Fly Boy

In December of 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, crippling the American Pacific Fleet and drawing them into the war. My then 19-year-old father enlisted eleven months later in November of 1942. He knew he was going to be drafted and since boats were not his thing and he didn’t want to engage in hand to hand combat, he decided to join the air force. He was trained as a radio operator and mechanic at the Army Air Forces Technical School in Chicago, receiving his diploma in May of ’43, then went to the Air Forces Technical Training Command at the Boca Raton Field in Florida to attain his radio observer qualifications the following month.

Eventually he was assigned to the 73rd Wing of the 874th Squadron of the Army Air Corps and began training as a radar operator, his eventual role during combat missions. His flight record shows that he trained in a B-17F for about six weeks before moving on to a B-29 in mid-June of 1944. Nicknamed the Super Fortress, the most infamous example of this particular model of aircraft most certainly is The Enola Gay which carried out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Flying at heights that Japanese planes could not reach and at a speed they could not match, the B-29 proved an implacable and unassailable weapon for the U.S. military.

Bombing runs on the Japanese islands from mainland China using B-29s began mid- 1944, but they achieved only limited success in large part because the capacity of the gas tanks was insufficient to allow them to reach Tokyo – the most coveted target. U.S. Marines captured the Northern Mariana Islands in November of that year, allowing American access to air fields within range of the Japanese capital. My father’s squadron was stationed on Saipan, one of these islands, and immediately began making bombing runs to Tokyo.

These initial forays proved less destructive than desired for two principal reasons. Firstly, conventional bombs need to hit particular targets to be successful as they explode on impact. Tokyo was well protected by numerous anti-aircraft guns, forcing allied bombers to carry out missions at such a great altitude that accuracy naturally diminished as a consequence. Secondly, the buildings in Tokyo were almost all made of wood. This more pliant construction material made Japanese structures less likely to collapse and set off a domino effect of imploding buildings than their predominately brick and concrete counterparts in The European Theatre. The Americans needed to invent a new kind of bomb if they hoped to inflict sufficient damage on Tokyo to bring the Japanese to their knees.

In 1942 a new substance called napalm had been invented in a secret lab set up by the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service at Harvard University. Napalm was formulated to burn at temperatures in excess of 2000˚F and to adhere to whatever it touches. It deoxygenates the area in which it combusts while simultaneously producing large amounts of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. People caught in a napalm bomb attack burn alive and/or choke to death unless they are lucky enough to be immediately vaporized by the heat released when the bomb explodes. Napalm was packed into a new weapon called an incendiary bomb. The American Air Force built a mock wooden Japanese village in China to test their new napalm-packed incendiary bomb. When every structure was burned to the ground in the test run, the Americans knew they had found exactly what they needed to raze Tokyo.

In March of 1945, Curtis LeMay, the Air Force Commander in Chief in the Pacific, began preparations for a large scale assault on Tokyo. He ordered his engineers to lessen the weight of the B-29s by removing all but the rear guns. This improved their flying range and maneuverability. He also ordered that all bombing runs take place at night when Japanese defences were generally at their weakest. On the evening of March 9, 1945, Operation Meetinghouse was launched. 334 B-29s, including my father’s, took off en masse from airfields in the Marianas. 279 of these reached Tokyo and successfully dropped 1,665 tons of incendiary bombs on the sleeping city in the course of one horrible night. Estimates of the number of civilians killed in the raid – mostly women, children and the elderly – run upwards from 100,000, with as many as 1,000,000 injured and another 1,000,000 displaced. Operation Meetinghouse was the single deadliest air raid in all of World War II. To put this in perspective, about 80,000 and 60,000 people respectively were immediately killed by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Altogether my father took part in 31 bombing runs, mostly on targets of military significance like warehouses and manufacturing plants where very few casualties would likely have resulted. Operation Meetinghouse was the only mission he flew which specifically targeted residential areas, but I have no way of knowing if he was aware of the huge death toll at the time or even later. I do know, however, that in 1992 David McCullough’s biography “Truman” was published and my father, an avid reader of history and biographies, read it. He was deeply effected when he came to the section dealing with the bombing of Tokyo. I noticed at the time that he seemed off – I wasn’t sure how or why, but he just wasn’t himself. I asked my mother what was up and she told me to give him space because he was experiencing some deep and troubling emotions stirred up by the book. I can only imagine how awful it must have been for him to remember, or possibly to realize for the first time at 69 years of age, how many innocent people had been killed in that one night. Dying in an incendiary bomb attack almost certainly means burning or choking to death, and I’m sure my father was also traumatized by the idea that he was complicit in inflicting such pain and suffering on blameless civilians.

I will never know if my dad ever fully reconciled himself to this discovery. Like most vets, he very rarely spoke about his war experiences. Eventually he did came back to himself several months after reading McCullough’s book, but one can only speculate as to how he was able to move on once again.

My father returned home from the war a broken man and moved back into his parents’ house to recover. His was one of the only planes in his squadron that survived – this despite once having to make an emergency landing after being hit by anti-aircraft flak. A stray bullet went straight through my father’s torso just above the left hip during his plane’s descent on that occasion. He received multiple medals for his service, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean anything to him. He would much rather have gotten back the five years of his young life that were stolen by the war – three of active service and two more of recuperation once he got home.

Despite my father’s reticence to speak about the war, little things about his experiences slipped out over the years. He couldn’t stand the smell, let alone the taste, of pineapple because he’d eaten so much of it in the South Pacific. My mom could only make pineapple upside-down cake when he was out of the house. One time he also mentioned how terrifying it was when the bullet which pierced his side continued to ricochet around the fuselage after he’d been hit and took down two other crew members before exiting the plane. Traces of that bullet were left in his body and he would find little bits of shrapnel on his wash cloth for months after the war was over.

There are currently only two functioning B-29 bombers in existence, and one visited my local airfield last summer. Three of my siblings and I went to visit. It was breathtakingly small inside, and for the first time I got a real sense of how terrifying it must have been for our father and his entire crew every time they flew into enemy territory. My dad was just shy of 22 years old in early 1945, yet he guided his plane safely to and from its target 31 times. 31 times he sat huddled in the freezing cold tail of the fuselage with the stinking toilet bucket right beside his small navigation table. 31 times he sat there for the 14 hour round trip from Saipan to Tokyo and gritted his teeth as they flew in and out of enemy fire. 31 times he sat there constantly fearing for his life. 31 times he did his duty. He did what many young men do, but because he was my father, he is my hero. I just wish I could tell him that.

4 thoughts on “Fly Boy

  1. It’s absolutely incomprehensible to me that such an event could happen. That and so many more. I pray that we never have another war. It’s unbelievable that every single person involved during both world wars had to experience the pain, suffering, deprivation and loss that it entailed. There are no winners in war. I can’t even watch movies, series and documentaries about war. It upsets me too much.

    Your father was just a boy. A boy among boys. How could they not be forever scarred from these experiences.

    If you haven’t read “A God In Ruins” by Kate Atkinson, you should. It’s about a young gunner pilot in WW11. Her book “Life After Life” is a companion to it and should be read first, though both stand alone. It puts you right in that airplane as if you were there.

    I hope you saw the 4th line production that featured a brilliant scene of an aircraft bombing mission. (I can’t remember the name of the play.) It had most people in tears, me included.

    I’m sorry your Dad is not here to answer the questions you have. But as you say, he didn’t want to talk about it. Who would?

    You are such a good writer, Margaret. I really enjoy your posts. Being reminded of the hardships and horrors people suffered just one generation ago makes what’s happening today look like a holiday.

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  2. Thanks for the book recommendations – I will be sure to look into them. I see the people currently protesting about having to sit on their couches and can’t believe how selfish and soft we have become. Our parents’ generation lived through depression and war, and current generations feel put-out because they can’t get a haircut. Holy shit!

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