Breeding Dragonflies Over the North Sea
by Thresa K. Flatley
Article by Thesa Flatley for publication in WORLD WAR II MAGAZINE
Thresa K. Flatley
"Breeding Dragonflies" Over The North Sea
At dawn on Dec. 31, 1944, while the Battle of The Bulge raged, two young pilots took off from Thorpe Abbotts, England, and flew their B-17 in formation with hundreds of others in what was to be a Maximum Effort over Germany by every available flyer.
That New Year's Eve would soon require the maximum effort these two men could muster to stay alive in what must be one of the most phenomenal incidents in aerial history.
It was the 22nd mission for First Lieutenant Glenn H. Rojohn, a native of Greenock, Pennsylvania, the pilot on B-17 4231987, and Second Lieutenant William G. Leek Jr. of the state of Washington, his co-pilot. Scheduled for "R and R" after flying several missions in a row, their plans were interrupted at 2 a.m. that day when they were awakened for a Maximum Effort "which means everyone flies," Rojohn said. Thirty seven aircraft took off with the 100th Bomb Group that day. Only 25 planes returned home 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 that day would be Hamburg, a city(rife~with oil refineries and submarine pens. Second Lieutenant Robert Washington, the ship's navigator, remembers the start of the mission at 0647-0737 hours this way: "Take-off on the morning of Dec. 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 scrubbed due to the weather."
It takes "almost as much time to rendezvous, to go on a mission, as it does to complete a mission," Rojohn said, "because the weather in England was always bad and we had to circle around and around until we broke out of the overcast. Our squadrons (Rojohn flew in the "C" Squadron) then formed and we met other groups until we got into a long line of traffic heading towards Germany. This particular day we flew over the North Sea to a point south of Denmark and then we made a 90 degree turn into the Bay of Hamburg. We were somewhere in the neighborhood of 22,000
"At that time I don't think much was known about jet stream but we had a tailwind of about 200 nautical mile an hour. We got into the target pretty quick," Rojohn said. "Over the target we had just about everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us." "The target and the sky over it were black from miles away,"
Leek, who died in 1988 after writing down his "recollections" of the mission, said. "The flak was brutal. We flew through flak clouds and aircraft parts for what seemed like an hour."
Rojohn said he doesn't like to criticize his commanding officers but he thinks "we made a mistake 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. So a 200 nautical mile tailwind became a 200 nautical mile headwind. We were probably making about 50 or 60 mile on the ground."
Washington said "when we finally got up near Heligoland, I believe we turned west and skirted the flak area by flying between Heligoland and Wilhelmshaven. The flak was probably heavy as we crossed the coastline. I'm not certain whether we headed northwest between Bremerhaven and Kuxhaven, or due west over a little town of Aurich and across the coastline near Norden," Washington said. In an earlier account, he said he thought it was the later route. Over the North Sea, Rojohn remembers they were flying at 22,000 ft. when "we 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 ME109 fighter planes so close I could see the faces of the young German pilots as they went by. They (the Germans) were just having a field day with our formation. We lost plane after plane."
Leek said he had been at the controls when the crew came off the bomb run. He and Rojohn alternated the controls each half hour so that "the man resting could enjoy the view. On this mission, 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 over-correcting, but the planes all seemed to bounce at different times. I asked Glenn to take it and he did."
Rojohn said he was taking a position to fill the void created when B-17 43-38436 piloted by Second Lieutenant Charles C. Webster went down in flames and exploded on the ground. "I was going into that void when we had a tremendous impact," he recalls. Feeling the bomber shudder and scream, the men immediately thought their plane had collided with another. It had, but in a way that may never have happened before or since.
Another B-17 (43-38457), this one piloted by First Lieutenant William G. MacNab, and Second Lieutenant Nelson B. Vaughn, had risen upwards. The top turret guns on this lead plane for the high flight of the low "C" Squadron had pierced through the aluminum skin on the bottom of Rojohn's plane, grinding the two huge planes together like "breeding dragonflies," Leek said. The two planes had become one.
Whether MacNab and Vaughn lost control of their plane because they were seriously injured or if the planes collided because both Rojohn and MacNab were moving in to close that open spot in the formation is uncertain and indeterminable: both MacNab and Vaughn were fatally injured that day.
Staff Serqeant Edward L. Woodall Jr., MacNab's ball turret gunner, said when a crew check was called, "all crew members reported in okay just prior to the mid-air collision. At the time of the impact, 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 with his props buried in our wings and his ball turret jammed down inside our aircraft."
A report written by John R. Nilsson in "The Story of The Century" (copyright 1946) said that E.A. Porter, a pilot from Payton, Mississippi, who witnessed the mid-air collision, sounded the warning over VHF: '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 100ths anguished fliers saw the two Fortresses cling -- Rojohn's, on top, riding pick-aback 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." In the 1947 book, "Contrails: My War Record," the editors wrote: "The situation was something too fantastic for even Hollywood to simulate."
Washington said he "opened the escape hatch and saw the B-17 hanging there with three engines churning and one feathered. I believe Rojohn and Leek banked to the left and headed south toward land," he said.
"Glenn's outboard prop bent into the nacelle of the lower plane's engine," according to Leek. "Glenn gunned our engines two or three times to try to fly us off. It didn't worlc, 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 couldn't detach his plane, he turned his engines off to try to avoid an explosion. He told Tech Sergeants Orville E. Elkin, the top turret gunner and engineer, and 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. Glenn pointed left and we turned the mess toward land," Leek wrote. "I felt Elkin touch my shoulder and waved him back through the bomb bay. We got over land and 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 said "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. The toggalier (Sergeant James R. 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 the physical effort of Rojohn and Leek, Shirley, Elkin, Washington, and Neuhaus were able to reach the rear of the plane and bail out.
"I could hear Russo 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."
"Awhile later, 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, fifty 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 wouldn't 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 he could make it to the rear of the plane andl 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 them level. We were falling like a rock" with the German ground reaching up to meet them, Rojohn said. "I know I prayed on the way down." Washington, from his vantage point while parachuting to land, said "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 of the window with a veri-pistol, but admitted he wasn't sure why he did it. "Just panic, I guess. The qround came up faster and faster. Praying was allowed. We gave it one last effort and slammed into the ground." As they hit land near Wilhelmshaven shortly before 1300 hours, Rojohn and Leek's plane slid off the bottom plane, which immediately exploded.
Alternately lifting up and slamming back into the ground, their B-17 careened along the ground, finally coming to rest only after the left wing sliced through a German l~eadquarters Building "blowing that building to smithereens," Rojohn said. Staff Sergeant Joseph Russo, Rojohn's ball turret gunner, 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." The two pilots sustained only slight injuries, which shocked even them when they took a look at the wreckage of the B-17. "Al] that was left of the Flying Fortress were the nose, the cockpit, and the seats we were sitting on," Rojohn said. Following their capture, Rojohn said he and Leek were forced to undress "so they could search us for weapons, which we had thrown out on the way down. They put us into a truck and drove through the countryside to pick up the survivors. The Germans then put us all into an old schoolhouse where we were finally able to talk with each other."
Even with their lives in the hands of the Germans The Americans found a little humor. "Our captors didn't know what to do with us because we were in a part of Germany where they didn't take many captives," Rojohn said. "They put us in a dark damp building way out in nowhere. All of a sudden the door opened up and everybody popped to attention. A German captain came in and barked something to his men. I didn't understand what he had said, but Berkowitz (Second Lieutenant Jack Berkowitz, MacNab's navigator) heard the same words and dead fainted away. The next day they brought us back to the schoolhouse. Berkowitz, the only one of us could understand German, told us the German captain had said, 'If they make a move, shoot 'em.' That was too much for him and he fainted."
Watching the piggy-back planes fall to the earth, German soldiers believed they were seeing a new American weapon: an eight-engine bomber. In fact, the Germans were so concerned that the Americans had developed a devastating new weapon that Berkowitz said he was "shipped to an interrogation center in
Frankfurt, Germany and put into solitary confinement to be questioned." After questioning him for two weeks, his interrogators gave up on the idea of a new American aircraft threat and Berkowitz was transferred to a prison camp near the North Sea.
Staff Sergeants Roy H. Little, Rojohn's waist gunner, and Francis R. Chase, the replacement tail gunner, did not survive their jumps from the plane. (In an aside he calls an example of how providence sometimes intercedes in a man's life, Rojohn said that Tech Sergeant Herman G. Horenkamp, his friend and tail gunner for all of his 21 previous missions, did not report for the mission t~at day because he had frostbite from the mission the day before. Chase, who Rojohn and Leek had never seen before and never did meet face-to-face, was Horenkamp's replacement that day. Chase died during the mission.)
All survivors from the Rojohn B-17 were captured by the Germans almost immediately as were three other men who bailed out of MacNab's plane: Second Lieutenant Raymond E. Comer, Rr., Tech Sergeant Joseph A. Chadwick and Woodall.
Woodall told Rojohn years later that he was grateful to him and Leek because they carried him for several miles when broken bones sustained in his parachute landing kept him from walking after his capture. Rojohn has no recollection of that.
Rojohn searched for 40 years through social security and veterans records to find his co-pilot Leek, but was not successful until 1986 when he was given a telephone number in the state of Washington by a man who claimed "I can find anybody."
Rojohn called the number and reached Leek's mother, who asked him if he wanted to talk to Bill, who was visiting from California, right then and there. The two pilots were reunited for one week in 1987 at a 100th Bomb Group Reunion in Long Beach.
After the war, like thousands of other soldiers, Rojohn came back home to marry and raise a family. he eventually went to work with his brother, Leonard, in their father's air conditioning and plumbing business in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, putting the war and thoughts of heroics behind him. But something notable happened that day over the North Sea, and who is responsible for that and worthy of glory changes depending on who is speaking.
For his part, Rojohn, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart, said he owes his life to Leek. "In all fairness to my co-pilot, he's the reason I'm alive today. He refused my order to bail out and said 'I’m staying with you.' One of us could have gotten out of that plane. He's the reason I'm here today."
But Washington, his navigator, puts it this way: "Glenn said that he doesn't consider himself a hero: but I do! I will never forget his calm, matter-of-fact response as I paused at the flight deck on my way out through the bomb bay and waist door.
He may have said, 'Get on out, Wash,' or merely motioned with his head, but I knew he and Bill Leek had made their decision and several of us who jumped over land probably owe our lives to their courage."
As to the mission itself, the "Contrails" editors wrote:
"There have been amazing stunts pulled in the colorful and courageous history of man's will to fly . . . but none more strangely heroic than the day Rojohn and Leek safely crash-landed their two planes pick-a-back on a field in North Germany."
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