Now the plane locked below them was aflame. Fire poured over Rojohn’s left wing. He could feel the heat from the plane below and hear the sound of 50 cal. machinegun ammunition ‘cooking off’ in the flames. Capt. Rojohn ordered Lieut. Leek to bail out. Leek knew that without him helping keep the controls back, the plane would drop in a flaming spiral and the centrifugal force would prevent Rojohn from bailing. He refused the order.
Meanwhile, German soldiers and civilians on the ground that afternoon looked up in wonder.. Some of them thought they were seeing a new Allied secret weapon — a strange eight-engined double bomber. But anti-aircraft gunners on the North Sea coastal island of Wangerooge had seen the collision. A German battery captain wrote in his logbook at 12:47 p.m.
‘Two fortresses collided in a formation in the NE. The planes flew hooked together and flew 20 miles south. The two planes were unable to fight anymore. The crash could be awaited so I stopped the firing at these two planes.’
Suspended in his parachute in the cold December sky, Bob Washington watched with deadly fascination as the mated bombers, trailing black smoke, fell to earth about three miles away, their downward trip ending in an ugly boiling blossom of fire.
In the cockpit, Rojohn and Leek held grimly to the controls trying to ride a falling rock. Leek tersely recalled, ‘The ground came up faster and faster. Praying was allowed.
We gave it one last effort and slammed into the ground.’ The McNab plane on the bottom exploded, vaulting the other B-17 upward and forward. It slammed back to the ground, sliding along until its left wing slammed through a wooden building and the smoldering mess came to a stop. Rojohn and Leek were still seated in their cockpit. The nose of the plane was relatively intact, but everything from the B-17’s massive wings back was destroyed. They looked at each other incredulously. Neither was badly injured.
Movies have nothing on reality. Still perhaps in shock, Leek crawled out through a huge hole behind the cockpit, felt for the familiar pack in his uniform pocket pulled out a cigarette. He placed it in his mouth and was about to light it. Then he noticed a young German soldier pointing a rifle at him. The soldier looked scared and annoyed. He grabbed the cigarette out of Leak’s mouth and pointed down to the gasoline pouring out over the wing from a ruptured fuel tank.
Two of the six men who parachuted from Rojohn’s plane did not survive the jump. But the other four and, amazingly, four men from the other bomber, including ball turret gunner Woodall, survived. All were taken prisoner. Several of them were interrogated at length by the Germans until they were satisfied that what had crashed was not a new American secret weapon.
Rojohn, typically, didn’t talk much about his Distinguished Flying Cross. Of Leek, he said, ‘in all fairness to my co-pilot, he’s the reason I’m alive today.’
Like so many veterans, Rojohn got unsentimentally back to life after the war, marrying and raising a son and daughter. For many years, though, he tried to link back up with Leek, going through government records to try to track him down. It took him 40 years, but in 1986, he found the number of Leeks’ mother, in Washington State. Yes, her son Bill was visiting from California. Would Rojohn like to speak with him?
Some things are better left unsaid. One can imagine that first conversation between the two men who had shared that wild ride in the cockpit of a B-17. A year later, the two were re-united at a reunion of the 100th Bomb Group in Long Beach, Calif.