The B17 Bomber Crash 1944
Memories of Stan Pierce, Brisbane, Australia
I didn’t know it happened on June 19th 1944. I only found out the actual date 54 years later. It was a beautiful summer’s day. A little haze over the Thames, but I remember it was the first time I was conscious of the blueness of sky. Mum had just called me in from playing cricket with Ginger from next door. We lived at the top of Northfalls Road and around the corner in Marine Parade in front of the seawall. I was bouncing the ball along the path towards the door when I turned to look up at a roaring noise in the sky.
There were huge four-engined bombers all in neat formation, cruising in slowly, dozens of them. I know of them now as B17’s. They were American, and so low I could see the blue and white stars underneath their wings. Then as I stood gazing, right above my head, one bomber fell on top of another. No explosive sound but a crunch and a screeching, tearing noise. I was stunned. A wing floated away. A lot of black smoke. One plane fell away, and bits fell off. I have no further memory of it, but the other plane had a more lasting effect. It tipped over, and the nose was looking at me.
I was nine years of age, looking at this huge monster pouring smoke and with four propellers screaming straight at me. I kept staring for maybe three or four seconds and then panicked. I bolted…over the fence…don’t even remember touching it…then across the field next to the house. I can still feel the long grass snatching at my laces, and I must have been screaming because a lady, Mrs. Roberts, mowing her front lawn in the next road shouted at me to come to her. She ran to the gate to grab me, and I turned to see the plane still hurtling down towards the roof of our house as little white puffs of what looked like cotton wool floated away from the plane. Mum and my three younger brothers were in the house. Dad was out on the mud digging for bait. Somehow, the plane pulled out of the dive a few hundred feet above the house, roared off across the island and came round back again over the seawall to keep away from the houses and was climbing away up again and curved round and appeared to try to land on the mud but went up on its nose and exploded.
A little while later as the crowds gathered, I saw one of the men who had baled out walking along the seawall wearing white overalls. I would have sworn then that he was nine feet tall, but I was only about three feet myself. I thought he was a Martian. He walked along the wall with us, carrying his helmet, and I remember I walked behind him and had some fascination with his helmet and his furry boots. I heard him speaking in a strange accent to the grown-ups. I had never seen a film, and there was no television then, so I just gawked at this giant man from the sky.
One of the crew had landed his parachute in the water out by the lighthouse. A tug went right past him, and then a few seconds later turned round and went back to pick him up. Lots of people gathered up at the point and some army people from the huts that used to be at the roundabout were there. Two men came across the mud carrying a stretcher with a blanket over it. A body had been thrown out 100 yards from the plane. Dad came home looking a bit grey-faced and quiet. The plane had gone over his head before it hit the cockle bed. It was an eventful day for a young lad
I never thought about this accident much over the next 53 years. I grew up and did what everyone else does and got on with life. Then one day last year, I was pottering around in the garden doing nothing in particular. Straight out of the blue, the scene came back into my head like a video rerun. There was the crash…the plane came down…it went round and up over the water…and he was climbing…and, for the first time in 53 years I thought ‘Why didn’t the pilot bale out? He was over the water, and he could have gotten out and let the plane drop on the mud.’
Then I started to count. I remember seeing four, or five parachutes…the pilot added up to six. Then the awful truth hit me, the pilot had men in there and couldn’t leave them. I had read that B17’s had 9 or 10 crew. He had not only saved my mother and brothers from incineration but had others in the plane to try and save. I am 62 years of age and found myself just bursting into tears over the bravery of the man. The thought of him doing what he did had a shattering effect. I tried to hide down the back of the garden so no-one would ask damned stupid questions. Something that happened in 1944 had come back to haunt me, night after night. I kept thinking of the pilot’s mother. It was wartime. She would just get that awful buff telegram saying her son was killed in action and not knowing what he had done to save us. I knew I had to know who he was.
I got on to the Internet and asked around the groups where the world-war two air force men meet. One day someone saw my plea for help about the Canvey accident and put me in touch with Gary Foulger on the island. He had researched it thoroughly and had even got the Council to put up a commemorative plaque in the High Street for the men. From his information I was able to contact the 379th Bomb Group Association in America, and I have now found out that four of the men who baled out are still alive.
Because I learned from Gary Foulger’s research that the pilot, Lt. Lloyd Burns, had baled out and was picked up from the water by the marines at Holehaven, I, like everyone else as it turned out, thought that the miraculous effort to pull the falling plane away from the houses was carried out by the co-pilot Fred Kauffman. Because so many people had witnessed this accident and had been impressed with the effort to get the plane away from the houses, some Canvey people had contacted the commanding officer at Kimbolton at the time and asked him to convey their thoughts to the family of the co-pilot. But, there was a nagging feeling that something about the story was wrong because I couldn’t imagine a pilot leaving his plane until everyone was out. I wrote to Lt. Lloyd Burns at his home in Georgia. He is now 73 years old and a retired obstetrician /gynecologist who still zooms around the skies in ultra light aircraft as a hobby. From his letter and phone conversation and the verbatim reports made by the crew at the time, I patched the timing of events together.
On that fateful day, they had dropped their bombs on the V1 rocket site near Calais and turned for home. Over the channel, his co-pilot Fred Kauffman asked him, Lt. Burns, if he could swap seats and get some ‘First Pilot’ experience. They had never done this before, but Burns thought it would be a good thing for Kauffman to get the experience. Lt. Burns, at only 19 years of age, and one of the youngest B17 pilots to join up, had only one more mission to do before he could go home. So he got up, and they swapped seats. They passed the white cliffs of Dover, over the orchards of Kent and could see the Thames shimmering below. Kimbolton was ahead and only minutes away. They were seeing England without fog and rain for a change.
Above and behind them another pilot, Lt. Ramacitti, was having trouble with his plane. He was seen to be weaving about. It had been his first bombing mission. They had all been shot at over the site, and something was wrong with one of Ramcitti’s engines. They were losing power. The bombardier shouted to Ramcitti through the intercom that they were too close to the plane below. It was too late.
Lt. Burns writes “the plane hit us right on top of Lt. Kauffman, killing him instantly. I grabbed the controls, and it was obvious that they had no effect on the attitude of our aircraft- as if everything was disconnected- and that bale-out was necessary. I tried to arouse Fred, but it was obvious that he was dead.”
At the moment I was staring up at the planes overhead, Len Gibbs, the engineer-gunner had an earache and had just climbed down from the top Plexiglas gun turret. At that instant Lt. Ramcitti’s plane fell on them, smashing the turret and spewing the pieces around and knocking the engineer to the floor. The top of the cockpit was crushed in, and the radio room squashed down but with enough room for the radio operator, Leroy Monk, to squeeze out and put his parachute on before he dived out.
The bombardier Jack Gray was sitting up in the clear bomb-aimer’s nose-cone when the shock of the crash popped the nose off and it flew away, and he was looking into space without his parachute on! he had to scramble backwards into the plane and make for his parachute, put it on, and as he went to the door to bale out he looked back to see the navigator Ed Sadler fumbling with his ‘chute and facing the nose, then he dived out. The ball-turret gunner Bill Farmer looked around and saw things popping off the walls, realized everything was coming apart…and jumped.
Richard Andrews was usually the waist-gunner, but this day he was in the tail end, luckily with its own escape hatch – he jumped.
Louis Schulte, the tail gunner got out too, but when he hit the water he drowned. Len Gibbs, the engineer and then Burns the pilot baled out and were fished out of the water with the others by the marines
As for the men in the other plane with the wing off, they were doomed from that moment. The crash had jammed the escape hatch. How do I know? The one survivor from that plane, bombardier Theo. Chronopolos. He was thrown out into the air when the plane broke in half as it spun down. Can you imagine that? He blacked out in the crash and found himself falling through the air! As the plane he was in crashed on top of the other plane; the wing flew off (I saw it float away). The escape door jammed.
Theo. Says in his report:
“I grabbed my ‘chute and started to buckle it on. The navigator was fumbling with his ‘chute. I started to go for the escape hatch. The engineer and co-pilot were already there trying to open it, but the door was jammed. Then we went into a spin. The next thing I remember was another crash, and I thought that we had hit the ground, but we hadn’t. I blacked out and when I came to, I was falling free. I opened my ‘chute and blacked out again. On the way down I saw a ship spinning down. It was in two pieces and three engines were on fire.”
Theo. was badly injured in the fall. All the others in that plane were killed when the fuselage hit the mud on the All-Hallows side.
Everyone thought that day when the stretcher was brought over the mud-flats down at the point that it was the pilot they brought out. I remember my dad saying so to my mother. But it wasn’t. The body was the navigator Ed Sadler. For some reason, he didn’t jump out, and it cost him his life.
As Lloyd Burns told me in his letter, an uncontrolled plane can behave in strange ways. The laws of aerodynamics had played a peculiar effect on a plunging aircraft, making it appear as though someone were pulling it away from the houses. My family’s life had been saved by the sheer accident of wind pressure on the wings when the plane was at a certain angle above the house. The engines were still roaring away and took it away over the island. This is what everybody saw. But, there was no-one flying it!
Three days later Burns was sent up again (no counselling). Twenty-five times he hauled those B17’s into the air full of bombs and nine other men…over a carpet of flak…there and back…and got away with it…against all the odds…and was still only 19 years of age. That was his tour of duty over, and they sent him home. But, he didn’t think he’d done enough! He did a short flying course on the huge B 29s and was sent to Tinian Island in the Pacific and bombed Japan. He piloted the decoy plane on the day the Enola Gay went up to bomb Hiroshima.
For him, the decision to swap seats with his friend has eaten into his heart all his life. He still cries over it. Would things have been any different if he hadn’t swapped over? How would you like to live with that? The myth that had built up over his co-pilot was understandable, because no information was given out about him at the time.
I remember when I did eventually come into the house that day, my mum told me to go right back outside again and pull out all the grass-seed spikes that had stuck to my socks when running for my life before I could have any tea. She was completely oblivious to what had happened above the house and the fright I’d had.
You would think a young lad would never shut up about such a dramatic event like I had seen that day, but I never said a thing. I think I was ashamed of being frightened and running away. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t think about it for 53 years, but the time-bomb in my head had started to tick.