Seconds to get out of a burning B-24

Waist gunners on a B-24 Liberator wearing protective 'flak vests'.

Waist gunners on a B-24 Liberator wearing protective ‘flak vests’.

On the 8th April the 8th Airforce went to attack targets in Bremen. Both Bremen and a secondary target were obscured by smoke so the whole force switched attention to Langenhagen Airdrome. As they approached the new target they were attacked by German fighters which swept through the formation.

2nd Lt. Robert A. Mayes’ plane was badly hit and on fire and out of control when he gave the order to bail out over the intercom at about 1410. There remained a precious few minutes for the crew to get out if they could. It was no easy matter.

Sgt. Archie M. Thomas survived to give this dramatic account of the last few minutes of the bomber as it plunged to earth:

“That Fateful Easter Eve, April 8, 1944”: Our take off time was delayed from 07:00 a.m. to 09:00 a.m., due to a very heavy fog. While waiting for take off the officers were gathered at the front end of the B-24 whereas the six enlisted men were gathered at the tail end of the aircraft.

During this wait, one of the enlisted men stated that, ‘If it is my time to die, I am ready to die for my country.’ One by one, four of the remaining crew made the same statement. I, alone, had not spoken, and at this time I stated, ‘I am not ready to die for my country, but rather I am ready to LIVE for my country.’

After loading on the aircraft my intercom was out and as a result, I missed out on some of the conversation. The radio operator took care of this problem before we got over enemy territory. After breaking through the fog, we had a beautiful spring day. We test fired our guns and the assistant engineer transferred fuel. At one point, we had to take evasive action to avoid colliding with another aircraft. We could see a little anti-aircraft flak in the distance near the Zuider Zee.

Our preliminary checks were all made over the Channel. We were now entering enemy territory. As we proceeded over enemy territory, we kept a close lookout for enemy aircraft and gunfire. We were joined by one Allied Fighter Escort who stayed with us for some time. After they turned around and prior to our second Escort group joining us at approximately 13:00 o’clock, we spotted German fighters at a 3:00 o’clock position.

They proceeded to move ahead of our formation and they attacked from directly in front of us, coming through our formation firing their guns. I am quite sure these were Me 109s.

Our aircraft was hit on this first pass, caught fire and went into a spin. I was at the right-hand waist gunner position with Don Logan flying left waist gunner, Roger Newton, ball turret, and Burk in tail gunner position. We received word on the intercom stating, “We are hit. Get out!” This order was given by the pilot. I pulled the cord to my flak suit and it fell off. By this time, due to the spin, the weight of our bodies had increased several times, and everything was fairly well held to the floor.

I grabbed my parachute and was the first to get to the escape hatch, which was also known as the camera hatch or main entrance hatch on the B-24. I made an attempt to open the hatch alone and had planned to jump holding my chute as I figured the plane would probably blow up in a few seconds. It would be better to try to hold onto the chute and put it on as I was on the way down, rather than face certain death in an exploding aircraft. This attempt failed and I managed to put the parachute on.

By this time, two other crewmembers, Logan and Newton, had managed to get to the escape hatch, one at each end and I at the center of the door where it opened. We managed to get the door opened approximately eighteen inches and could open it no further due to the [centrifugal force of the] spin.

I looked at Burk in the tail, unable to get out of his turret. Beads of perspiration were on his face and a look of fear, even death was on his face. I looked at Logan and Newton, neither in a position to jump. I thought if I try to exchange places with either of these men, no one will get out of this plane alive.

I layed down and tried to get under the low opening of the door. Finally, after what seemed a long while, I felt my body hurled from the force of the spinning aircraft. I reached for the ripcord and thought I had missed it somehow. At this time I said, ‘Oh, Lord, I’m gone.’ As I uttered these words, the tumbling stopped. I glanced up and there was my chute. I glanced down and the pine treetops were just below my feet. The ripcord had caught on the door as I squeezed under it. Thanks to God and my crewmates, I was able to eject from the aircraft seconds before it dashed into the ground.

I figure that had my stay in the aircraft been extended as much as one-tenth of a second, or even less, I probably wouldn’t be here today. One has to wonder about the remarks of the other enlisted crewmembers who all perished at this time, as well as the officers on the plane.

The aircraft crashed about 100 yards from where I landed, and exploded seconds later. Just prior to the explosion, I disconnected my chute which was hanging in a tree and attempted to get out of the area. Of the crewmembers left in the aircraft, the Germans were able to identify all the bodies with the exception of the co-pilot who, I believe, was probably hit by the exploding shell that brought our ship down.

I was not captured until approximately one hour later. Two German enlisted men had gone out to inspect the wreckage of our aircraft. On their return to the village near by, they found me in the woods, where I was attempting to keep hidden to avoid capture. One said to me, ‘For you the war is over.’ This was spoken in English.

The whole account and much more can be found at 44th Bomb Group Roll of Honour

In skies thick with flak a stricken B-24 struggles to maintain flight.

In skies thick with flak a stricken B-24 struggles to maintain flight.

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