If you were riding in a damaged airplane with injuries that practically left you blind, do you think you could keep your wits about you? For a lot of people, the answer would be no. But not for 20-year-old Army Air Corps Tech. Sgt. Forrest L. Vosler. In the face of great odds, Vosler did all the right things to help his aircrew survive over the skies of Europe during World War II. For that, he earned the Medal of Honor.
Vosler was born on July 29, 1923, and grew up in Livonia, New York, with two sisters and a brother. He liked to play basketball and was a Boy Scout.
After graduating from high school in 1941, Vosler worked for a few months as a drill press operator at General Motors in Rochester, New York, before enlisting in the Army on Oct. 8, 1942. About a year later, he reached the rank of staff sergeant and was sent to Europe with the 8th Air Force’s 358th Bombardment Squadron to be a B-17 Flying Fortress radio operator and aerial gunner.
Spotlight: Commemorating World War II
Vosler quickly earned the Air Medal for valor when, during a mission, he saved the lives of two unconscious crewmates by repairing their oxygen equipment. Vosler was fighting unconsciousness himself at the time and had to ward off enemy fighters with one of the unconscious men’s guns.
It wasn’t until his fourth mission to bomb Bremen, Germany, on Dec. 20, 1943, that he earned the Medal of Honor.
After Vosler’s crew had bombed its target, their B-17, called the Jersey Bounce Jr., was damaged by antiaircraft fire and forced out of formation, which made it a target of opportunity for the enemy. The aircraft was quickly hit by a 20 mm cannon shell that exploded in the radio compartment, severely injuring Vosler’s legs and thighs.
At about the same time, the aircraft’s tail was hit, seriously wounding the tail gunner and rendering the guns there inoperable. The aircraft was then hit with another 20 mm shell that exploded, injuring Vosler’s chest and causing shrapnel to lodge in both of his eyes to where he could only distinguish blurred shapes.
Despite both sets of injuries, Vosler refused first-aid treatment and kept firing at the enemy. As the crew started tossing extra weight from the damaged plane to help it reach land, Vosler begged to be thrown out, too, to help in the effort, several crew accounts later stated. But the crew refused, and eventually the pilot announced they would have to ditch the aircraft.
Although Vosler could barely see and fell unconscious a few times, he managed to fumble around with the damaged radio equipment enough to get it operating again and send out a distress signal before they crash-landed off the English coast.
Once in the water, Vosler managed to get out of the plane and onto the wing, where he grabbed the wounded tail gunner to keep him from slipping off into the water — something that may have made his wounds worse, according to accounts from the crew. The other crew members who had worked to pull a life raft from the plane before it sank eventually pulled the pair into the inflated dinghy.
Vosler’s bravery and calm under fire, despite being nearly incapacitated, were integral to them surviving. Thanks to the distress signals he sent, they were quickly rescued by a nearby ship.
Vosler was promoted to technical sergeant two weeks later. He spent the next several months in English hospitals until he returned to the U.S. in March 1944. His treatment at various hospitals continued until he was discharged from the Army on Oct. 17, 1944. Doctors were able to restore vision to his left eye, but not his right.
During those hospital stays, Vosler was invited to the White House to receive the nation’s highest honor for valor. On Aug. 30, 1944, he was given the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during a ceremony in the Oval Office.
Vosler became one of the founding fathers of the Air Force Association, which was formed in 1946 shortly after the war. He then moved to Syracuse, New York, and got a job as a radio station engineer.
Vosler enrolled at Syracuse University to study business administration in the spring of 1945, but unfortunately, his eye injuries made reading his textbooks difficult. According to the university, Vosler spent the better part of two decades in and out of classes but never graduated. However, in November 2015, staff at the school realized he’d earned enough credits for an Associate’s Degree of Arts, so he was awarded one posthumously.
Vosler married Virginia Slack while he was still at the university. They had two sons and a daughter. At some point in the late 1940s, Vosler took a job at the Veterans Administration, where he dutifully served for the next 30 years.
After retirement, Vosler and his wife spent several years wintering in Titusville, Florida, until they moved there full-time in November 1991. A few months later, on Feb. 17, 1992, Vosler died of a heart attack. He was 68.
Vosler was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The Volser Academic Development Center, which opened at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1995, was named in his honor.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.