JAMES L. WHITTLE, JR.|
World War II
History and Biography
(Taken from a letter sent to Will Lundy)
4042 Logston Court
Sacramento, CA 95821
2 February 1984
This is going to be a two-part letter, the first of which is an inquiry into the contents of the latest printing of "Forty-Fourth Liberators over Europe." The second part is the recapping of a harrowing experience of one of the crews assigned to the 506th Bomb Squadron during a flight out of Shipdham after V.E. Day when flights were no longer supposed to be so dangerous. The reason for the story is the hope that one of your readers can answer some questions that have been unanswered for these 39 years. This second part may be used by you as a feature story and may be shortened or edited as you see fit as long as the facts remain or if it is not useable for some reason, I would appreciate it if you could forward it to "Letters to the Editor."
Now for the first part.
In 1946, I received the first advertising pamphlet form the Newsphoto Publishing Company announcing the sale of "44th Liberators over Europe," which was being sold for the first time for the price of $5.00. I would have bought the book under any circumstances, but when I viewed the brochure with samples of the pictures that were to be included in the book, a picture of our plane crash (the one referred to in the enclosed story) was one of those included. Much to the disappointment of those of our crew who were in the crash, the book did not include the picture. Since they were probably up against a short deadline, is it possible that although it was left out of the original printing, it does appear in later issues? If so, I would be only too glad to buy another one. I'm enclosing a copy of the original brochure and a copy of a picture of the crash. (If you wish, you may use that picture with the enclosed story). The crash occurred on 11 May 1945 during a training flight out of Shipdham, but I've never been able to ascertain where we landed (crashed) which was enroute back to Shipdham (see enclosed second part). The aircraft was a B-24M, with C on the tail, "GJ" on the side of the fuselage and the aircraft number was 450698.
Here is the second part of the letter to use as you like.
I was the copilot of a crew that was assigned to the 506th Bomb Squadron in early November, 1944. About halfway through our tour, I was checked out as an Aircraft Commander (first pilot) and flew the remaining missions with either my own crew or my original crew. We flew either 25 or 28 missions (depending on which crew we were talking about) with that squadron through the end of the war in Europe. After our last combat mission and before the 44th returned to the U.S., we were required to make several training flights to fulfill the ATC requirements for an over-water flight.
On one such flight, on which I went along as the copilot with my original crew, we spent four or five hours accomplishing some of those requirements and were returning to Shipdham from a flight to south England when it was decided that practicing some emergency procedures would fulfill part of those requirements.
One of the drills was to practice feathering procedure to test the pilot's reaction to engine failure and the subsequent change in fling characteristics, etc. We probably were at 4,000 or 5,000 feet with lots of airspeed since we were descending to our base at Shipdham, so that the loss of one engine would create no danger at all. One outboard engine was feathered with nothing more than a slight drop in airspeed.
As soon as that simulated emergency was under control, the opposite outboard engine was feathered. That simulated emergency too was handled with no difficulty because of the experience of the pilot and the higher than normal airspeed due to our descent. From that point on, things get a little vague but I believe that a pretense was made of feathering one of the two remaining engines and in fact I think that feathering button was momentarily depressed but without any intent of actually feathering it. Unfortunately, at that time, everything began to happen very quickly and very unexpectedly, because when that feathering button was pulled out, which I should have either stopped the feathering and returned it to normal or if it had actually feathered, it should have immediately unfeathered. For some reason or reasons still unknown, neither of those things happened which caused both of us to each reach for an outboard button to unfeather them. Neither of those worked either (Murphy's Law) and after a few very rapid, but futile attempts to unfeather any of them, our attention turned immediately to finding the nearest airfield. From the copilot's seat, I remember seeing an airfield off of our right wing and took over the controls since I was in the best position to see the field. By this time we were rapidly losing both airspeed and altitude and in a matter of minutes we would be on the ground - airfield or not.
The events happened so fast that there was no time to alert the three airmen in the rear of the aircraft nor did we even have time to broadcast a "Mayday." Fortunately, our flight engineer, radio operator and one gunner who were in the back, realized there was an emergency when they saw the feathered props and took up the appropriate positions for a crash landing. We now had emergency military power on the one remaining engine (No. 3) and even though I'm certain we exceeded the max boost limit, it was a constant fight to keep form stalling. By now I had managed to get lined up with the runway and since the field had been off the right wing, it meant having to make two turns into the one good engine. Had we been forced into making left turns into two dead engines, we would not have made it this far. Although we were lined up with the runway, it was now a question of whether we would make it to the runway before our altitude and airspeed ran out. One of the last things I remember was wondering whether we would be able to top the big trees which loomed between us and the over run.
The airspeed was now just slightly above stalling speed and my last conscious thought was that if I hauled back on the yoke at the very last moment in hopes of zooming over the tree tops, would I then be able to get the nose back down quick enough to keep from staling. None of us seem to remember exactly what happened in those last few moments, but we obviously had not gotten over the trees because my very net recollection was that we were on the ground. Through a haze I can remember seeing our navigator walking - or trying to walk - an complaining about his back. He had been standing between the two pilot's seats at the beginning of the emergency and things happened so fast that he was still in that position when we impacted and was subsequently propelled through the bulletproof glass that surrounded the cockpit.
My next hazy recollection was opening my eyes in a hospital bed and feeling as though every bone in my body was broken. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. The only broken things being a rib and a tooth. With considerable effort I turned my head enough to see that the patient next to me was our navigator who had broken his back and was encased in plaster of paris from his neck to his hips and would remain in that same cast through his ocean voyage back to the states.
The first pilot had sustained the most severe injuries which included the shattering of most of the bones in his face and head injuries which were life threatening at that time. The injuries to the three airmen in the rear of the plane were limited to cuts and bruises and did not require hospitalization. It seems hardly possible that any of us survived, especially since the trees had sheered off our outer wings between No. 1 and NO. 2 engines on the one side and between No. 3 and NO. 4 on the other. This "short wing" modification has a tendency to be very unstable. Since the B-24 had a "wet wing," the ruptured fuel cells allowed 115/145-octane fuel to drip precariously on to the white-hot NO. 3 supercharger impeller from the moment of impact with the trees until the arrival of the crash crew who had no warning of our impending crash. To further complicate matters, the crushed cockpit necessitated some delay while the first pilot and myself were extricated form the aircraft.
To this day, no one has been able to explain why none of the props would unfeather although probably somewhere there is an accident report on file which made an attempt at it.
More important though at this time is that none of us has ever been able to determine just which field we crashed on. [Airfield was Watton, southwest of Shipdham]. All we know is that it was near but not at Shipdham. Neither our medical records nor the official Air Force photos of the crash (enclosed) gives any clue to the name of that field. The accident occurred in the afternoon of 11 May 1945 and the plane was a new "M" model which we had been scheduled to return to the states. The tail marking was C and the aircraft number was 4450698 with the letters "GJ" on the side of the fuselage. Surely someone amongst your readers can shed some light on the location or name of the field where the crash took place. Those of us who survived would be eternally grateful for any information to complete the story.
Although Don Edkins, the first pilot, Ed Smith, the navigator and I, all eventually recovered form our injuries to the extent that we were able to carry on a normal life, we all suffered various degrees of physical incapacity. Don Edkins, now retired in Boise, Idaho spent most of his career with Sears as store manager in various locations and we have seen each other frequently over the years.
Ed Smith, who passed away a few years ago from causes not the result of the accident, spent his career as an engineer living in Pennsylvania. Charles Jones, our flight engineer, who was one of the three airmen in the rear, is currently living on Maui after spending most of his career as a heavy equipment operator in Utah. We also have gotten together several times over the years. Although I've not had the opportunity to personally visit with our radio operator, Bill Heyburn, who was another of the crew in the rear of the aircraft, I've corresponded with him continually at his home in Louisville, Kentucky. Unfortunately, I have had no contact with Victor Czarnecki who was the other airman involved. Except for a short period of about four years, I spent my entire career in the Air Force and retired in Sacramento in 1966 where I still reside.
James L. Whittle, Jr.
Lt. Col. USAF (Retired)