- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Jack C. Clarke, Oak Mackey, Brad Eaton, Bob Lowe, E. C. Brunnette, J. T. Brown, Ralph Heilman, George Peer, John K. Heckman, Kevin B. Killea.
- Location of story:
- 448th Bomb Group Airfield, Seething, Norfolk.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 October 2005
The date was January 10,1945, a bad day for the Jack Clarke crew at the 392nd Bomb Group of the Second Air Division of the Eighth Air Force. I, Oak Mackey was the co-pilot, Brad Eaton, Navigator, Bob Lowe, bombardier, E.C. Brunnette, engineer, J.T. Brown, radio operator, Ralph Heilman, nose gunner, George Peer and John Heckman, waist gunners, and Kevin Killea, tail gunner, perhaps the best crew in the 8th AF. We were awakened at 02:00 am for briefing at 04:30 am. The target was Dasburg in the Bastogne area to support our ground troops there. The weather was absolutely atrocious, through the night there had been a combination of freezing rain, sleet, snow showers, and fog. The runways and taxi-ways were were covered with a sheet of slippery ice. At briefing we learned our usual B-24 was not available and we were assigned the squadron spare. We were a deputy lead crew and would be flying off the right wing of the lead plane of the leading squadron. Upon reaching our assigned airplane we found it had not been warmed up, the engines were cold and very difficult to start, only after much cranking, priming, and cussing were we able to get them running. We were supposed to be two for take-off just after the Group lead airplane. By now most of the entire Group had departed, we made our take-off, climbed through the overcast to on top of the clouds and had the rest of the Group formation in sight. At this time the #3 engine propeller severely over-speeded probably because of congealed oil trying to pass through the propeller governor. This is a serious problem, because of the engine over-speed the engine might turn to junk, or the propeller might come off the engine and pass through the fuselage or hit the other engine on that side. Jack told me to shut-down the engine and feather the propeller. I reduced power to the engine and pushed the feathering button. It immediately popped out again for it is its own circuit breaker. Brunette was sitting between Jack and I on the cockpit jump seat as all good engineers should. He pushed the feathering button in and held it there which caused the secondary circuit breaker to pop open, which he immediately held down with his other hand, a risky procedure as it could cause the feathering oil pump motor or associated wiring to carch fire. Oh so slowly the prop blades turned to the feathered position and engine rotation stopped. With one engine out and a loaded airplane there is no way we can stay with the Group, we are now in the vicinity of Great Yarmouth, so we flew out over the North Sea and dumped our bombs. We left the arming safety wires in place so the bombs could not explode. As we turned to go back to our base, the #2 propeller ran away compounding our numerous problems, we got the engine shut-down and propeller feathered with less trouble than we had with #3. A B-24 cannot maintain airspeed and altitude with two engines out and full fuel tanks and we gave careful consideration to bailing out, but decided to stay with the airplane for awhile and conserve altitude as best we could. The weather at our airfield near Wendling had not improved, but we had little choice but to try to return there. We are now about due south of Norwich ten miles or so when we spotted a airport through a hole in the clouds, our first good luck of the day. We descend through the hole in the cloud and have gone through the before landing check-lists, lowered wing flaps to the landing position, extended the landing gear, and are turning to line up with a runway from west of the airport when the thick bullet resistant winshields and side windows iced up, a common occurence when descending through a temperature inversion. We cannot pull-up and go around with the landing gear and flaps down with only two engines operating, we are committed to landing. Jack and I cannot see through the iced up windshields and windows, we must continue our descent to keep airspeed above stalling. Through a small clear place on my side window I see men running at full speed, I also see we we are about to touch down. I assumed those men are running from a builing of some sort and we are lined up to hit it. Without any thought and perhaps with instinct, I pushed full left rudder which caused the airplane to slew around to the left and we touched down in a side-ways attitude. The landing gear snapped off, the two outside engine propellers broke off and went cart-wheeling across the airfield. We slid side-ways on the fuselage for a long way on the ice and snow, it seemed like forever. The fuselage was broken behind the cockpit area and the nose tilted up which enlarged the window to my right a bit so that I was able go through it with my back-pack parachute on, likewise Jack went out the left cockpit window. I ran along the right side of the airplane, stopped at the waist window to look in to see if everyone was out, continued around the tail and there they were, all nine off them and no one had a scratch. We had landed at the Seething Airfield, home of the 448th Bomb Group and we had missed the control tower by only 100 feet or so. An ambulance pulled up in a few minutes and took us to the base hospital where the doctor looked us over to be certain there were no injuries. For medicinal purposes, someone brought out a bottle of 100 proof rye whisky. We took our medicine like real men. Also, someone called our base at Wendling and a truck came for us in an hour or so. So ended a bad day for the Clarke crew. It could have been much worse!
There is a wonderful sequel to this story. Fast forward your mind to May 1997. The Second Air Division Association of the 8th Air Force is having their annual Convention in Orange County, California and I have been elected President. Also, there is someone selling books at a table in the lobby of the hotel and my wife, Maxine, has bought me a copy of Steve Snelling's book "Over Here". Steve's book is about relationships between the Yank soldiers and the British people, about the friendships that endure to this day,about the mutual respect, about the memories of those days in 1942 through 1945. Steve started his writing career as a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press in 1974 and is still employed there. A chapter in his book is called "Tragedies of War" and is mainly about B-24s which have crashed for various reasons and there are pictures and stories of each. Under the picture of the B-24 at the top of page 125 there is no story, the notation there says "Unhappy landing. A salvage team clamber over a B-24 at Seething which has come to grief in a sea of mud". Well, it may have been a sea of mud when salvage crews arrived to remove the airplane but it was all ice and snow when the Jack Clarke crew left it there on January 10,1945. I wrote Steve Snelling a letter and related to him the story of how that 392nd BG B-24 happened to crash at Seething, and in due time he answered my letter and thanked me for the information, and told me he how he had received that picture from Mrs. Patricia Everson. The old control tower at Seething had recently been renovated and restored to like new condition and was now a Memorial to those brave 448th BG men who had lost their lives while serving there. It was open to the public on the first Sunday of each month and Mrs. Everson was the leading volunteer worker there. I wrote to her to enquire if she had more pictures of this B-24, and she replied she did and offered to send me copies. By this time sometime in June, I had received a letter from Mr. Ted Inman, Director of the Duxford Air Museum, which invited me to attend Opening Ceremonies of the new American Museum building at Duxford on August 1, 1997. Queen Elizabeth and others of the Royal Family would be there. Naturally, I eagerly accepted his invitation and also determined to go to Seething. I wrote to Mrs. Severson to tell her I would be at Seething Sunday August 3, and I could get the pictures then. Also, I wanted very much to go to the Seething Airfield to see the renovated Control Tower and to see the airfield where the Jack Clarke left a 392nd BG B-24 so long ago.
Maxine and I did indeed attend the ceremonies at Duxford on August 1, 1997 and had a most wonderful time. After Queen Elizabeth concluded her speech, she mingled with the crowd in front of the speakers platform and she spoke to Maxine as she to many others. Also, I had the opportunity to speak with Prince Phillip and shake his hand inside the new American Museum, which houses 21 American airplanes dating from WWI to the present time including a Boeing B-52. Well, this was a most momentous day and is a story alone, but has nothing to do with the crash landing at Seething in 1945.
Next morning, Raymond and Marjorie Mackertich collected us at our hotel in Cambridge and drove us to their home in East Dereham, which is not far from the old 392nd BG airfield. We had stayed at their home on previous trips to England and we are very comfortable there, they are most gracious hosts. Next day was Sunday and the new Control Tower Museum at Seething was open and the Mackertich's drove Maxine and I there where the first person we met was Mrs. Patricia Everson. She gave us an exclusive guided tour of the Museum, the amount of artifacts, memorabilia, and photographs is really astounding. She gave me more pictures of the B-24 the Jack Clarke crew had left there 10 Jan. 1945. I was able to walk out to that very spot and look around. All the buildings of 1945 are gone now, only the Control Tower remains, the memories come flooding back of that desperate day of so long ago, and I was able to confirm that we had missed the control tower by only 100 feet or so. The Seething Airport is still active and a Mr. Bob Majoram had his restored 1943 Piper Cub on display by the control tower. It was painted in camouflage colors as it would have been in during WWII when Piper Cubs were used as artillery spotters. Mrs. Everson asked Bob to give me a ride around the airport which he did for he was a very generous man. We flew around for about thirty minutes, including landings from west to east so I could view the airport which I could not see when we landed there in 1945. I was able to take aerial photos of the area and the airport and control tower to send to Jack Clarke and Brad Eaton, the only other members of the crew still alive in 1997.
A remarkable day, a day which occurred only because Maxine bought a copy of "Over Here" by Steve Snelling. What a coincidence, life takes curious turns, don't it.
October 12, 2005
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