IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU

20 February 1944

By Harry Thomas, Bombardier, 576 Squadron

On Sunday, 20 February 1944, we found that the statement, "It can happen to you" really is true.

It was my ninth combat mission, and the first trouble was when my nose-gun turret jammed in azimuth (vertical arc from directly above to the horizontal). The turret wouldn't work loose until Jack Morris, our navigator, and Sgt. Rossi, tail gunner, pushed on the outside, with me on the manual control inside. This leaking and sticking really had me worried later when I thought my value as a gunner would be needed at any moment.

We took off at 9:30 am in our B-24J, #42-99938 "Dixie Dumper," with 12 500-lb. bombs for Helmstadt, Germany, to help cripple the Luftwaffe by destroying the Ju. 88 and 188 wing component factory. Six other aircraft plants around Berlin were targeted by other B-24 wings of our 2nd Air Division. The B-17s headed for similar targets in northwest Germany.

We rode over a complete undercast until we approached what we thought was our target. Snow covered all of Germany and towns looked like black dots on white paper. Five of my bombs released accidentally when Jack put the "select" lever into select position. Then we saw fighters coming for us in the distance just before "bombs away." The bomb-bay door on the left side wouldn't close, as one of my first five had bent it before it had fully opened.

Four FW 190s started in on us just after we left the town burning. They really made some fast passes; one 20mm knocked out our #2 engine and a cannon shell exploded near the top turret. For about 20 minutes we really had some aerial warfare, with those 190s coming in from underneath, from nine o'clock and from six o'clock. Sgt. Rossi, in the tail turret, had an electrical short-circuit in his interphone. Consequently, every round he fired resounded through all our headsets.

George Jones, our pilot, didn't feather #2 propeller immediately, but kept a close eye on the oil pressure as he pulled in closer to our formation. The 190s still picked on our ship until, finally, the P-47 Thunderbolts came and drove them away. Johnny Fass, our copilot, had been calling for fighter cover until he was blue in the face. We fired all our green-green flares, then started firing every colored flare we had. Five P-38 Lightnings arrived before the P-47s, but they wouldn't come down to our altitude to assist us. Guess the FW 190s are better at lower altitude than the P-38s. Sure "peed us off," though, for them not to even attempt to help us.

Just before the P-47s arrived, I saw a B-24 go down, spinning and burning with no `chutes coming out. Soon as the P-47s arrived, I saw a Jerry get it and the pilot bailing out from his burning FW 190. Had a black `chute. After the sky cleared of smoke, flame and tumbling wreckage, we feathered our #2 engine and took a roll call. No one was hurt and the ship seemed OK, apart from the loss of one engine. We saw three other ships with an engine feathered in our formation, one had the entire back half of #3 shot off.

From then on we were sweating out our departure from enemy territory and crossing the English Channel after being fired on at Dunkirk, which gave us a checkpoint on the coast. Our engineer, Sgt. Bodoh, transferred fuel over the Channel which we saw through occasional gaps in the cloud.

After crossing the English coast, everyone split up and looked for holes in the clouds through which to descend. We entered the undercast at 5,300 feet and came out at about 2,000 feet. Our radio transmitter and compass had been shot out, we had no "G box" and Sgt. McAdams, our radio operator, was unable to obtain a "QDM" (a magnetic bearing from a radio transmitter near our base) because the frequency was so jammed.

Just after we'd passed over a B-24 base, circled back at about 500 feet and passed it again, "it" happened.... Jack and I were still in the nose when all three engines quit. Jack still had his headset on and heard Johnny call, "CLEAR THE NOSE AND PREPARE FOR CRASH LANDING!!

Jack glanced at me with shock and excited apprehension on his face and shot through the narrow passage to the rear of the cockpit area like a scared rabbit. I don't know what prompted me to grab my chute but I did, glancing hurriedly at the altimeter as I left. The needle was just above "Naught" feet!

I had a quick glance through our open bomb bay door just before Bodoh piled down beside Jack, Sgt. Surber, one of our gunners, McAdams and me to see the ground and our ship about to meet. We all clung closely together like a bunch of terrified biddies.

When we first hit, it was like a normal landing, then all hell broke loose. I felt the force of the top turret above me and from the fuselage on my right came the "force of all forces" to smash and press us down all together. Then it stopped.

The first thing was a rapid roll call. Everyone in our group was almost smothered, either from the force of wreckage or part of a fellow crewman on him. Johnny was almost hysterical, wanting to help but not having anything tangible to work with. Finally, Sgt. McAdams, who was lying behind and pressing on me, managed to work himself loose. This enabled me to ease back sufficiently to get off. Just after we'd hit I'd grabbed his leg thinking it was mine and yelled, "MY GOD!! MY LEG!! I CAN'T FEEL ANYTHING!!" Sgt. Surber had ended between the two pilots' seats and was bleeding profusely from his forehead. Then we managed to squirm just enough so that Johnny and I could pull Jack out from under the wreckage. Next, Sgt. Bodoh managed to get out on my left so that we finally had enough room to pull my right leg out from under me. Johnny could now reach down to untie my left shoe. My foot had gone through the floor and was stuck fast, but after a few pulls, pushes, pulls and painful grunts, it came free and they slid me down into some on-looking "Limey's" arms.

After I was carried about 10 yards from the ship and laid beside Jack, we immediately lit up a good, soothing cigarette and began checking things. George, our pilot, gathered our scattered papers together and the men from the nearby B-24 base (Tibenham, Norfolk) said an ambulance was on its way for us. Surber had already been taken to hospital. Sgt. McAdams had a deep cut over his left eye, Sgt. Bodoh didn't think he'd been injured, but later examination of his back showed he'd sprained it. Jack and I were bruised all over with small cuts here and there. Sgts. Lane, Morris and Rossi were in the waist section during the crash and were unhurt, as were George and Johnny.

We looked over the scene from where we were lying and saw the house which George had miraculously missed before setting her down. There was a smooth path through the beet field until the ship began swerving when the #4 engine recaught and the propeller governor went out. We'd hit the ditch at the end of the field and that was what had slung us violently around, causing most of the damage to the ship and to us.

The ambulance finally arrived, we were both put on stretchers, loaded aboard with Sgt. McAdams and taken to the base hospital. While one doctor checked Jack and me, another stitched up McAdams' wound. After our cuts were treated and we were assured that nothing serious had happened to us, we were washed, fed, etc. Felt much better in every way. Our ground crew, Sgts. Thibaugh, Schenelle, Tarbell and Elsonsohu, came over and we shot the bull for awhile.

Evidently, a huge English farmer had literally torn the fuselage away with his hands and with smashes from his ax to get me loose and out of the ship. If that baby caught fire we might have all been burned to death.... Very eventful day! Both Jack and I went into deep shock at the hospital. We were completely snow white.

The wreckage of "Dixie Dumper" was salvaged and removed two days later to provide replacement parts for other B-24s.