Victory and Going Home
"We'll wait for the next boat."
When the two B-29’s Enola Gay and Bockscar each dropped an atom bomb on Japan, radio newscasters predicted that the war was almost over. Our crew was still on Iwo Jima, 600 miles north of our home base, Tinian. We had just completed a week of air-sea rescue duty. When they first heard the rumors, some people on that "lunar landscape" went wild. Soldiers and Marines fired live ammunition into the sky all night. Gunfire sounded off all around us like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. The M. P.'s tried to collect weapons and advised us to stay away from the celebration for our safety.
When we returned to Tinian, we heard no more news of surrender for several days. Then on August 14, the 20th Air Force sent a record number of B-29's against the Home Islands of Japan. Headquarters told us if they got word of surrender after we took off they would flash a radio message to us that included the code word "Utah." That would tell us the war was over and we should dump our bombs into the sea and return back home. The message never came so we completed a picture-perfect daylight strike, entire squadrons flying together in clear skies. The 40th Bomb Group flew a high-altitude mission that day over the city of Hikari, a military arsenal. We were unopposed by enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The Japanese Government accepted the peace terms the next day, August 15th. World War II was finally over. I was so mentally geared up for flying 35 missions that at first I felt some frustration because I couldn’t complete my tour. Elation and a feeling that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders quickly replaced that. The mind plays funny tricks.
The peace treaty was signed on the battleship Missouri, in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945. They wanted some B-29 's from every squadron and every group in the 20th Air Force to parade over Big MO during the ceremony. That day I was one of the lucky ones to witness a page in the history books. I guess it was my own fifteen minutes of fame. When we arrived that morning the bay was full of U.S. Navy ships but the huge Missouri was easy to spot. Row after row of sailors stood watching the ceremony, their white dress uniforms presenting a sharp contrast to the dark gray of the battleship decks. They were on the gun turrets, up on the towers and everywhere else they could squeeze in.
After cruising over the bay, the B-29's turned to fly over the ruined city of Tokyo. The inner city was completely destroyed by the firebombs. Only an occasional brick or stone building thrust up in view above the blackened earth. The pattern of blocks outlined by streets was the only way to tell a large city had been there. I saw nothing move or nothing alive. We took turns at the controls flying in "parade formation" because we both wanted to see what was going on. I remember working hard and struggling with the controls to keep in close so we would present a good tight flight pattern. We were a little out of practice flying so close. Each bomb group was given an exact altitude to fly so we wouldn’t interfere with each other. With so many planes flying over Tokyo that day you can bet we did not stray far from our assigned height. After circling the city several times we broke off and returned to Tinian for the last time one by one.
Now the big thing on everybody's mind was when he or she could go home. They devised a point system to give priority to the men who had been overseas longest and received awards, etc. The people with the most points would get to fly back in the bombers and the rest would have to wait on ship transportation. This time I wasn't left behind. We needed 2 pilots, a navigator and flight engineer to crew each plane. The rest of the space was open for passengers with the highest priority, about fifteen as I remember. Some of the ground support people who qualified had never flown before so we all attended a ditching procedure lecture together. I had heard it so many times before I was scarcely paying attention. However, I noticed two of the passengers assigned to my airplane were whispering with their heads together. They didn't like the idea of the plane going down in the ocean at all and told us they would wait for the next boat. I doubt if they arrived home for several months. The next eligible people eagerly took their spots.
Early in October it was finally my turn to go home. None of my original crew was on the plane's roster, although I believe Howell and Vanderslice were on other airplanes. Everybody stowed a large personal bag aboard and we took off. I didn't bother shipping my footlocker back by boat. It may still be there. The first stop was the coral atoll of Kwajalein, a forsaken little place that had little room for anything except the runway. Then a longer flight ended at Oahu, Hawaii. The huge Dole Company sign, a water tank that had been painted to look like a pineapple, was so close to the airfield that it was listed as a flying hazard. We rested there two days while mechanics checked the plane over thoroughly. There would be no Iwo Jima available for an emergency landing on the next long flight. We visited Honolulu and I remember the streets being crowded with hundreds of sailors. They were probably on the way home just as I was. I wanted to see the famous Waikiki beach but it was a disappointment. I saw many beaches in Florida and the Caribbean that were prettier. The famous old Royal Hawaiian hotel appeared dowdy and needed a coat of paint. Neither of these famous landmarks received much maintenance or upkeep for several years.
The last leg over the Pacific to the United States required 12 hours. Our piston-driven engines propelled us along at 200 miles per hour. We flew all night in order to arrive in daylight. Our route took us over the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco and I looked forward to seeing it for the first time. It was only a few years old then. However, a typical fog blanketed the whole area so the only man that saw anything was the radar operator. We landed at nearby Stockton, California, a debarkation center. I was so happy to be back home in the U.S. that I reached down and gave the concrete runway an affectionate pat. Everyone coming home through this port received a ticket for a free steak dinner and a long distance phone call. I called my Mom and Dad and my Jane (that cookie-baker back home) and asked her to marry me. She said, "yes" and made my spirits soar. That was 50 years ago and the cookies haven't crumbled yet.
We had to wait a few days on travel arrangements so I did get to visit San Francisco and see the Golden Gate after all. A cross-country train ride, this time by deluxe Pullman train car, carried me back home again to Indiana, back where I belong.
When the fighting in Europe stopped in May, the attention of the country focused on the Pacific war. All during that last summer of the war in 1945, the B-29 bombing missions made headlines in the newspapers. Everybody back home was talking about them. When I got home, my Dad told me people would ask, "What's Bob doing in the army these days?" They remembered me as a carefree schoolboy. He said when he told them I was a B-29 pilot flying missions over Japan they would look as if they didn't believe him. That made him feel proud. It did me too. I still am.