A Mission Over German Skies
In 1944, the skies of World War II buzzed with tension. The Allied forces were putting immense pressure on Germany, bombarding it relentlessly from the air. This setting frames a poignant story involving B-24 Liberators, American heavy bombers targeting strategic locations. During a mission over German territory, a tragic and unforgettable event took place, soon to be immortalized in a series of chilling photographs.
These B-24s, including the doomed “Extra Joker,” played a key role in an aggressive campaign to dismantle the Reich’s war efforts. Day after day, courageous aircrews braved the skies, fully aware of the dangers posed by flak and German fighters. Their sacrifices were vast, with many not returning. The story of “Extra Joker” and its crew, however, stands out for its haunting nature.
The Forgotten Workhorse
Despite being less celebrated than the B-17, the B-24 Liberator was vital to the U.S. Army Air Force’s strategy. Designed for long-range bombing, it outperformed the B-17 in height, distance, speed, and payload. Crews frequently debated its effectiveness against the B-17, with divided opinions.
The B-24, with its unique Davis wing and vulnerably placed fuel tanks, had structural weaknesses. Nevertheless, it reliably served throughout the war. Consolidated, its manufacturer, didn’t match Boeing’s (the B-17’s maker) public relations, leading to the B-24 receiving less attention and a more subdued legacy.
A Fateful Switch
In August 1944, the B-24 “Extra Joker,” part of the 451st Bomb Group in Italy, prepared for a mission to bomb an industrial target in Austria. A last-minute switch had “Extra Joker’s” crew transferring to “Thundermug,” another B-24 equipped with the advanced Norden bombsight. In a twist of fate, Sergeant Leo Stoutzenberger, a photographer assigned to “Extra Joker,” also ended up on “Thundermug” due to a mix-up.
As they set off, reduced formation sizes made them more vulnerable to German fighter attacks. Nearing their target, a squadron of German Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters ambushed them.
A Photographer’s Grim Record
“Extra Joker,” manned by a different crew, took heavy damage from the German fighters. Aboard “Thundermug,” Sergeant Stoutzenberger recorded the unfolding horror with his camera. His photos later became a haunting testament to “Extra Joker’s” tragic fate, as it was shot down with no survivors.
On “Thundermug,” the aircrew, including Navigator Nikki Fox and waist gunner Walter, saw their original plane destroyed. Caught in the moment’s intensity, Walter chose to capture the event on film instead of manning his gun.
A Bittersweet Aftermath
Sergeant Stoutzenberger’s series of 13 images earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. His survival, initially meant to be on “Extra Joker,” added depth to his achievement. “Thundermug” returned as the only survivor from their four-plane flight. Tail gunner Tommy, who downed a Focke-Wulf, didn’t receive commendation, possibly due to reluctance in admitting a tactical mistake.
The destruction of “Extra Joker” and its crew, vividly captured in Stoutzenberger’s photos, symbolizes the brutal reality of WWII aerial combat. The story of the crew’s accidental survival on “Thundermug” and the loss of their original aircraft is one of the most poignant in B-24 history, reminding us of the fine line between life and death in war-torn skies.