Thursday, August 6, 2015

August 6, 1945

If you don't know that date, you need to do a search on the Internet, but you surely heard some mention of it today. I bring it up because Ernie Pyle's final collection of columns is still on my mind a few days after his 115th birthday. He visited a B-29 base in the Marianas in 1945, and wrote  a pretty good chapter about it. Of course he had no clue as to what would occur in August, but it sure is good reading now, especially if you couple it with Enola Gay, The Bombing of Hiroshima, by Gordon Thomas and Morgan Witts, Copyright 1977.

From B-29s, The Last Chapter, by Ernie Pyle: "Their lot was a tough one. The worst part was that they were over water every inch of the way to Japan and every inch of the way back. And, brother, it's a lot of water. The average time for one of their missions was more than fourteen hours. The flak and fighters over Japan were bad enough, but that tense period was fairly short. They were over the empire for only twenty minutes to an hour, depending on their target, and Jap fighters followed them for about fifteen minutes off the coast. What gave the boys the willies was "sweating out" those six or seven hours of ocean beneath them on the way back. To make it worse, it was usually at night. Some of the planes were bound to be shot up, and just staggering along. There was always the danger of running out of gas, because of many forms of overconsumption. If you had one engine gone, the others were liable to quit. If anything happened, you went into the ocean; that is known as ditching. Around a B-29 base you heard the word "ditching" almost more than any other. Ditching in the Pacific wasn't like ditching in the English Channel where your chances of being picked up were awfully good. Out here it was usually fatal."

Ernie provided lots of details and anecdotes about the planes and the men who flew them; he even got to go up in one to see what it was like. " I sat on a box between the pilots, both on the takeoff and for the landing, and much as I'd flown before, that was a real thrill. The islands are all relatively small, and you're no sooner off the ground than you're out over water, which feels funny. If the air is a little rough, sitting way up there in the nose is a very odd sensation, for the B-29 is so big that, instead of bumping or dropping, the nose goes into a willowy motion. It's rather like sitting out on the end of a green limb when it's swaying around."

One thing Ernie did not dwell on was the extreme danger crews faced at takeoff. Fully loaded with bombs and avgas, on a marginal runway, there were a lot of crews that died. From Enola Gay; "Gackenbach cocked his head: one of the engines was out of pitch. He shouted into the Quonset hut. The others had also heard the sound. They joined Gackenbach. The group listened as the aircraft continued to roar down the runway.

"He's airborne!"

Gackenbach's shout of relief was followed by Beser's warning. "He's not going to make it!"

The words were followed by a bright, orange-red flash, low in the sky over the runway, enveloping the bomber.

A split second later, the roar of high-octane fuel exploding over incendiary bombs reached the horrified watchers."

If you are interested in the history of the war in the Pacific, both of these books should be in your library.


Merle Morrison said...

It seems nobody really remembers Viet Nam, so I guess it's no surprise that very few remember WW 2 - unless they lost a family member.


David aka True Blue Sam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David aka True Blue Sam said...

Dad's brothers both fought in Vietnam. One was in the Army and ran water purification plants, so he saw a lot of the country from Hueys. The other brother joined the Air Force in 1950 and flew F-4's out of Thailand. He got over to Hawaii on R and R and called Dad. I would have been a junior in high school at the time. Dad got off the call and he tells us, "Jerry says for you boys to stay out of the Army. Those boys are getting their asses shot off down there." I took that to heart because I had always admired my uncle. He has told me lots of tales of flying missions out of Thailand, and I wish he would write them down, but I guess he won't. They had electronic countermeasures to throw off SAM's when he was there. The planes had to fly a tight formation and the SAM's would just miss them. He had a pilot in his flight that was always whistling and not paying attention, and he was constantly telling him to tighten up. They got back to base one day and that pilot told my uncle to "Get out of my cockpit." My uncle did better and got him moved to another flight. The very next time up my uncle could hear him whistling and visiting with his back seat man, when there was a warning that radar had locked on them. He kept whistling, even after they were told that a missile had launched. Pretty soon he was hollering Mayday, and he spent the rest of the war in Hanoi. I looked him up one time, and he has passed on now.

I sent my uncle a link to a post that Old NFO had about the attrition rate of our planes a bit earlier in the war, and my uncle wrote back:

"Jerry Johnson
Jul 26

I flew F-4s out of Ubon 67-68 and we flew 4 ships in pod formation.
We usually carried two jamming pods and 12- 500 pound bombs.

A lot of things had changed in a year. We didn't lose many airplanes and crews except when the dumb son of a bitch wouldn't fly formation."

He frequently mentions a man who had to eject over The Gulf of Tonkin and was never recovered, and a man who was lost in Scotland during low level practice. Those events stick with me, now.