Paul Robin Priday
387th Bomb Group, 556th Bomb Squadron
Between A Rock And A Hard Place by Paul Robin Priday
As the weather improved in February and March of 1945, flight operations became more frequent and the preparations for missions became increasingly routine. For the aircrews, this meant early wake up calls for those scheduled to fly, breakfast, briefings and reporting to assigned aircraft prior to Engine Start Time. Once the aircraft became airborne, formations assembled and on course, the term routine for individual crews became less repetitious. For each individual and crews there were experiences at one time or another which were anything but such was the case on a mission for which I was scheduled during that particular time period. The crew to which I was assigned as a co-pilot had achieved Lead Crew status. Ben Vancleave, Pilot and Larry Ritter, Bombardier had an excellent record of bombing accuracy and were limited to flying every fourth mission. By this time I had completed qualification as a First Pilot and was frequently scheduled on the off days to fly in that capacity with our enlisted crew members or a make up crew. On this particular mission I was to provide an orientation flight to a newly assigned First Pilot. It was the Lieutenant's first combat mission, and he was to serve as Co-Pilot.
I would guess that it was also a memorable experience for him.
At this stage of the war in Europe, the Germans for the most part had been driven back across the Rhine River. The Remagen Bridge had been seized and the bridgehead was being expanded. When the enemy retreated, they seemingly took with them the numerous anti-aircraft batteries which they had previously positioned in the occupied countries. These batteries appeared to be arranged in a broad band east of the river. Although it was to be expect*ed that designated targets would be well defended, this band of anti-aircraft batteries subjected our formations to several minutes of intense bombardment, both enroute to the targets and return.
As we passed through this flak zone on this mission we experienced the usual sights, sounds and sometimes concussions of near misses.
The prescribed evasive actions of our flight leaders however seemed to be effective --all systems appeared normal. Suddenly an excited message on the interphone from T/Sgt Bill Robinson, Radio Operator and waist gunner, alerted us to a serious problem. He reported that gallons of gasoline were streaming back through the bomb bays into the waist area.
S/Sgt Alex Roskowski, Flight Engineer and top turret gunner, hurriedly left his position and diagnosed the problem. A shell fragment had sliced into the pressurized fuel line leading to the left engine.
We dropped out of formation, shut down the left engine, feathered the prop, salvoed the bomb load and executed a 180° turn. Since we were re-entering the defensive belt I began to lose altitude to gain airspeed and initiated the evasive turning procedures, which we had flown in formation. Flying basically in a westward direction, the changes in heading, altitude and airspeed were apparently working.
A few seconds after we would establish a particular heading, T/Sgt Robinson in the waist would report shell bursts to the rear and anxiously recommended another change in heading.
Once across the Rhine, we leveled off at an altitude which we could maintain with a moderate power setting on the right engine.
Following a standard procedure, we contacted a control center on the emergency radio frequency and requested a vector to the nearest air field. Much to our relief a lovely female voice responded and requested a long count (One to ten and then ten to one). Radio Direction Finder Stations distributed throughout the area were then able to triangulate our position and the lady in the Control Center provided us with a course to the nearest field -- a P-47 fighter base in Belgium. The lovely voice made one or two additional contacts to provide slight corrections to our course until the paved airstrip came into view -- probably about a 3000 to 3500 foot runway with lots of P-47 traffic.
One of the superior qualities of the B-26 Marauder was good single engine performance in level flight with gear and flaps up. However, once the gear and flaps were lowered and airspeed and altitude were reduced for landing, there was a point on the approach where a go around was not an option.
Because of this factor I had observed that some pilots while executing single engine landings had a tendency to maintain too much power and air speed on their final approach, resulting in landing far down the runway or touching down at an excessive speed. In either case, they sometimes overran the end of the runway.
With these observations in mind as I established our approach, I concentrated on gradually easing off the power and controlling airspeed. Remarkably, the training which I had received as a cadet in advanced flying school at Ellington Field Texas, a year earlier, came to mind. In that phase of training I had been assigned to a crusty, older (Probably at least 30 years of age) instructor, who stressed the proper use of the rudder trim tab while flying on single engine.
In order to maintain a constant heading when an engine failed it was necessary to exert considerable pressure on a rudder pedal. Adjusting the rudder trim relieved this pressure and the resulting fatigue. Conversely, when executing a single engine approach to landing and power and airspeed were being reduced, it was important to readjust the rudder trim accordingly. To emphasize this point the instructor would threaten to hit the student in the head with the fire extinguisher if he failed to make the adjustment during a simulated approach. It was as though he was sitting in the seat beside me with fire extinguisher in hand.
As we neared the runway, I signaled gear down and the main gear came down with a reassuring clunk. As was standard procedure, Flight Engineer Roskowski opened the sliding doors of the forward hatch to check on the nose gear. He tapped me on the shoulder and pointed down. The nose wheel was still nestled in its horizontal position in the wheel well. By this time we were fairly low, the end of the runway was fast approaching. Our height above field elevation and reduced airspeed ruled out an attempt to go around. Skidding down the runway with the nose wheel up or attempting to at least unlock the main gear and belly in were two choices, neither of which were appealing --like being between a rock and a hard place. Good fortune remained with us. Just prior to reaching the flare out point of our approach, the nose wheel suddenly began to move. By touch down it was securely locked in place. We rolled out to the end of the runway, while the tower was advising us that a P-47 which had also declared an emergency was closely following after being towed off the runway and parked in a hard stand, S/Sgt Roskowski was able to requisition (scrounge) a section of fuel line and clamp it into place. We later reasoned that the delay in the extension of the nose gear was the result of only one engine driven hydraulic pump being available to provide the pressure necessary to force the nose gear into position against the force of the slip stream. The main gear fell into position with the slip stream and thus required far less pressure.
We ran careful ground checks on the replaced fuel line and took off for A-71 between flights of P-47. We landed in time for evening mess and the A-71 runway had never looked so spacious.