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Why Was I a Survivor?
The Story of Robert J. Sorenson
published in the Hell's Angels Newsletter November, 1984
Copyright © 303rd BGA, Bud Klint, Editor

November 11, 1944, Armistice Day . . . but, for us it was just another fighting day to get the blasted war over so we could all go home. We were stationed at Molesworth, England, part of the famous 303rd, "Hell's Angels," B-17 Bomb Group. I was the Waist Gunner on the crew of Lt. Paul Stephan. Other crew members were: Lt. John Clinger, Co-pilot; Lt. Harold Lewis, Navigator; Sgt. Tom Tapley, Togglier; Sgt. Dwight Phillips, Engineer; Sgt. Ray Ladurini, Radio; Sgt. Ed Harris, Tail and Sgt. Stan Keyes, Ball.

The whistle blew at 3:30 AM. "Breakfast at 4, briefing at 4:30." It was a typical English morning. The fog was so thick, our clothes were damp by the time we reached the mess hall. We talked as we ate: "I'll bet we hit Berlin today, better eat all we can." "I hope it's a milk run." "With this fog, we'll be back in the sack by 6 AM."

In the briefing room we were told this was to be a quickie; a short run to the Ruhr Valley. That was good news. If we did get off, we'd be back by noon. It was the eleventh mission for our crew; another reason for optimism. It seemed that if a crew got past 10 missions, they were riding a lucky star and had a good chance of finishing their tour.

We picked up our flying equipment and piled into the truck which hauled us to the hardstand where the ground crew was getting our plane, Duffy's Tavern, ready to go. By 5 AM we were loaded with four tons of bombs, the crew had checked all of their equipment and we were just waiting for the signal to start engines and taxi into take-off position. The fog hung on, so we sat and sweated it out. Waiting like that, it seemed that time almost stopped. Finally, at 5:30, we got the green flare. The fog had lifted enough for us to take off. The mission was "Go."

As our turn came and the pilot gunned Duffy's Tavern down the runway, the visibility didn't seem to be that great. As we left the ground and, almost before the wheels were retracted, we were into the "soup." Shortly, Lt. Stephan told us we would be on instruments until we cleared 18,000 ft. That made everyone a bit jittery. We chatted over the intercom to ease the tension.

About 45 minutes later, the pilot announced we were at 14,000 ft. and told me to arm the bombs. I usually did that when we were over the Channel, but today, we would be on oxygen before we cleared the overcast so I pulled the "safety pins" early.

"Pilot to Waist: Are all pins pulled?" "Waist to Pilot: Yes, Sir." "Pilot to crew: We are at 14,700 feet. Put on oxygen masks." Those were the last words I heard over the intercom. About 10 minutes later, we must have been at about 17,000 ft., I noticed a bright red glow out the left waist window. Thinking we were breaking through the clouds and the glow was the sun, I stood up to look out. That was no sun! There was a ten-foot tail of flame coming from the No. 1 engine!

I started to holler over the intercom: "No. 1 engine on fire!" but I don't think the pilot ever heard me because, almost at the same instant, the plane flipped over, went into a spin and then exploded.

Sgt. Keyes had been sitting in the waist area near me. His parachute pack lay beside him. Mine was by the rear exit door. I started for it as I gave the alarm over the intercom, but I never reached it.

As the plane flipped, I was thrown against the floor with such force that I couldn't move a muscle. It probably was only a split second, but it seemed like a long time. Then came the terrible explosion which blew me out through the fuselage head first. I remember my hips getting caught between some of the heavier steel ribs of the plane and I had to twist my body before going through.

Once in the air, everything seemed to be floating and there was a terrific ball of fire. All at once, out of the debris, came a parachute pack. It fell right into my arms. I was conscious at the time and snapped the chest pack onto my harness.

I had no fear of dying, I wasn't scared and knew I must keep my head. I may have blacked out for a few seconds for the next thing I knew, I was floating free. There was no debris around me and the fireball was gone.

I remembered our instruction to count to ten before pulling the ripcord. I counted fast and pulled the ring. Nothing happened. I looked at my hand. I was holding the ring, but there was no cord attached to it. I shook my hand and thought I threw the ring away, then started clawing at the pack. There was no sensation of falling, but I knew I had to get that chute open.

I passed out. My complete life went through my mind; every good thing and every bad thing, I even saw my grandparents. It was almost like meeting them in a new world. They had been dead for 15 years, but they seemed as real as they were when I was a kid on their farm.

When I regained consciousness, I started tearing at the pack again. Finally it opened partially, but I was tangled in the cords. As I struggled, I noticed that part of the chute was burned and hung above me like a tattered rag.

I prayed all the way down. I must have passed out three or four times. It seemed like I'd never get to the ground. The last thing I remembered was seeing a large tree coming at me very fast.

The Fortress crashed in flames on the road between the villages of Much Wenlock and Bourton, but wreckage was strewn over a four- mile area. Part of the cockpit and a wing section landed in front of the Much Wenlock post office. Miraculously, no one on the ground was injured.

The nearest residence was that of Mr. Tom Craig of Westwood Farm. He recalls that fateful morning: "It was so wet and foggy, I decided to stay in and put up the wages (make out the payroll), before going to have a look at the cattle, else I might have been in the direct path of the failing bomber. Hearing the roaring of engines and several explosions, I rushed from the house in the direction of the crash. There was wreckage everywhere. What was left of the fuselage was an inferno with ammo and bombs exploding. It was useless to get close to the site so I ran back to the house and rang up the police and fire brigade."

Sorenson didn't learn many of the details of that morning until 15 years later when he was able to establish contact with the two men who found him and probably were responsible for saving his life. They were neighbors and members of the Wenlock Home Guard.

One of those men, Mr. Edward Townsend, told this story: "Harry Murdoch and I rushed to the crash site to try to lend a hand. When we got out of town, Burt Luscott, another of the Home Guard, was stopping traffic from Much Wenlock since the road ahead was blocked by flaming wreckage. Murdoch and I set off across the marshy fields to search for any survivors. It was misty and we couldn't see too far, but in the second field from the road, we thought we heard a faint 'Help.' We set off in the direction indicated and shortly came upon an airman leaning over some wooden rails in the hedgerow. He looked in a very bad state and was only half conscious. He apparently had walked or crawled 60 or 70 yards from a large oak tree where we later found the burnt and torn remains of a parachute. He was still holding the metal grip of the parachute ripcord. Two more local men came up and together, we placed the injured airman on an iron hurdle (gate) from the hedge and carried him to the road. Shortly an ambulance arrived and took him off to the hospital. I often wondered about him and didn't know he had survived until he contacted me in 1959."

Sorenson picks up the story: The next thing I was aware of was two days later when I woke up in the hospital. They told me I had a concussion, was missing a few teeth, my spine was crushed, my neck broken in two places and I had a blood clot in my left eye.

I was pleased to find that Sgt. Phillips, our engineer was in the next bed. They had found him eleven miles from where I landed. His back was broken in several places. He told me that we were the only survivors.

No one will ever know just what happened or why. Much Wenlock was about 200 miles off the course we should have taken that morning. Many theories have been advanced but no definite conclusions were ever reached.

On November 11, 1948, the town of Much Wenlock unveiled a memorial clock mounted on an old oak panel and affixed to the wall of the town Guildhall. It bears the wings of the USAAF and the RAF along with this inscription: "In honour of the sacrifices in the cause of freedom made by those members of the Allied Air Forces who lost their lives in the Borough of Wenlock, 1939-1945." Below that are the names of seven of Sorenson's crew mates, three other American and six British airmen who lost their lives in that area.

In concluding the story of his experiences, Sorenson shakes his head in bewilderment. "On this ill-fated mission, two out of nine survived. Why? The Lord, alone, knows the answer."

Robert J. Sorenson returned to his native Michigan after the war. He has since retired and lives with his wife, Mary Jane, in the Rio Grande valley of Texas at Edinburg. The other survivor, Dwight A. Phillips, Jr. is a truck driver. He and his wife, Elloree, live in Riverdale, GA. Perhaps one day Dwight will send us his personal tale of terror in the skies over Much Wenlock, England on Armistice Day, 1944.