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   Volume 2 - Issue 11 www.elkvalleyherald.ca   email: news@elkvalleyherald.ca      
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"Despite its amazing natural values, there are ample reasons for concern for the river's future."
- Mark Angelo  
ORC Chair Member   
   

 

Story Pic
John Kinnear photo
An artists rendering of what the piggyback B-17 looked like in flight
Looking Back - John KinnearA few years back I had the opportunity to view and photograph a genuine restored B-17G Flying Fortress at Cranbrook airport.  For those of you not familiar with the B-17, it is a four- engine heavy bomber aircraft that played a critical role in ending the Second World War.
I have read dozens of amazing and terrifying accounts of what it was like to fly B-17 missions with Bomber Command out of England. Stories full of horrific encounters, tragedy and great courage. Stories like that of the “Memphis Belle” which was eventually made into a movie.
Many of those B-17 crews never came back and knew the odds were against them each time they flew another mission. Yet they still went out, determined to end the menace that threatened the world.
Recently I came across the story of some of two surviving crews and their last mission that is nothing short of remarkable. It involves a massive “maximum effort” raid conducted on New Year’s Eve in 1944 with thirty seven aircraft from the 100th Bomber Group who took to the air from Thorpe Abbotts that day.  Only twenty five planes made it back to England. The crews of two of those B-17’s didn’t make it all the way back but 10 out of the 17 crew members did survive an in-air accident that makes Spielberg’s fiction stories look dull.
The story centers around First Lieutenant Glenn Rojohn, an American pilot who was flying his twenty second mission that day. His squadron, after surviving horrendous flak attacks, was heading back from their Hamburg raid across the German coastline when they were attacked by German ME-109 fighters. The 200 nautical mile tailwind they had used to great advantage to get to Hamburg was now a 200 nautical mile headwind. They were reduced to a painfully slow and vulnerable air speed and the German’s began picking them off.
Keeping formation was paramount to a squadron’s defense so when the bomber in front of Rojohn was hit and went down Glenn gunned his plane forward to fill in the gap. It was then they felt a terrific impact. They had been hit but not by German bullets. Another B-17 below them had been thrust up into the same spot and slammed into them. No doubt the 80 knot headwind which was making the ride back a roller coaster had something to do with the collision.
This is where it gets really interesting. The top gun turret from the bomber under Rojohn punched into the belly of his plane and his bottom ball turret gun punctured the lower B-17’s roof.  The two planes become stuck together, like two “breeding dragonflies”.
The gunner from the lower plane’s bottom gun turret did survive and when he rotated his turret so he could climb out into the fuselage he was met by his counterpart in the upper plane, still in his turret. That man was Sgt. Joseph Russo and he was impossibly trapped in that turret gun.
 
Lt. Rojohn feathered all his engines and used the remaining three engines of the plane below him for power. The lower B-17’s pilot and co-pilot had not survived the crash but four of the crew did and promptly bailed out. Rojohn ordered his crew out the tail end also but his co-pilot Bill Leek refused to leave. Bill knew it would take both of them holding the wheels against their stomachs and their feet propped against the instrument panel to keep their locked planes from spiraling out of control.  Rojohn banked their “locked mess monster” back towards Germany, screamed over the German island of Wangerooge and somehow got his double decker bomber down in the northern German countryside.  Throughout the whole ordeal co-pilot Leek said the hardest part was listening to the doomed Sgt. Russo recite Hail Mary’s over the intercom.
As they hit land near Wilhelmshaven the B-17 slid off the bottom plane which immediately exploded. His plane slammed back to earth, careened along the ground and sliced through a German headquarters building, blowing it to pieces.   When the dust had settled Rojohn and Leek crawled out of a hole in what was left of their plane only to be met by a young German soldier. When they looked around all that was left of the B-17 was the nose, the cockpit and the seats they were in.
The German soldiers on the ground that day that were watching their piggyback planes believed they were seeing a new American weapon, an eight-engine bomber!
Two of the men who jumped from Rojohn’s plane didn’t survive and the unfortunate Russo was believed to have been killed on impact. But four of the jumpers did survive as well as four who had evacuated from the lower plane. Ten of the two plane’s sixteen crew were saved by Rojohn and Leek’s determination. All ten were taken prisoner (one was interrogated by the Germans for two weeks about the so called new secret weapon) and all were released at war’s end five months later.
Some people on the Island of Wangerooge still celebrate the legend of the piggyback flight every New Year’s Eve.
Glenn Rojohn was the last survivor of the remarkable piggyback flight.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. He was like thousands upon thousands of brave men, soda jerks and lumberjacks, teachers and dentists, students and lawyers , service station attendants and store clerks and farm boys, who in the prime of their lives went to war.
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   Volume 2 - Issue 11 www.elkvalleyherald.ca   email: news@elkvalleyherald.ca      
 
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