by Ralph Kenney Bennett
August 12, 2003
Tomorrow they will lay the
remains of Glenn Rojohn to rest in the Peace Lutheran Cemetery in the
little town of Greenock, Pa., just southeast of Pittsburgh. He was 81,
and had been in the air conditioning and plumbing business in nearby
McKeesport. If you had seen him on the street he would probably have
looked to you like so many other graying, bespectacled old World War II
veterans whose names appear so often now on obituary pages.
But like so many of them, though he seldom talked about it, he could
have told you one h*ll of a story. He won the Air Medal, the
Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart all in one fell swoop in
the skies over Germany on December 31, 1944. Fell swoop indeed.
Capt. Glenn Rojohn, of the 8th Air Force's 100th Bomb Group was flying
his B-17G Flying Fortress bomber on a raid over Hamburg. His formation
had braved heavy flak to drop their bombs, then turned 180 degrees to
head out over the North Sea. They had finally turned northwest, headed
back to England, when they were jumped by German fighters at 22,000
feet. The Messerschmitt Me-109s pressed their attack so closely that
Capt. Rojohn could see the faces of the German pilots. He and other
pilots fought to remain in formation so they could use each other's guns
to defend the group. Rojohn saw a B-17 ahead of him burst into flames
and slide sickeningly toward the earth. He gunned his ship forward to
fill in the gap. He felt a huge impact. The big bomber shuddered, felt
suddenly very heavy and began losing altitude. Rojohn grasped almost
immediately that he had collided with another plane. A B-17 below him,
piloted by Lt. William G. McNab, had slammed the top of its fuselage
into the bottom of Rojohn's. The top turret gun of McNab's plane was now
locked in the belly of Rojohn's plane and the ball turret in the belly
of Rojohn's had smashed through the top of McNab's. The two bombers were
almost perfectly aligned -- the tail of the lower plane was slightly to
the left of Rojohn's tailpiece. They were stuck together, as a crewman
later recalled, "like mating dragon flies."
Three of the engines on the bottom plane were still running, as were all
four of Rojohn's. The fourth engine on the lower bomber was on fire and
the flames were spreading to the rest of the aircraft. The two were
losing altitude quickly. Rojohn tried several times to gun his engines
and break free of the other plane. The two were inextricably locked
together. Fearing a fire, Rojohn cut his engines and rang the bailout
bell. For his crew to have any chance of parachuting, he had to keep the
plane under control somehow.
The ball turret, hanging below the belly of the B-17, was considered by
many to be a death trap -- the worst station on the bomber. In this
case, both ball turrets figured in a swift and terrible drama of life
and death. Staff Sgt. Edward L. Woodall, Jr., in the ball turret of the
lower bomber had felt the impact of the collision above him and saw
shards of metal drop past him. Worse, he realized both electrical and
hydraulic power was gone.
Remembering escape drills, he grabbed the handcrank, released the clutch
and cranked the turret and its guns until they were straight down, then
turned and climbed out the back of the turret up into the fuselage.
Once inside the plane's belly Woodall saw a chilling sight, the ball
turret of the other bomber protruding through the top of the fuselage.
In that turret, hopelessly trapped, was Staff Sgt. Joseph Russo (KIA). Several
crew members of Rojohn's plane tried frantically to crank Russo's turret
around so he could escape, but, jammed into the fuselage of the lower
plane, it would not budge. Perhaps unaware that his voice was going out
over the intercom of his plane, Sgt. Russo began reciting his Hail Marys.
Up in the cockpit, Capt. Rojohn and his co-pilot 2nd Lt. William G.
Leek, Jr. (Stalag Luft 3 POW), had propped their feet against the
instrument panel so they could pull back on their controls with all
their strength, trying to prevent their plane from going into a spinning
dive that would prevent the crew from jumping out. Capt. Rojohn motion
left and the two managed to wheel the huge, collision-born hybrid of a
plane back toward the German coast. Leek felt like he was intruding on
Sgt. Russo as his prayers crackled over the radio, so he pulled off his
flying helmet with its earphones.
Rojohn, immediately grasping that crew could not exit from the bottom of
his plane, ordered his top turret gunner and his radio operator, Tech
Sgts. Orville Elkin (Stalag Luft 3) and Edward G. Neuhaus (Stalag
Luft 3) to make their way to the back of the fuselage and out the waist
door on the left behind the wing. Then he got his navigator, 2nd Lt.
Robert Washington (Stalag Luft I POW), and his bombardier, Sgt. James
Shirley (Stalag Luft 3) to follow them. As Rojohn and Leek somehow held
the plane steady, these four men, as well as waist gunner, Sgt. Roy
Little (KIA), and tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Francis Chase (KIA), were able to bail
Now the plane locked below them was aflame. Fire poured over Rojohn's
left wing. He could feel the heat from the plane below and hear the
sound of .50 machinegun ammunition "cooking off" in the flames. Capt.
Rojohn ordered Lieut. Leek to bail out. Leek knew that without him
helping keep the controls back, the plane would drop in a flaming spiral
and the centrifugal force would prevent Rojohn from bailing. He refused
Meanwhile, German soldiers and civilians on the ground that afternoon
looked up in wonder. Some of them thought they were seeing a new Allied
secret weapon -- a strange eight-engined double bomber. But
anti-aircraft gunners on the North Sea coastal island of Wangerooge had
seen the collision. A German battery captain wrote in his logbook at
"Two fortresses collided in a formation in the NE. The planes flew
hooked together and flew 20 miles south. The two planes were unable to
fight anymore. The crash could be awaited so I stopped the firing at
these two planes."
Suspended in his parachute in the cold December sky, Bob Washington
watched with deadly fascination as the mated bombers, trailing black
smoke, fell to earth about three miles away, their downward trip ending
in an ugly boiling blossom of fire.
In the cockpit Rojohn and Leek held grimly to the controls trying to
ride a falling rock. Leek tersely recalled, "The ground came up faster
and faster. Praying was allowed. We gave it one last effort and slammed
into the ground." The McNab plane on the bottom exploded, vaulting the
other B-17 upward and forward. It slammed back to the ground, sliding
along until its left wing slammed through a wooden building and the
smoldering mess of came to a stop. Rojohn and Leek were still seated in
their cockpit. The nose of the plane was relatively intact, but
everything from the B-17 massive wings back was destroyed. They looked
at each other incredulously. Neither was badly injured.
Movies have nothing on reality. Still perhaps in shock, Leek crawled out
through a huge hole behind the cockpit, felt for the familiar pack in
his uniform pocket pulled out a cigarette. He placed it in his mouth and
was about to light it. Then he noticed a young German soldier pointing a
rifle at him. The soldier looked scared and annoyed. He grabbed the
cigarette out of Leak's mouth and pointed down to the gasoline pouring
out over the wing from a ruptured fuel tank.
Two of the six men who parachuted from Rojohn's plane did not survive
the jump. But the other four and, amazingly, four men from the other
bomber, including ball turret gunner Woodall, survived. All were taken
prisoner. Several of them were interrogated at length by the Germans
until they were satisfied that what had crashed was not a new American
Rojohn, typically, didn't talk much about his Distinguished Flying
Cross. Of Leek, he said, 'in all fairness to my co-pilot, he's the
reason I'm alive today."
Like so many veterans, Rojohn got unsentimentally back to life after the
war, marrying and raising a son and daughter. For many years, though,
he tried to link back up with Leek, going through government records to
try to track him down. It took him 40 years, but in 1986, he found the
number of Leeks' mother, in Washington State. Yes, her son Bill was
visiting from California. Would Rojohn like to speak with him? Some
things are better left unsaid. One can imagine that first conversation
between the two men who had shared that wild ride in the cockpit of a
B-17. A year later, the two were re-united at a reunion of the 100th
Bomb Group in Long Beach, Calif. Bill Leek died the following year.
Glenn Rojohn was the last survivor of the remarkable piggyback flight.
He was like thousands upon thousands of men, soda jerks and lumberjacks,
teachers and dentists, students and lawyers and service station
attendants and store clerks and farm boys who in the prime of their
lives went to war.
He died last Saturday after a long siege of sickness. But he apparently
faced that final battle with the same grim aplomb he displayed that
remarkable day over Germany so long ago. Let us be thankful for such
|2nd Lt Glenn H. Rojohn
|2nd Lt William G. Leek
|2nd Lt Robert Washington
|Cpl Edward G. Neuhaus
|Cpl Orville E. Elkin
|Cpl Joseph R.
|Cpl Roy H.
|Cpl Robert W. Baker
|Cpl Herman G. Horenkamp
ROJOHN, Glenn, age 81, of
McKeesport, PA passed away Aug. 9, 2003.
During WWII, he was serving in the 100th
BG when he was bombing Hamburg when he
and another pilot became famous for
their harrowing "Piggyback Flight",
crash-landing their co-joined planes
while trying to save their crews. Those
who survived became POWs. Glen is
survived by his wife Jane, 1 son, 1
daughter, 1 brother, grandchildren,
nieces and nephews.