Wednesday In England, the Eighth Air Force dispatched 1,278 bombers and 804 fighters to hit oil, rail and industrial targets in Germany; they claim 17 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed. The Eighth Air Force loses three B-17s and two fighters.1 Verne and the other members of Combat Crew 87 of the 571st Bombardment Squadron (H) were part of a mission to bomb the Seelze marshalling yard near Hanover. This was the 274th combat mission of the 390th Bombardment Group (H). The objective of the mission was . . . .
To hit oil tankers seen parked on the sidings at Seelze marshaling yard, near Hanover, only planes of 390th “A” Squadron bombed on 14 March. “B” and “C” Squadrons had poor visibility, plus equipment malfunctions, and did not bomb. “A” Squadron was troubled by haze, and overshot the target. The operation was marred by the loss of 2 planes which collided when one was caught in prop wash and forced into the other. 2
Verne’s B-17 Boston Blackie/Heavenly Cent, was hit by another B-17, the Lady Velma. The only survivor of the collision was the ball turret gunner on the Lady Velma, Sgt. Francis Joseph Nix of Chickasha, Oklahoma. Sgt. Nix later provided an account of the collision:
We were briefed to bomb the marshaling yards at Seelze, near Hannover, Germany. As we were approaching the I.P., I thought to myself how lucky I was to be able to finish my tour with a “Milk Run”. The plan was to go towards one target and confuse the Germans as once they thought they knew your target they would set up 88 mm antiaircraft batteries in line with your target in order to put as much ordinance in the air as possible. Then, at the last minute, the plan was to turn the aircraft towards the real target and deliver the bombs. At the moment when the aircraft was turning towards the real target, our plane caught prop wash (propeller turbulence) from the aircraft in front of us. The pilot fought the invasive turbulence and, although I was not in the cockpit, it seemed like the plane pulled up and stalled out. We came down on top of our element leader “Boston Blackie”.
The first thing I heard was the screeching of the propellers hitting metal. My first reaction was to push my turret controls forward as to align my hatch with the opening into the plane. My twin .50 caliber machine guns had to be pointing straight down before I could get up into the airplane fuselage. I could not wear a parachute while inside the turret as I was rather large to be a ball turret gunner. My parachute was stored outside of the turret. The collision was followed by a series of deafening explosions. Our left wing had hit “Boston Blackie” toward the rear of their airplane and then it broke off. With two engines still running on our right wing the plane rotated counterclockwise and then it hit “Boston Blackie” again. (My turret was pointing straight up at this time.) I believe the other aircraft exploded upon impact. Eye witnesses to this accident stated that they saw bodies flying out of the explosion. What was left of our plane started to flip flop and spin out of control and the G forces were very strong. I said to myself, “This is it!” Since I could not see any part of our airplane, I thought that maybe my turret had torn apart from the plane and was free-falling on its own. (The Ball Turret system is only held into the airplane with four bolts.) My ears felt like they were exploding as we were falling fast from our initial altitude of over 20,000 feet. I found that I was still holding onto the turret controls very tightly.
About this time, the airplane lurched and then straightened out into a nose dive. I think the other wing, or what was left of it, must have broken off from the fuselage. I reached over and turned off the power switch on my turret, as if this was needed. As I released the latches on the turret door, I realized that I was still with the aircraft. With the guns in the proper position, I was able to climb out of the turret leaving my oxygen mask and microphone behind. I found my parachute under some loose ammo and picked it up. I climbed up the fuselage, since the airplane was headed downward at a steep angle, and snapped the chest pack onto my parachute harness. When I finally made it to the waist door of the aircraft, I opened the door and released it as the wind resistance was not too great. As I started to go out the door, the plane lurched and I fell backwards. About this time, I noticed Waist Gunner Shipman approaching the door from below. He paused at the door opening and I patted him on the back as he left the aircraft. I then crawled out immediately.
I counted to six quickly before pulling the parachute release ring and was falling face down. The parachute opened very close to the ground. (I estimated that we were less than 500 feet above the ground when we bailed out.) I hit the ground HARD, very HARD, and thought that I had broken every bone in my body. My guess is that Waist Gunner Shipman had counted to ten when he jumped because his parachute never opened and he laid about 50 feet from where I landed. The airplane’s fuselage with no wings crashed about 100 feet away. There were burning parts of the airplane scattered all over the area, and I saw no sign of any other parachutes.3
An additional account of the collision between Boston Blackie/Heavenly Cent and Lady Velma is available in a 390th Bombardment Group anthology.4
In January 1944, a distant cousin of Verne’s also died in a mid-air collision over Germany.5 Verne and his cousin, 2nd Lt. John R. Gray5, are listed in The Roll of Honor6 which is maintained in the American Memorial Chapel7 at the east end of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Notes & Commentary
1 “Mission Details, March 14, 1945.”Eighth Air Force Historical Society. (http://www.8thafhs.com/old/missions_by_date.php : accessed 6 February 2015).
2 United States and Albert E. Milliken. The story of the 390th Bombardment Group (H). [New York]: Priv. Print., 1947. p. 124.
3 Ronald J. Reid. “A Tribute to Sgt. Boyce Lester Pruitt”. (unpublished manuscript, 2007). pp. 7-8. In the preface to his manuscript, Ronald Reid wrote the following:
The information contained herein is from my family’s oral history handed down from Boyce’s parents (my grandparents) to my mother, family documents, my mother and father’s photo album, original military records, he 1947 edition of “The Story of the 390th Bombardment Group (H)”, the nephew of pilot Roy R. Creasman, Pat Hefner, and information compiled by the only survivor of the two aircraft that collided, Francis Joe Nix. A special thank you must be given Francis J. Nix who has documented his first-hand account of the accident and to his son, Louis, for freely sharing that documentation with our family. A simple thank you, however, is inadequate to express the appreciation of the Pruitt family for the consideration and willingness shown by 19 year old Sgt. Francis Nix to meet in person with Boyce’s parents, Walter and Jennie Pruitt, after his liberation as a POW.
In 1946, Boyce’s parents and an aunt drove down to Chickasha from Enid, Oklahoma to learn firsthand from Francis Nix the circumstances of Boyce’s death.
4 Richard H. Perry, Wibert H. Richarz and William J. Robinson, comp. “Sole Survivor — Mid-Air Collision”, The 390th Bomb Group Anthology, v. 2. Tucson, AZ: 390th Memorial Museum Foundation, 1985. Pp. 157-159.
5 At 1023 on January 4, 1944, Verne’s distant cousin, John Robert Gray of Bloomington, Illinois was killed when his aircraft, B-17F #42-30518, Short Stride IV, collided with B-17F #42-5923, Skin and Bones. The collision occurred at 52⁰20’N 07⁰10’E at 25,000’. Both aircraft were from the 96th Bombardment Group (H), 413th Bombardment Squadron (H). B-17 #42-30518 crashed near Lingen, Germany and B-17 #42-5923 crashed near Gronau, Germany. The radio operator, T/Sgt. Lyall W. Taubert; right waist gunner, S/Sgt Gerald R. Waldron, Jr.; and tail gunner, S/Sgt. John Y. Young on B-17F #42-30518, Short Stride IV, survived the collision and became prisoners of war. The pilot, 1st Lt. James E. McLean; the copilot, 2nd Lt. Harold Ziotnick; the navigator, 2nd Lt. John R. Gray; the bombardier, 2nd Lt. John E. McGee; the top turret gunner, T/Sgt. Richard R. Winn; the ball turret gunner, S/Sgt. Thomas J. Keefe, Jr; and the left waist gunner, S/Sgt. David Miller, Jr. were all killed in action. All ten crewmembers of B-17F #42-5953, Skin and Bones, were killed.
Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the U.S. Army Air Forces, 1942-1947, digital image, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com/image/28708673/ : accessed 28 January 2015), B-17F, Aircraft Serial Number 42-30518, “Missing Air Crew Report 2016”. See also Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the U.S. Army Air Forces, 1942-1947, digital image, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com/image/28708700/ : accessed 28 January 2015), B-17F, Aircraft Serial Number 42-5953, “Missing Air Crew Report 2017”.
John Robert Gray was the son of William Allen Gray, born 1886, and Marvel Sindlinger Gray of Bloomington, Illinois.
6 For the listing in The Roll of Honor, see page 158 (http://www.stpauls-roh.org.uk/cgi-local/asdsrch.pl?asdsrch=GRAY&ptv=158#images : accessed 25 January 2015).
7 See http://www.stpaulsusa.org/Pages/AmericanConnection.aspx : accessed 25 January 2015.