While Hunter had been successful in preventing the aircraft from rolling over, he was still struggling to regain control. His course had abruptly changed ninety degrees from northeast to southeast. He was losing altitude and was heading toward the mountains, lots of them. Realizing the extent of the problem, he gave the order for all crew members to abandon ship.
The plane was leaving the Arno River Valley and flying toward the Pratomagno Mountains, the Catenaia Alps (Alpe di Catenaia) beyond them, and the Luna Alps (Alpe della Luna) beyond them still, all part of the Apennines, the chain of mountains that run up the spine of the Italian peninsula. The three mountain ranges reached heights of 5,078, 4,639 and 4,770 feet, respectively. The aircraft's loss of altitude while heading toward these mountains put Major Hunter and his crew in a frightful situation.
Bill got the signal to bail from Todd. “Todd was on the interphone listening carefully for further instructions. When he looked at me and pointed to the escape hatch, it was time to go. The plane was diving and we had trouble opening the hatch. We were kicking it and, when the plane leveled off a bit [thanks to Hunter] the hatch gave way. You could see the patchwork on the ground below. I figure that we were at about 7,000 feet.
“I never had any experience in jumping before, and was trying to remember what we were told. I remembered something about a hinge. When I sat down with my back to the front of the plane and dropped my legs though the hatch, they were whipped back up, and I fell backwards. I could hear the flak —Boom Boom Ba Boom! It was deafening, but I had to go, so in one motion I just put my legs down again, braced my arms against the aft side of the hatch so I wouldn't hit my face, and slid out feet first.
“Wham! I slammed against the bottom of the fuselage, just as I felt a terrible concussion from a flak burst. I was gripping the rip chord tightly with my right hand and instinctively yanked it when I hit the plane. My chute opened almost immediately. As my chute opened, I could see the bottom of the ship above me. It looked so close. Then I felt a jolt. Oh what a jolt! It felt like the force of a hundred horses pulling on my shoulders.”
In a B-25J, there is a front escape hatch and a back escape hatch, and the bail-out procedures are different. To bail through the front hatch, the correct procedure is to stand at the forward edge of the hatch facing the rear of the plane, crouch, place your hands on the aft side the hatch and drop feet first through the hatch, using your hands and arms to protect your face and head from injury. This is basically what Bill did, but through the rear hatch. To jump from the rear hatch, the correct procedure is to stand at the aft edge of the hatch, facing the front of the plane, crouch and grip the aft edge of the hatch by your feet, then roll out headfirst as if your hands and feet were a hinge. Otherwise, as Bill experienced, you could be whipped against the bottom of the aircraft.
Todd followed right behind Bill. He didn't pull his chord as quickly and, when his chute mushroomed, he was at about the same altitude as Bill. The formation had banked to the right after aborting the bombing. Lieutenant Lonsdorf was flying the wing ship in the rear element of the second box in Armstrong's flight and saw the two men bail out in rapid succession. He could see the wounded aircraft beneath his right wing and slightly off to the right heading in the same direction as the formation. About ten seconds later, he saw another man bail out, but his chute didn't open for about seven or eight seconds. That was Denny, the engineer and top turret gunner. Lonsdorf then lost sight of Hunter's plane because he had to concentrate on flying his own plane.
Bill recalls: “When I last saw our ship, it was banking dizzily and pouring black smoke from the right engine. The impression it left me with was that Major Hunter was desperately trying to bring it under control.” Bill's gut feeling, however, was that it would never be brought under control. This is what he reported to military intelligence two months later.
As did Bill and Todd with the back hatch, Kinney had trouble opening the front hatch. It looked to him as though constant treading on the door caused the hinges to bind, but in several moments of struggling he finally forced it open.
It is difficult to know exactly who bailed first out of the front hatch. According to the intelligence briefing of Kinney, the next one out of the aircraft was Denny. However, sixty-five years later, Reynolds said he was the first one to bail out of the front hatch. Since Denny landed near Todd, it seems as though he must have been the next man out because two witnesses in other aircraft saw the first three chutes blossom one after another.
Denny in the upper turret most likely saw Kinney below him struggling to open the front hatch. Having seen Lanza and Todd bail out of the back hatch, Denny probably climbed over the bomb bay into the waist compartment and bailed out of the back hatch too.
When Hunter gave the signal to bail, Reynolds says he left his position in the nose of the aircraft and crawled through the narrow passageway under the flight deck into the navigator's compartment. When he got there, Kinney was kicking the hatch, bad knee and all, to get it open. Once the hatch was open, he says Kinney gave him the signal to bail and out he went.
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