When we were over the target at Neumunster the lead ship dropped its bombs at about 1530. Simultaneously, our bombardier released the toggle switch and he said, bombs away!
He then called for a bomb bay check and the word came back that none of the bombs had left the plane. The bombardier and I had a hasty conversation to pick a target of opportunity, which turned out to be Bad Segegerg, some 20 miles away and on our present course. We reached the target in five minutes at which time the bombs were salvoed.
During this time our pilot Sam Palant was trying to contact the bombardier, Nick Marabeas, to hold up the T.O. drop. Nick was flying his first mission with this crew along with myself and some others. The message was never received.
Several seconds after the salvoe, with all four engines roaring and my helmet and earphones on, I heard a terrific explosion. Shrapnel came through the bottom of the nose and went out the top with terrific force, missing Marabeas and me by inches. At that time we had no idea what hit us, and certainly never associated the explosion with our bombs.
Then we heard the tail gunner was injured and being ministered to by the waist gunner. And at the same time the engineer, Wilbur Withrow, and ball turret gunner, Tom Coleman, were reporting that the right wing and engines three and four were on fire!
This all happened in no more than a minute or two and the interphone was a mess of chatter. The tail gunner was wounded, the fire was being described, the pilot was calling me and asking me where we were, and the co-pilot, Robert Taylor, was asking how far we were from Allied lines!
We were about 20 miles east of Hamburg now and about 100 miles north of Hannover, the closest Allied territory. We pulled out of formation and I gave the pilot a course of 180 degrees to Hannover. We had taken off our flak suits and put on parachutes. A few minutes later, approximately 1540, Palant called for us to bail out. We were at 20,000 feet.
I made a delayed jump and was captured a few hours later while waiting for darkness. It was then I heard for the first time the famous German expression, for you the war is over.
Lt. Palant stayed with the burning plane until everyone had bailed out.
I dove to 12,000 feet hoping to put out the fire, but the wing was burning worse than ever, said Palant. I realized I couldnt stay with it much longer so I set up the automatic pilot and then checked again to make sure everyone was gone.
I stood in the bomb bay section until the heat from the fire became unbearable and then I jumped. I made the jump from about 8,000 feet and landed along the edge of the forest. I was about 40 miles from Allied territory and took out walking. I knew where I was going because I could see the flashes of the guns at the front.
Palant was captured by British soldiers, who were not too certain he was not a German in stolen American clothes. After almost two weeks he worked his way back to London where he borrowed money from a nurse to call Station 131.
The lead B-17, piloted by Marchbanks / Taylor, lost two engines. And almost two pilots, as shrapnel crashed through the cockpit between the two men. They were able to make it back to France and a newly captured fighter airfield, landing with 1-1/2 engines.
The plane piloted by Howard Traeder lost two engines, but made it as far as a small fighter strip in Paderborn where they crash-landed.
Bill Jones, who came to the 398th after completing a B-17 tour as an engineer-gunner in the Aleutian campaign, suffered a broken back in the landing. (See Howard Traeder story.)
Pilot Ray Hernden, with two wounded and a fire aboard, made it across the lines and crash-landed. The B-17 burned almost completely.
The aircraft piloted by Charles Merritt had fires in its bomb bay, right wing and No. 4 engine. He dove from 20,000 feet to 8,000 feet and the fires subsided somewhat. But upon reaching Allied territory Merritt ordered his crew to bail out. Moments later the ship exploded.
The B-17 piloted by Emil Martinek, flying the lead ship in the second V formation, was probably hit the worst. Badly wounded in the hand, Martinek was induced by co-pilot Ted Cline to bail out, saying he would put the plane on autopilot. Engineer Floyd Aarons opted to help Cline. Neither was able to get out before the ship went out of control.
Navigator Roger Campbell made the most improbable escape, popping out of the astrodome while the ship was upside down.
As the plane rolled over I was tossed against the bomb sight, said Campbell. I clawed my way back to the astrodome and finally unlatched it. I stuck my head through trying to get out headfirst but couldnt make it. Then I bodily pushed my feet through and the slipstream caught me and pulled me out.
Ed Steele, waist gunner on the Martinek crew, landed near German civilians and was quickly captured. After successfully warding off an old man who was attempting to shoot him with a shotgun, Steele was rounded up by some soldiers who gave him a shovel and directed him to begin digging his grave!
When they thought I had it deep enough, the lieutenant in charge lined up his men with their machine guns and was about to order them to shoot me.
I took out the picture of my wife and two-year-old daughter that I always carried with me. This apparently made the lieutenant curious and he came over to look. In good English, he asked if these were my wife and daughter. When I assured him this was so, he returned to the squad and briefly talked to the sergeant. Then he came back again and repeated the same question.
I also have a wife and daughter at home, the German said. And he returned once again to his squad. He stopped, and for a third time, came back to me and asked if the Americans took prisoners. I responded, they certainly do.
Once more he asked about my family, and then all of a sudden he ordered his men to put their guns down. And soon I was taken to a jail in a little town and the next day I was reunited with most of my crew.
The questions remain to this day, and they probably will never be answered:
Why didnt the bombs leave in train over the target?
What caused them to explode when salvoed?
There is a lot of theory as to why the bombs exploded, but there is very little as to why they didnt leave the plane on the first attempt.
Armament personnel stated that RDX bombs were relatively, but not completely, safe and had a restricted use for the easier type missions.
They would be used only when they could be dropped in train so that they would fall individually and not hit against one another when leaving the bomb bay.
Campbell, who was Palants original bombardier, offered this suggestion
One of the bombs arming wires may have been loose and the slipstream blowing into the open bomb bay armed the fuse by turning the propeller or vane which was part of the bombs fuse mechanism.
Consequently, when the bombs did drop as a salvo the armed bomb hit another bomb and exploded the whole works.
The Group investigation after the mission revealed little more than assumptions that the bombs were 1) improperly installed, 2) mistakenly salvoed, or 3) possibly sabotaged. A more thorough investigation could not be made at the time because the key witnesses were POWs.