I RECEIVED THIS INFORMATION 2/23/2006 FROM A BROTHER AND I FEEL THAT EVERY PERSON
SHOULD READ ABOUT THIS HEROIC ACTION.
Glenn Rojohn and his crew.
by Ralph Kenney Bennett
Tomorrow they will 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 Air Medal, 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
The Messerschmitt Me-109s pressed their attack so closely that Capt. Rojohn could see the faces of the German
He and other pilots fought to remain in formation so they could use each other's guns to defend the group. Rojohn
B-17 ahead of him burst into flames and slide sickeningly toward the earth. He gunned his ship forward to fill in
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."
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 cut his engines and rang the bailout bell. For his crew to have 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 of Rojohn's plane tried frantically to crank Russo's turret around so he could escape,
but, jammed into the fuselage of the lower plane, it would not budge. Perhaps 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
all their strength, trying to prevent their plane from going into a spinning dive that would prevent the crew from jumping
out. Capt. Rojohn motion left and the two managed to wheel the huge, 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 on the left behind the 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 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 12:47 p.m.:
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
In the cockpit Rojohn and Leek held grimly 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 slammed back to the ground, sliding along until
its left wing slammed through a wooden building and the smoldering mess of 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 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,
the familiar pack in his uniform pocket 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 Leak's mouth and pointed down to the gasoline pouring out over the wing from a ruptured fuel tank.
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 length 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 unsentimentally back to life after the war, marrying and raising a son and
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 Leeks' mother, in Washington State. Yes, her son Bill
was visiting from California. Would Rojohn like to speak with him? Some things are better left unsaid. 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.
He died last Saturday after a long siege of sickness. But he apparently faced that final battle with the same
grim aplomb he displayed that remarkable day over Germany so long ago. Let us be thankful for such men.