Splasher 6 Newsletter
In October 1944, the fighting around Aachen, Germany was fierce and bloody. The Americans had broken through the Siegfried Line at the beginning of the month, but the Germans were still putting up stiff resistance. By mid-month Americans and Germans were battling bitterly both in the streets of Aachen and in the countryside surrounding the city.
The Eighth Air Force sought to help the embattled soldiers at Aachen by staging a series of raids meant to cut off the German rail supply lines. Over a period of five days, 14-18 October, the heavy bombers hit marshalling yards all over the Ruhr – at Cologne, Saarbrucken, Kaiserslautern, Osnabruck, and Kassel.
October 17 marked the third mission to Cologne in four days. On this date, the 100th led the 13th wing on a mission to bomb the yards on the southern outskirts of Cologne.
Leading the high element was 418th Squadron’s Lt. Donald A. Jones, pilot, with Lts. Grant A. Fuller, copilot, Arthur H. Juhlin, navigator, Ralph P. Farrell, bombardier, Sgts. Alfred B. Marcello, engineer, Donald Stewart, radio, Curtis L. Hooker, ball turret, Patrick J. Gillen, Jr., waist, Samuel L Foushee, tail.
The crew was on its eleventh mission.
"The mission was routine until bombs away," said Hooker. "I always watched the bombs away," he reminisced. Sitting in the ball turret, he had the best view of anyone in the crew. "This time it was obvious that the full load had not released. The aircraft did not rise like a cork on release. Rather, it was slow rise. I could see that more bombs had come out of one side than the other."
The bombs Cargo for Margo carried were 100-pounders and two 500-lb clusters of incendiaries.
"Because of the smallness of the 100-lb bombs," Hooker explained, "some were slung over the normal rack-mounted bombs."
The two clusters, smaller bombs bound together around a central fuse, were hung beneath so they would fall out first. After the cluster dropped, the fuse would explode, scattering the bombs over a wide area.
"Because of a malfunction in the bomb racks," Stewart recalled, "the cluster on the left side of the plane hung up and did not fully release, and some of the 100-pounders above fell down on top of the cluster and could not get out of the bomb bay."
Hooker heard bombardier Farrell tell Jones he did not think the whole load had dropped.
"Jones told him to close the bomb bay doors as we were turning for home and would be over our own troops," Hooker said. "He would get permission over the English Channel to leave formation."
In the meantime, Farrell was to do whatever it took to secure the remainder of the load.
Securing the load, however, would not be easy because the bomb bay doors would not close. The incendiary cluster had wedged itself tight against them. Even worse, the bombs were arming themselves.
"The bombs partly came loose from the racks somehow," Stewart said, "and the wires pulled out of the pins and the propellers started turning in the wind coming in from the open bomb bay doors. That is what I saw, a mess with little turning propellers."
Farrell had come back from the nose to assess the situation. "I recall him standing in the front of the bomb bay," Stewart Said. "We decided to try to move the high explosive bombs out of the bomb bay and get down to the cluster to try to let it fall out of the plane."
"As I remember," Hooker said, "there was no cause for alarm. We just had to unshackle the bombs, pin them and stack them in the radio room."
Farrell and Stewart, with help from Hooker, who had climbed from his ball turret, and tail gunner Sam Foushee, struggled to put the pins back in the 100-pounders and move them to the radio compartment. They were, however, unable to reach the jammed incendiary cluster.
"We decided to wait," navigator Art Juhlin wrote later, "and try to salvo them on reaching the Channel."
When the plane reached the Channel, Farrell and Stewart decided to try to work the bombs loose by opening the bomb bay doors again. The doors, however, refused to budge. Meanwhile, Jones had left the formation and begun a circular pattern over the water. Then, while copilot Grant Fuller took over the controls, Jones went back to check the situation for himself. He found Farrell and Stewart on the catwalk in the bomb Bay. Farrell was replacing the pins in six more bombs and Stewart was carrying them back to Foushee and Hooker, who waited in the radio room door.
"We were stacking the bombs like cordwood against the back left side of the radio room," Hooker said. "I can’t remember any of us having any apprehension whatsoever about what we were doing. It was just necessary, heavy work."
When the six bombs were out of the way, Farrell turned his attention back to the cluster. But it still would not release and he set to work replacing the safety wire into the fuse.
"I had no idea how many bombs we had stacked in the radio room," Hooker said, "when there was a hell of an explosion and flash. The next thing I remember was being in the waist gun area, past the ball turret suspension pole with Sam and Pat (Gillen, the waist gunner.) We were scared. We did not know what had happened but it had blown Sam and me out of the radio room."
Smoke poured from the bomb bay. A moment later, Stewart hobbled out, something wrong with his leg. He was followed by Farrell who had his hand over his face.
"At this point," Hooker said, "I doubt any of us knew what had happened or what we were going to do. This is when confusion and uncertainty prevailed."
He remembers going back into the radio room. Stewart was sitting in his chair holding his leg. He had been hit by what he calls "two little fragments" in his lower right leg. Farrell, dazed, was standing nearby. Hooker could see the bombardier had a cut across his forehead, another down the side of his cheek, and a serious wound to his left eye.
As to Cargo for Margo, "The bottom of the aircraft looked like a sieve," Juhlin wrote. "One hole was big enough for a man to crawl through."
"The belly of our ship resembled a pregnant B-17 with a big hole for its belly button," Hooker said.
"It was a miracle," Juhlin added, "that the whole ship hadn’t been blown to bits."
The first order of business was to provide first aid to the two seriously wounded men. Hooker doesn’t recall who gave it, although a story written at the time by the 100th;s public relations officer gives that credit to Hooker and Foushee. Stewart remembers only that he was given morphine. Farrell was insistent in returning to his post in the nose of the aircraft and Juhlin recalls trying to get Farrell to lie still.
Margo and her crew were now in a precarious situation. The bomb bay doors had been sprung by the blast and any chance that they would ever open – or close – had been lost. And, armed bombs were swinging in the bomb bay.
The logical solution would have been to bail out, but with injured on board, that was impossible. Seeing no other choice, Jones and Fuller started for Thorpe Abbotts.
"Somehow, by someone," Hooker said, "it was decided that someone had to go back into the bomb bay to (disarm) the remaining bundle of incendiaries. I still think this was our greatest threat at the time. At this point, for whatever reason, Pat performed an act of heroism that I can’t accurately describe. He went into the bomb and did whatever it was he had to do. Whatever he did saved all of us, of that I feel sure."
"Gillen volunteered to go back in the bomb bay," Juhlin wrote, "and try to wire some of the incendiaries together so they wouldn’t be so apt to be jarred loose upon landing. This sure took a lot of guts after what had already happened."
"[Gillen and Foushee] tackled the job in spite of the fact that, just a minute before, the bombardier had been badly hurt trying to do the same thing," Jones was quoted as saying at the time. "We all held our breath while Gillen and Foushee edged down through the maze of bombs and tied them fast with an arming wire – which minimized the danger and possibly saved the bomber and us, too."
Though the danger was minimized, landing the plane would still be no easy talk.
"When we get over England, the air will get rough and you’ll have to take it easy," Farrell was quoted as saying. "You might not know what a hot potato we’ve got here, but I do."
Jones gave his crew the option of bailing out. "I knew I had to bring the plane down because of the wounded men," Jones said, "and when I asked if anyone wanted to bail out, there wasn’t a single reply on the interphone."
"I vaguely remember…," Hooker said, "I don’t know if it really happened, but Sam and I put on our chest chutes, I suppose in preparation to jump. Jones said that because the wounded could not jump, he was going to land the plane. To this day I can’t tell you what changed our minds to stay on board. It did not require much intelligence to figure out that when Jones touched the wheels of our ship to the runway, any number of negative things could and would happen."
A bomb or cluster could bounce through the hole in the bomb bay door and explode under them. Or, the bomb bay door could spring open again and drop the loose bombs resting on the doors. The jolt could also release the bombs still hanging in the racks.
"As we turned on the approach," Juhlin wrote in his diary, "our pilot remarked that maybe we’d all get a big bang out of the landing. But I’m afraid his humor wasn’t appreciated at the time. Several members of the crew aged considerably before he finally greased it in and we came to a stop at the end of the runway.
"During our crew training in Rapid City, South Dakota, on our flight to England and on previous missions," Hooker said, "it had been a standard, but not deserved, joke among us enlisted gunners that if we experienced a landing that was smooth, Grant had landed the aircraft. We joked that Don usually got us smoothed out on landing after the third bounce. To this day, and I have flown a lot since that day, … I have never again experienced as smooth a landing as Don made that day."
"As soon as the plane hit the runway," Juhlin wrote, "a large crowd came running, but sure scattered when they heard what was in the ship."
"When we finally rolled to a stop," Hooker said, "I think the runway was deserted of base personnel."
Finally, an ambulance came out to take the wounded to the hospital. The rest of the crew, Juhlin wrote, went to eat and sleep, "tired and considerably sobered by the day’s events."
After some weeks in a hospital in England, Ralph Farrell was returned to the United States for rehabilitation. Don Stewart, too, was sent back, but unwillingly, as he wanted to finish his tour. Though he considered he "not really injured very much," the "two little fragments" had severed an artery and a nerve. The doctor who operated on him was concerned about the problems Don’s limp might cause him from the "high thresholds between the various compartments" of the plane. Stewart went through rehabilitation in a couple of hospitals, then volunteered for B-19s. He was in training when the war ended.
Sam Foushee suffered minor facial wounds and Curt Hooker was bruised and shaken up but otherwise unharmed when they were blown into the waist.
The rest of the Jones crew went on to finish their tours, although Hooker never flew with his crew again because the crew became a lead crew and did not need a ball turret gunner.
As to what happened that day, most of the crew are philosophical about it.
"I believe to this day," Hooker said, "that God had to be riding with us because what happened could not possibly have happened without blowing up the ship and all of us."