A 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.