"A REJOINERS STORY" - Stephen C Ananian
Stephen C Ananian, has kindly given his permission for me to include an extract from a work he has written entitled Ramrod to Munster. Ramrod was the code word used to describe a combat mission in which fighter planes escorted the bombers and comes from the days of the old wild west when the cowboys that herded the cattle were called ramrods.
He was born on Christmas Day 1922 in New York and from an early age loved aviation. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 he was a student at New York University College of Engineering.
The following day he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Programme. He was called to active service on 3rd February 1943 and after completing 'boot camp' began his primary flying training at Souther Field in Americus, Georgia flying the Stearman PT-17. Souther Field was where Charles Lindbergh had first soloed many years before in a WW1 biplane.
After graduating from primary training he moved on to basic training at Greenwood, Mississippi and advanced training at Jackson, Mississippi where he flew his first fighter plane, the P40 Warhawk. He graduated as a fighter pilot on 12th march 1944.
As a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant he was assigned to the Eighth Air Force, Six Fighter Command, 339th Fighter Group, 505th Fighter Squadron based at Fowlmere, south of Cambridge. The following is an account of his first combat mission.
Every fighter pilot remembers his first combat mission and mine is one they will be talking about long after you and I are gone.
October 5th 1944. We were awakened early. It was a cold and windy morning, briefing was the usual quick and efficient session. Mission for the day - A Ramrod, escorting two boxes of B17's. A short hop, four hours, target Munster in the Ruhr Valley. Lots of flak expected, probably no fighter opposition, perhaps a few ME262's. Altitude twenty seven thousand feet, freezing level at two thousand, violent updrafts, gale warnings over the English Channel and North Sea. That means Air Sea Rescue won't be patrolling the flight path.
I was flying Chet Malarz's aircraft. It was a sleek P-51B. His crew chief told me it was a good airplane, the engine was practically new, only ten hours of flying time since it was installed. I was in White flight. Tom Rich was flight leader and I was flying his wing. Take-off was at nine fifty two. We circled the field in formation while the Group formed up. Landfall-out was at ten twenty
Six and the group headed out over the North Sea. I could see white caps on the water below us. It looked cold and inhospitable. Just before we hit the Dutch coast the fighters spread out in battle formation. Our group RV'd with the bombers as we made landfall-in.
The course was almost straight in across the Zuider Zee towards Hamburg, then a ninety degree turn towards the Ruhr Valley. We had nearly crossed the Zuider Zee, flying over some small islands, Denmark and Sweden to the north and the Third Reich was straight ahead. All was serene. It was difficult to believe that we were at war and that the enemy was far below.
Suddenly BAM! One puff of black smoke with an angry looking orange centre. FLAK! My engine quit cold and lost power. I called "Upper White Leader, this is Upper White Two here, my engine just cut out! I've been hit". Tom's calm voicereplied.
"Upper White two this is Upper White Leader. I'll go back with you. Do you know what's wrong?" I knew I must have been hit but it didn't make sense. One burst of flak at this altitude could never hit anyone... No smoke, no holes that I could see. I realised that the engine was running but it just didn't have any power.
I checked all the instruments... Oil temperature OK, Coolant temperature OK, Fuel pressure normal, Oil pressure seems a little low, had plenty of gas in my wing tanks but switched to fuselage tank just in case... No help there. Supercharger high blower in engaged... or is It? That's it! Oil pressure is falling off and the supercharger has disengaged. Since the supercharger is engaged with engine oil pressure I must have been hit in an oil line or in the supercharger itself... That was bad news. I can't go far without oil. Five minutes if I'm lucky...
I was at twenty thousand feet over the Zuider Zee and descending. "Bail out here Steve and you're a dead duck!" If I'm really lucky I'll be a POW... Then again there was neutral Sweden nearby...but I hadn't come all this way to become a POW in Sweden. Of course I might be able to make it to the North Sea and bail out over the water! Then I remembered the briefing! Storm warnings over the North Sea. No Air Sea Rescue boats patrolling today! No sense in worrying about that now. First things first. I called Tom over the radio, "Let's go home!" Tom's reassuring voice came back. "Good luck Steve, I'm staying right with you!"
That was the way it started... Two silver Mustangs, like knights of old, returning from the Crusades, wounded, exhausted and heading back to England. We slowly descended. I, in a flat glide with no power and Tom, flaps down, 'S-ing" back and forth to keep from overshooting me and so protect my rear from enemy aircraft. Tom was on the radio alerting Air Sea Rescue about our predicament.
My hands were full trying to get my plane back home to Fowlmere. I could not help thinking "and this is Chet's aircraft that I was supposed to take care of.”
My manifold pressure gauge was reading ten inches of mercury, the lowest reading on the dial. I had the trim tabs rolled back and the stick in my stomach in an effort to stretch my glide to the sea. I kept looking at my air speed and rate of descent. We hit the coast of Holland and I was over the North Sea, altitude seven thousand feet.
At this altitude, atmospheric pressure was enough to give the engine power to keep me aloft. I had hoped this would happen. As we hit the coast we were met by two P47's from Air Sea Rescue. They were escorting me back. My rate of descent was now reading zero. Things were looking better!
Of course I had a few problems too. Oil pressure was now zero and oil temperature was 40 degrees centigrade. It was now obvious that my problem was in the lubrication system. I looked back and saw Tom. What a comfort, still with me.
Down below the water was churning. I had to cool that engine somehow! If I could only get the oil in the bottom of the crankcase up those cylinder walls! That's it! I started to rock the plane violently in uncoordinated movements. It worked. The oil temperature started to come down.
Tom asked what I was doing. "Lubricating the engine" I replied. I kept looking ahead for the English coastline. Then Tom called "White Two, I can see the coast. We're going to make it!" Great news!
Then it happened. A runaway prop! While I tried to keep it from changing pitch all hell broke loose. The coolant boiled out and smoke and oil filled the cockpit. The engine sounded like someone was pounding on it with a sledgehammer. The heat in the cockpit was becoming unbearable! I looked at the altimeter, it read three thousand feet. Minimum altitude for bailing out was two hundred and fifty feet. As much as I disliked it the time had come for this aircraft and me to part company!
I radioed "This is it Tom, I'm bailing out" Then I lowered my seat, pulled my goggles over my eyes, lowered my head and released the canopy. I tore off my oxygen mask and detached everything that fastened me to the plane. Just before I disconnected my earphones I heard Archie Tower's (505th Sqn Ops Officer) voice on the radio. He must have been monitoring the whole thing back at Gas pump (call sign for Fowlmere Air Traffic.) "Say again Upper Five Four, I don't understand" Then Tom answered him "He said he's bailing out". For the first time there was a note of concern in his voice. Archie didn't answer. Then complete silence.
I raised myself to jump and the slipstream knocked me back into the cockpit. I then rolled the plane over and started to drop out. Just as I left my seat I looked back and saw the radio antenna and stabilizer just behind me. I was afraid of hitting the tail section so I eased back on the stick a little just as I fell and cleared the stabilizer.
I pulled the ripcord. My oxygen mask went floating past my face...Falling... Falling head first, spinning towards the water. Pop! The chute opened. Whitey, our parachute man, once told me that every chute packed at Fowlmere had opened. I was happy the record was still intact.
Then a strange thing happened. My dinghy floated in the air in front of me. The dinghy is stowed in a canvas pack that you sit on and was secured to your Mae West by a line aptly called an umbilical cord. The procedure for a water landing is to loosen your chute harness and drop out of your chute ten feet above the water. The canvas bag is carried away by the chute. The dinghy is pulled out of the pack by the umbilical cord. You hit the water... Splash... Inflate your Mae West... Inflate your dinghy... Climb in... Sit back and wait for rescue... Simple, right? Not exactly!
I hit the water almost as soon as the chute opened. No time to loosen it. Once the harness was wet it was impossible to unfasten all those buckles. Fortunately for me, when the dinghy floated past my nose in mid air I reached over and pulled the CO2 inflation cartridge and inflated the dinghy. The whole thing took place in a matter of seconds but it saved my life.
I hit the water and skipped from the top of one wave to the next. I was skimming off the top of the waves like a flat rock bounces off the surface of a lake. My chute, aided by the heavy winds was pulling me for a roller coaster ride. I was flat on my back, struggling to dump the chute and swallowing the North Sea like a pint of 'half and half' at the Chequers pub back at Fowlmere. I was in real trouble and I was on the verge of drowning.
Then this P51 starts to buzz me. It was Tom. What was he doing? He made another pass and then I understood. Having seen my predicament he was trying to spill the chute with his prop wash. On the second or third pass he succeeded. I think he hit the chute, at any rate it worked. I don't remember too much after that. I could not climb into the dinghy because the chute went down and started to pull me under. I just hung on to the raft for my life.
According to Tom they lost me initially in all those whitecaps. It took twenty minutes till they finally found me again. Then the P47's from Air Sea Rescue marked my spot with smoke bombs and dye. Tom said that when they finally located me I looked like a drowning rat hanging on to a doughnut. I tried to wave once and let him know I was alive but in the attempt I nearly drowned.
Things were getting worse! The water was cold. I prayed and I spoke to God. "It's up to you God, I can't think of anything else I can do" God didn't answer. He probably agreed with me. I knew Tom would be running out of fuel soon. Besides what more could he do? He must have been reading my mind. His plane passed overhead and 'waggled' its wings. He was wishing me well and headed for home.
The P47s having more fuel were still there... But for how long? I looked up at the circling P47s. They could not have had too much fuel left and would have to go home too. Then I would be alone. What could they do anyway? What were they waiting for?
I became aware of a change. It was a sound, an aeroplane engine but different. Then there it was! A Walrus. It was an Air Sea Rescue flying boat. A twin wing 'Flying bathtub'. Now he started to circle about. There was one thing I knew. He could never land. With this wind or on this water with ten foot waves a landing was out of the question. If this was Air Sea Rescues answer to my problems, then I was in deep trouble. God It's up to you. I think I passed out then.
I became aware of the sound of a plane taxiing on the water towards me and I came to. As I rose and fell on the wave crests I caught sight of the Walrus. God had answered my prayers. It had landed and was heading right at me.
Standing up in the hatch was an RAF airman with a big smile on his face. He yelled "Here Yank catch this" and he threw me a line. I don't know how I managed to grab the line but I did. He hauled me towards the plane and grabbed me with a boat hook.
A waterlogged pilot is heavy under normal conditions, with a parachute attached and the heavy seas I was an impossible load. "Don't worry" he said "There are two ships on their way".
A few minutes later I saw the trawler, HMS George Adgell, with the union jack flying. Then I was pulled into a lifeboat. Someone gave me rum to drink. It warmed my insides. I then realised how cold I had been. A seaman put a blanket around me and held me in his arms, just as my father would have done. I felt warm.
How was that Walrus going to manage to get off? I passed out. Later I learned that the Walrus cracked a pontoon trying to lift off. They were picked up by the other boat that had come to my rescue. The rescue launch 547 unsuccessfully attempted to tow the Walrus but it sank in the rough seas.
That night I stayed at an RAF hospital on the Thames Estuary. The next day I was back at Fowlmere and the day after, October 7th, I flew my second mission... Ramrod to Bremen.
I don't think I ever thanked Tom for all he did. He had called Air Sea Rescue and vectored two P47's, the Walrus and the two ships that finally rescued me. When the Walrus arrived at the scene I had been in the water for over an hour.
The pilot, F/O Francis Bedford, must have realised that I could not survive much longer and probably asked permission to land. He knew he would be lucky to make the landing, let alone the impossibility of a take-off. I had been in the cold water too long and he must have felt that he had to risk it.
Come to think of it I don't think I ever paid back Chet for the loss of his plane, Chet, I owe you a beer. Tom and the men of the Air Sea Rescue, I owe you my life and my undying gratitude. Thanks.
Thank you all.