Chapter Seven

Iwo Jima

(Air-Sea Rescue Assignment)

Gunner's voice: "He's in the Sun. I can't see him."


In the early spring of 1945 the entire XX Bomber Command, including the 40th Bomb Group, moved from India to the Pacific Theater. The combat crews and key operations staff flew over in their planes. The remainder went by ship. Their destination was the island of Tinian in the Marianas group. They joined the XXI Bomber Command, already operating from there, on Guam and Saipan, to make up the 20th Air Force. Curtis LeMay, the commanding general was changing bombing tactics. Reports indicated the Japanese cities were very vulnerable to conflagration. Small industrial plants were scattered throughout the major urban areas so the General believed firebomb raids would be more effective than daylight precision bombing. He also had a new incendiary weapon to test, the M-69 bomb. As a result, the B-29's were now flying low-level raids planned to pass over the target singly and in the dark. These missions were not as hazardous as the daylight strikes but they were weird and gloomy to the crews flying the planes.

Sometimes during those long, boring flights that lasted about 15 hours, we heard the eerie string music broadcast by Japanese radio stations. If it was a clear night, we could see the moon's reflection dancing on the dark sea far below and wondered if Dumbo could find us down there if we had to ditch the airplane in the ocean. "Dumbo" was the code name for the Navy flying boats and our own B-29's that patrolled the enemy coast during our bombing missions. As it turned out, he didn't have to find us...we found him!

During the last few weeks of the war, a small number of B-29 crews flew daily "air-sea" rescue missions from Iwo to the coast of Japan supporting naval and air strikes. Although they couldn't pluck flyers from the ocean, they could locate and protect them until the Navy arrived. These crews volunteered for a week of detached duty from their regular bomb group. It was a welcome change of pace so we jumped at the chance when it was offered to us.

Iwo Jima, an 8-square-mile piece of grimy volcanic ash, is exactly halfway between Tokyo and the Marianas islands. U.S. soldiers and Marines gained possession of this precious real estate only after one of the fiercest battles in their history. The islands in this part of the Pacific are extinct volcanoes. They all had long Japanese names on our silk survival maps but we called the major islands in this group simply North Iwo, South Iwo and Iwo (short for Iwo Jima.) Late in June our plane limped back to Iwo with battle damage to two engines from an enemy fighter. Since they were losing oil steadily we probably could not have made it all the way home to Tinian. I have always thought that being able to land on Iwo that day saved our lives. We were only one of 75 B-29's that landed there that day. Air Force records show that some 2400 Superforts used Iwo that summer because of fuel shortage or battle damage. That translates to the lives of 25,000 fliers.

On our very first mission from Tinian we flew over Iwo in the middle of the night. It was a firebomb raid of course. I'm sure the rookie crew was sharing my nervousness, when suddenly the bright lights of a small city popped up from the darkness below. It made us feel better to know we were on course, we weren't alone out there and help was close if we needed it. Iwo was the classic flier's landmark; we always flew there from home, set our course for the target and returned the same way. It made more sense to break up a 2500-mile journey into four legs. When we landed there the first time, the runway looked like a dirt road running over hills and valleys. However, it was a wonderful feeling just to be on the ground again.

When we returned for our week of air-sea rescue duty in August, we hardly recognized the island; only the ugly volcano looked the same. Big white stripes painted on a black paved runway guided our landing and a jeep with a large sign on the back that said, "Follow Me" came out to meet us. Huge tanker trucks traveled up and down the flight line refueling 29's that had stopped on the way home from a bomb mission. We saw many Mustang P-51 fighter planes parked in another area. With extra wing tanks of gas they could fly the 1200-mile round-trip to Japan and back. Of course they couldn't fly cover for us all the way but they would attack enemy fighter bases at the same time we were on our bomb runs. Sometimes we would see a swarm of P-51's leaving the enemy coast on their way to a rendezvous with a B-29 assigned to navigate them home. Occasionally a straggler would fly along with us, especially in bad weather. On the radio we called them "Little Brother" and were happy to see them around.

A pair of "Superdumbos" (B-29's) usually flew the search missions together for mutual protection. As we approached the Japanese coast on our first mission from Iwo, the UHF emergency radio began chattering with excited voices. The Navy and Air Corps had finally coordinated their rescue efforts and were sharing a common frequency. We were listening to a Marine fighter pilot talking to a submarine on station. His wingman was down in the water and he was calling for help. We found the submarine easily; his churning wake was visible for miles. Altering our compass heading to match the sub's course we flew on ahead. Sure enough, in a few minutes we spotted a dark blue airplane circling below very close to the surface. I think we surprised him because he quickly buzzed up on our tail. Now the only "friendly" fighter planes we knew were the unpainted aluminum-colored P-51's so this made us nervous. However, we could quickly identify his shape as a navy F4U Corsair with the inverted gull wing design. When he saw who we were and realized our mission he resumed his vigil below. After descending to 500 feet, our minimum search altitude, we could just barely see the tiny one-man raft in the sea. He had ejected a yellow dye marker in the water that helped. About this time another rescue airplane arrived. It was a B-17, a four-engine bomber, also flying out of Iwo and specially fitted with a large lifeboat slung under the fuselage. His code name was "Jumbo." The B-17's slower speed and long range made it ideal for this work but more vulnerable to enemy fighters. The downed flier was only a mile or two off shore and we could see some movement on the beach. Jumbo would have been a sitting duck if he had to stay long. Our job was to provide a protective cover for just such operations.

When he understood we would stay with his friend until help arrived, the Corsair pilot, who was running low on fuel, flew off to his carrier. The sub pulled up shortly and hauled flier and raft aboard. They told us he was O.K. but they were going to unlimber their deck gun and shell a target on shore. I couldn't see anything on the beach except some fishing boats. Personally, I thought we had finished our business there and it would be prudent to move along. The crew sounded bored and wanted to see some action. Anyway, we circled around while they got off a few rounds and then flew home.

Back on Iwo the next day, we had a chance for some sightseeing. Somebody got a jeep and we took off for the top of Mount Suribachi, equal in height to a 50-story building. It was a breath-taking ride but the view from the top was worth it. There was a lake in the crater and we wondered if the bottom was on the ocean floor. The panorama of the island spread out before us and it was fascinating to watch planes landing below and ships being unloaded. Thousands of people were at work as far you could see and we knew this went on 24 hours a day. Iwo practically never slept. That's why the friendly lights burned so brightly all night. The mountaintop was the scene of the famous Life Magazine photo showing the soldiers and Marines planting the Stars and Stripes. That picture became the model for the huge monument erected in Arlington, VA that symbolizes victory in World War II.

Then we inspected some battlefield relics and visited the Marine cemetery. I remember feeling surprise and shock at seeing so many, many white crosses in their neat rows. I suppose we had some idea of the sacrifice these men had made for us but you can't imagine it until you see the terrible evidence. Reporters compared the losses suffered to the frontal assaults at Gettysburg in the Civil War. Summing up the campaign, the Pacific Commander-In-Chief said, "Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Early on the morning of August 8, we took off again for the coast north of Tokyo and began a search pattern over our assigned area. We hadn't been on station ten minutes when I noticed four dots in the sky coming over the low hills. I glanced at Ernie Stark, the bombardier, who sat in front and slightly below my co-pilot's position. He was studying the ocean in front and below so I quickly pointed out some new developments to him. The dots quickly grew into dun-colored, radial engine Japanese fighters. Now we were flying at 500 feet so they couldn't dive on us and after we revved up our engines they had little speed advantage. The four "Tojos" flew a parallel course for a few minutes as if inviting us to break off and head back home. When we didn't, a pair crossed over several hundred feet above us and dropped some kind of aerial phosphorus bombs. They produced spectacular fireworks but did no damage. Then one brave soul decided to try a head-on pass so he flew on ahead and came back in a wide circle. We were about 100 yards behind our partner by this time. He had gunned his engines right away and we were now trying to catch up. The fighter made his run at the leading B-29, zoomed over his wing and had a split second to kick the rudder and spray us with his wing guns before passing over by a very few feet. Ernie had control of the forward pair of 50-caliber machine guns but couldn't fire because he might hit the plane in front of us. Finally he had a clean target and really leaned on the firing button. The huge turret right behind us chattered and roared. Viner yelled, "Stop firing, the guns will jam." By this time, the "Tojo" was out of range and nobody else was able to get off a shot. The fighter looked undamaged but did not press another attack. Both our planes were O.K.

Shortly, over the plane's intercom, we heard the gunners in the back talking about another fighter attack coming from above and rear. Nineteen-year-old Eddy Zuba was our central-fire-control gunner. Eddy now had control of both top turrets, a total of six 50-caliber machine guns. The gunners, using electronic sights, could fire their guns from remote positions. We heard Eddy yell on his neck mike, "He's in the sun and I can't see him!" Hearing that made my heart skip a beat. One of our older gunners quickly called out, "Settle down, Eddy, you'll be O.K." Immediately the guns roared out again in short bursts. Then we heard cheering from the back and we knew our fire had hit the fighter and he was falling off. The gunners told me later that the fighter pilot ejected immediately and floated down to the water in his parachute. I was sorry I didn't get to see that. The other fighters made no more attacks and we last saw them circling their comrade, now down in the water. We finished our assigned search pattern, saw nothing new and returned to Iwo.

When we were relaxing in our tent one day between missions we heard excited voices outside. Rushing out to see what happened, we found everyone watching a crippled B-29 flying at 1000 feet and parallel to the beach. Several chutes were floating down behind it and others blossomed out while we watched. The plane, flying on autopilot, never wavered and continued on until it was out of sight. The permanent folks said this happened all the time.

Back on Tinian, we had complained about the food all summer. Australian mutton, although fresh meat, had a strong flavor and we soon grew tired of it. The mess said the choicest fresh food was going to the front lines. We told them we thought we were on "the front lines" for crying-out-loud and didn't believe them. It was true, though; the Navy delivered better quality food to Iwo than we had back home. However, the field-style mess kitchens were primitive. There never seemed to be enough benches to sit down and eat. So we hunted for anything that would keep us from sitting on the greasy black sand. The terrible stench of rotting garbage and God knows what else often assailed the noses of those waiting in line with their mess kits. Corporals and captains shared everything together; there were no rank privileges.

On August 10 we flew our last air-sea rescue mission and it was uneventful. Historical events had taken place in the last few days and combat activity was less than usual on both sides. As a result we were finally able to enjoy the view of the magnificent snow-capped Mount Fuji without interruption. Perfectly cone-shaped and visible from 100 miles away, she seemed beautiful and menacing at the same time. She would always tell you where you were but her very presence suggested nearby danger. We also flew over the U.S. Navy's Third Fleet, an awesome sight that stretched from one horizon to another. Its own carrier planes guarded the fleet constantly. So we rechecked our IFF (identification friend or foe device) to make sure it was operating properly.

When we returned to Iwo for the last time, rumors were flying speculating the end of the war was near. Radio flashes told us that a new devastating weapon had destroyed an entire Japanese city. The news was a complete surprise. We were also amazed to hear that a B-29 from Tinian dropped this "atom bomb," (whatever that was). When people on that "lunar landscape" realized the war was almost over they went wild. Soldiers and Marines fired live ammunition into the sky all night. Gunfire was sounding off all around us like firecrackers on of the 4th of July. The M. P.'s were trying to collect weapons and advised us to stay away from the celebration for our safety. The end came so unexpectedly that at first it seemed frustrating to be unable to finish our tour of 35 missions. However, a feeling of relief and peace of mind soon followed.

When we returned to Tinian we heard no more news of surrender for several days. Then Headquarters decided to resume regular strikes to help the enemy make up his mind. On August 14, the 20th Air Force sent a record number 809 B-29 aircraft on several bombing missions to the Empire of Japan. Incidentally, 89 of those planes made emergency landings on Iwo Jima. After listening in vain for the code word "Utah" to turn back home, we made an unopposed daylight strike. Flying in perfect formation, the planes of the 40th Bomb Group released their bombs high over the city of Hikari, a military arsenal. We didn't know it at the time but it was our last combat mission. The Japanese military command accepted the peace terms the next day and World War II was over.

By providing a haven for B-29's in trouble, Iwo made a very valuable contribution to the victory. What can we say about the 5000 Marines who gave up their lives there? I have heard that one out every four marines that were killed in the entire war gave up their lives in the month of February on Iwo Jima. Mr. Lincoln said it best at Gettysburg. "Let us here highly resolve that these dead did not die in vain…and that government by, for and of the people shall not perish from the earth."

I walked among their vast gravesites on Iwo. You saw nothing but white crosses as far as the eye could see in every direction. Now those young Marines are back home, resting in peace and honor, heroes all. I still often think about the sacrifice they made for us and for their country. Still boys really, the toughest guys in the neighborhood, on the playgrounds and athletic fields. They got chewed up and spit out in that ghastly hell on earth. Enough of them survived to press on and eventually claim the island for the American forces. Then all the planes attacking Japan were given a place to land if they couldn't fly all the way home to the Marianas. Thank you again my unknown soldiers, my friends.