Crew of B-24 J liberator #42-100374 (Suitch's Bitch).
Once the crew was ready for combat, several members of the crew flew missions as replacement personnel with experienced crews. This included the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, engineer, and radio-operator. The Gotha mission of 24 Feb 1944 was their first combat mission as a crew, but there were last minute personnel changes. The co-pilot on this mission was a seasoned member of the 445th staff, Captain Eugene Waldher, instead of Lt. Murphy. Waldher was a member of the original cadre that had formed the bomb group in April, 1943. He served as operations officer of the 700th BS during its subsequent combat training and was working in a staff position at the time of the Gotha raid. It was standard procedure to substitute seasoned veterans for key positions in an inexperienced crew on their first few missions. Additionally, in an attempt to cut back on casualties, the group would be flying without ball turret gunners that day. S/Sgt. Vic Panconi would remain behind and the ball turret would be retracted within the fuselage for the entire raid.
The 445th Bombardment Group dispatched 25 bombers to attack the Gothaer Waggon Fabrik AG in Gotha on 24 Feb 1944. This was another installment in the "Big Week" assault on the German aircraft manufacturing industry. The Luftwaffe rose in force to defend the factories, and the bombers from the 445th sustained particularly heavy attacks. Thirteen of the 25 B-24's from the 445th were shot down that day.
On the way to the target as they passed over the Zuider Zee, Lt. Suitch's bomber lost an engine, possibly due to enemy fire. The decision to press on or turn back belonged to Lt. Suitch and he chose to carry on with the mission. 11 of the 25 planes from the 445th were shot down before they got to the target. At 1317, Lt. Peterson began the bomb run over Gotha. Two minutes later it was all over: the fourteen remaining bombers of the 445th had “cleared their racks.” The formation turned south to a heading of 85 degrees; ten minutes later they turned due west. German fighters were still tearing through the group, and their attacks were hitting with devastating effect. The tail gunner, S/Sgt. Ulmer, reported that he was out of ammunition. About the same time, the bomber in front of them exploded in a ball of flame. It was the twelfth (and next to last) bomber from the group to go down. Moments later, Lt. Suitch's B-24 lost a second engine. The bomber crippled and flying on two engines, next suffered a catastrophic explosion up front and Lt. Suitch gave the order to bail out. Three crew members did not survive. S/Sgt. Ulmer, the tail gunner, failed to get out of the plane. The parachutes of Lt. Suitch and the navigator, Lt. Eckard, were damaged by flak (or they malfunctioned) and both men were killed by the impact to the ground.
Only later would the men from Suitch's crew learn what they had accomplished that day. In the face of “the fiercest and most determined resistance the enemy was able to muster,” the 445th hit the target at Gotha with “extreme accuracy and devastating results.” As General Marshall put it in the Presidential Unit Citation, “the courage, zeal, and perseverance shown by the crew members of the 445th Bombardment Group (H), 2nd Air Division, on this occasion were in accordance with the highest traditions of military service of the United States and reflect great credit on themselves and the group, and the Army Air Forces.”