This day, in 1944: “Memphis Rebel” crashes through a fuel dump – and Thurman Morrison survives

The above photo looks like a scene of tragedy – a wrecked P-47, flames, and firefighting foam everywhere. It very well could have been, except for luck and the rugged construction of the Thunderbolt.

On April 29, 1944, the 362nd group provided withdrawal escort for bombers returning from Berlin, on a mission led by Capt. Bill Flavin. The P-47s were each equipped with two 108-gallon pressed paper tanks. At this stage, the group had been flying two escort missions a day, and the P-47s were becoming mechanically worn. On take-off, Capt. Thurman Morrison’s P-47 “Memphis Rebel” failed to get airborne. “I recognized at the ‘go-no go’ point along the runway that he was not going to make it off the ground,” said Bob McKee, his wingman, who was also taking off at the time. “I clicked on my throttle’s water injection switch to give me extra power and eased off the PSP runway, to the right and over the sod area as I began to overrun Morrison’s aircraft.” McKee got off the ground in time to see Morrison’s plane skid into a gasoline dump containing 400,000 gallons of fuel, stored and camouflaged by the RAF right at the end of the runway. The dump erupted in a titanic fireball.

McKee’s plane was flipped onto its right side at 50 feet of altitude and very little speed, and only some frantic flying saved McKee from going in, too.

The non-flying personnel watching the take-off from “sweaters’ hill” “wrote him off as one dead fighter pilot,” said “Andy” Anderson, the 379th’s S-2. Even more shocking than this accident was Morrison’s appearance back at the operations tent later. “He walked in carrying his parachute, utterly unscathed,” Anderson said. “Memphis Rebel,” P-47D 42-75142, slid through a sheet of flame, then pivoted on its belly around 180 degrees, keeping its pilot safe until it emerged on the other side. “Two of the anti-aircraft GIs who dwelt in tents at the end of the runway had dashed to Capt. Morrison’s aid and, using a pickaxe, pried open his jammed canopy and dragged him out of the burning plane. Capt. Morrison. plane and all, had skidded right through the blazing inferno he had started, but he sat there, trapped in his cockpit, until the two brave GIs pried him out. You have to give credit to a couple of heroes there, to leap on to a burning airplane carrying a very volatile load of high-octane gasoline.”

 

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