Ardmore Army Air Field-A Story of Survival Ardmore Army Air Field
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Sixty-three years ago I was the sole survivor of the 11 man crew involved in a B-17 formation collision, February 12, 1944, near Mill Creek, Oklahoma. I was a tail-gunner assigned to Crew 853 (four officers and six enlisted men) undergoing phase training at the 395th Combat Crew Training School, Ardmore Army Air Field, Oklahoma. The following is an account of my experiences at Ardmore and as a tail-gunner flying out of England.
We actually became a crew on a troop train traveling from Salt Lake City, Utah to Ardmore. The men on the train were given numbers, mine was 853. We went from car to car calling out the number until we found the other nine with the same number. We gathered in the car where our pilots were, got acquainted, and as enlisted men were told what to expect. Not knowing our destination, we traveled four days and nights arriving at Ardmore in the middle of the night.
We quickly began our three-month intensive training phase which included air-to-air towed target and air-to-ground gunnery practice, and simulated bomb raids, some as far away as Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bombardiers used smoke bombs to record and improve their accuracy.
On February 11, 1944, the rumor was that we had only two more training flights to go before going overseas. We participated in a low level bombing demonstration during the base "open house" held that day.
We were awakened early on February 12, hurried to the chow hall, then to supply where we checked out a heavy leather flight suit, Mae West vest, and parachute. From supply, we went to the briefing room where our mission for the day was discussed. We loaded on 4x4s and were taken to the flight line where we pulled the props through, then the engines of our B-17, 42-30481, were started. We taxied to the runway and waited our turn to take-off.
Our mission for the day was to fly to Matagorda Bay, just off the coast from Corpus Christi, Texas. We fired at tow targets for several hours, then headed back to Ardmore. As I recall, there were 13 B-17s flying in close formation. One B-17 with officer instructors brought up the rear and advised the pilots as to what to do.
We had been flying at 20,000 feet this day and as we neared home, we began to descend and turn at the same time. This is a difficult maneuver for a large plane to accomplish, especially if in close formation under turbulent air conditions.
We had a crew of eleven on-board. One of our regular crew of ten was absent due to sickness but we had two extras on this flight, an oxygen instructor and a bombardier instructor. Being the tail gunner, I had a clear view of all the planes behind us.
We were flying in a very close formation with planes on both sides and in the front and rear. We had let down to approximately 15,000 feet when the aircraft (42-30752) on our upper left slid into us. The two right engines cut our plane into two pieces just behind the radio room. The front of our aircraft went straight up for a brief moment knocking off the Plexiglas nose of the other plane which pushed us under them knocking off their ball turret. The pilots of 42-30572 managed to regain control, although heavily damaged with two right engines inoperable, they flew the 15-20 miles to the Ardmore base and landed safely.
As for me, I heard the loud crashing sound over the noise of the engines, then just as quickly there was no engine noise, just the sound of the wind. I didn't realize it immediately, but I had been thrown several feet backward from the tail-gunner's seat toward the front of the aircraft. Fortunately, my chest chute had also been tossed backward and ended up beneath me. Recognizing that I was near the tail-gunner's escape hatch, I opened it slightly and saw that we were in a spin, not knowing that the front of the aircraft was gone, but realizing that we were going to crash. I opened the hatch, stuck my feet out and clipped my chest chute to the harness which I was wearing. I wiggled my way out the narrow opening, let go, fell for a while and pulled the rip cord. I thought the chute would never open. I was on my back looking up and wondering how far it was to the ground when the chute opened. It jerked me into an upright position and I realized I was still a good distance from the ground.
It was about 5:30 in the evening and I realized I was coming down on a railroad track. Looking a bit farther down the track I saw an oncoming freight train that would meet me at about the same place and time that I would reach the ground. I slipped to one side and landed in a grove of pecan trees just as the train went whistling by.
I was upside down and tangled in my shroud lines when a man, young woman and a bird dog ran up to help me get untangled and out of the tree. The dog must have thought I was a raccoon as he kept wanting to get at me.
The man and young woman took me toward Mill Creek but before we got there we came upon the crash site and a large number of people around it. Men from Mill Creek had already extracted the bodies with axes and other tools. My crew members were lined up on the ground. It was a sight I will never forget. All my crew members dead except Gail Pleasant "Dixie" Mason, the one who didn't go February 12 because he was sick. (Dixie passed away several months ago on his 78th birthday. He was a special friend and combat crew member with me in England.)
The man and young woman who had rescued me asked if I would like to go into Mill Creek and set down. They took me to Mill Creek and left me at the drug store. An elderly woman asked if I would like to go to her house and have something warm to drink. While we were there drinking hot tea, the army arrived. I ran into the street and hailed down a MP in a jeep. After convincing him as to who I was, he got permission from his superiors to take me to Ardmore Army Air Base. He drove so fast that I asked him to slow down. He laughed that I was concerned about a jeep accident but slowed down.
Arriving at the base, we went directly to the briefing room where the crews were still assembled. We came through the back door behind the podium where Colonel Donald W. Eisenhart, the base commander, was asking questions about the crash. The MP finally got Colonel Eisenhart's attention who asked what we wanted. After learning who I was, he asked if I was OK. I explained that I had hit a limb with my foot and my ankle was swelling. He picked me up, put me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, placed me in his car and drove me to the hospital. The nurse checked my ankle and said I was going to spend the night in the hospital to get some rest. I told them I wouldn't stay. After a friendly argument, the Colonel took me to my barracks.
After he left, I hobbled outside to the shower building, cleaned up, put on my dress uniform and went to Ardmore. I already had a date scheduled with my girlfriend, Jessica Barnett. She was disturbed that I was late but after deciding I wasn't telling her a big story, she was all right.
The following day, I was told to report to the orderly room where I visited with four or five officers who told me to take a week off to visit with my parents in Duncan, Oklahoma about 75 miles west of Ardmore. I asked if Dixie Mason, the other surviving crew member, could go with me and they agreed he could.
When I returned to the base, the commanding officer gave me four choices as to what I could do. I could remain on the base as a permanent party; take an honorable discharge; re-enlist as a cadet or go overseas with another crew. I asked if Dixie could be on the same crew and was told he would be.
I will always be grateful to Lieutenant Dick Buttorff who put Gail "Dixie" Mason and me on his crew after transferring two crew members. We flew a B-17 to our assignment in England by way of Grand Island, Nebraska, Grenier Field, New Hampshire, Goose Bay Labrador, and Iceland to Prestwick, Scotland.
At Prestwick, the officers and enlisted men were separated. The officers went to Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, England. The enlisted men went to "The Wash" a shallow bay area off the Northeast Coast of England where we practiced gunnery for ten days.
We were reunited with our pilot and copilot at Thurleigh and learned that our navigator, 2/Lt Olin O. Odom, Jr and 2/Lt. Bertram Krashes, our bombardier, had been shot down a few days earlier. I found out after the war that both had been captured. We were assigned another navigator and bombardier and started missions as a crew.
I flew eight missions with Buttorff and was without a crew for six weeks when crews were reduced to nine men. During this time I flew on makeup crews. I was assigned to Baxter's crew and we flew as a lead aircraft for most of the missions. I never knew the crew very well. I stayed in the barracks that my first pilot Buttorff's crew was in. It wasn't because I didn't like the Baxter crew, I just didn't get close to any of the men. Buttorff's crew and myself had become the oldest crew in the barracks because many of the others had been shot down.
I flew four "all out missions" to Berlin, Germany, 3,500 planes in the air at one time---planes as far as you could see. We bombed Peenemunde, Germany where they thought the Germans might be working on an atomic bomb. I thought the tremendous explosion from the bombing was going to reach us at 35,000 feet.
The last nine missions were alternate flights to Frankfurt, Germany four times and to Leipzig, Germany five times. Twelve of the B-17s were from our unit, the 306th Bomb Group, 1st Air Division, 8th AF. We were flying lead and from my vantage point, I saw nine of the twelve planes of our group go down. We were hit by flak between our two right engines knocking both of them out of commission. The inside engine hung down at a 15-degree angle; the outside one could not be feathered. Baxter and the copilot did a miraculous job in getting the badly damaged B-17 back to England and landing safely.
The ambulances met us and took us to the hospital. We stayed overnight although none of us had been injured. They gave us a good checkup and we were granted a seven day "flak-leave" which I spent in Scotland.
When we returned to the base, we were told after about a week that we were going home although we had not completed all of our missions. We had been through enough.
My trip home was on an old victory ship, where as one of 25, we guarded 900 German prisoners. There were 54 ships in the convoy, including the Queen Mary. We encountered a storm which made most of us sick and added some time to the 14-day trip. The prisoners, with us as guards, were shipped by freight train to St. Louis, Missouri. From there, I reported to Ft.Chaffee, Arkansas, received new uniforms, etc. and took a 30-day leave October 15, 1944 to my hometown of Duncan, Oklahoma.
After a short time at Santa Ana, California, I was reassigned to Amarillo Army Air Field, Texas where I signed up for the B-29 gunnery training school at Kingman Army Air Field, Arizona. My final days in service before the war ended were spent at Las Vegas Army Air Base, Nevada in gunnery training in B-29s.
On June 12, 1945, Jessica Barnett became Jessica Barnett McClanahan in the First Methodist Church, Ardmore, Oklahoma, a marriage which has lasted 60 years. Personal account from Joseph (Jack) William McClanahan, June 26, 2002 Note: Sergeant Joseph (Jack) William McClanahan was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with several Oak Leaf Clusters for his contribution to keeping America free. Jack flew a total of 32 missions on the Buttorff, Baxter and makeup crews before returning to the United States.
Corporal Joseph (Jack) W. McClanahan became a Sergeant February 12, 1944. While with Colonel Eisenhart that evening following the accident, the Colonel referred to him as Sergeant McClanahan. Corporal McClanahan reminded the Colonel that he was a Corporal, not a Sergeant. The Colonel said "From this moment forward, you are Sergeant McClanahan." Thank you Jack, and members of your crew, for what you did for us.
The amazing story of how Jack McClanahan was found after 58 years should be required reading. Have a look!
The crew of 42-30752, the other aircraft involved in the accident at Mill Creek, included 2/Lt. Verne H. Lewis, Pilot, 2/Lt. Frank W. Hunt, CoPilot, 2/Lt. Knud E. Hogrebe, Navigator, 2/Lt. Julius Sussman, Bombardier, Sgt. Harold D. Pepper, Engineer, Sgt. Richard C. Swanda, Radio, Pfc. Thomas O. Chamberlin, Sgt. Farvis I. Brewer, Gunner and Pfc. Francis E. Kubic, Gunner. None of them received injuries. Hopefully, some of the crew or their relatives will see this account and contact gsimmons. No member of the above crew ever made contact with Cpl. McClanahan or Cpl. Mason nor did Jack or Dixie try to contact them. Fast Forward Note: The sons of 2/Lt. Knud E. Hogrebe, Navigator, and 2/Lt. Julius Sussman, Bombardier, made email contact with the webpage author in 2004 and 2007 respectively, after viewing the webpage. The Lewis crew went to England, flying their first mission of 25 over Europe on D-Day. An e-mail contact reported that Hogrebe, maybe others of the crew, flew with the Lane Crew (31A), 729th Bomb Squadron, 452nd Bomb Group, flying some missions in B-17-35VE, 42-97904, "Lady Janette". Hogrebe remained in the USAF, retiring in 1965. He died in 1992.
The pilot, 2/Lt. Verne H. Lewis, became a POW while flying as co-pilot, June 14, 1944, on a mission to Le Bourget, France. This mission involving 57 B-17 aircraft of the 457th Bomb Group is described on the 457th Bomb Group's website and follows: "Plane 42-57979, named "Local Mission," and flown by Lt. Roy W. Allen was first hit by the fighter attack and engine #2 was knocked out. He was then hit by flak in the target area and #3 engine was also knocked out. The plane was set afire and left the formation. The crew all bailed out and Lt. Allen was picked up by the French underground and hidden for many weeks. Posing as a civilian he was betrayed by the French and was taken prisoner by the Gestapo who treated him as a spy. He underwent rigorous interrogation and was eventually sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. After a few months at this camp, he convinced the Germans that he was indeed an airman and was thereafter a POW at Stalag III. He is the only 457th crewman to have been sentenced to a concentration camp. Lt. Anderson was shot and killed in the air or otherwise killed after he bailed out. The crew was as follows: Plane s/n 42-97579 Pilot-Lt. Roy W. Allen - POW, Copilot-Lt. Verne H. Lewis - POW, Navigator-Lt. Joseph C. Brusse - POW, Bombardier-Lt. Lawrence Anderson - KIA, Aircraft Engineer-Sgt. Roy E. Plum - POW, Radio Operator-Sgt. Ernest L. Smith - Evaded, Left Waist Gunner-Sgt. Leonard Henson - POW, Right Waist Gunner-Sgt. William Goldsborough - Evaded, Tail Gunner-Sgt. John L. Miller."
Additional Information: When combat crews were reduced to nine members, Sgt. McClanahan was assigned to night guard duty for about six weeks at Thurleigh. The guard detail used jeeps mounted with 50-caliber weapons and had available as personal firepower, Thompson sub-machine guns, M-1s and 1911A sidearms. They patrolled the base paying particular attention to the many parked B-17s. He later flew as tail-gunner on makeup crews before being requested by Lt. Baxter to be assigned to his crew that usually flew in the lead position of the formation. Jack considered assignment to the Baxter crew in the lead aircraft as a special privilege.
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