Friday, February 15, 2019

Fullbore Friday

If you were in the Palm Springs area the first week of this February 2015, you might have seen what looks like a gathering of exceptionally old people at the local American Legion hall.

Not an unusual sight in Palm Springs, but you may notice something a bit different about this group. Maybe more baseball hats than usual, or a smattering of brown leather, what look like flight jackets.

That group of people were going to the mini-reunion of the 100th Bomb Group. Their main reunion will be in New Orleans in SEP15. When you see this group of people, or others like them in shrinking numbers throughout this nation, carefully move from their car to the place where they are going to spend some time with some friends, take a moment to take a deep breath and close your eyes - and remember that these were once young men. Young men given incredible responsibility and thrown in to a level of combat and stress on a day to day basis our generation of combat veterans rarely came close to matching. They did some incredible things;
Following breakfast and briefing at the base, home to members of the 100th Bomb Group from June 1943 to December 1945, Rojohn and Leek learned that their target would be Hamburg, a port city with numerous oil refineries and submarine pens. Second Lieutenant Robert Washington, the ship's navigator, recalled the start of that, his 27th, mission: 'Takeoff on the morning of December 31, 1944, was delayed because of fog, and when we assembled the group and departed the coast of England, we learned that the fighter escort had been delayed due to the weather.'

It took 'almost as much time to rendezvous to go on a mission as it did to complete a mission,' Rojohn recalled, 'because the weather in England was always bad, and we had to circle around and around until we broke out above the overcast. Our squadrons [Rojohn flew in C Squadron] then formed, and we met other groups until we got into a long line of traffic heading toward Germany. This particular day we flew over the North Sea to a point south of Denmark and then turned southwest down the Elbe River to Hamburg. We were somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 feet [altitude]. At that time I don't think much was known about the jet stream, but we had a tail wind of about 200 nautical miles an hour. We got into the target pretty quick. Over the target, we had just about everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us.'

Leek's recollections of the Hamburg mission were equally vivid: 'The target and the sky over it were black from miles away. The flak was brutal. We flew through flak clouds and aircraft parts for what seemed like an hour.'

While Rojohn does not like to criticize his commanding officers, he thinks a mistake was made that day. 'Instead of hitting the target and angling out over Germany still on a southwesterly direction and then out over Belgium, they turned us at 180 degrees back toward the North Sea,' Rojohn said. 'So an 80-knot tailwind became an 80-knot headwind. We were probably making about 50 or 60 mph on the ground.'

'When we finally got clear of the coastal flak batteries,' recalled Washington, 'we turned west and skirted the flak area by flying between Heligoland and Wilhelmshaven. The flak was heavy as we crossed the coastline. I'm not certain whether we headed northwest between Bremerhaven and Kuxhaven, or due west over the little town of Aurich and across the coastline near Norden.'

Over the North Sea, Rojohn remembered, they were flying at 22,000 feet when they 'encountered wave after wave of German fighters. We just barely got out over the North Sea, and the sky was rumbling around us with exploding flak and German [Messerschmitt] Me-109 fighter planes so close I could see the faces of the young German pilots as they went by. They were just having a field day with our formation. We lost plane after plane.'

According to an account written by Tech. Sgt. Orville E. Elkin, Rojohn's top turret gunner and engineer: 'The fighters came from every direction, 12 o'clock, 6 o'clock, from the bottom and from the top. Your body becomes cold and numb from fright as you realize that only one-sixteenth of an inch of aluminum stands between you and this battery of firepower.' Ten planes were quickly lost.

Leek had been at the controls when the crew came off the bomb run. He and Rojohn alternated the controls each half hour. 'On this mission,' Leek recalled, 'the lead plane was off Glenn's wing, so he flew the bomb run. I should have kept the controls for at least my half-hour, but once the attack began, our formation tightened up and we started bouncing up and down. Our lead plane kept going out of sight for me. I may have been overcorrecting, but the planes all seemed to bounce at different times. I asked Glenn to take it, and he did.'

Rojohn maneuvered to take a position to fill the void created when a B-17 (No. 43-338436) piloted by 2nd Lt. Charles C. Webster went down in flames and exploded on the ground. 'I was going into that void when we had a tremendous impact,' Rojohn recalled. Feeling the bomber shudder, the men immediately thought their plane had collided with another aircraft. It had, but in a way that may never have happened before or since.

Another B-17 (No. 43-338457), piloted by 1st Lt. William G. MacNab and 2nd Lt. Nelson B. Vaughn, had risen upward. The top turret guns on MacNab's plane had pierced through the aluminum skin on the bottom of Rojohn's plane, binding the two huge planes together, as Leek said, like 'breeding dragonflies.' The two planes had become one.

Whether MacNab and Vaughn lost control of their plane because they were seriously injured or the planes collided because both Rojohn and MacNab were moving in to close the open space in the formation is uncertain. Both MacNab and Vaughn were fatally injured that day and were never able to tell their own story.

Staff Sergeant Edward L. Woodall, Jr., MacNab's ball-turret gunner, remembered that when a crew check was called just prior to the midair collision, everyone had reported in. 'At the time of the impact,' Woodall said, 'we lost all power and intercom on our aircraft. I knew we were in trouble from the violent shaking of the aircraft, no power to operate the turret, loss of intercom, and seeing falling pieces of metal. My turret was stalled with the guns up at about 9 o'clock. This is where countless time drills covering emergency escape procedures from the turret paid off, as I automatically reached for the hand crank, disengaged the clutch and proceeded to crank the turret and guns to the down position so I could open the door and climb into the waist of the airplane. I could see that another aircraft was locked onto our aircraft and his ball turret jammed down inside our aircraft.'

In the 1946 book The Story of the Century, John R. Nilsson reported that E.A. Porter, a pilot from Payton, Miss., who witnessed the midair collision, had sounded the warning over the radio: "F for Fox, F for Fox, get it down!' — however MacNab, whose radio was dead, did not hear. Not to see the collision which seemed inevitable, Porter turned his head, while two of his gunners, Don Houk of Appleton City, Missouri, and Clarence Griffin of Harrisburg, Illinois, watched aghast, as MacNab and Rojohn settled together 'as if they were lifted in place by a huge crane,' and many of the 100th's anguished fliers saw the two Fortresses cling — Rojohn's, on top, riding pick-a-back on MacNab's, how held together being a mystery. A fire started on MacNab's ship, on which three propellers still whirled, and the two bombers squirmed, wheeled in the air, trying to break the death-lock.'

Washington opened the escape hatch and'saw the B-17 hanging there with three engines churning and one feathered. Rojohn and Leek banked to the left and headed south toward land.'

'Glenn's outboard prop bent into the nacelle of the lower plane's engine,' recalled Leek. 'Glenn gunned our engines two or three times to try to fly us off. It didn't work, but it was a good try. The outboard left engine was burning on the plane below. We feathered our propellers to keep down the fire and rang the bail-out bell.'

'Our engines were still running and so were three on the bottom ship,' Rojohn said. When he realized he could not detach his plane, Rojohn turned his engines off to try to avoid an explosion. He told Elkin and Tech. Sgt. Edward G. Neuhaus, the radio operator, to bail out of the tail, the only escape route left because all other hatches were blocked.

'The two planes would drop into a dive unless we pulled back on the controls all the time,' wrote Leek. 'Glenn pointed left and we turned the mess toward land. I felt Elkin touch my shoulder and waved him back through the bomb bay. We got over land and [bombardier Sergeant James R.] Shirley came up from below. I signalled to him to follow Elkin. Finally Bob Washington came up from the nose. He was just hanging on between our seats. Glenn waved him back with the others. We were dropping fast.'

As he crawled up into the pilot's compartment before bailing out, Washington remembered, 'I saw the two of them [Rojohn and Leek] holding the wheels against their stomachs and their feet propped against the instrument panel. They feathered our engines to avoid fire, I think. [Shirley] and I went on through the bomb bay and out the waist door, careful to drop straight down in order to miss the tail section of the other plane which was a little to the right of our tail.' Because of Rojohn's and Leek's physical effort, Shirley, Elkin, Washington, Staff Sgt. Roy H. Little (the waist gunner), Staff Sgt. Francis R. Chase (the replacement tail gunner), and Neuhaus were able to reach the rear of the plane and bail out. 'I could hear Russo [Staff Sgt. Joseph Russo, Rojohn's ball-turret gunner] saying his Hail Marys over the intercom,' Leek said. 'I could not help him, and I felt that I was somehow invading his right to be alone. I pulled off my helmet and noticed that we were at 15,000 feet. This was the hardest part of the ride for me.'

Before they jumped, Little, Neuhaus and Elkin took the hand crank for the ball turret and tried to crank it up to free Russo. 'It would not move,' Elkin wrote. 'There was no means of escape for this brave man.'

'Awhile later,' recalled Leek, 'we were shot at by guns that made a round white puff like big dandelion seeds ready to be blown away. By now the fire was pouring over our left wing, and I wondered just what those German gunners thought we were up to and where we were going! Before long, .50-caliber shells began to blow at random in the plane below. I don't know if the last flak had started more or if the fire had spread, but it was hot down there!' As senior officer, Rojohn ordered Leek to join the crew members and jump, but his co-pilot refused. Leek knew Rojohn would not be able to maintain physical control of the two planes by himself and was certain the planes would be thrown into a death spiral before Rojohn could make it to the rear of the plane and escape. 'I knew one man left in the wreck could not have survived, so I stayed to go along for the ride,' Leek said.

And what a ride it was. 'The only control we actually had was to keep [the planes] level,' said Rojohn. 'We were falling like a rock.' The ground seemed to be reaching up to meet them.

Washington recalled that, from his vantage point while parachuting, 'I watched the two planes fly on into the ground, probably two or three miles away, and saw no more chutes. Shirley was coming down behind me. When the planes hit, I saw them burst into flames and the black smoke erupting.'

At one point, Leek said, he tried to beat his way out through the window with a Very pistol: 'Just panic, I guess. The ground came up faster and faster. Praying was allowed. We gave it one last effort and slammed into the ground.' As they crashed in Germany at Tettens, near Wilhelmshaven, shortly before 1 p.m., Rojohn's plane slid off the bottom plane, which immediately exploded. Alternately lifting up and slamming back into the ground, the remaining B-17 careened ahead, finally coming to rest only after the left wing sliced through a wooden headquarters building, as Rojohn recalled, 'blowing that building to smithereens.' Russo is believed to have been killed when the planes landed.

'When my adrenalin began to lower, I looked around,' Leek said. 'Glenn was OK and I was OK, and a convenient hole was available for a fast exit. It was a break just behind the cockpit. I crawled out onto the left wing to wait for Glenn. I pulled out a cigarette and was about to light it when a young German soldier with a rifle came slowly up to the wing, making me keep my hands up. He grabbed the cigarette out of my mouth and pointed down. The wing was covered with gasoline.'

Rojohn and Leek sustained only slight injuries from the crash, which shocked even the two pilots when they took a look at the wreckage of their B-17. 'All that was left of the Flying Fortress was the nose, the cockpit, and the seats we were sitting on,' Rojohn later recalled.
That's a fairly large pull quote, but there is much more there. Read the whole thing.

First posted DEC2014.

Hat tip Larry.

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