Our Greatest Fear
(Story of October 26, 1944)
(text in italics by Edward Hinrichs)
This story explains why we all fear midair collisions. In a
matter of minutes the lives of 16 men are taken. We all are aware of the
dangers of formation flying, but also know that formation flying is our
best defense against the German fighter planes. So, it is a choice between
a rock and a hard place.
While the Group was assembling for this mission, plane #
4337906 and plane # 4338696 from this Group collided at 1117
hours at 15,000 feet, approximately four miles west of our base, Deopham
Green. When the first plane, piloted by 2nd\Lt. Robert Specht, hit prop
wash, it wobbled, lost altitude and settled down on the second plane, #
4338696 piloted by 1st/Lt. Wallace Bragg. Both ships broke up and
Specht's plane, # 4337906, exploded into flames. The tail gunners
from both ships managed to bail out and escape. All other crew members
were killed. The two survivors were Sgt. Louis Correia and Harry Betts.
Correia was retrained as a toggalier and completed 25 missions.
Below is the story of this crash by Louis Correia, the tail gunner
on plane # 4337906. This was given to me in February, 1993.
The facts as I remember them now may or may not differ from the
statements that I made later that day after the crash. It was a very
trying and tragic time for me, and I rushed through the whole thing. Glad
to get it over with.
We were a new crew with a new B17G (Flying Fortress) heavy bomber
and we were assigned to the 730th Squadron. We were immediately thrown
into and absorbed into the hectic and steady bombing schedule that we and
the English were then trying to maintain: we bombing in the day time and
the British bombing in the night.
This bombing pattern was adopted shortly after the Americans flew their
first combat mission on August 17, 1942. The English believed that the
Americans should carry on their bombing raid the same way that had became
a successful pattern. This was all settled on Jan. 21, 1943
An order was issued at Casablanca, Morocco, North Africa, called the
Casablanca Directive, by the British and Americans, that had been approved
by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. This settled a long
held dispute. The English had from the start insisted that the American
Air Force should join up with the R. A. F. and do their bombing at night
along with the R.A.F. The Americans insisted that daylight bombing was so
much more accurate that the same results could be achieved with one tenth
the force the English were employing. The fact that as of this date the
Americans had not dropped a single bomb in Germany, almost gave Prime
Minister Churchill his way. General Arnold called England for General
Eaker to fly to Africa and to see if he could possibly change Churchill's
mind, as he was a very persuasive talker. He knew that Churchill liked
catchy phrases and made an outline of one single page that listed eight
reasons why the Americans should continue daylight bombing and have their
own organization. The one reason that Churchill loved was "The English
bombing at night, the Americans during the day, the Germans would be
bombed around the clock." His argument carried.
It did not take long to get our feet wet, or you might say baptized by
fire, because on just our second mission our plane took one hell of a
pasting and I found out, just as many another airman before me, why
the B17 was called a Flying Fortress. It could take a beating and it
sure as hell could dish one out.
The tail was riddled by flak, yet no real damage had been done, and I
Just a few days later, October 26, 1944, was to be our 4th mission and
most memorable of all my 2 missions. We were to take part in the bombing
of the tank and locomotive works at Hanover, Germany, but we were involved
in a midair collision while forming. We were flying plane #
My crew mates on this mission were:
||Robert G. Specht
||Francis F. Naurer
||Paul A. Cross
||Marvin F. Knapp
||Wendell B. Moore
||B. T. Gunner
||Jackie P. Bishop
The names of the men abroad the other plane, A/C # 4337906 (also
from Squadron 730) that we collide with were:
||Wallace C. Bragg
||Harlan P. Humphrey
||Robert E. Willis
||Robert C. Bray
||Albert L. Halvorsen
||Melvin J Cecil
||B. T. Gunner
||Henry F. Calosso
||Harry J. Betts
The two planes collided in midair in a most tragic and spectacular
collision while assembling at 15,000 ft. I felt the vibrations as our
B17 got caught in the propwash of the preceding planes and it
actually stood on its wing just before we dropped. We must have fallen
more than a thousand feet before Specht and Naurer, and no doubt the
engineer also, could regain control.
But regain control they did, although for just a short time. We were
almost back up and in formation, when again we were in the most violent
turbulence I had ever known. I can still hear and feel the roar of those
four engines as they fought to hold their own. It was not to be.
What ever happened up front in the cockpit I do not know, but we were
tossed all over the place and the nose rose a little and we rammed right
into the bomb bay section of Bragg's B17.
This all happened at a reported 15,000 feet while assembling. I have
always felt we were a little higher and that may have had a bearing on the
crash. I know that if true, it gave me a few more precious seconds to
fight my chute while dropping through the sky.
Being in the tail, I was at first facing the rear in my tail gunner
position and kneeling. That was until we took that dive.
As we climbed back up and got caught again in the propwash, I was
now facing the front of the ship and could see most of what was happening.
I may have tried to communicate, but got no reply.
Just then I heard and felt the crunch as both planes became one for one
fierce moment amid the explosion (Good or bad?).
Balls of fire rolled by my tail position on both sides of me. And just
then there was a loud snap that proved to be lucky for me, as the tail
section broke completely free, falling from the rest of the ship before
smoke and fire reached me.
It broke just like a match stick right at the structural cross beam,
just forward of the escape hatch.
It happened so fast. One moment I and the rest of the guys that I could
see in the waist were holding on the best we could and we all got tossed
around. The next moment they were in the middle of the awful explosion,
and gone forever.
And I was in the tail section swinging, swaying, tumbling toward the
ground and even spinning. I tell you it was quite a trip.
How many times did Lady Luck smile on me? Lady Luck was ever at my
side. I was again a rubber ball, hanging on as best I could, not hurt,
because of the heavy flying gear I had on. I remember saying to myself,
"Get the F hell out of here". Just for a split second,
the tail section seemed to go into a gentle glide and I wondered which way
I would have to go; the open jagged end if I could not open the hatch.
But the escape hatch opened easily. At some time I had attached my
chute, which was on one of the long riser straps. We had always been told
that if you ever had to bail out, make sure you took your shoes with you.
I had mine attached by a five foot piece of bailing wire to one ring of
the parachute harness, and the strap that held my chute on the other, so
that as I knelt in the tail position both items would be away from me (my
rear), to the front of the ship. It was not comfortable, but with the
heavy flying gear, it was soft.
One habit no doubt saved my life, because my chute was always near me.
The other habit almost claimed it, because before I had a chance to pull
the rip cord--you guessed it--the chute got tangled with the wire and my
shoes. I pulled and tugged and tried to shake things free and I swore more
than I prayed. I tried every thing. When I think of those seconds I still
almost break into a sweat and I have often wondered just how many of those
precious moments I really had left. I know that it could not have been too
many. I tugged and pulled and finally the chute seemed to open just a bit;
then a bigger jerk and more opened and with one more tug on the line it
broke free and that lovely parachute (made by the Irving Co.) opened fully
and jerked me almost to a stop. I guess because I had dropped quite a few
feet before it opened.
I'll say it forever, "Lady luck worked overtime for me that day." If
only some luck had rubbed off to the other men.
I think I'm all set, I am floating to earth in a very pleasing glide
when here comes this English fighter plane, a Spitfire, and he seems bent
on ramming me head on. I do not know what the hell he is up to until I hit
the ground and see the burning wreckage.
He had been trying to push me away from the danger.
There were so many "once in a life time" events that happened to me
But to me the most remarkable was that practically the same things must
have happened to the tail gunner and the men on the other plane. The tail
broke off and he parachuted to safety as I had, but he told me that he had
no trouble with his chute opening. He did not have that damn habit I had
of tying the shoes on.
There is one single thing that has been the most painful memory of my
life. It is the sight of those six caskets so precisely aligned at the
service held in the cemetery at Cambridge.
After the crash I wanted out and did not want to fly again. But with a
little time off, I became a togglier (an enlisted man bombardier) and
finished my tour of 25 missions. I even got a Lucky Bastard certificate
which attests to the fact that you have plastered the Fuehrer's face with
100,000 pounds of bombs and are alive to tell it.
Sometimes when I wear my Caterpillar Club pin, I am asked where I got
it. I do not usually explain it fully. Who would believe it! (Caterpillar
Club members are those who had made an emergency parachute jump in order
to save their life)