Richard Gottleber (second from right), his crew mates and the three spies they dropped in 1945.

WWII spy games

Flying at night a few hundred feet above the mountainous land of Europe with no radio contact presented challenges to Richard Gottleber and his crew they never anticipated.

Richard Gottleber endured five bombing missions as a B-24 bombardier/navigator when he and his crew received new orders.

“We weren’t very successful during those missions,” the Frankenmuth resident recalled, adding that on their fifth and final bombing mission, the lead bomber just ahead of them in the formation took flak and blew up. “I could see two of the crew just floating in front of us at more than 25,000 feet and as they fell, I said a prayer. It really shook me and the rest of us up,” he added somberly.

The day after that run, Gottleber and his crew were transferred to the 885th Heavy Bomb Squadron (Special) of the 15th Air Force, a secretive group assigned to drop spies and supplies at extremely low altitudes behind enemy lines under the cover of nightfall.

Some flyers during the war may have viewed this new assignment as a lucky break. After all, according to statistics, 50 percent of B-24s were shot down, crashed or crews taken prisoner during WWII. But flying at night a few hundred feet above the mountainous land of Europe with no radio contact presented challenges to Gottleber and his crew they never anticipated.

Most of his group’s flights were made in deep valleys at low altitudes in a black, unmarked B-24 number 977, which meant having to navigate around steep mountain sides. Missions typically comprised one, two of three aircraft at most. But perhaps the one mission that today sticks out in Gottleber’s memory is the drop on Feb. 26, 1945.

Gottleber’s crew was assigned a mission called Operation GREEN UP, in which they would drop three Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agents in the Austrian Alps near the city of Innsbruck. Previously, the RAF declined to take on this effort, since the drop required the plane to fly only few hundred feet above the drop zone, which presented an exorbitant amount of risk. But as Gottleber’s pilot and close friend John Billings said at the time, “If these guys are crazy enough to jump, we’re willing to take them.”

The mission was very important to spurring the end of the German front. The city of Innsbruck was the center of the railway traffic to Italy through the Brenner Pass and expected to “become the very heart of the Alpenfestung (alpine fortress) or ‘Redoubt’ where the Germans were expected to make their last stand,” writes Gerald Schwab in his book OSS Agents in Hitler’s Heartland. 

Originally, the drop was to take place on Feb. 23, but on the first attempt the frozen lakes where the group expected to land had vanished and on the second attempt clouds prevented Billings and Gottleber from locating the planned landing site. As a result, the crew and the three OSS agents—Walter Hass, a refugee from Nazi Germany, Frederick Mayer, a German Jew whose father moved the family to the US before the war, and Franz Weber, who was born and raised in Austria, became a German officer but eventually came to disagree with Hitler’s movement—worked together closely for five days examining maps to determine several potential landing zones for the mission. During this brief five-day period, Gottleber and the rest of the crew developed close personal friendships with the three OSS agents, a situation that the U.S. Army did not allow given the complexity of their jobs.

“If we were to ever get shot down and captured, there was the potential of someone giving away details of the missions our group flew, which could have compromised the effort as well as the work of the agents on the ground,” Gottleber said. “As a result, the OSS required that crews and spies be kept separate at all times, but since we had to attempt this mission several times, we had to figure out the best place to drop together,” he added.

This mission was one of about 55 that Gottleber and his crew made for the 885th between 1942 and 1945. They dropped the agents on the 9,500 foot Sulztaler Glacier, which required the agents to trek down the mountain toward Innsbruck. For three days the spies stayed in a mountain cabin strategizing their next steps before proceeding to Innsbruck and infiltrating the German army.

After the drop, the crew on the flight deck fell asleep and the plane was on auto pilot. Since they were so far south of the front line, it was easy to grow complacent, according to Billings. As the plane headed toward Mount Vesuvius in Italy, which to Gottleber looked like a cigar, he radioed for Billings to turn, but there was no response. After a moment, Gottleber radioed Jim O’Flarity, the tail gunner, to check on the crew. Soon the plane turned and later O’Flarity told Gottleber that once on the flight deck, he discovered the crew was asleep.

Near the end of the war, Mayer was captured by the Nazis in Innsbruck and tortured. But he gave away no details. The Allies were also making a strong push towards the city and the Germans who held the city were well aware of their potential fate. During Mayer’s brief internment, the Nazis released him to help save the beautiful city from destruction and to facilitate their escape. Mayer immediately drove to the outskirts of town to meet the allies and announce to them that the city was open. As a result, he helped liberate Innsbruck without a shot being fired.

Following the war, Weber, Wynberg and Mayer reconnected with Gottleber and the remaining members of their crew. What began in 1945 as a five-day mission turned into a friendship that still continues. Gottleber attended GMI, receiving his degree in Industrial Engineering in 1948 and went on to enjoy a 40-year career at the automaker. After the three spies had settled in the U.S. once the war ended, the group often arranged reunions with Gottleber’s crew over the years, with the latest taking place this past spring.

For Gottleber, who lives with his wife, Lenore, in Frankenmuth, the proudest moment of his service during the war was not the missions he flew, “but the friendships we developed and maintained after it ended,” he said. “We made the best of a bad situation. In the end, it turned out right,” he added. 

Written by Gary J. Erwin