The bomber had taken a direct hit from German flak under the pilot’s compartment, and flames enveloped the aircraft from that point back, rendering the bomb bay doors useless as an escape route.
Capt. Elmer Gedeon fought to keep the plane aloft. It had just dropped its payload on a German V-1 rocket site from about 12,000 feet but had not cleared the target area — and its accompanying anti-aircraft defenses — by the moment of impact. It was around 7:30 p.m. on April 20, 1944.
Taaffe reached to open the escape hatches above the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats. Below, he could see his bombardier, Pvt. Charles Atkinson, clawing toward the pilot’s compartment from his station in the nose of the plane. The navigator-bombardier, 2nd Lt. Jack Marsh, was close behind. Taaffe couldn’t see the other three members of the crew, whose stations were to the rear of the plane: Staff Sgt. Joseph Kobret, the tail gunner; Sgt. John Felker, the engineer and top turret gunner; and Sgt. Ira Thomas, the radio operator and waist gunner.
Watching from a neighboring plane, 2nd Lt. Herschel Lockett estimated that Gedeon’s Marauder managed to hold course for only five seconds or so after taking the hit before peeling toward the ground. It was time for the crew to escape.
Glancing to his left, Taaffe saw Gedeon still conscious and at the controls. The hatch above his head open, Taaffe jumped clear of the plane and blacked out. He came to several seconds later, suspended by parachute, floating through the air.
“I recovered consciousness about 7,000 feet later and before I landed, saw the plane spin by me and go in,” Taaffe said in an Army Air Forces report completed after the war. “Was engaged with small arms fire and wounds until captured and saw no other chutes.”
Back at home base
Sept. 19, 1939, was a beautiful day in the nation’s capital. Skies were clear and temperatures hovered in the mid-70s as the Washington Senators prepared to play the Cleveland Indians at Griffith Stadium.
As was customary, the Senators’ pennant hopes were long gone by that point, as they entered the game with a 62-81 record, sitting 37 games back of the first-place New York Yankees. It was as good a time as any for manager Bucky Harris to try out a rookie, so he penciled in Elmer Gedeon’s name on the lineup card. Batting sixth, playing center field.
Gedeon, 22, had made his major league debut the day before against the Detroit Tigers, coming in as a late-game replacement for Johnny Welaj in right field and striking out in his only trip to the plate. Now, the Cleveland native fresh out of the University of Michigan would get his first big-league start against his hometown team.
He took full advantage, producing three singles and a walk in his five trips to the plate as a crowd estimated at 500 bore witness. Impressed by Gedeon’s performance in a 10-9 for the team better known as the Nats, Harris vowed to continue playing the “long-legged rookie” in center field, as the Washington Evening Star put it.
Gedeon would never play in another major league game, but those five times he appeared in the box scores in September 1939 would make him a compelling footnote in the global conflict that had begun some three weeks earlier with Germany’s invasion of Poland.
By the time World War II came to an end nearly six years later, Gedeon was one of only two men who had played in the majors to be killed in action. The other, Harry O’Neill, was killed at Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945; he had seen action in one game for the Philadelphia A’s, on July 23, 1939, and never even got a chance to bat.