For many of us on the Palant crew it was supposed to be our 35th and final mission. And it was supposed to be the easiest of them all. A real milk run.
But it didnt work out as planned. It quickly became a nightmare which has taken a long time to fade into comfortable memory.
Our pilot, Sam Palant, was assigned to fly deputy lead on CA Tom Marchbanks and pilot Art Taylor. Our target, while in flight, was changed from Bad Klenen to Neumunster, some 40 miles due north of Hamburg. We would attack the citys marshalling yards with 10 RDX bombs in each of the groups B-17s.
These very special bombs yielded a very high explosive force, but were also very touchy and we were all cautioned that they had to be handled with care.
Everything was as briefed to the target. No flak and no enemy fighters. And it was a beautiful day, both in England and on the continent.
At the words, bombs away! I poked my head into the bomb bay to confirm that the load had been dumped. As deputy, we were to drop on the lead ship, and I could see the smoke marker from Taylors aircraft.
I immediately hollered into the intercom that our bombs were still in there. Nothing happened! There was a flurry of conversation on the intercom, and I continued looking into the bomb bay, waiting for the bombs to go. After what seemed like several minutes, they all let go. All at once!
Then in just a few seconds I saw a tremendous orange flash through the open bomb bay. At first I thought our plane had exploded, then I realized that what I had seen was the reflection of an explosion beneath our plane.
Our tail-gunner on this trip was the squadron armament officer named Lt. Orie Hedges. He had been hit. Byron Cunningham, in the waist, crawled to the tail and dragged Hedges back to the waist door. Hedges own chute was still back in the tail, so Cunningham placed his own chute on the injured lieutenant and readied him for position to bail out.
We had suffered heavy damage from the explosion, were losing altitude and there was a fire in the right wing! It was all bad.
By the time we had dropped to 12,000 feet Palant ordered us to bail out. By the time I got to the waist door, the others had gone: Hedges, Cunningham, waist gunner Robert Sandford and ball turret gunner Tom Coleman.
I could see the others plummeting to earth and I quickly joined them. I tugged on what I thought was the handle, but with no success. Finally, I realized that I had been pulling on the carry handle, not the metal red handle that popped the chute. Being left-handed almost cost me my life.
Cunningham, who made a delayed jump, evaded capture for 24 hours, the rest of us were caught quickly and taken to an interrogation center at Pinneberg, near Hamburg.
During our passage through Hamburg, the 8th Air Force came over the city on their way to some other target. We were herded into a railroad tunnel which served as a shelter.
The townspeople, having experienced some of the heaviest bombing by the Allies, turned on us with shouts and curses. I felt lucky that Hamburg wasnt the target because if one bomb had fallen that day Im sure the natives would have set on us and we would not have survived.
We were liberated by the British on May 2, 1945.