At 6 feet and weighing less than 140 pounds, Jim Rossman was 20 years old in 1944, when he nearly lost his life over the English Channel in World War II.
A copilot of a B-24 heavy bomber, Rossman would fly 30 missions — and survive daylight attacks from Adolf Hitler’s German Luftwaffe.
“I don’t know how we did it,” Rossman told The St. Petersburg Times in 2005. “I guess we were young.”
As the future owner of Pasco County Insurance Agency in Dade City, Rossman had his part in the “Greatest Generation,” a time in our nation’s history described by Tom Brokaw’s best-selling novel about the sacrifices and struggles made by veterans in World War II.
Rossman’s journey with history began with as many bananas and milkshakes as he could consume to put on enough weight to make the cut with the Army Air Forces.
He was a teenager living in Tampa when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Soon after that fateful event, Jim Rossman joined up at MacDill Field in Tampa.
His group, known as the Flying Eight-Balls, would later set sail for the United Kingdom aboard the Queen Mary on Sep. 4, 1942.
Decorated on one side with a winged bomb cartoon of a pool hall 8-Ball, Rossman’s B-24 Liberator had a thin metal skin that offered little protection against German strafing in the air, or antiaircraft fire from below.
“You’d see that plane coming in at you, firing those guns, you knew you were in for it,” Rossman said in his interview with The St. Petersburg Times.
A full account of the American Air Offensive against Nazi Germany is archived at the American Air Museum in Britain.
Located north of London, visitors can read a document that details the story behind the formation of the 44th Bombardment Group at Shipdam, England, and you can learn the heroic story behind Rossman and the Flying Eight-Balls.
On March 12, 1944, Rossman and his men were scheduled for a sixth mission deep into Germany when bad weather forced them to take an alternate target, the museum records show.
A closer target meant more fuel reserves. But, when flying over France, they were suddenly attacked by enemy fire.
“We (received) some antiaircraft or flak damage and lost one engine over the target,” Rossman recounted.
Since Rossman’s crew was part of the Flying Eight-Balls that day with worsening weather, the pilots returning with the most aircraft damage dropped through the clouds first and then attempted a landing.
“Unfortunately, there was more damage to (our) fuel tanks and after flying around for 3 ½-hours it came our turn to let down. We did this and flew into the clear at some 600 feet and quickly spotted a small English Fighter Base with a grass landing strip,” Rossman said, according to the museum’s records.
Rossman’s navigator did the best he could heading the B-24 Liberator in a general direction that took them out over the English Channel.
It was then they lost another engine.
“A B-24 doesn’t fly well on two engines and we certainly couldn’t climb,” the historic document says.
Rossman and his crew cleared the White Cliffs of Dover.
Then, they flew under a high-tension power line that was 200 feet high.
With a landing in sight, Rossman’s crew lost the third engine.
“By the grace of God and nothing else, I looked out my right window and there in perfect position for landing was the fighter strip. With no time to prepare or make decisions we turned to line up with the strip. (We) made a picture-perfect belly landing, sliding in on the grass, each moment expecting the plane to disintegrate and kill us all,” Rossman said, as recorded in the museum’s archives.
The crew members of Rossman’s B-24 boosted each other out of the aircraft when it started to burst into flames.
Black smoke quickly engulfed the crash site.
“After we were taken to the hospital on this English base to be checked out, something unusual happened. Hospital attendants came bearing a man on a stretcher. He had been cleaning the windshield on an English fighter parked there. He looked up at the last moment to see (our aircraft) pass over his head. With all engines dead we made no noise and the shock almost caused him to have a heart attack,” Rossman recounted.
The crew of 10 men made it back to flying duty at Shipdam.
“I was always real careful, real conservative,” Rossman said in his interview sixteen years ago.
He made his final bombing run on May 30, 1944.
A week later, the Allied forces began the D-Day invasion along the beaches of France.
Jim Rossman found out the airlines did not want to hire such a youthful-looking pilot like him when the war was over.
That is when he decided to get into the insurance business.
He hired Scott Black, another youthful-looking man who later became a commissioner and mayor of Dade City.
“Jim was a fine gentleman and a very good friend,” recalled Ted Johnson at the time of Rossman’s death in October 2014.
Johnson visited the American Air Museum in Britain years later, where he was able to take updated photographs to bring back to Jim Rossman in Dade City.
Much of Ted’s research overseas was used as a reference for this column and is a part of the story behind the formation of the 44th Bombardment Group at Shipdam, England.
“He is a real hero in my book,” said Johnson, who also is vice president of the Zephyrhills Military Museum in East Pasco County.
Rossman’s story is so special, Johnson said, it should be preserved and shared.
Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at ">.
Published December 16, 2020