Colonel Harry Conley, Squadron Commander of the 334th Bomb Squadron (pictured below right), tells the story of the 95th Bomb Group in his book Foxholes in the Sky. Here is an extract about the crash in Redlingfield, he notes that because that day's mission was deep into Germany the aircraft where loaded to their weight maximums with as much fuel and as many bombs as possible:
“By 8:30 in the morning they were all up in the air but a few, and we were getting ready to relax and go back to our desks to do some paper work until the time came to sweat out the return of our boys from bombing Germany. The plane then making its take off run was piloted by Lieutenant Kenneth B. Rongstad, one of our newer pilots, a cocky blonde kid with a lot of confidence in his flying skills. At this stage of our build-up of forces· in England, we were absorbing and training a great many new pilots and crews, and we were concerned about them as they proceeded on their first few missions. Ken Rongstad, however, was well regarded by most of us as both a good pilot and as a responsible captain of his crew1, although certainly not as experienced or as well trained as pilots who had arrived earlier.
“As Rongstad's plane lumbered along gaining speed nearing the end of the runway, it just barely rose off the and apparently started its bank to the left. But it was still too close to the ground! The plane stalled and its left wing hit the ground. The plane spun around and crashed! It started burning right away. I ran and jumped in my Jeep and drove as fast as I could over to the crash. I could see that Dave McKnight and Doc Imes were also driving madly over there to the end of the runway to help the crew. I parked as close as I dared and ran to the plane, which was now burning well and igniting ammunition, like very loud popcorn going off inside. I was one of the first to get near the crash. I was less than fifty yards from the burning wreck when - WHOOOM! - the whole thing exploded big time! It literally blew me back flat on my backside! I got up again and approached the burning wreckage; I tried to drag a couple of the boys out of there, but they were all dead, and the heat of the fire was so great that I couldn't get anyone out anyway. Lt. Rongstad and his whole crew were killed.
“As Squadron Commander, one of the duties I reserved for myself was to write to the families of the men in my Squadron who were killed. I had always felt that it was important for me to soften the blow of the loss of a son in action in my Squadron. I had learned firsthand about the need to help parents with their grief when I had to take the body of my roommate, Errol Crowe, back to his parents after he was killed in a flight training accident. So I wrote to Lt. Rongstad's mother; however, she wrote back to me insisting that he could not have been killed as he was too good a pilot. I had to write back to her, again explaining what happened in the crash and that no one in the crew could have possibly lived through the explosions and fire. She continued to refuse to recognize that her son was killed. She insisted that he couldn't have been killed; it must have been somebody else in the cockpit of that plane. We had to exchange several more letters, until she finally stopped corresponding with me. She certainly stayed in denial of her son's death for a long time, and trying to reason with her was pretty difficult for me.
“There was a farmhouse about forty yards from the crash, and inside it was the farmer's wife, eight months along in her pregnancy, along with her two-year-old daughter. Thank God neither she nor her daughter were physically hurt, and the severe trauma did not disturb her pregnancy. Her home was demolished around her with the force of the explosion and pieces of flying debris. Doc Imes took her to the base hospital for examination, and she was apparently unharmed. Her husband, the farmer, had been out in the fields when the plane crashed. He came running across the fields when he saw the crash in what appeared to be his back yard. He was immensely relieved when Doc Imes walked her out of the shambles of what had been his home and loaded her in his field ambulance. She eventually gave birth to another daughter, and the family moved into a home nearby. And, of course, the American Army compensated her for her physical losses, but I doubt that she and her husband ever wanted to live that close to an airfield again.”
Colonel Harry Conley died in 2002.
Ken Hutcherson was a crew member on the B17 that took off just ahead of Kenneth Rongstad's aircraft on that fateful day. He was watching behind him and said it was shocking to see the aircraft crash as the pilot apparently tried to turn too sharply to catch up with the formation and lost lift. He said: “On October 20 we were transferred to the 95th BG due to heavy losses on the Schweinfurt raid. When we arrived the crews were just returning from a mission and we heard there was one plane missing. It was Lt. Rongstad's crew with whom we had trained in Washington and Oregon. They had ditched in the North Sea on their first mission on a raid to Duren. They were picked up by air sea rescue and rejoined the 95th. They later crashed on takeoff and the crew was killed. We had taken off ahead of them and I was looking back out the radio hatch and witnessed the crash.”
Many thanks to the 95th Bomb Group Heritage Association/Red Feather Club. Extracts from No Foxholes in the Sky by Harry M Conley edited by Mark H Miller and Stuart G Whittelsey Jr. - Food and Nutrition Press Military Division and B 17s over Berlin by Ian Hawkins.