When a pair of B-17s collided in midair and became interlocked, the surviving crewmen experienced the ride of their lives.
By Teresa K. Flatley
At dawn on December 31, 1944, while the Battle of the Bulge raged, two young airmen took off from Thorpe Abbotts, England, and flew their Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress in formation with hundreds of others in what was to be a "maximum 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 been 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 later explained, "Everyone flies." Thirty-seven heavy bombers took off with the 100th Bomb Group that day. Only 25 planes 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 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.
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 though their lives were now in the hands of the Germans, the Americans were able to find a little humor in the situation. "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 [2nd Lt. Jack Berkowitz, MacNab's navigator] heard the same words and fainted dead away. The next day they brought us back to the schoolhouse. Berkowitz, the only one of us who 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 planes fall piggyback to earth, German soldiers on the island of Wangerooge could not believe what they were seeing -- "crazy Americans flying with eight motors." In fact, the Germans were so concerned that the Americans had developed a devastating new weapon that Berkowitz was shipped to an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany, and put into solitary confinement. 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.
Seventeen-year-old Rudolf Skawran, who was shooting at the American bomber formations from Wangerooge, said his fellow soldiers were ordered by flak commander Captain Dinkelacker to leave the connected planes alone. Dinkelacker wrote in his log book at 12:47 p.m. that day, "Two Fortresses collided in a formation in the NE. The planes flew hooked together and flew twenty miles south. The two planes were unable to fight anymore. The crash could be awaited so I stopped the firing at these two planes." There was no way for Rojohn, Leek or the crew members to know that the Germans on the ground had ceased firing at them.
Civilians on Wangerooge stood and watched with amazement as the two planes flew over them. The youngest spectators ran to Rojohn's plane and removed what they could get away with quickly -- a machine gun and ammunition, some rations and chewing gum.
Little and Chase did not survive their jumps from the plane. Technical Sergeant Herman G. Horenkamp, Rojohn's friend and the tail gunner for all of his 21 previous missions, had not reported for the mission that day because he had frostbite from the mission the previous day. Chase, who Rojohn and Leek had never seen before and never did meet face to face, was Horenkamp's replacement that fateful day.
All of the survivors from the B-17 piloted by Rojohn were captured by the Germans almost immediately, as were four other men who bailed out of MacNab's plane -- 2nd Lt. Raymond E. Comer, Jr., Tech. Sgt. Joseph A. Chadwick, Berkowitz 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.
After the war, like thousands of other soldiers, Glenn 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, Pa. 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."
Rojohn searched for 40 years through Social Security and veterans records to find his co-pilot, Leek, but was unsuccessful until 1986, when he was given a telephone number in the state of Washington. Rojohn called the number and reached Leek's mother, who asked him if he wanted to talk to Bill, who was visiting from California at the time. The two pilots were reunited for one week in 1987 at a 100th Bomb Group reunion in Long Beach, Calif. Leek died the following year.
But Robert Washington, the navigator that day over the North Sea, still remembers the pilots' remarkably cool handling of the bizarre situation. "Glenn said that he doesn't consider himself a hero; but I do!" said Washington. "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."