DITCHING AN AIRCRAFT by James Wheat's Crew
the risks of flying a combat mission was the possibility
of having to ditch a damaged plane or one without enough
fuel to return to England. The watery runways in this
case could be the North Sea, Strait of Dover or the
English Channel. Pilot, 1st Lt. James R. Wheat,
Co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Leslie Nielsen, and S/Sgt. William J.
Sullivan, Jr., tell what it was like to experience the
ditching of their B-17G. Although each contributor to
this article tells something about the same happening in
some instances, they also relate incidents that they,
mission to Hamburg on June 20, 1944 started out much the
same as all of our previous ones. My crew and I had not
flown since June 14th. All of us had been on pass to
London. We had been rather busy, having flown our first
on April 10, 1944 and this was the 28th in 80 days.
crew was composed of myself, 1st Lt. James R. Wheat,
pilot; 2nd Lt. Leslie (NMI) Nielsen, co-pilot; 2nd Lt.
Walter M. Cooney, navigator; 2nd Lt. George D. Berner,
bombardier; T/Sgt. Calvin 0. Decker, top turret gunner;
T/Sgt. George R. Maisch, radio operator and gunner;
S/Sgt. William J. Sullivan, Jr., ball turret gunner;
S/Sgt. Robert (NMI) Mercado, waist gunner; S/Sgt. Alvin
T. Carter, tail gunner.
527th Squadron was not scheduled to fly this mission,
but we were alerted to fly spare along with two other
crews. We were assigned a position in the lead group
formation and the first AC was airborne at 0445. The
wing assembled over Molesworth at 0549 hours at 5,000
ft. We departed the English coast at Maplethorpe. It was
0621 hours at 7,400 ft. The enemy coast was crossed at
Orking at 0819 hours at 25,000 ft. The target was an oil
Everything went along about normal until we left the IP,
which was about a 10-minute run at 25,000 ft. Less than
1 minute before bombs away we encountered very heavy and
accurate flak and a push rod went through the side of
the No. 1 engine and it was throwing oil. Co-pilot,
Nielsen feathered the prop and I threw full power on the
three other engines. No. 3 engine was hit by a flak and
lost oil pressure and could not be feathered. We managed
to stay in formation long enough to drop the bombs with
the group. No. 2 engine was also hit and was on fire. We
could not stay with the formation and dropped out with
two engines out and No. 3 engine prop windmilling. We
were down to 23,000 ft. but the fire had gone out on No.
2 engine— but it was leaking oil.
were putting all the power I dared on the No. 2 and No.
4 engines, but with the No. 3 engine windmilling we had
a lot of drag and were losing altitude. Two hours later
we were down to 15,000 ft. We had already contacted
Air-Sea Rescue by radio and told them that we expected
to have to ditch. We were reporting in to Air-Sea Rescue
every 30 minutes or so and giving them a progress
report. They would take a fix on our position. At 15,000
ft. I ordered the crew to throw everything out of the
plane that they could get loose. And they did. At about
this time we lost No. 2 engine, but Nielsen got it
feathered. We were losing altitude at about 700 ft. per
minute and were indicating about 90 miles per hour. All
the crewmembers except myself and co-pilot Nielsen were
in the radio room in their ditching positions. We had an
under cast from about 800 ft. down to 500 ft. I did not
have much time to pick a heading for our final approach
to the water. The wind was blowing about 50 miles per
hour and the swells were high. We were in contact with
Air-Sea Rescue for the last minute or so of our descent
and they had a good fix on our position. We made a good
landing in the water but the sea was so rough that the
plane broke in two at the ball turret, co-pilot Nielsen
and I went out the windows on our respective sides.
first thing I noticed after getting into the water was
the crew in the radio room had not gotten the life rafts
to release from the top of the plane where they were
stored. My thoughts were to try and reach the external
release for them. I would swim up to the plane and
before I could reach the release handles, a wave would
break over the plane and wash me back out to the end of
the left wing. I made two attempts at releasing them
before the crew finally succeeded.
this time one of the two, one-man life rafts that we
carried in the radio room washed up in front of me. I
grabbed it and pulled the release to inflate it, as well
as my “Mae West” vest that all of the crew wore. By this
time all of the crew had gotten into the water on the
left side of the plane, but the raft that released on
the right side of the plane had broken loose and floated
away from us. We managed to hang on to the raft from the
left side of the plane and tied it to the one-man raft
that I had gotten hold of. By now the plane had sunk. I
would guess that it did not float more than 2 or 3
minutes. Nobody seemed to be hurt too badly, but
bombardier Berner was dazed. We found out later that he
had received a concussion.
Perhaps it would help to give an account by ball turret
gunner Sullivan, from his diary, of the events. So I’ll
turn this story over to him.
boys had been there a few days before, (the June 18th,
1944 mission to Hamburg) while we were on a pass and
told us about the flak so we expected a rough time in
that regard, but not as much as we received.
Procedure was normal until we turned on our IP and
number one engine started to act up. We just about
feathered it and started on the bomb run when “All Hell’
broke loose. The flak was the most severe we had ever
encountered and each burst seemed to be aimed at our
particular are squadron.
a few close bursts, number 2 started to burn and number
3 was knocked out. We tried to feather number 3 but “no
soap,” so we just had to let it windmill.
pilot told us to put on our chutes, for he thought it
was all over for us. We fell out of formation after
dropping our bombs and started in the general direction
smoke had stopped coming out of number 2, but it was
pouring oil. We were losing altitude but everything
seemed to be under control. The pilot got in touch with
Air-Sea Rescue and told them of our plight. At about
10,000 ft., we started throwing out equipment, when the
pilot informed us that we would probably have to ditch.
radio room was cleared of all unnecessary equipment and
we prepared to take our stations. While still
descending, we went over our duties and ditching
procedure, each man making sure of what he was to do.
The radioman remained on interphone, informing us of our
altitude and distance from shore. When about 6 miles out
the pilot told us that it would be any minute now.
Everyone braced themselves, as we could feel the plane
slowing down for the attempted landing.
first crash was slight as it was only the tail hitting
the water, then in a few seconds the big impact came.
Water came in from everywhere and we were tossed about
like corks. I landed face down in the water, in the
opposite direction from which I had been sitting. The
floor of the radio room gave way and we all went down.
When I regained my senses I was under water but soon
came up, as we all had half of our “Mae Wests” inflated.
I grabbed for an oxygen hose and some wires on the right
side and tried to pull myself up. I could feel someone’s
body underneath me as I started to climb out the hatch.
The tail gunner was partly out and trying to pull the
life raft release. He told me to step on his arm and
when I did he gave another yank and the life raft popped
out. The plane had broken in half at the ball turret and
was sinking fast. The second raft appeared and I jumped
into the water and grabbed a rope on it. The first one
was washed away before anyone could get to it, so we all
held on to the other one. A K-dingy floated into the
pilot’s arms and he inflated that. I kicked myself away
from the wing of the plane as I thought there might be a
suction created, but it just slowly slid out of sight.
bombardier was floundering around so we managed to get
him in the large raft. Then the co-pilot and waist
gunner climbed in, followed by the radioman. That left
the engineer, the navigator and myself in the water, as
the pilot had climbed in the one-man raft. By this time
the sea had become quite rough and both rafts were
shipping water. The ones in the raft attempted to bail
out some of the water but each wave would fill it again.
With the pump in the raft, they tried to pump up the
seats so that another man could enter, but the position
of the bombardier made it difficult.
saw a buoy about fifty yards away and attempted to
paddle towards it but were swept by too quickly. Between
the swells we could see the top of a tower and a beacon
on land, so we knew we weren’t too far out.
about forty minutes someone spotted a launch heading our
way and everyone felt better. My arms were quite tired
from holding on and my body was shivering from the cold
water but the sight of the boat seemed to give me
strength and I knew it would only be a matter of minutes
before we were picked up. As the boat came by, they
threw over a net and lines and pulled is towards them.
In no time we were all aboard, exhausted but happy and
shaking hands with all the crew. They seemed almost as
happy to see us.”
it would only be a matter of minutes before we were
picked up. As the boat came by, they threw over a net
and lines and pulled is towards them. In no time we were
all aboard, exhausted but happy, and shaking hands with
all the crew. They seemed almost as happy to see us.”
here is an account of the ditching from co-pilot
Nielsen. “Our squadron was not supposed to fly this
mission but they needed one more spare ship so we were
assigned to it. We had just returned from pass while all
the others had been flying.
crews were late arriving for briefing so the Colonel
scrubbed them and put us in their place. We didn’t like
the idea because we knew it would be a rough mission.
However we set about with the preparations.
Everything went along smoothly until we got on the bomb
run, then things began to happen fast. A half minute
before bombs away the number 1 engine started throwing
oil, the cause being a push rod through the engine, so I
feathered it. About the same time number 3 engine was
hit by flak and lost oil pressure. I tried to feather
that also, but was unsuccessful; this caused a lot of
drag. Number 2 engine also was hit and was on fire. By
that time we had dropped our bombs and dropped back from
the formation. We lost some altitude but did get the
fire put out. With the number 2 and 4 engines pulling
full rated power, number 3 windmilling, creating drag,
we managed to hold our altitude for nearly 2 hours.
During this time we contacted the base by radio, got a
QDM and fix also telling them we expected to ditch in
the channel. About 50 miles from England we lost the
number 2 engine at 15,000 ft. altitude and knew we would
have to ditch. We contacted Air-Sea Rescue again and
told them the situation so they kept a constant fix on
us all the way down. We lost altitude at the rate of 700
ft. per minute and were flying at ninety miles an hour.
All but Jim and I went back to the radio room to clear
out any loose equipment and to take ditching stations.
We made a good landing in the water, only five miles
from shore, but the sea was very rough and the ship
broke up very badly from the bomb bay back. Jim and I
were first ones out and it seemed a long time before any
of the others came out. Carter got the life rafts out
and they filled up quickly. We let one get away from us,
which didn’t help any, but Jim got hold of a one-man
dingy and got into that. I was first into the big raft
and helped get Berner in, as he seemed to be dizzy and
quite helpless. After a fashion, we got Mercado, Maisch
and Carter into the raft, in that order. As the dinghy
was almost full of water and not completely inflated the
others stayed in the water while I started to pump more
air into the raft and bail water out. Cooney, Decker,
and Sullivan never did get into the raft as we sighted
the rescue boats coming, so they just hung on and
waited. On the boat the British treated us wonderful.
They undressed us, dried us off, rubbed us down, and
then dressed us in warm woolen clothes. At the naval
base they gave us a complete GI issue of clothes, fed us
and did everything to make us comfortable. We remained
overnight and the base sent a Fort to pick us up and
bring us back
over the target was the most accurate and concentrated I
have ever seen. Our target was a synthetic oil refinery
and we got some very good hits on it. Flames and smoke
could be seen 15,000 ft. high and reports indicated it
was still burning two days later. General Travis led our
group on the mission. Plane #261. It turned out that we
were about 5 or 6 miles from England, just off the coast
of Great Yarmouth in the North Sea when this mission was
completed. We had ditched at about 11:30 and picked up
about 12:10 by Air-Sea Rescue, which was a branch of the
Royal Navy of Great Britain.
don’t think I could add a whole lot to the story after
51 years, except to say, we all lived to tell the story,
and survived because of team work, on behalf of all the
crew and the training we had received."