It was just after sunrise at the Municipal Airport, Guatemala City, Guatemala, in May 1943. Dense fog was burning off as a B-24, heavily loaded with fuel and bombs, took off for an eight-hour patrol mission to Galapagos Island (The Rock). The pilot was Captain Eddie Glass, the best pilot in the 45th Bomb Squadron, 40th Bomb Group. Accompanied by Navigator 1st. Lt. Don Manfredo and Crew Chief T/Sgt. Charles Olauson, Captain Glass was checking out a new flight crew for patrol duty to guard Pacific approaches to the Panama Canal.
The Municipal Airport was 4,900 feet above sea level in the center of a high valley ringed by mountains ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 feet high. The only pass through the mountains was a very narrow valley leading southwest to the Pacific coast, and at the time the B-24 took off, the pass was filled with clouds. Lovely Lake Amatitlan, at the south end of the valley, was visible from the airport. Amatitlan was 1,500 feet below the airport, and measured three by five miles in size.
As the B-24 lifted off the runway and its landing gear started to retract, the number 4 engine failed. Capt. Glass immediately shut off fuel to the engine and feathered its propeller. The high altitude and heavy gross weight of the plane combined to make it impossible for Captain Glass to maintain level flight on three engines. Maximum engine power was applied but the plane continued to descend. Although the terrain sloped downward ahead of the plane, there was not enough altitude for bailing out. Captain Glass called over the intercom, "Bombardier from Pilot. Open the bomb bays and salvo the bombs. We can't hold this altitude!" The Bombardier replied, "Roger."
Trouble: Opening the bomb bay doors added air resistance that caused the rate of descent to increase. Double trouble: The Bombardier hit the salvo switch -- nothing happened. He tried the normal release system -- again, nothing. He repeated both procedures. "Pilot from Bombardier. I tried both salvo and normal systems. The bombs won't release!"
Captain Glass called on the intercom, "Navigator from Pilot. Take the Crew Chief and release the bombs manually. Hurry. We are still losing altitude." The Navigator and Crew Chief yanked off their parachutes and ducked into the bomb bay. Crouching on the narrow catwalk above the open bomb bay doors, they looked down to see the water a short distance below the fuselage. Working feverishly, they began toggling out the heavy bombs, one at a time. The plane was getting close to the towering cliffs on the south edge of the lake, so Pilot Glass gently turned the crippled B-24 less than 100 feet above the water. The straining engines were still running at take off max power. The cylinder head gages showed all temperatures were above the red line.
As bombs continued to fall, Eddie nursed the plane through a second turn over the lake. Slowly, the airspeed began to increase. After the third circuit around the lake, Eddie reduced power to relieve strain on the three engines. Airspeed continued to increase as bombs were dropped, and finally the last bomb hit the water. The Navigator and Crew Chief moved back into the main cabin, and when the Navigator arrived at the flight deck, he told the Bombardier to close the bomb bay doors. That done, air drag decreased and the airspeed increased. Captain Glass climbed the plane from the lake up to traffic pattern altitude, and made a straight-in approach for an emergency, three-engine landing at the municipal airport.
Captain Glass taxied his B-24 to the military ramp, parked it, and cut its engines. The crew piled out of the B-24 in a hurry. The Captain was the last one to exit. Looking a bit pale, he walked straight to a mud puddle near the nose wheel. Kneeling, he submerged both hands into the mud, then, while smiling broadly, stood up, turned to his crew and exclaimed, "BOYS, MOTHER EARTH SURE FEELS GOOD TO ME!" Ignoring the mud, the crew crowded around their Pilot, shook his hand and patted him on his back. They were laughing gleefully and talking simultaneously. Their brush with death ended well.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: My crew and I had a ringside seat during this incident. We were preflighting our B-24 at the south end of the ramp just as Eddie's plane lifted off the runway and lost its engine. We anxiously watched the B-24 slowly descend toward the terrain until it looked to be almost skimming the ground. We could not see all of Lake Amatitlan, but knew the plane was headed for it. Even after losing sight of the B-24, we could still hear its laboring engines as it circled the lake. We expected to see at any moment a pillar of black smoke marking the plane's crash in the rugged terrain. After about ten agonizing minutes, we were overjoyed to see the crippled B-24 make an approach and emergency landing. Our crew whistled and cheered wildly as the tires squeaked on the runway. Capt. Glass and his crew had survived a death-threatening experience.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *