by Paul Roberts
Bob surely was one lucky guy. At age 18 he found himself squeezed into the remote right turret of a B-29, operating two .50 caliber machine guns. He did this every four days, completing 35 missions. When he flew, the Japanese air force was almost nonexistent, but the anti-aircraft fire was horrendous. Flying at 30,000 feet, his first mission attacked a submarine base in the Truk Islands. Two weeks later, his plane participated in the first attack by B-29s on Japan proper. After that, they were routine daylight flights attacking strategic targets. On one they struck the Mitsubishi aircraft engine plant at Nagoya in January, receiving a DUC (Distinguished Unit Citation) for this mission. They persistently bombed enemy airfields and other installation on Kyushu in support of the Allied assault on Okinawa. They later switched to night flights, flying at low levels, dropping incendiaries, and they attacked the industrial sections of Osaka and shipping and rail targets on Kyushu. They then for a long period released propaganda leaflets over the home islands which intelligence reported had zero effect. After the surrender, they were involved in dropping food and supplies to Allied POWs in China, Formosa, Korea and Japan.
One of Bob’s memories was of the plane dubbed ‘Feathers’, in honor of their pilot, Lt. Feathers. He recalled both port engines being hit and, “amazingly was able to fly it back 1,200 miles to our base on Saipan on only the other two engines. And made a perfect landing!” Another incident, he recalled, was of a Zero making a Kamikaze attack on one of our bombers.
After his discharge, he became a mechanical engineer, leading a very colorful existence, working for the Boeing Corporation, then Goodyear in Ohio, and then as a nuclear engineer at the Oak Ridge National Lab, doing nuclear research. For nine years he worked on the Three Mile Island cleanup as a project manager on a 10-megawatt reactor to decommission it. Eventually, after two heart attacks, he called it quits in 1992. But he couldn’t sit still, finding a new challenge with the RESET Foundation, a non-profit project for retired scientists. He helped 4th and 5th graders in Anacostia, mentoring their learning. “It was so gratifying,” he remembered, “to be able to reach these young minds, and see such positive results.”
A very touching remembrance of the war occurred in 2005, while attending the 50th Anniversary ceremony of the end of World War II at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va. Bob was suddenly emotionally overcome when the band played the Star Spangled Banner, and started to weep, remembering some of the suppressed memories of those days. This triggered a yearning to contact some of his crew comrades. The one he was able to reach was the command pilot, Captain George Irby, living in Lubbock, Texas. Bob was retired then, and he spent three days visiting him in Texas. The two spent their time reminiscing, re-living their bombing missions of the Japanese mainland. One story Irby told, after all these years, which he hadn’t even thought about until now, suddenly crystallized. He was flying what airmen called a ‘milk run,’ where the mission had very little risk, and a storm came up, perhaps a typhoon, and suddenly, the violence actually upended this giant B-29, causing him to fly upside down! His thought at that moment was he was going to die, and he actually started to cry. Just as quickly as it happened, the plane suddenly righted itself, and he completed the mission, none the worse for the aberration. It was an unbelievable occurrence, but it did happen. Irby has since passed away, and Bob is thankful that he did, on an impulse, visit him. It was sort of cloture for him, after all these years, reliving experiences which, at the time were fraught with danger, and now, he can celebrate the fact that he survived it and went on to have such a gratifying life. Living in Leisure World® is leisure living, so what more can one want.
All photos courtesy of Paul Roberts – Resident of Leisure World® Maryland