Chapter Four


Native girls appeared wearing flowers in their hair.

The coral island named Tinian is about 12 miles long (north to south) and 6 miles wide, similar in size and shape to Manhattan, New York. Naturally some wag named the main north-south road Broadway. The east-west roads then became 42nd Street, 96th Street and so on. It was one of three islands in the Marianas used by the B-29s. The others were nearby Saipan and Guam, about 100 miles to the south. The Japanese occupied all three until the summer of 1944. There were two major airfields on Tinian; our 58th Wing from India was assigned to the one named West Field. The Air Corps Engineers and Naval Constructions Battalions (CB's or Sea Bees) built two parallel 8500 foot long runways here. Crushed coral from local quarries made a perfect base for these excellent strips, the connecting taxiways and hardstands (parking areas).

When we first arrived we were worried about finding our way back home from a mission over the immense ocean. There was no homing beacon to use with the radio compass. If our navigation was off just a little, how could we find this tiny island from 1500 miles away? The briefing officer smiled and said, "You won't have any trouble. From your altitude you can see 50 miles. The Marianas are a chain of islands that stretch out for hundreds of miles. They parallel the route to Iwo Jima and you'll soon recognize them like signposts along the road. They say, 2 hours 'til home, 1 hour 'til home and so on." He was right of course. I also noticed another group of islands on the map, not far off the route to Japan, called the Bonins. They were the final home of the H.M.S. Bounty mutineers. I wondered if any of their descendants remained there. Now I know they do!

There was a small unit of about 15 B-29's named the 509th Composite Group that was based at North Field, Tinian. These crews were selected and trained together in the U.S. to drop the world's first atom bomb. They didn't arrive on Tinian until mid-summer and we never knew they existed until we heard the news like everybody else. I don't understand why there had to be a special group. There were dozens of top veteran lead crews that could have done the same thing. I only mention it because of the historical importance. Years later, I read that LeMay was ordered by Washington to "save" 4 targets for the atom bomb drops. Otherwise, there might have been nothing left for them to test on. It has always made my skin crawl to think about those bombs being stored within 5 miles of where we lived.

At first we lived in 6-man square tents. The side flaps stayed rolled up for air so clothes and cots were at risk during the daily rain showers. However, in a few weeks we moved into the famous steel Quonset huts. They were much roomier and had wood floors with screens over both ends. All pilots were assigned to one hut, all navigators to the next and so on. The Sea Bees built a large wood frame building with screens on all sides for our mess hall. This area was very close to the ocean and about 1 1/2 miles from the flight line. I stayed pretty close to home for the 5 months I spent on Tinian. Once in a while I would hunt up a buddy from back in Pyote now living in a bomb group about a mile away. Believe it or not his name was Magoon. So of course everybody called him "Earthquake" after the character in the comic strip Lil' Abner. We were warned not to go exploring, especially in caves along the ocean. Japanese soldiers were found hiding there.

I guessed wrong in India and didn't bring my cotton mattress along, so I had to barter for another one to make the canvas cot more comfortable. Speaking of bartering, money was almost useless except for candy and cigarettes at the Post Exchange. However, we were able to buy one bottle of liquor a month. If you were indifferent to whisky, you bought it anyway because the resourceful Sea Bees would trade you aluminum watchbands, ID bracelets and a host of other useful gadgets in exchange for your bottle. At the time nobody seemed to question why there were so many Sea Bees around the Islands. I learned many years later that they were building a 5000-bed hospital on the south end of Tinian. The planners were expecting many casualties resulting from the invasion of mainland Japan due that fall. A boatload of nurses even arrived about the time the surrender was signed. I never saw any of this. I realize now that the combat crews were told little if any thing about tactics or planning for security reasons in case they were captured alive by the enemy forces. I read somewhere that General LeMay was asked by his superiors not to fly over Japan anymore that summer of 1945 for that very reason.

The beer ration came to about one can a day and that was useful. It made the Australian mutton the mess often served up taste a little better. A daily afternoon rain shower passed over about cocktail hour so we put our cans under the dripping roof edge to cool. We could swim in the ocean but there was no beach, just some tiny spots of sand. You had to slide and crawl down big rocks and it was more trouble than it was worth. Now the folks on Guam had access to some world-class beaches. By mid-summer the Sea Bees had completed an outdoor theater for each of the four bomb groups in our wing. It included wooden benches and a covered stage. Award ceremonies and other official functions took place here. I was awarded two Air Medals on this stage. A movie was shown at dusk every night, changing every 2 or 3 days. The hazard was a passing shower but we took our ponchos along. The rain usually stopped after a few minutes, lasting just long enough to soak your clothes. The latest hit records of the "big bands" were played on the P.A. system while we waited for it to get dark. Many soldiers will tell you the song they liked best was Sentimental Journey (home). The Les Brown band played it and 19 year-old Doris Day sang, "Got my ticket, got my reservation. Spent every dime I could afford." I still remember the words.

The Japanese imported civilian laborers and their families to raise and harvest sugar cane on the islands. I believe they were from Korea and Okinawa. After the marines occupied the island, these men, women and children lived in a compound guarded by M. P.'s. The story goes that one day a call went out for "able-bodied" women to volunteer for a special duty. They must have thought they were going to a party because they showed up dressed in their best clothes and flowers in their hair. The "special duty" turned out to be work in the laundry. They were probably disappointed but I was happy to pay a little extra for this service. Previously we washed socks and underwear in large water cans over a fire. You added a block of yellow soap, stirred this mixture with a stick and hoped for good results. Clothes came out looking strange but at least they smelled better. Then we hung them over tent ropes to dry out. Ernie Stark had served a term in the regular army before he went to bombardier school. We always welcomed his advice when living under "field conditions" overseas. Things like washing dishes without soap and water (using sand) and going to the toilet when there was no bathroom.

Shortly after we arrived, I walked into the mess hall one day and recognized a co-pilot I knew back at Chakulia. His crew had flown a B-29 over from India while we came by boat. When we asked why we hadn't seen him since we arrived, he told us his experience. Engine failure forced his crew to ditch their plane in the ocean during a mission. Nobody saw them go down and they were presumed lost. He was able to get into a survival raft but watched other B-29's fly over for days without seeing him. Finally after more than a week, a navy PBY Flying Boat spotted his mirror flash in the sun and picked him up. He was the only survivor of the 11-man crew. You can bet I always made sure I had that little mirror in my pocket on every mission after that. I also felt an obligation to scan the sea far below whenever I could.

To keep busy and have something to do we built our own social club. The design was rather grand but that made it all the more fun. A 2-story circular bar and lounge was flanked on either side by smaller reading or game rooms. We all took turns helping with the construction when we had time off. Some worked all the time and others were not as interested. We were paid once a month and most people bought a money order to mail home. However, there were about twenty people who played craps at the club until one player had all the money. As a result, the winner sent several thousand dollars home.

When the number of our combat missions began to accumulate I developed another concern. The other officers in my original crew were older and some married with children. I was just 22 years old but I realized that when I completed a few more combat missions I would receive a promotion in rank and my experience would qualify me to be an Aircraft Commander. With the responsibility for the lives of an entire 11-man crew looming in the near future I began to worry about being too familiar with some of my crewmembers. As a result I began to distance myself from then. Obeying commands in combat situations can be a matter of life and death. I shouldn’t have worried about it. Entire crews did not live together as we had in India. Sadly what I didn’t realize at the time was that wiser heads would have assigned a completely new crew to me. I missed it by about 5 missions because the war ended. Although I remain in contact with some of them 50 years later, I regret I missed out on some of the camaraderie then.

Late in the summer, after we enjoyed months of near-perfect weather a typhoon threatened the Marianas. For two days the weather turned stormy and it rained heavily. The weather was so bad that we were alerted we might have to move our gear to higher ground. Everyone was concerned that if the storm center moved over us it could damage the airplanes and delay our getting home. Luckily we only got the edge of the typhoon and escaped the very high winds. A few weeks later I flew a B-29, with a planeload of people I hardly knew, back over the Pacific to the U.S.A. Some of our original crew came later by boat.