Major Bud Lambert nudged his co-pilot as the B-26 bomber he piloted circled their air base on the southern coast of England. A dark cloud of smoke rose high into the air from a point just outside the perimeter of RAF Great Dunmow, an airbase home to the 386th Bombardment Group of the 9th Air Force. It was the afternoon of September 16, 1944.
“Look over to the left at that black smoke coming up—somebody must have gone in!” Lambert exclaimed to his Number 2, Chester Klier. The co-pilot watched the smoke as they circled and prepared to land. “It was a rapidly rising column of dense smoke emanating from a spot a little over a mile away from the runway threshold,” Klier described in his notes.
Lambert and Klier landed their bomber without incident.
What they had witnessed was a B-26 bomber, nicknamed “Honey Chile II,” slam into the ground with a belly full of fuel and bombs. On board the doomed aircraft were six young men, including 21-year-old Staff Sergeant Donald L. Schoffstall of Williamstown, Pennsylvania. The crew was killed instantly in a powerful explosion that blew the aircraft apart.
A graduate of Williamstown High School, Schoffstall entered the Army Air Corps in 1943. After training as a flight engineer, Sergeant Schoffstall sailed for Europe and joined with the 554th Bombardment Squadron, 386th Bombardment Group at RAF Great Dunmow.
Little is known about Sgt. Schoffstall’s service in the B-26 bombers of the 554th squadron.
But we do know the ship he boarded on September 16, 1944 came crashing down to Earth.
The 386th Bombardment Group’s fliers were summoned to a briefing on that Saturday morning in mid-September. They were told that 36 aircraft were destined to participate in a bombing run to support Allied ground operations near the French city of Metz. The historian of the 386th reported that the weather forecast over the Continent did not look good, and so the crews were held in the briefing room to await word on whether the mission would go.
When word did arrive, Klier described the ritual of a mission:
Presently the crews were informed to man their planes. They were transported out to their assigned aircraft via trucks. The usual preflight walk around inspections of the planes was accomplished in short order. Soon it was engine start up time, and the planes began to taxi out from their hardstands to the active runway.
The formation leader took to the air at 1555 hours followed by the seventeen bombers in the lead box. Then the second box leader led his remaining seventeen ships aloft. The first box was now circling the airdrome at Great Dunmow as the second box planes began their climb to the prescribed altitude.
As the aircraft rose and prepared to fly out over the English Channel, an order radioed to the group informed them that due to deteriorating weather conditions in France, the mission had been abandoned. The conditions over Metz were described as a “hopeless situation.”
“The Group planes were ordered to land immediately, the landing sequence was begun as one bomber after another screeched onto the runway,” Klier wrote.
Landing a plane full of fuel and bombs was a not a desirable situation, especially in the B-26. Notoriously unstable, pilots and crews often feared the aircraft, especially with a full load. Army engineers had made modifications to the airframe that, according to a panel of experts, made the aircraft dangerous, especially for new pilots. Officially nicknamed the “Marauder,” the aircraft became known among air crews as “Widow Makers” or “Flying Coffins.”
Unfortunately for the crew of the “Honey Chile II,” their pilot was new to the “Marauder.” The B-26 with the tail number 13636 was piloted on September 16, 1944 by Major Edward E. Turner and Second Lieutenant Arvil Woolsey.
With Turner at the stick, the “Honey Chile II” had plenty of flight-experience at the controls. Major Turner flew missions in the U.S. Army Air Force’s resilient B-17s and had been more comfortable with the four engine behemoths than with the smaller, less stable B-26s.
As the fully loaded medium bombers returned to base with full fuel tanks and bomb bays, Major Turner began an approach with “Honey Chile II.” As he made a turn into Great Dunmow, Turner failed to apply enough speed and the heavily-laden bomber suddenly flipped upside down. “The ship stalled and whipped over on its back, then smashed into the ground upside down,” Chester Klier wrote. “It exploded with some 900 plus gallons of fuel on board.”
The entire crew was killed in the fireball that consumed the plane in an instant. Klier tallied those lost in his journal: “Major Edward E. Turner-pilot, Second Lieutenant Arvil R. Woolsey-co-pilot, Second Lieutenant James C. Ambrose-bombardier navigator. The flight engineer was Staff Sergeant Donald L. Schoffstall. The radioman was Sergeant George G. Vogiatzis. The gunner was Private John J. Rudy.”
When the fire was extinguished, the crew’s remains were freed from the wreckage. The medical examiner’s report listed the crew’s cause of death as “disintegration and incineration.”
For the crew’s co-pilot, Second Lieutenant Woolsey, this fatal crash marked the end of his first mission. His hometown newspaper reported later that Woolsey had joked with his sister that “it would just be my luck to not get in more than one mission.”
The bodies were interred in England with other airmen who had succumbed in the Air War over Nazi-occupied Europe. Most of the crew was repatriated to the United States after the war.
The body of Sergeant Donald Schoffstall arrived back in Williamstown, Pennsylvania in January 1949. Following funeral services at Evangelical Congregational Church in Williamstown, he was buried in the town’s Methodist Episcopal cemetery on the eastern outskirts of town.
Sergeant Schoffstall and the crew of the ill-fated “Honey Chile II” are counted among the 45,520 members of the United States Army Air Forces killed-in-action during the Second World War.
A special thank you to Pat Bettinger for his help with this story and for getting me interested in the story of Sergeant Schoffstall.
Featured image: A B-26 Marauder takes off from RAF Great Dunmow, (American Air Museum)