This story, "Rangoon Rescue," was written by Bill Rooney in 1945 after he interviewed rescued 40th Group crew members in the hospital in Calcutta. It was submitted to AIR FORCE Magazine but never published. Because this mission was one of the significant episodes in the history of the 40th Group, we thought it might be appropriate to distribute this story at our Second Reunion, Arlington, TX, October, 1981.
Air Force Magazine sure gets around. Even the Japs read it. But that isn't all that twenty-nine B-29 combat crewmen had to tell about their four months as prisoners of the Japanese.
Resting in the American General Hospital in Calcutta after being freed from the prison in which the Japanese held them for four months along with hundreds of other Allied prisoners, the B-29 crewmen looked back on their experience pretty much as one of those bad dreams. The idea of seeing friendly faces once again, of sleeping on real beds with nice clean sheets and of having clean clothes and real American food ---with ice cream too--was almost too much after living for what seemed endless time in the filth and misery of a Rangoon jail.
On December 14, 1944, a B-29 task force struck at the Rama Vl Bridge, Thailand and the Central Railway Station, Rangoon, Burma. It was in the latter striking force that after bombs away a terrific explosion occurred just beneath the planes. Grave damage was sustained by several of the aircraft and crew members were forced to bail out behind enemy lines. Ordnance Officers have since determined that the explosion was caused by two colliding bombs.
Completely cowed by the Japanese, the Burmese people gave only passive assistance to the downed men and with one exception the men were all taken prisoner within 24 hours after their bail-out. T/Sgt. E. F. Trinkner, Jr., tail gunner on one of the planes, managed to evade capture for six days before being turned over to the Japs by the Burmese. The plane from which Sgt. Trinkner parachuted, incidentally, crashed only 500 yards from the prison in which he was afterward held.
Beatings began with capture
From the instant of their capture there began an almost endless routine of beatings and interrogations -- until their final imprisonment at Rangoon jail where the interrogations stopped and there were then only the beatings.
Capt. Robert C. Shanks, Jr., and 1st Lt. Harold E. Fletcher, pilot and copilot, respectively, were fired upon by Japanese and puppet soldiers while Lt. Fletcher lay in a small hut, unable to move because of a sprained ankle. After Capt. Shanks held up his hands in surrender, the Jap soldiers in a maniacal display of temper flogged and beat the two men. Forced to their knees they expected to be executed. Instead the Japs made them walk barefoot for about five miles to a camp. Later they were taken by boat for some distance and then marched to the Jap area headquarters where they met other members of their crew. S/Sgt. W. R. Lentz, right gunner on their airplane, was similarly treated by the Japs when he refused to answer questions in interrogation. Beat to his knees by an officer using a sword and scabard, Lentz expected beheading then and there but the officer thrust the sword point in the sergeant's back and screamed at him that he would thereafter answer the questions he was asked.
Mixed with the beatings and interrogations were a number of curious incidents which in small measure relieved the misery of their life in the hands of the Japanese. In one instance a Burmese guard watching Lts. C. R. Benedict, J. C. Cochran, G. M. Etherington and a number of the men shortly after their capture, told the prisoners not to feel too bad. It wouldn't be too long until they would be free, he said. They asked him what he meant. Were the Japs going to be defeated? The guard said, perhaps not, but in four months Burma would be out of the war. Four months exactly from the day they were admitted to Rangoon jail these men were free and safely behind the British 1 4th Army lines.
Curious questions, curious answers
On another occasion T/Sgt. Enrico E. Pisterzi, tail gunner, was being questioned by a Japanese interrogator. Suddenly, in very hushed and secretive tones, after looking over both shoulders to see that no one was listening the interrogator asked, "What do you think of the B-29?" Sgt. Pisterzi carried on the act and answered, "I think it's a pretty good airplane." The Jap again cautiously looked over both shoulders and then in great confidence murmured for only Pisterzi to hear, "So do I."
Another time 1st Lt. Galpin M. Etherington, flight engineer, was questioned about flight characteristics of the B-29. "How does the plane fly under the most favorable weather conditions?" asked the Jap captain. Lt. Etherington replied that he could not answer that.
"Well then, how does it fly under the worst weather conditions?" queried the Nip. To this Etherington replied, "Under those conditions it won't fly at all."
At this the Jap nearly had a red-out mostly because of the face he had lost for asking such a foolish question which was so skillfully thrown back at him by his prisoner.
Ultimately all of the survivors of the crashed aircraft were taken to Judson College in Rangoon which they surmised was the Jap Air Force headquarters in Burma. There they were interrogated by what the Japs considered their interrogation experts. And it was at this point that the men were given an idea of the Japanese espionage activities. The interrogators told the men the numbers and locations of each squadron and group in the Twentieth Bomber Command and the names of the organization commanders. And it was here also that the Japanese interrogator -- who said he had studied at Washington State -- pulled out a copy of the November issue of Air Force Magazine to assist him in the interrogation. (Like most Gl's, the men said, he didn't pass his copy around and this angered some of the crewmen because they hadn't seen that issue.)
Generally the interrogators' questions were taken from the magazine and curiously most of the questions asked were already answered in the magazine but this didn't seem to deter the Japs from asking endless numbers of questions, mostly, of course, about the B-29. Many of the queries such as those about cruise control, landing speeds, load, bomb bay tanks, crew stations, duties of each crew member, etc., were off the classified list for some time. One question asked most frequently and this by nearly every Japanese who could speak English--was the age of each crew member. No matter what the answer was, young or old, it never ceased to amaze them.
In addition to queries about the aircraft and each crewman's duties, there were a vast number of questions asked ranging from home life and conditions in the States, through life at the base including how many men in the organization wore glasses, to questions about the C-109 and P-51. Questions about radar and radio equipment were, for the most part, inexpertly asked indicating the Japs' lack of knowledge of these subjects.
Misery, filth, starvation
Life in the prison to which they were sent after interrogation was one of misery, filth, and starvation. The Japs were terrified beyond measure of Allied bombing and strafing attacks. The men learned this when they were brought from their bail-out areas to Rangoon. The Japs would never travel in the day time for fear of air attack. Because of this fear of Allied airplanes the Japanese vented their anger on the air crewmen by giving them half the ration of the ground troops held in the prison, confining them to the limits of their prison compound area, refusing to permit them to go out on work details and administering beatings and punishment at any provocation, however slight. It was on New Year's day that the B-29 men were singled out from the rest of the prisoners and beaten in the Japanese' own special manner-- bone breaking beatings on wrists, elbows, ankles and other joints with teakwood clubs. It was assumed by the prisoners afterward that the reason for this beating was more than just the results of hangovers after pay day night celebration but was probably because the Japs had heard of the 27th December raid on Tokyo by B-29s of the XXI Bomber Command.
To relieve the monotony of prison and to keep their minds busy the men participated with other British and American Air Force prisoners in classes ranging from religion to hand-crafts that were organized by the prisoners in the compound. Some of their comrades from the 10th Air Force, Air Commando outfits and other American air units had been in prison many months longer than they. Some had died there, too. One survivor, however, who was rescued with them was from the first American airplane lost over Burma; a B-17 that had gone down on a mission nearly three years before.
One of the prisoners drew from memory a map of Burma on the prison wall. Occasionally members from the other compounds in the prison who had been out on work details would bring back news of British army advances on northern Burma. Each time after such news was signaled to them, the prisoners would go in to the prison cell and look at the map. This they did until one day a Jap guard inspected their cell block and after carefully studying the map to obtain information from it for himself, he raged at the men to wash it off. After this it was mostly just listening and waiting. Two or three times they saw a glorious sight in the sky--B-29s in big formations flying overhead. Once they saw the sky filled with Allied aircraft: B-24s, P-47s and P-38s as well as B-29s. This was March 22, the day Jap supply dumps and storage areas in Rangoon took a terrific pasting. The men cheered when they heard the bombs hit. Each day after one of these missions they would see a B-29 photo plane streak across the sky, snap his pictures, and head for home.
Soon there were signs of uneasiness among the Japanese. With this came better treatment, too. Obviously the Nips were getting ready for something and then one day every man able to walk was told to get his effects together. These bare belongings together with all the supplies the Japs could locate were loaded on bullock carts. Eighteen B-29 crewmen who were able to walk together with nearly 400 other prisoners were made to haul the carts out of the city and up the railroad in the direction of Pegu. The Japs were trying to withdraw to Moulmein before the British 14th Army trapped them in Rangoon. Marching only at night and then for 11 to 16 hours the men dragged the carts along the railroad bed to Pegu and to a village a short distance beyond. There the Japanese saw they could get no farther with their prisoners and they called the ranking officer among the prisoners a British Brigadier. They told the Brigadier that he and the other prisoners were now free and then the Japs took off double t iming it.
Liberation creates new situation
This left the newly liberated prisoners in the delicate position of being behind the retreating Japanese troops facing the powerful British army and virtually under the guns of these friendly forces. Already strafed a number of times by Allied planes during their march, the freed men were now strafed and bombed again and tragically one of the shells from a strafer killed the Brigadier the only man lost to Allied air attack. Somehow one of the prisoners sneaked through to the advancing 14th Army's lines and a rescue party cut back through the Jap lines and brought the prisoners to safety.
Meanwhile, back in the prison the men too sick to march noted a decided lack of activity on the part of the Japanese and investigation disclosed that the fleeing Nips had left several notes around the prison telling the men they were free. Not knowing how they would be treated outside the prison the men elected to act cautiously and stay inside the prison walls until they could find out more of what was going on outside.
"The first friendly men I saw were four British Marines who came into the prison after airborne and amphibious assaults had secured the city," said Capt. Shanks. "When the rejoicing was over we waited in the prison until they took us out to a hospital ship and evacuated us here.
"When it looked like we were going to have to bail out I called Col. Coronet (Lt. Col. James Ira Coronet) on command and told him not to send my stuff home that I would be back, and here I am," Shanks concluded as he stretched out on his sack in the hospital in Calcutta.
All of the men were full of questions about what had been going on in the four months they had been away. But the question on the lips of every one of them was, "How did the Japs get that November Air Force?"