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I Was in a B-29 Bomber As Tokyo Was Firebombed. This Is My Story.

May 23, 2019 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIMilitaryTechnologyWorldTokyoJapan

I Was in a B-29 Bomber As Tokyo Was Firebombed. This Is My Story.

"On tonight’s mission, the primary weapons, 500-pound E-46 chemical incendiary bombs, would rain down on Tokyo like giant firecrackers. Each bomb contained 47 small bomblets, called M69s, strapped together inside a metal cylinder fused to break open at 2,000 or 2,500 feet and to scatter the individual bomblets."

Pettit was very junior but was universally respected among the crew. Said Baker, “We had an excellent navigator in Pettit. In addition to our navigator, both pilots and the bombardier had some navigation training. But I was not in any position to help. I didn’t have an air speed indicator. I didn’t have anything on my scope. I was completely blind.”

“Fling taught college physical education before he came into the Army Air Corps so he had a good way with people,” said Baker. Even if a heavy bomber carrying 11 men was going to get lost on its way to The Empire, “Fling would never demonstrate that he was dissatisfied with any one of us in front of anyone else. If we did anything wrong, that was considered a private matter and when no one else was around he would handle it.”

Tokyo “Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree”

“We were the first ship to reach the coast of Japan,” wrote Carter in his forbidden diary, “but we were lost because the radar went out and we were flying in electrical storms.”

A dark mass of land to their left gave way to a yellowish glow of the kind that could come only from electric lights.

“That’s a city,” Carter said over the interphone. “All lit up.”

“I think that’s Tokyo,” said Dwyer from his ringside seat in the nose. “I wonder why they have lights on in the city with us coming to visit them.”

“No,” said Pettit. “It’s Yokohama.”

As if considering, Pettit added, “Surely, Tokyo, the seat of government and the number one military target in all of The Empire isn’t going to be all lit up like a Christmas tree.”

He was wrong.

Incredibly, even as the first pathfinder B-29s were on their final approach, and as a new day began—before the bombs, before the conflagration—street lights in Tokyo were lit. Instead of turning west toward Tokyo, God’s Will mistakenly continued flying north.

They were in the sky, in the night, off the coast of Japan, on a flight where fuel was critical, with no idea where to turn next.

Carter followed a circuitous path to the March 9-10, 1945, great Tokyo firebomb raid. He took basic training in Greensboro, North Carolina. He went to the college training detachment at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, preparing to go into flight training and to become an officer and a pilot.

Carter Gets His Gunner’s Wings

On February 14, 1944, at Duquesne, Carter used his fountain pen and cursive handwriting to draft a letter to his girlfriend, Phyllis Ewing—daughter of a prominent jewelry distributor—whom he had met at a swimming pool one Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. Carter was smitten. He called her his devil, and he began his letter, “My dearest, dearest darling Devil…

“Darling, I don’t see how I could ever get such a beautiful, adorable, darling, sweet girl as you.” Later in the letter, perhaps feeling anxiety—they were not yet engaged—he wrote: “Don’t worry about me quitting loving you because I never will.” Carter wrote that they would see each other when he began pilot training at Maxwell Field, Alabama.

Weeks later, he and his buddies were told that the Army had too many pilots and not enough gunners. Instead of Maxwell, Carter was sent to Tyndall Field, Florida, for “flexible gunnery training.” His train would pass through his hometown. Carter made a long distance telephone call, not an easy thing to do, and told his Dad the time his train would be in Atlanta on the morning of April 16, 1944.

On arrival, Carter’s family and his girlfriend, Phyllis, and her family, were at the station. It is unclear how he pulled it off, but Carter was the only person allowed off the train during the brief stop. He began kissing Phyllis while soldiers leaned out the passenger car windows and began whistling.

After months of intensive gunnery school at Tyndall, Carter earned his gunner’s wings and was transferred to Lincoln Field, Nebraska, for additional training. Meanwhile, across the Pacific the seizure of the Marianas island chain opened the way for B-29s to be based in Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. Three days after Tinian was secured, Carter wrote to Phyllis from Lincoln: “The way I feel, knowing you want to marry me now and love me so much, I could lick the whole Jap Army so don’t worry about me.”

First Flight in a B-29

From Lincoln, Carter traveled to McCook Field, Nebraska, where he saw a B-29 for the first time. At McCook, officers and enlisted men from training bases around the United States came together, formed crews, and pressed ahead with preparations, planning, and training. On August 21, 1944, airplane commander Dean Fling remarked that he liked the looks of the men assigned to him.

Peterson, the right-seat pilot and the most devout among the crew, had been a varsity athlete in college. In flight training, Peterson’s flight instructor was a Hollywood actor—Robert Cummings had been taught to fly by his godfather, Orville Wright.

In addition to Peterson, Fling acquired bombardier Dwyer, navigator Pettit, flight engineer Lawrence Eginton, radio operator Thomas Sulentic, radar operator Baker, central fire control gunner Noah A. “Pappy” Wyatt, left blister gunner Carter, right blister gunner John Emershaw, and tail gunner Norman “Shorty” Fortin.

The Fling crew was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 9th Bombardment Group. Baker wrote that Carter, the only Southerner in the crew, was “friendly as a cocker spaniel” and “did not have an enemy in the world.”

Baker noticed that Carter was confident and thorough, whether handling his machine guns or cleaning their barracks living area or pulling the much disliked kitchen police, or KP, duty that helped keep the troops fed. The Fling crew completed a grueling training flight to Cuba. Now, their awareness grew that they would be taking their B-29 to the western Pacific. They were heading for the real thing.

The First B-29 Landing on Iwo Jima

On January 21, 1945, the Fling crew landed at North Field, Tinian, completing the marathon journey from the United States. The men left McCook in their B-29 and paused at Herrington, Kansas. Their subsequent stops in New Mexico and at Mather Field, California, were typical of the long, winding path from the training grounds of the American Plains to the war zone of the Pacific. The Fling crew proceeded to Hawaii and onward to Kwajalein, and finally Tinian, 38 square miles of coral rock, dust, jungle, and cane fields, crowded with B-29 hardstands, tents, Quonset huts, and docks. It lay 125 miles northeast of Guam and just three miles southwest of Saipan.

The men slept in large tents, each housing the enlisted members of two B-29 crews. They slept on cots on a crushed coral floor.

While LeMay’s plan for the great Tokyo firebomb mission was taking shape, the Fling crew flew its fourth mission, traveling to Tokyo on March 4, 1945, the old-fashioned way, taking off before dawn for a daylight, high-altitude strike. In the dark early morning hours flying toward The Empire, Carter snuggled up in the padded tunnel over the bomb bay and caught four hours of sleep.

Over the target, serious trouble befell Dinah Might, a B-29 commanded by 1st Lt. Raymond F. “Fred” Malo, not because of Japanese gunfire but because of mechanical problems common with the Superfortress.

Fling announced on the interphone that God’s Will would escort Dinah Might as it attempted to get home. Wrote Carter: “We led Malo’s ship to Iwo Jima. Malo’s bomb bay doors were stuck in the ‘open’ position, the fuel transfer was out and the radar was out.”

Iwo Jima was within reach, but bitter fighting was taking place there. No B-29 had yet saved itself by landing on the sulfur island being slowly wrested from the Japanese at a cost of 6,800 Marine lives. But with Fling riding herd and Carter watching, Malo did land on Iwo, the very first of 2,251 landings by B-29s that saved crewmembers’ lives and redeemed the awful cost of the battle for Iwo Jima.

Finding Choshi Point?

While the Fling crew got lost at the start of the great Tokyo firebomb mission, Carter mulled over four words that had been uttered at the briefing: “Heavy losses are anticipated.”

At the start of the attack, around midnight, pathfinder B-29s dropped heavy incendiaries to mark the target area of the city with a burning X.

When this narrative was written 67 years after the war, fully five members of the God’s Will crew were alive and articulate. All agreed that they saw the streetlights of the Japanese capital before the pathfinders set the city afire, misunderstood what they were seeing, and continued north. They flew over open water paralleling the coast away from their intended run-in location at Choshi Point.

They “expended extra fuel in searching for the target,” an official report would later say. Their B-29 strayed from clear, windy Tokyo to shrouded, snow-spattered skies above open water just off the coast north of the capital. Had they been a few miles inland, they might have been in the same location where three other B-29s, caught in a more intense part of the same snowstorm, flew into the same mountain at the same time—32 crewmembers killed in a matter of seconds.