Defining courage: The Forrest L. Vosler story

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Reggie Manning
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's Note: This is part five of an eight-part series that highlights some of the men and women who have been influential in the early history of the United States Air Force. Part six will feature Archibald Mathies.

Forrest Lee 'Woody' Vosler was a radio operator and gunner during World War ll, and the second enlisted member to receive the Medal of Honor.

Vosler was born on July 29, 1923, in Lyndonville, N.Y. Throughout high school at the height of 6 feet 3 inches, Vosler was accomplished in basketball and also developed a sense of duty as a Boy Scout, eventually earning his Star Scout award. Following graduation in 1941, he continued Scouting as an Assistant Scoutmaster.

Watching his older friends get drafted into service, Vosler, at age 19, wanted to volunteer for pilot training and joined on Oct. 8, 1942. While talking to an Army Air Force recruiter, he was heartbroken at the news that his score on the initial pilot qualification test was substandard. After completing basic training, Vosler was assigned to the Radio Operators and Mechanics School at Scott Air Field in Illinois.

With dreams of still becoming part of a bomber crew, Vosler excelled in all areas of training except Flexible Gunner School.

"Because of my height, 6 feet 3 inches, I couldn't get into flying status," Vosler said. "The limit at the time was 72 inches, so when I went back to take the physical to get into flying, I didn't really have much hope of making it in because of the height limitation."

With determination and a bit of luck, Vosler eventually made it through training and was officially put on flying status.

He was assigned to the 358th Bomb Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group, based at RAF Molesworth, England. On Dec. 20, 1943, flying on his fourth combat mission over Bremen, Germany, Vosler's aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, forcing it out of formation and into an extremely vulnerable state.

Vosler was severely wounded in his legs and thighs by a 20mm mortar shell exploding in the radio compartment. With the tail end of the aircraft destroyed and the tail gunner wounded in critical condition, Vosler stepped up and manned the guns. Without a man on the rear guns, the aircraft would have been defenseless against trailing attacks.

While keeping a protective stream of cover fire from the tail gun, Vosler was struck in the chest and face. Metal shrapnel was lodged into both of his eyes, mpairing his vision. With only a sight of indistinct shapes and blurs, Vosler never left his post and continued to fire.

With the aircraft struggling to stay airborne, Vosler volunteered to be thrown from the plane to lighten the load-- this selfless request was denied.

He crawled back to his position at the radio and desperately tried to send out a distress signal. While the pilot was preparing to ditch the plane into the sea, Vosler, completely blind by now and using only memory and sense of touch, managed to fix the radios while rapidly fading in and out of consciousness.

With the aircraft now sinking into the sea, Vosler made his way onto the wing just in time to save the injured tail gunner from falling off into the frigid waters. He held him there with one hand, both bleeding out and on the brink of death, until other crewmembers assisted them into the dinghy.

Vosler was awarded the Medal of Honor on Sept. 6, 1944, by President Roosevelt. Following his lengthy recovery period, Vosler was discharged from the military and went on to pursue his bachelor's degree.

Spending more than 30 years with the Veterans Administration in Syracuse, N.Y., Vosler counseled other veterans and performed community service. Vosler died in February 1992 at the age of 68.

His willpower, trustworthiness and sharp reactions will forever be remembered in Air Force history.

"The extraordinary courage, coolness and skill he displayed in the face of great odds, when handicapped by injuries that would have incapacitated the average crewmember, were outstanding," stated Tech. Sgt. Forrest Lee Vosler's Medal of Honor Citation.

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