Editor’s note: I originally wrote this story as a Memorial Day piece for The Washington Times in 2014.
As flames filled his B-26 Marauder over northern France, 1st Lt. James Taaffe scrambled through the bailout checklist.The bomber had taken a direct hit from German flak under the pilot’s compartment, and flames enveloped the aircraft from that point back, rendering the bomb bay doors useless as an escape route.
Capt. Elmer Gedeon fought to keep the plane aloft. It had just dropped its payload on a German V-1 rocket site from about 12,000 feet but had not cleared the target area — and its accompanying anti-aircraft defenses — by the moment of impact. It was around 7:30 p.m. on April 20, 1944.
Taaffe reached to open the escape hatches above the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats. Below, he could see his bombardier, Pvt. Charles Atkinson, clawing toward the pilot’s compartment from his station in the nose of the plane. The navigator-bombardier, 2nd Lt. Jack Marsh, was close behind. Taaffe couldn’t see the other three members of the crew, whose stations were to the rear of the plane: Staff Sgt. Joseph Kobret, the tail gunner; Sgt. John Felker, the engineer and top turret gunner; and Sgt. Ira Thomas, the radio operator and waist gunner.
Watching from a neighboring plane, 2nd Lt. Herschel Lockett estimated that Gedeon’s Marauder managed to hold course for only five seconds or so after taking the hit before peeling toward the ground. It was time for the crew to escape.
Glancing to his left, Taaffe saw Gedeon still conscious and at the controls. The hatch above his head open, Taaffe jumped clear of the plane and blacked out. He came to several seconds later, suspended by parachute, floating through the air.
“I recovered consciousness about 7,000 feet later and before I landed, saw the plane spin by me and go in,” Taaffe said in an Army Air Forces report completed after the war. “Was engaged with small arms fire and wounds until captured and saw no other chutes.”