Saturday, March 20, 2010

Project 44: The Belly Landing

Returning from the Oldenburg mission, the crew of B-17G #42-97214 (GD-C) "Carolina Queen" was unable to lower its landing gear due to a structural failure of the landing gear motor.

Landing a B-17 without its gear lowered is a problem because of the Sperry ball turret, which would prevent a smooth belly landing. For emergencies such as this, crews were supposed to carry special tools to drop ball turret. However, on this April day, the Bond crew did not have those tools on board and the story of how they got them, unfastened the ball turret, and made a successful landing became an article for the Public Relations Officer and was picked up in state side papers and by "Stars and Stripes".

How it all started - this is the statement of the pilot, Leslie Bond, taken from Accident Report No. 44-4-8-520.

"On April 8, 1944 while acting as pilot on ship 42-97214, B-17G, the landing great failed to retract electrically on take-off and was cranked up manually. On returning from the mission I tried to lower the gear electrically, but it would not lower. The engineer [S/Sgt Clyman] cranked the left gear down and tried to lower the right but it would not lower. When we came over the field and the squadron peeled off to land. I flew on out from the base and climbed to 4,000 feet and circled over the field and contacted the tower for instructions. I was asked if we had tools aboard with which to salve the ball turret. We did not have any, so the tower to me to stand by and Colonel Hall came up in an A-20 with a tool kit on a rope and tried to lower it to us. The bag broke before we were able to get it. He then returned to the base and got a longer rope and more tools. He lowered the tools to us and the engineer got them through the radio hatch. We then flew out to the channel and dropped the ball turret, returned to the field and made a crash landing on the runway."

The Engineering Officer, Capt Edgar C. Kurner added the following: "Investigation revealed shaft had sheared on retracting motor clutch housing. Unsatisfactory Report has been submitted on design of landing gear motor shaft. Damage to aircraft was negligible."

Lt. Col. Conway S. Hall (534th BS C.O.) tells how after the first attempt he landed to get a longer rope and an aircraft capable of flying better formation with the B-17. The aircraft he returned in was B-17E #41-9043 "Little Rock-ette". This aircraft was used as the group's auxiliary aircraft, it was stripped of armor and weapons. Without the excess weight, it was quite fast. The aircraft is shown here. The nose and engine nacelles were painted red with a red stripe that runs along the fuselage past the wings and terminates near the waist.

Lt. Col. Hall also tells how he flew in formation 50 feet above and slightly ahead of the "Carolina Queen" while someone else lowered the bag of tools. "I instructed the pilot [Lt. Bond] to keep looking straight ahead during this maneuver and not to look at me. Afterwards, we made sure every aircraft in the squadron had those tools aboard!"

Which aircraft was first flown seems to be in question. Lt. Bond and other sources indicate it was a Douglas A-20 Havoc, but Col. Hall recalled at the 1999 Houston Reunion that it was a Vultee A-35 that he had "liberated". Both aircraft were auxiliary birds at Ridgewell. To his credit these events did take place 56 years ago. I intend to interview him again to gather more of his recollections.

This picture of Conway Hall was taken at the 381st BGMA 1999 Reunion in Houston, Texas.

From Neal Clyman's hometown paper in Bloomfield, Iowa.

...Lt. Col. Hall, Little Rock, Ark., took off in another Fortress with the required tools and a rope to drop them into the hatch of the disabled bomber circling the field. The first try failed because the rope was too short. Sgt. Clyman got hold of it once, but it nearly jerked him out of the "Carolina Queen."

The next time, Hall used a three hundred foot rope and weighted the tools with a sandbag. Clyman, tying himself to his own bomber, hooked the tools while another gunner cut the rope with a knife.

The pilot of the crippled Fortress then flew the plane out over the North sea and the ball turret was dropped, which then permitted the "Carolina Queen," to make a successful crash landing.

"Snagging those tools was just like threading a needle in midair," members of the Fortress crew agreed.

"Mr. And Mrs. Clyman first learned of their son's heroic exploit from a radio broadcast which was also heard by several other Bloomfield acquaintances of the local airman. Accounts of the episode involving Sergeant Clyman have also appeared in several newspapers throughout the nation."

Dropping the Ball Turret in Flight (taken from the B-17 technical orders)

When preparing to bring the B-17 in for an emergency wheels-up landing it is desirable to drop the ball turret in order to minimize damage to the fuselage when it hits the ground.

It is both safer and easier to release only the ball itself, leaving the supporting yoke intact. Only 2 tools--a crescent wrench and a hammer--are needed to do the job. Two men can accomplish it in approximately 20 minutes.

(1) Turn the guns aft and down.

(2) Remove the azimuth gear case by taking out four bolts which hold it.

(3) Remove the safety retaining hooks with a socket wrench if available, or by breaking them off with a hammer.

(4) If there is time, disconnect the electrical plug and the oxygen line.

(5) Drop the turret by removing the twelve yoke connection nuts. The turret may land up on the fire cut-off cam, but a swift kick from the aft side of the ball will dislodge it.

NOTE: If time permits, salvage the computing sight before dropping the turret. Removal of the sight may add approximately 20 minutes to the time, making total time necessary for the operation about 40 minutes.

To remove the sight, disconnect the three flexible drive cables at the left, right and far sides of the sight. Disconnect the electrical plug. Free the sight by removing the sight retaining rod.

Remember these 3 rules for making emergency landings to minimize structural damage:

1. When landing the B-17 with wheels retracted, drop the ball turret.

2. When belly-landing a B-17 in which a chin turret is installed, retract the tailwheel also.

3. With 3/4 flaps down.

The AAF version titled "Better Late Than Never" is quoted here:

51925 USAF - BETTER LATE THAN NEVER - Five hours after the other ships in the group had returned from a bombing mission over Oldenberg, Germany, April 8, 1944, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress "Carolina Queen" pilot[ed] by Lt. Leslie A. Bond of Chickasha, Okla., came sliding home in a flawless belly landing. Unable to lower the ship’s wheels to normal landing position, Lt. Bond was compelled to circle about until what is believed to be the first successful tool-passing job in the ATO was accomplished. Lt. Col. Conway S. Hall of North Little Rock, Ark., deputy group commander, piloted the Fortress from which special tools used to jettison "Carolina Queen’s" ball turret, were passed by cable to a crewman standing in the radio hatch of the latter ship. Patterned after the successful aerial refueling stunts of the old endurance fliers the wartime version was enacted. With tools so unusually provided "Carolina Queen" ball turret was able to be loosened and finally dropped over the English Channel. Lt. Bond returned to base and brought his ship in for a perfect landing, made easier on both pilot and plane by absence of obstructing fuselage straining under turret. Only damage was bent propeller and skinned under-carriage and it will be in the air very shortly.

Actual photos of the Carolina Queen coming in for the belly landing:

Photos of Lt. Col. Hall and the Bond crew on "Carolina Queen's" wing:

Front row (L-R): 1) Lt. Col. Conway S. Hall (534th BS CO, eventual CO of 381st BG - not a crew member), 2) 2nd Lt Leslie A. Bond - pilot, 3) 2nd Lt. Gerald O. Hilton - bombardier, 4) S/Sgt. Anthony A. Caserta - ball turret gunner.

Back row (L-R): 5) S/Sgt Neal V. Clyman - engineer & top turret gunner, 6) S/Sgt. William R. Jones Jr. - radio operator holding a white bag, 7) 2nd Lt. Charles E. Brumback - navigator, 8) Sgt. Robert K. Batchelder - tail gunner, 9) Sgt. Earl Ornduff - right waist gunner, 10) Sgt. A.C. Derrington - left waist gunner, 11) 2nd. Lt. Wilbur M. Mason - co-pilot.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

B-17 Bomber Under Attack

"They're coming at us, look out", stated the voice heard through the earphones of Staff Sergeant Charles R. Batdorf, U.S. Army Air Force, as he nervously scanned the skies for the approaching German fighter planes. He could hear the bursts of machine gun fire coming from the forward crew positions on the plane as his fellow crewmen attempted to fight back against the head-on attack of the German Me-109 fighter planes. Only seconds passed before he saw several of the German fighters fly by the right waist gunner window, which was his assigned crew position. They passed by so fast that he was not able to get off a shot. Immediately he knew something was wrong for he felt the plane slow and start to lose altitude. Over the intercom he heard the terse exchanges between the pilot and co-pilot. The head-on pass made by the fighters had set fire to the B-17's number two engine. The pilot of the bomber named "Sleepy Time Gal", Lieutenant Theodore MacDonald, had to drop out of formation and feather the prop of the burning engine.

The damaged aircraft soon found itself alone and vulnerable in unfriendly skies. The crew knew that falling behind would draw the attention of the Luftwaffe pilots who tended to always prey on the stragglers. The crew didn't have to wait long. With the number two engine feathered and on fire, the German fighters formed up for another pass. Before any of the crew could react, bullets riddled the nose and radio room and set fire to the number three engine. As Lieutenant MacDonald struggled to keep control of his aircraft he spoke to his crew over the intercom. "O.K., bail out". His statement ended with the alarm bell sounding inside the aircraft. A moment later, the voice of the navigator. Lieutenant John Moskowitz, came over the intercom, "Mac, the fire destroyed both our chutes." The plane carried only one spare parachute, which meant that with the two damaged chutes of the navigator and bombardier, the crew was still short one. MacDonald's voice was again heard over the intercom. "Stand by." The intercom was silent only for a second as co-pilot John Godsey's voice was heard "Mac, I think we'd better do something. We're on fire and with two engines out, we're losing altitude fast." MacDonald called over the intercom for Moskowitz to come back to the cockpit and take his chute and again issued orders for the rest of the crew to bail out. "Mac," Moskowitz called back to MacDonald, "I'm not taking your chute." "John, I'm in command of this aircraft and if anyone can make a crash landing with the ship in this condition, I can." MacDonald's tone of voice indicated there would be no further discussion. And there wasn't. Godsey, Moskowitz, Hams and engineer Technical Sergeant Merle Cline all exited the stricken plane through the hatch in the nose.

Coinciding with the activities of the four officers and the engineer in the forward section of the plane, were the activities of the five enlisted crewmen in the rear section of the plane. S/SGT Batdorf scanned to his left, toward the front of the aircraft, and noticed the radio operator, T/SGT Willie Rowden, busily making preparations to bail out. The radio room was badly shot up and Batdorf wondered how Willie could have escaped injury. S/SGT Wendell Dowell, the left waist gunner, and T/SGT Rowden realized that the ball turret had lost power and that the hatch allowing S/SGT William Valigura to get out o^ the ball was not facing the interior of the aircraft. The man inside the ball turret, located on the under side of the aircraft, was dependent on his buddies to unlock the hatch and allow him to get out. Without then-help he was essentially trapped inside the turret. Rowden and Dowell manually cranked the turret around to allow them access to the hatch from the interior of the aircraft. They released the locking levers and opened the hatch enabling S/SGT Valigura to climb back into the main part of the aircraft.

While Dowell and Rowden were working to get Valigura back into the aircraft, S/SGT Batdorf happened to glance out his right waist gun window and notice that the German fighters were attempting to come around again. He saw an Me-109 coming right at him. He grabbed his .50 caliber machine gun and pointed it straight at the nose of the oncoming German fighter and held down the trigger. A steady stream of bullets headed toward the fighter, but the German kept up his attack. Batdorf s pulse raced as the German drew closer.

Though the fighter had not yet opened up on the American bomber, Batdorf realized that at any moment he might be seeing German tracer bullets headed directly for him. The heavy machine gun continued to shudder in his hands, sending more bullets toward the attacking German Me-109. Suddenly there was an explosion as Batdorf saw the German plane erupt in a ball of fire. He had made his first kill, though he would never receive credit for it as no other American aircraft was around to witness the event. Batdorf let out a sigh of relief, then returned to the task of getting ready to bail out. As he turned to his right, and looked back in the direction of the tail gunner's position, he noticed the body of tail gunner, S/SGT Robert Alien.

Wounded in the hand, Alien had disconnected from the plane's oxygen and had attempted to crawl to the door next to the right waist gun position. As the plane was still at approximately 30,000 feet, he had passed out from lack of oxygen before being able to open the door. He now blocked the door and the remaining crewmembers were not able to get out. Recognizing that time was running out and that the burning, bomb-laden aircraft could potentially blow-up at any minute, Batdorf and Dowell rolled Alien away from the exit, opened the door and pushed their fellow crewmember clear of the doomed aircraft. Valigura, the ball turret gunner was next out of the door. Willie Rowden, the radio operator, headed toward the bomb bay, his designated exit station when he realized that the bomb bay was still fully loaded. He turned around and headed back toward the waist door and made his exit. Dowell was next to go. He moved to the tiny door, crouched down placing his hands on the sides of the doorway and jumped clear.

Batdorf then moved toward the door and as he prepared to exit, realized he had not yet put on his chute. He had been so preoccupied with the German fighter and then with moving Bob Alien out of the way, that he forgot to put on his own chute. He headed back to his station to get his chute, clipped it to the rings on the front of his harness straps, and looked around the aircraft. He saw no one. He was alone. Batdorf moved toward the waist door to make his exit He crouched down in the same manner as Dowell had and prepared to propel himself through the door. Just before he shoved himself out, the 19 year old kid from Pennsylvania thought to himself "Whose gonna tell Mom and Pop where I am?" With that, he buried himself through the door and into the cold, blustery sky above Nazi Germany.

An Airman

An Airman's Odyssey: Charles R. Bardorf - An Aerial Gunner and Prisoner of War in World War II

Staff Sergeant Charles R. Batdorf
Armorer-Gunner, 8th Air Force
731st Bomb Squadron, 452nd Bomb Group

Piggyback Hero

by Ralph Kinney Bennett

Tomorrow morning they'll lay the remains of Glenn Rojohn to rest in the Peace Lutheran Cemetery in the little town of Greenock, Pa., just southeast of Pittsburgh. He was 81, and had been in the air conditioning and plumbing business in nearby McKeesport. If you had seen him on the street he would probably have looked to you like so many other graying, bespectacled old World War II veterans whose names appear so often now on obituary pages.

But like so many of them, though he seldom talked about it, he could have told you one hell of a story. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart all in one fell swoop in the skies over Germany on December 31, 1944.

Fell swoop indeed.

Capt. Glenn Rojohn, of the 8th Air Force's 100th Bomb Group, was flying his B-17G Flying Fortress bomber on a raid over Hamburg. His formation had braved heavy flak to drop their bombs, then turned 180 degrees to head out over the North Sea.

They had finally turned northwest, headed back to England, when they were jumped by German fighters at 22,000 feet. The Messerschmitt Me-109s pressed their attack so closely that Capt. Rojohn could see the faces of the German pilots.

He and other pilots fought to remain in formation so they could use each other's guns to defend the group. Rojohn saw a B-17 ahead of him burst into flames and slide sickeningly toward the earth. He gunned his ship forward to fill in the gap.

He felt a huge impact. The big bomber shuddered, felt suddenly very heavy and began losing altitude. Rojohn grasped almost immediately that he had collided with another plane. A B-17 below him, piloted by Lt. William G. McNab, had slammed the top of its fuselage into the bottom of Rojohn's. The top turret gun of McNab's plane was now locked in the belly of Rojohn's plane and the ball turret in the belly of Rojohn's had smashed through the top of McNab's. The two bombers were almost perfectly aligned - the tail of the lower plane was slightly to the left of Rojohn's tailpiece. They were stuck together, as a crewman later recalled, "like mating dragon flies."

No one will ever know exactly how it happened. Perhaps both pilots had moved instinctively to fill the same gap in formation. Perhaps McNab's plane had hit an air pocket.

Three of the engines on the bottom plane were still running, as were all four of Rojohn's. The fourth engine on the lower bomber was on fire and the flames were spreading to the rest of the aircraft. The two were losing altitude quickly. Rojohn tried several times to gun his engines and break free of the other plane. The two were inextricably locked together. Fearing a fire, Rojohn cuts his engines and rang the bailout bell. If his crew had any chance of parachuting, he had to keep the plane under control somehow.

The ball turret, hanging below the belly of the B-17, was considered by many to be a death trap - the worst station on the bomber. In this case, both ball turrets figured in a swift and terrible drama of life and death.

Staff Sgt. Edward L. Woodall, Jr., in the ball turret of the lower bomber, had felt the impact of the collision above him and saw shards of metal drop past him. Worse, he realized both electrical and hydraulic power was gone.

Remembering escape drills, he grabbed the handcrank, released the clutch and cranked the turret and its guns until they were straight down, then turned and climbed out the back of the turret up into the fuselage.

Once inside the plane's belly Woodall saw a chilling sight, the ball turret of the other bomber protruding through the top of the fuselage. In that turret, hopelessly trapped, was Staff Sgt. Joseph Russo. Several crewmembers on Rojohn's plane tried frantically to crank Russo's turret around so he could escape. But, jammed into the fuselage of the lower plane, the turret would not budge.

Aware of his plight, but possibly unaware that his voice was going out over the intercom of his plane, Sgt. Russo began reciting his Hail Marys.

Up in the cockpit, Capt. Rojohn and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. William G. Leek, Jr., had propped their feet against the instrument panel so they could pull back on their controls with a ll their strength, trying to prevent their plane from going into a spinning dive that would prevent the crew from jumping out.

Capt. Rojohn motioned left and the two managed to wheel the grotesque, collision-born hybrid of a plane back toward the German coast. Leek felt like he was intruding on Sgt. Russo as his prayers crackled over the radio, so he pulled off his flying helmet with its earphones.

Rojohn, immediately grasping that crew could not exit from the bottom of his plane, ordered his top turret gunner and his radio operator, Tech Sgts. Orville Elkin and Edward G. Neuhaus, to make their way to the back of the fuselage and out the waist door behind the left wing.

Then he got his navigator, 2nd Lt. Robert Washington, and his bombardier, Sgt. James Shirley to follow them. As Rojohn and Leek somehow held the plane steady, these four men, as well as waist gunner Sgt. Roy Little and tail gunner Staff Sgt. Francis Chase were able to bail out.

Now the plane locked below them was aflame. Fire poured over Rojohn's left wing. He could feel the heat from the plane below and hear the sound of .50 caliber machinegun ammunition "cooking off" in the flames. Capt. Rojohn ordered Lieut. Leek to bail out. Leek knew that without him helping keep the controls back, the plane would drop in a flaming spiral and the centrifugal force would prevent Rojohn from bailing. He refused the order.

Meanwhile, German soldiers and civilians on the ground that afternoon looked up in wonder. Some of them thought they were seeing a new Allied secret weapon - a strange eight-engined double bomber. But anti-aircraft gunners on the North Sea coastal island of Wangerooge had seen the collision. A German battery captain wrote in his logbook at 2:47 p.m.: "Two fortresses collided in a formation in the NE. The planes flew hooked together and flew 20 miles south. The two planes were unable to fight
anymore. The crash could be awaited so I stopped the firing at these two planes."

Suspended in his parachute in the cold December sky, Bob Washington watched with deadly fascination as the mated bombers, trailing black smoke, fell to earth about three miles away, their downward trip ending in an ugly boiling blossom of fire.

In the cockpit Rojohn and Leek held g rimly to the controls trying to ride a falling rock. Leek tersely recalled, "The ground came up faster and faster. Praying was allowed. We gave it one last effort and slammed into the ground."

The McNab plane on the bottom exploded, vaulting the other B-17 upward and forward. It hit the ground and slid along until its left wing slammed through a wooden building and the smoldering mass of aluminum came to a stop.

Rojohn and Leek were still seated in their cockpit. The nose of the plane was relatively intact, but everything from the B-17's massive wings back was destroyed. They looked at each other incredulously. Neither was badly injured.

Movies have nothing on reality. Still perhaps in shock, Leek crawled out through a huge hole behind the cockpit, felt for the familiar pack in his uniform pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He placed it in his mouth and was about to light it. Then he noticed a young German soldier pointing a rifle at him. The soldier looked scared and annoyed. He grabbed the cigarette out of Leek's mouth and pointed down to the gasoline pouring out over the wing from a ruptured fuel tank.

Two of the six men who parachuted from Rojohn's plane did not survive the jump. But the other four and, amazingly, four men from the other bomber, including ball turret gunner Woodall, survived. All were taken prisoner. Several of them were interrogated at lengt h by the Germans until they were satisfied that what had crashed was not a new American secret weapon.

Rojohn, typically, didn't talk much about his Distinguished Flying Cross. Of Leek, he said, "In all fairness to my co-pilot, he's the reason I'm alive today."

Like so many veterans, Rojohn got back to life unsentimentally after the war, marrying and raising a son and daughter. For many years, though, he tried to link back up with Leek, going through government records to try to track him down. It took him 40 years, but in 1986, he found the number of Leek's mother, in Washington State.

Yes, her son Bill was visiting from California. Would Rojohn like to speak with him? Two old men on a phone line, trying to pick up some familiar timbre of youth in each other's voice. One can imagine that first conversation between the two men who had shared that wild ride in the cockpit of a B-17.

A year later, the two were re-united at a reunion of the 100th Bomb Group in Long Beach, Calif. Bill Leek died the following year.

Glenn Rojohn was the last survivor of the remarkable piggyback flight. He was like thousands upon thousands of men -- soda jerks and lumberjacks, teachers and dentists, students and lawyers and service station attendants and store clerks and farm boys -- who in the prime of their lives went to war in World War II. They sometimes did incredible things, endured awful things, and for the most part most of them pretty much kept it to themselves and just faded back into the fabric of civilian life.

Capt. Glenn Rojohn, AAF, died last Saturday after a long siege of illness. But he apparently faced that fina l battle with the same grim aplomb he displayed that remarkable day over Germany so long ago. Let us be thankful for such men.

A great story. I wonder how many more stories like this one are lost each day as members of the Greatest Generation pass on.
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