Wartime experiences often seem to have the specter of the surreal about them. Things happen that, in normal circumstances, would seem impossible in the realm of reality, even physics. But they happen and men survive to tell the tale and they become the stuff of warrior legends. This is one of those experiences.
I read about this in a blog by Ralph Kinney Bennett. It is one heck of a story.
During WWII, the Allies were carrying out huge bombing raids over Germany in the attempt to disrupt the German military’s supply lines, their manufacturing capacities, etc. One of the American bomber groups involved in this effort out England was the 8th Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group with their huge B-17 G “Flying Fortresses.” Capt. Glenn Rojohn from Greenock, PA was one of the pilots in the 100th Bomb Group.
It is his story and that of his crew and the pilots and crew of another B-17 that fits the description of a wartime legend.
The 100th Bomb Group was on a raid over the northern German city of Hamburg. As they approached the city to drop their bombs, they encountered the usual extremely heavy barrages of flak. They dropped their bombs on their targets then, according to plan, took a 180 degree turn to the north to go out over the North Sea and head back to England.
On the way back to England the bombers were attacked by a group of German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter planes. As per their training the big B-17s pulled their formation closer together in order utilize their many guns to defend each other more effectively. In the midst of the chaos, Capt. Rojohn saw the B-17 in front of him go up in a ball of flames and spin downward.
As he pushed his plane forward to fill in the gap he felt a sudden jolt to his airplane. It felt as if the plane had become very heavy and he was losing altitude.
Here is where the strangeness factor comes into the story. The unthinkable, indeed, the unimaginable, had happened. The B-17 below him, piloted by Lt. William G. McNab had slammed into the belly of Rojohn’s plane. The top gun turret of McNab’s plane was jammed into the belly of Rojohn’s plane and the ball turret gun pod on Capt. Rojohn’s plane had penetrated the top of McNab’s plane. They were suddenly, and inextricably connected to one another and could not be pried apart.
One can only imagine the incredulity and then the powerful adrenaline rush of fear and action that took hold of every crewmember on those B-17s. The ball turret gunner on Rojohn’s plane, Staff Sgt. Joseph Russo, was unable to rotate his turret to climb out of it because of the fact that it was stuck in the roof of the B-17 below him. He could be heard repeating Hail Mary’s over and over again.
The ball turret gunner in Lt. McNab’s plane was able to get out of his even though the hydraulics and electrical systems had failed. He was able to manually rotate his turret to a position that allowed him to get out of the turret.
Meanwhile, up in the cockpit of Capt. Rojohn’s B-17, both he and his co-pilot had stuck their feet up against the instrument panel and were pulling back on their sticks with everything they had in order to maintain some semblance of a controlled descent. They worked together to get the plane to turn left to get it back over the German coast.
Below them, McNab’s plane was burning and Capt. Rojohn ordered two of his men at a time to go back to the waist door on the left of the aircraft, behind the wing and bail out. Six of his men were able to get out. Unfortunately Staff Sgt. Rosso was not one of them.
Capt. Rujohn then ordered his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. William G. Leek to bailout as well, but Leek realized that Rujohn would not be able to maintain enough control over the swiftly descending paired bombers without his help and he refused the order.
When the two huge bombers became stuck together, the fortunate thing was that they were almost in perfect alignment with each other. Rujohn and Leek fought the conjoined behemoths down to the ground and as they came in hard and fast Mcnab’s plane exploded beneath them and threw Rujohn’s B-17 forward.
When the plane came to a halt, the nose of the plane was intact, but the rest of it was scattered all over the landscape. Rujohn and Leek looked at each other in disbelief. They had survived with only minor injuries.
Six crewmembers had been able to bail out of Rojohn’s B-17. Four from McNabs plane were able to get out and came down to earth under their parachutes. Two of those who bailed out of Rojohn’s plane did not survive.
In the end, all of the survivors were captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in German POW camps.
For his efforts that day, Capt Rojohn received the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart. But, in the typical humility of true heroes, Rujohn said of his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Leek, “in all fairness to my co-pilot, he’s the reason I’m alive today.” Capt. Glenn Rojohn died recently in his hometown.
The Veterans Site sends its condolences to the family and offers its eternal respect to Capt. Glenn Rojohn. He was yet another example of those who have been called The Greatest Generation.
Rest In Peace good soldier
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.