1st Lt. Tom Rebel survived B-24 ‘Liberator’ mid-air collision in WW II
Tom Rebel of Burnt Store Isles, south of Punta Gorda, Fla. said, “I wanted to be a bomber pilot. I wanted to fly the biggest thing they had.” He ended up piloting a four-engine B-29 “Superfortress,” the largest bomber mass-produced in the United States during World War II.
Like everyone else who took Army Air Corps pilot training during he Second World War he started out small. A PT-19 was the first airplane Rebel learned to fly in 1944 at a base in Ballinger, Texas.
“I was pretty good at flying PT-17s, but when I soloed everything went fine until I started to land and saw another plane headed right toward me,” the 88-year-old former aviator said. “I got the plane down and landed safely, but my instructor wasn’t impressed.
“A little guy with a fiery temper he yelled at me: ‘Didn’t you see that windsock change directions?’ Because the direction of the wind changed student pilots were landing in the other direction. I had no idea about any of that.
Rebel recalled, rather sheepishly six decades later, “I had to write 100 times on a blackboard, ‘Look out for me. I land north on a south heading.'”
Despite his shortcoming he completed this phase of his flight training and continued on to St. Angelo, Texas where he learned to fly a bigger and faster PT-13 “Caydet.”
Rebel’s closest encounter with cremation came while at the controls of a B-24 four-engine “Liberator” bomber flying back from Omaha, Neb. to Denver, Colo. He had delivered some badly needed airplane parts to the base in Omaha and was returning to Denver with a dozen extra passengers on board.
“We had just gotten off the ground about 400 feet when our plane took a terrific jerk to the left. Both the copilot and I grabbed the controls, but we had no idea what had happened to us,” he explained. “We managed to stabilize the plane and slowly bring it around the way we came. As we looked out over the left wing we realized 14-feet of the wing was gone. What we didn’t know was why.
“We called the airport and told them to clear for an emergency landing. I knew we’d have one chance to make it. We were having trouble maintaining our altitude. We had to hit emergency power on both our inboard and outboard engines to give us more air speed and lift,” Rebel said.
“We were coming in faster than we normally would, but I knew once we let the landing gear down it would decrease our air speed further. At the last second we dropped the landing gear hoping it would lock in place just before we touched down.
“We came in low, the gear held and that was it. We were home free,” he said with a smile.
His crew learned after landing that two new pilots were probably doing aerobats in an AT-6 trainer when they flew into the bomber’s traffic pattern. Both pilots in the smaller plane were critically injured. Rebel said he never found out if they survived the crash.
After spending the better part of a year flying B-24s out of Denver, he transferred to B-29s.
“About the time I picked up the skeleton crew for my new B-29 was when they dropped the bomb and that was that,” Rebel said. “Our unit was supposed to take part in the invasion of Japan, but once the bomb was dropped things came to a screeching halt.”
He was offered the chance to fly B-29s after the war, but opted to get out of the service because he had a wife with a baby on he way. Rebel went to work for Firestone. After a dozen years working for them, he spent the remainder of his working career with Kelly-Springfield Tires where he retired in 1986.
He and his wife, Alyse, moved the Punta Gorda area in the late 1980s. They have two children: Tom and Diana.
D.O.B: 17 Sept. 1924
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 14 Dec. 1942
Discharged: 25 Dec. 1945
Rank: 1st Lt.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Mar. 6, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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This must have been a harrowing experience, but a good landing is one you survive.
I was a good friend of Roland M. Roskelley the pilot during this incident. He passed away about 5 yrs ago. He spent his entire life in Glendora, California. He was a kind and truly honorable man. He did not speak of this event until I saw a photo of the FDR in a book about the War in the Pacific. With unlimited thank yous, Jane Evans
I’m glad you liked Roland’s story. Please keep on reading these stories and tell a friend.