was was also critical. The initial fighter attack knocked out the interphone and oxygen lines to the rear gunners and the radio room. With their interphone out, the members in the back were unable to contact the pilots, and they began losing consciousness due to lack of oxygen. As Ponte passed out, he fell onto the floor, disconnecting the electric cord to his heated flight suit. With no guns firing in the back of the aircraft and no communication from the rear, Morgan believed those crewmembers had bailed out. It wasn't until two hours later, as Ruthie II was descending for landing, that the members in the back regained consciousness. Ponte removed his gloves and discovered his fingers were frozen up to the knuckles. Suffering from severe frostbite, this mission would be his last.

The other waist gunner, Sgt. Reece Walton, went to the cockpit to find Koske and Morgan still struggling with the wounded pilot. Walton had to help Koske remove Campbell from the pilot's seat so that Morgan could move into that position for the landing. Damage to Morgan's window prevented him from seeing ahead, forcing his move to the pilot's seat.
There is no doubt in Ponte's mind that Red Morgan saved his life. "It was an unbelievable thing he did. Not only did he bring the aircraft back, he brought back nine of us flyers with him."

As I listened to Ponte tell his eyewitness account, it didn't seem real to me. It was more like somebody disclosing a very bad dream. In all sections of the aircraft there was incredible bravery, outstanding professionalism, and a steadfast commitment to the mission and to each other. Although Red Morgan certainly deserved the Medal of Honor for his actions, clearly there were nine other heroes onboard Ruthie II on July 26, 1943 - I felt honored to be in the company of one of them.