Liberators Over Vratnica: Rescue and Survival

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The Ploesti old fields in southeastern Romania were a vital strategic bombing objective for the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Located 35 miles north of the capital Bucharest, Ploesti had formerly supplied one-third of Germany’s oil. The U.S. had targeted Ploesti to deprive the German military of petroleum. The U.S. first bombed Ploesti on June 12, 1942 during the HALPRO bombing raid. Then on August 1, 1943 during Operation Tidal Wave, a major bombardment was launched.

The Soviet Red Army advance on Yugoslavia and the capital Belgrade in 1944 was launched from Romania. Russian troops had captured Ploesti on August 30, 1944. But before its capture, Ploesti remained a major bombing target for U.S. forces.

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The captain, 1st Lt. Edwin Kieselbach, second from right kneeling, and gunner S/Sgt. Bruce Tuthill, first on right standing.

On August 26, 1944, a U.S. B-24 Liberator crew conducted a bombing mission in Romania. On its return flight, it was shot down over the village of Vratnica in the former Yugoslavia, then occupied and annexed by Bulgaria. The Liberator bomber crashed in the wooded hills overlooking the village. Civilians from Vratnica were able to help the survivors and to bury those who were killed.

Vratnica was a village located in northwestern Macedonia at the border with Kosovo and Metohija. It had been part of Serbia after the First Balkan War in 1912. Before 1912, it had been part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the region known as Turkey in Europe. In 1915, it was occupied by Bulgarian troops during World War I. In 1918, it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1929, the name of the country was changed to Yugoslavia. Vratnica was made a part of the Vardar or Vardarska Banovina from 1929 to 1941. Vratnica was part of a region called Southern Serbia or Stara Srbija, Ancient or Old Serbia. Claims were made on the area by Serbia and Bulgaria who fought three wars over the region, in 1913, 1915, and 1941. After 1945, Vratnica was part of the Republic of Macedonia created by the new Communist regime under Josip Broz Tito. In 1992, Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia. A dispute remains with Greece over the name of the country because there is a region in Greece called “Macedonia”. Greece, thus, objects to the use of the name. Internationally, the country is officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRM).

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Edwin Kieselbach is standing, center, and Bruce Tuthill is kneeling, first on left.

During World War II, Vratnica was occupied by Bulgarian troops who seized large swaths of territory in Macedonia which were annexed. Albanian nationalists and separatists also seized Vratnica and incorporated the village and surrounding area into the Nazi-fascist Greater Albanian state for a brief period during World War II. During the 2001 Albanian insurgency, Vratnica was again attacked and besieged by Albanian separatists of the so-called National Liberation Army.

The U.S. Army Air Force launched its attack on Ploesti from bases in Bari, Italy. The Liberator crew that crashed in Vratnica was part of the 15th Air Force, 455th Bomber Group, 732 Bomber Squadron, based in Bari, Italy.

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The captain, 1st Lt. Edwin Kieselbach, survived the crash and Bulgarian imprisonment as a POW.

The captain of the bomber crew was 1st Lt. Edwin Carl Kieselbach of Ravenna, Oklahoma. The rest of the crew was made up of eight members:  2nd Lt. John T. Edwards, the co-pilot, from of Gleason, Tennessee, 1st Lt. Richard T. McCauley, the bombardier from Providence, Rhode Island, T/Sgt. Edward Ambrosini, the radio operator and gunner from Brooklyn, New York, Sgt. David C. Koblitz, the engineer and gunner from Erie, Kansas, S/Sgt. Willis C. Stephenson, the assistant radar operator and Ball Turret gunner from Topeka, Kansas, S/Sgt. Bruce B. Tuthill, the assistant engineer and gunner from Seaford, New York, S/Sgt Harold L. Viken, the armorer and nose gunner from Denver, Colorado, and S/Sgt William M. Rhodes, the tail gunner from Cray Court, South Carolina. Their aircraft was a Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber named “Our Love” with the Airframe designation #42-78240.

Their bombing objective on August 26, 1944 was a train depot marshaling yard in Bucharest, Romania from where oil was shipped. It was also a hub for troop movements and weapons transports. Four squadrons participated in the attack. Each squadron had up to nine bombers. The bomb payload was three tons for every plane.

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S/Sgt. Bruce B. Tuthill, the assistant engineer and gunner, was killed and buried in Vratnica.

Over the target, the Our Love Liberator crew was attacked by anti-aircraft. The plane was hit. One of the engines was damaged. This resulted in the plane losing speed and falling behind while the rest of the squadron headed for the Bari base. The bomber was now descending and vulnerable to attack by German fighter planes. Five German Messerschmitt ME 109 fighters attacked the plane with machine guns. The tail and waist gunners were hit. The co-pilot was also injured and died from his wounds.

As the plane flew lower, it sought to avoid the Shar Planina range of mountains by flying over valleys. This allowed anti-aircraft batteries to zero in on the plane. The captain ordered the crew to bail out. The bomber’s two vertical tail assembly rudders were struck which put the plane in a spin. The crew used the bomb bay door to jettison equipment and ammunition and to parachute out of the badly crippled plane.

The captain hit a tree but managed to land safely on the heavily wooded mountainside just over the village of Vratnica. He had suffered a shoulder injury. The turret gunner, however, was killed when he struck the mountain. Both Tuthill and Koblitz had been ejected from the plane and had died instantly on impact. The body of Koblitz was found in a tree still strapped in the harness.

Two Bulgarian soldiers spotted the captain hiding in the woods. He was able to shoot them and flee into the mountains.

Vratnica residents carrying shotguns and pitchforks located him. One of the Vratnica residents could speak English. He told the captain that he had lived in Detroit, Michigan. The captain recalled that Bulgarian and German troops soon arrived and took him prisoner. He was taken to the Bulgarian prison camp at Shumen in northeastern Bulgaria. With Russian troops advancing on Bulgaria, the guards fled, allowing the captain to escape. He managed to get to Greece, Turkey, Syria, and Cairo from where he was returned to the air base in Italy.

There were three survivors of the crash, Kieselbach, the captain, Richard McCauley, the bombardier, and Edward Ambrosini, the radar operator. The rest were killed. Vratnica residents were able to bury those who were killed in the village cemetery. From here they were moved to Belgrade and finally returned to the U.S.

On Wednesday, November 26, 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the crash, a memorial plaque was placed in the Vratnica cemetery to commemorate the crew. The U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia, Paul Wohlers, commended the residents of Vratnica at the unveiling:

“The residents of this small village risked their lives when they decided to bury the killed airmen and help the survivors. The United States of America and the families of the US pilots will be eternally grateful for what they did.

Today we honor the memory of those who perished in the fight for freedom and we honor the friendship between the people of Macedonia and the USA. The Americans and the residents of Vratnica were close friends and allies back in 1944 and the USA and Macedonia are even more so today.”

Bibliography

Bassemir, June Tuthill, “A Case For Peace”. 2013. The More Stories Place.
Fields, Spencer. “Unearthing History. Discovery of fallen WWII bomber unleashes memories.” Cerignola Connection. Fall, 2014. 455th Bomb Group Association Newsletter, pp. 17-18. Reprinted from State Magazine, December, 2013.
Kieselbach, Captain Edwin C. “The Last Flight”. 2013. The More Stories Place.