Relaxed they were looking forward to “hitting the hay” for a few hours. 1st Lt. Bill Huenekens and his crew of the 850th Bomb Squadron were returning to their base at Harrington, Northamptonshire, after a night navigation exercise. It was 03:00 hours on June 27th1944. Harrington was home to the clandestine “Carpetbagger” units supporting resistance units working within Occupied Europe. Unknown to the crew, they had been found by a prowling German Junkers JU88 intruder and the pilot was at the moment lining up the big Consolidated B-24 Liberator in its reflector sight.
In the tail turret Sgt. “Randy” Sadler saw the fighter just before a stream of cannon shells ripped into the central fuselage area of the B-24. Sadler saw the Junkers veer off to watch the result of his attack. A fire broke out amidships fuelled by broken hydraulic pipes. Cannon shells had killed the engineer T/Sgt. Carl Adams and the bomb bay area was soon ablaze.
Huenekens hit the bail out button and stayed at the controls to give the others more of a chance to leave the ship. The shattered body of the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. John Cronan, was slouched in the seat next to him.
The navigator, 2nd Lt. Bob Callahan, and the bombardier. 2nd Lt. Bob Sanders, were in the nose compartment, which had been adapted for visual navigation in line with the covert supply missions being carried out by the Harrington bomb group. They made their way back into the cabin and saw the fire in the central area. Sanders tried to reach his parachute that was hanging in the bomb bay but was driven back by the flames. He returned to the nose where Callahan was preparing to jump through the nose hatch.
Sanders shouted to his friend that his chute was burnt and Callahan told him to climb on his back and hold on to the harness with crossed arms. They sat on the edge of the open hatch and dropped away into the roaring slipstream.
Once they were clear of the blazing bomber, Callahan pulled the handle of the ripcord and the parachute snapped open with a jerk that nearly broke Sander’s grip. They were 1,800 ft (550 m) above the ground when the parachute started to spin, it then straightened and Callahan told Sanders to work his way round to his front where he could help to support him. They then heard an explosion and saw the fire where their B-24 had crashed.
The ground then seemed to rise up and hit them. Callahan’s ankle broke. Sanders had sprained his, and they were bruised and scratched but had made a remarkable escape.
They had landed in a wheat field near Eaton Socon, Cambridgeshire, they took off the harness and started to limp over to a nearby road when they heard someone cry out from the other side of the field, it was Sgt. Randy Sadler, the tail gunner.
Sadler had stayed in his turret in case the Junkers had made another attack, but had to bale out when the fire reached him. He had been badly burned on his head and arms before he left the aircraft. The three were the only survivors, Bill Huenekens had been unable to bale out.
The three were found by a farmer living nearby who had heard the noise of the attack. He managed to get them to his house and after some telephone calls were made, an ambulance from the base picked them up and took them to the sick quarters at Harrington where their wounds were dressed.
The news of the feat soon travelled around the base and later Colonel Heflin, the Group CO, asked them for all the details. He decided to record the event and after they had recovered, a parachute was rigged up on a crane and the two “celebrities” demonstrated their act for the photographers.
2nd Lt Robert Sanders holds onto the parachute harness at the back of 2nd Lt Robert Callahan as they were before exiting the aircraft through the nose wheel door. Note that the parachute pack was worn on the chest
Having pulled the ripcord the pair start to descend under the parachute canopy
Suspended from a crane they show how they were positioned before landing
On August 11th 1944, the Office of the Commanding General USAAF issued an order in which 2nd Lt. Robert Callahan was awarded the Silver Star for saving his fellow crewman. The rest of the crew, living or dead, received the Purple Heart, the awards being presented by General Doolittle.
HEADQUARTERS EIGHTH AIR FORCE
Office of the Commanding General
11th August 1944
(Number 478 )
AWARDS OF THE SILVER STAR.
I. Under the provisions of Army Regulations 600-45, 22 September 143 as amended and pursuant to authority contained in this letter, HQ., USSTAF, AG 200.6, 3 April 1944, Subject: “Awards and Decorations”, the SILVER STAR is awarded to the following named Officers and Enlisted Men:
ROBERT CALLAHAN, 0-703088, 2nd Lt., Army Air Forces, US Army. For gallantry in action, while serving as navigator of a B-24 aircraft on 27 June 1944. The airplane in which the Lt. Callahan was flying burst into flames as the result of an attack by an enemy night intruder aircraft. When the flames began to engulf the whole plane, the pilot gave the order to bail out. Just as Lt. Callahan was preparing to jump, he noticed that the bombardier’s parachute was out of his reach and on fire. Acting with coolness and courage, he instructed the bombardier to lock his arms about him and they would jump together, using one parachute. Although at a fairly low altitude, Lt Callahan delayed pulling the ripcord in order to lessen the shock, which might have broken the bombardier’s grip on him. Lt Callahan sustained a broken ankle on landing. His gallant actions on this occasion saved the life of the bombardier. Entered Military Service from Wisconsin.
By command of Lt. General Doolittle:
John S. Allard
Chief of Staff