Disaster at 18000 Feet by Co-Pilot Lt. Keith Taylor
ON THE 11TH of January 1944 the 32nd and the 301st were assigned to bomb the Piraeus Harbor in Greece. After our formation was organized and on its way to the target we ran into a weather front of 10/10 clouds. At eighteen thousand feet we entered an overcast. The clouds were very thick and visibility was not much beyond the wingtips, making it almost impossible to see other aircraft in the formation. At this height and with the thickness of the clouds some ice began to form on our wings. I learned later that the trailing squadrons initiated the procedure of flying off course for a couple minutes to obtain some spacing from the lead squadron, which maintained its course.
WE WERE ABOUT TWENTY MINUTES from the target when our plane made a severe movement up and down, and then sideways, before returning to its place in the formation. The whole plane shook and vibrated with a loud noise like an explosion. Our Pilot was Captain William Wofford, and between the two of us we were sure this was the end. Everything that was loose in the cockpit was all over the place. It threw the bombardier up against the Plexiglas nose, knocking his oxygen mask off and then flipping him on his back. We continued on and bombed the target with reported excellent results. After we left the target area, about thirty Luftwaffe planes swarmed all over our formation. Our plane suffered some minor damage from flak and we lived to fly another day. I'm sure there was someone looking after us. The 32nd lost aircraft number 42-30466 on this mission and the fate of the crew was unknown.
THE OFFICIAL REPORT reveals the cause of the severe disturbance during the approach: Two 97th Bomb Group B-17s had engine trouble and began to leave the formation. Instead of making a 180-degree right turn, away from the formation, they turned to the left and flew head-on into the 301st formation. One flew below the leader's left wing and the other above and to the right, clipping the vertical stabilizer of Colonel Barthelmess's aircraft, and apparently hitting another 301st bomber before colliding with the lead bomber of the second element. One fortress in the lead element exploded, as did two B-17s in the second element. The P-38 pilots, who were flying low cover (beneath the overcast) for the mission, said they watched B-17 pieces raining from the sky for what seemed like five minutes.
THE COMMANDER'S and two other aircraft went over on their backs, not an ideal position for a fully loaded, iced up B-17. Two of those aircraft recovered at 10,000 feet. Others were not so lucky; the 301st lost five B-17s and their crews on this fateful mission. A navigator from the 419th bailed out and became a prisoner. One of the strangest stories of the war came from this mass accident. The collision severed the tail from one of the 353rd Squadron's bombers, trapping the crew in their positions. However, luck was with the tail gunner, James Raley, as the accident had left the tail section with adequate lift and weight distribution to allow it to fall or "flutter" to earth. Raley described the tail spinning around before finally impacting in a clump of pine trees. He was on his thirteenth mission, and did not realize what had happened until the tail came to rest. He opened the bulkhead door to find no aircraft. Raley was the only survivor. There was also a collision that downed a 99th Bomb Group bomber and a P-38 within 40 miles of the Group's disaster. (This "Official Report" information is from "Who Fears", the history of the 301st Veterans Association).