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Collision over the North Sea

Bizarre B-17 Collision over the North Sea

by Teresa K. Flatley

At dawn on December 31, 1944, while the Battle of the Bulge raged, two young airmen took off from Thorpe Abbots, England, and flew their Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress in formation with hundreds of other in what was to be a “maxim effort” over Germany by every available flier. That New Year’s Eve would soon require the maximum effort these two men could muster to stay alive in what has to be considered one of the most unlikely incidents in aerial history.

It was the 22nd mission for 1st Lt. Glenn H. Rojohn, a native of Greenock, Pa., the pilot of B-17 No. 42-231987, and 2nd Lt. William G. Leek, Jr., from Washington state, his co-pilot. Both men had be scheduled for leave after flying several missions in a row. But their plans were interrupted at 4 a.m. that day when they were awakened for the so-called maximum effort, which meant, as Rojohn said later explained, “Everyone flies.” Thirty-seven heavy bombers too off with the 100th Bomb Group that day. Only twenty-five returned to England.

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 post city with numerous oil refineries and submarine pens. 2nd Lt. Robert Washington, the ship’s navigator, recalled the start of his 27thmission: “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 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 officer, he thinks a mistake was made that day. “Instead of hitting the target and angling out over Germany still on southwesterly direction and then out over Belgium, they turned us 180° 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 over 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 Wihelmshaven. The flak was heavy as we crossed the coastline. I’m not certain whether we headed northwest toward 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 flew by. They were having a field day with out formation. We lost plane after plane.”

According to an account written by T/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 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 rotated 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 of me. I may have been over-correcting, 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. Webber went down in flames and exploded on the ground. “I was going into that void,” 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 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 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 story.

S/Sgt. 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 from we were in trouble from the violent shaking or 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 9 o’clock. This is where countless time drills covering emergency escape procedures from the turret paid off, as 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 another 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 Nilsson reported that E.A. Porter, a pilot from Payton, Mississippi, who witnessed the midair collision, had shouted a 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 together – 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 out engines two or three times to try and fly off. It didn’t work but it was a good try. The outboard left engine was burning on the plane below. We feathered our propeller to keep down the risk of 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 and avoid and explosion. He told Elkin and T/Sgt. Edward G. Neuhaus, the radio operator, to bail  out 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 Sgt. James R. Shirley 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, Elkin, Washington, S/Sgts Roy H. Little (waist gunner) and Francis R. Chase (the replacement rail gunner) and Neuhaus were able to reach the rear of the aircraft and bail out.

“I could hear Russo (John Russo, BTG) saying his Hail Mary’s 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 my helmet off 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 and free Russo. “It would not move,” wrote Elkin. “There was no means of escape for this brave man.”