The Amazing Story of a WW II Pilot Who Survived The Mid-Air Collision of His and Another American Bomber And Saved the Lives of Several Crew Members–Truth!
Summary of eRumor:
The amazing story of a World War II pilot whose B-17 bomber collided in mid-air with another B-17 and became locked to it in piggy-back fashion.
The pilot kept control to allow crew members to bail out then he and his co-pilot guided the crippled craft to a crash landing that destroyed both planes, but they survived with no major injuries!
This article by Ralph Kinney Bennett was published in the Fall 2003 newsletter of the National World War II Memorial Society, and is true.
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.