At 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, 5 March 1944, 28 B-24 Liberators, taking off from Wendling's main runway at 30-second intervals, set off for a bomb strike on a Luftwaffe airfield located at Chateau Bernard in the Bordeaux area, southeastern France, a round trip of about 1,200 miles.
Inclement weather over target area in France subsequently led to our group seeking targets of opportunity, hitting an airfield at Landes de Buddac with fair results, and an airfield at Cognac with poor results. Light but accurate flak and about six twin-engine German fighters caused damage to several of our ships before we turned for the long flight home.
I'd been riding in the Martin top turret when I was startled to see our number-four engine had been feathered. Our flight engineer, Cecil Macklin, said it was due to low fuel pressure, but it didn't solve the problem, as the three other engines also gradually began losing power as we left the French coast.
I lowered myself down from the upper turret and returned to my position to work on my radio. I turned my IFF set (Identification Friend or Foe) to emergency and then sent a distress message to the MF/DF section, but didn't receive an acknowledgment. I then fired off several red flares to signal our emergency to any planes passing above us.
I found that my filament voltage was reading about three volts and my total plate current was about 100ma. I didn't hesitate any longer, sending out an "Imminent Distress" signal on all available equipment and asked our copilot, Paul Huston, to put a distress call out over the VHF radio. Then I went to work on the 500 kilocycle distress signal, as I knew I'd have much better chance of being received, even with a weak signal.
While sending out the SOS distress call with my left hand, I passed up oxygen bottles to our pilot, Clifford Hunter, with my right. Then Sgt. Macklin and I cleared the flight deck of loose equipment, throwing it out of the open bomb bay. Looking down through the bomb bay, I saw we were continuing to lose precious altitude. Macklin then closed the bomb bay doors and instructed me to get into my ditching position. The time was about 3 p.m.
No sooner had I taken my position and put my hands up to brace myself against the armor plating when l received the first tremendous jarring blow of impact as our aircraft struck the hard surface of the sea. (I later learned that we'd gone down in the English Channel, off the south coast of England and only 30 miles due south of Brighton, Sussex.)
My next feeling was that of being pushed around under the freezing sea water by the section of armor plating I'd braced against, and of being crushed by surrounding equipment and assorted debris. I must have been stunned and blacked out momentarily, but thankfully recovered consciousness, gasping for air, but only swallowing sea water that now almost completely filled the interior of our airplane. I was trapped briefly, being tightly squeezed by the debris, but managed to stay comparatively calm. I twisted and turned and wrenched myself clear. I swam forward, feeling my way past the pilot's armor plating on the side of the fuselage, and came up through the exit hatch. As I crawled out of the hatch on to the top of the cockpit, I felt completely exhausted, retching and vomiting the sea water that I'd swallowed. I saw that one of my hands was bleeding badly and felt warm blood streaming down my face.
Pulling myself out of the hatch, I went straight to the life raft storage on the top of the B-24s fuselage, opened the doors to the two five-man rafts and tried to pull them free, but I was too exhausted to move them. I called to Sgt. Macklin for assistance. After he'd pulled both rafts out they self inflated and I made my way to one of them, now lying on the port wing. I pushed it into the water and climbed aboard.
Our ball turret gunner, Wallace Morrow, swam over and hung onto the raft's side. I then paddled it over to the waist gun position where one of our waist gunners, J. T. Grimes, was sitting half-in and half-out of the window, badly injured. Half-under the sinking B-24 at the same waist position was our navigator, Jack Gilman, tangled with the shrouds of an opened parachute. Grimes, although badly injured, managed to flop down into the raft safely. I grabbed Gilman to pull him aboard, but with the additional weight of his water-soaked clothes and in my exhausted state, he was too heavy to lift. While I was hanging on to Gilman, I noticed our pilot, Lt. Hunter, standing on the wing next to the limp body of our other waist gunner, Elwood Mills.
I paddled over to the wing with my left hand. When I got about 10 feet away, I yelled to Hunter to jump. He could at least have pulled the dinghy to the plane because the mooring rope was still attached, but he remained there, looking dazed. "COME ON.... JUMP!" I implored and begged him, but he just stood there. Then Gilman, still helpless, yelled at me to haul him out of the water. I just didn't have the strength and the injured Grimes couldn't help because of his condition.
Then I had an idea. Laying down in the raft, gripping his Mae West life preserver with my hands, and clamping my teeth tightly into his clothing on the shoulder area, I rolled, twisted and turned over on the floor of the raft, eventually hauling him aboard. I grabbed him by one arm and a leg which he'd managed to get over the side of the dinghy and hauled him in with us.
Our raft had drifted, with four of us safely aboard, towards the half submerged tail section of our B-24, but not too far from Hunter, still standing on the wing. I kept begging him to jump in, swim over and hang on to our dinghy. All I saw was a blank stare, as if he couldn't comprehend what was going one.
As the wave action drifted us away from our sinking plane, I saw the other raft with Macklin, our engineer, and Verne Nelson, our tail gunner, safely aboard and drifting round from the other side of the tail section. We each pulled on the ropes of our rafts until we were close enough for us to lash them together. We then cut free the ropes still attached to our sinking aircraft to prevent the rafts being dragged down with it. By then we were about 15 yards from the plane.
In the meantime, I tried to make the occupants in my dinghy comfortable. I asked Morrow to bail out the freezing-cold sea water sloshing around the rubber floor of our raft, and which was causing Gilman and Grimes much distress and discomfort.
Macklin and I then began paddling the two rafts towards the front of the plane to try to rescue Hunter again. Then the plane went down. Hunter jumped or fell off the wing, and began swimming away from us towards a floating oxygen bottle. He then called out for help, the first we'd heard from him, and we both paddled harder to reach him, but the waves and the slight wind increased the distance from our pilot. All our efforts were in vain.
We then rested briefly, taking the opportunity to transfer one of the men from my dinghy to Macklin's. That balanced it up -three in each raft. About that time I saw an Air Sea Rescue plane, a Walrus Flying Boat, coming towards us. I immediately knew help was at hand and hoped they would see Hunter and pick him up first. Instead it swept low over-head, landed and came alongside us.
I was the first survivor to get into the plane and told the pilot about Hunter. He told me that rescue boats were almost at our side and that they would find our pilot. I urged him to call the boats on his radio and notify them about Hunter's plight. This he did, and I thought that everything was going to turn out fine.
Although the rescue launches carried out a thorough search, Clifford Hunter was never found. Also lost in this tragedy were Paul Huston, James McBrayer, our bombardier, and Elwood Mills.
Sgt. Macklin told me later that before I'd called for his help in releasing the life rafts from the top of our plane, he had assisted Lt. Hunter to the wing and inflated his Mae West because he was injured. He'd also pulled Sgt. Mills on to the wing and tried to give him artificial respiration, but the waist gunner hadn't responded.