JAMES V. EDMUNDSON
This is being written on the 4th of July , 1995. The Fourth is a day when I, like most Americans, like to reminisce about the greatness of our forefathers who had the wisdom and vision to develop a set of ground rules that has kept this nation of ours great for 219 years. It’s a day on which we can all give thanks for a good fortune to have been born Americans and to remember the responsibilities that are an integral part of that good fortune. The 4th of July is a very special day. But as we approach the dog days of the summer of 1995, this old soldier’s thoughts tend to zero in on more recent events – those that took place on that fateful summer 50 years ago, which led up to the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Empire and some of the events that followed.
The Second World War, and particularly the war in the Pacific, was an event through which I lived and in which I took part in my youth. It helped form the basis for the decisions I would be called on to make during the remainder of my life. The closing days of this conflict will be forever etched in my mind, for reasons that will soon be clear.
On the 7th of December, 1941, when the Japanese executed a sneak attack on the fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor and on the military installations in the Hawaiian Islands, I was an Army Air Corps, 1st Lieutenant, pilot, stationed at Hickam Field, Hawaii. I had been married just a year before, and my wife and I were living in quarters on the base, adjacent to Pearl Harbor Channel. It was a day the two of us will always remember. I didn’t get off the ground that day, but was wounded by a bomb fragment and decorated for the ground activities in which I took part. On Christmas Day, 1941, my wife as evacuated back to the United States, by surface ship, escorted home by the U.S. Navy.
I went out to Midway Island in May and June of 1942 and took part with several squadrons of B-17s in the Battle of Midway. In July, I went with the 11th Bombardment Group, flying B-17s, to the South Pacific where we participated in the Guadalcanal Campaign for nearly a year. On return to the United States in the spring of 1943, it was only a few months before I was
selected for the B-29 program. After a short, intensive training program in Kansas, we were off to the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater where we bombed a broad swath of targets, extending from Mukden, Manchuria in the north to Palembang, Sumatra in the south, including targets in the western part of the Japanese home islands. I left the States as a Squadron Commander in the 468th Bomb Group, one of the four groups in the 58th Bomb Wing, the initial Wing of B-29s. When our Group Commander disappeared enroute to Singapore, I took over command of the 468th Group. In May 1945, we moved directly from the CBI to West Field, Tinian, in the Marianas Islands where we stayed until the end of the war.
I have briefed my background to make it clear that as the war in the Pacific was winding down, I was no greenhorn. I had been involved directly in that war almost continuously since it’s inception. I was in command of one of the twenty B-29 groups that made-up 20th Air Force, an organization that could mount 1,000 plane raids against the Japanese home islands. The events that were taking place around me seemed to be bringing, not only the war, but my life to a climax.
Operations during the closing months of the 20th Air Force campaign against the Japanese Empire were at an intense pitch. Missions went out virtually every day. The average mission was 500 airplanes. Groups would mount an effort about every 2 to 3 days. Some of the missions were daylight-precision strikes against aircraft plants, naval arsenals and industrial targets. Some were night incendiary missions against urban areas. The day missions were conducted in-formation, at night we attacked-individually but in bomber streams.
During this period, the Japanese ability to defend themselves had fallen off drastically. This was especially apparent to those of us who had been flying against the Japanese throughout the war. It became standard practice to leave the gunners home on night missions. Not having to carry a load of unneeded ammunition meant we could carry a heavier bomb load. Also, after a couple of B-29s returned one morning with 50 caliber battle damage, it was decided that the skies over Japan were safer for B-29s at night if we left the gunners at home. On the daylight missions, we were now escorted by the P-51s out of Iwo Jima. If any Japanese fighters appeared, our ‘little friends’ took care of them. We never had it so good. We used to joke that the loss rate of Air Transport Command (ATC) crews ferrying new B-29s out to us was higher than our loss rate flying combat. This may have been a joke, but it was pretty close to the truth, and my combat crews were beginning to request extensions beyond their 35 mission tour rather than go home and face the rigors of the Training Command. It was no longer the tough war that I was familiar with. It was clear to me, as well as to our 20th Air Force leaders, that the war had been won. The only thing left to do was to make the Japanese admit they had lost. We hoped that it wouldn’t take an amphibious assault on their home islands to send them the message. The casualties in such an operation were bound to be astronomical.
In July, my good friend and Flying School classmate, Paul Tibbets and his 509th Group arrived on Tinian. They were attached to the 313th Bomb Wing, which flew out of North Field, Tinian. It was obvious that the 509th was a special sort of outfit. It only had one B-29 Bomb Squadron and its B-29s were equipped with reversible, electric propellers, instead of the the hydraulic propellers the rest of us had. The 509th also had a special Air Transport Squadron with C-54s to provide special support. Paul visited my Group a couple of times to sit-in on Mission Briefings and Interrogations, and I visited his outfit several times. I saw some of the special facilities provided for the 509th, like the pit used to load the oversized bombs they carried, but nobody, including me, had the wildest idea about the nature of those bombs until Paul returned from his Hiroshima Strike on the afternoon of the 6th of August. Three days later and it was Nagasaki’s turn. We all kept our fingers crossed, hoping that the message delivered by the 509th would be what was needed to convince the Emperor and his warlords to say, “Uncle.”
Meanwhile, our war went on as usual. On August 14th, I led 45 B-29s of my Group against the Naval Arsenal at Hikari. It was a successful mission with little opposition, except for intense flak over the target. The Aiming Points were ‘well covered’ and we lost no airplanes. We were on the way home when a radio broadcast was received stating that the Japanese had accepted the terms of Unconditional Surrender and that the war was over – repeat – over. That night was bound to be a wild one and the minute I hit the ground I issued orders calling in all side-arms. The 468th turned out to be unusual in the 20th Air Force in not suffering any .50 caliber wounds that night.
For the next few days, everything seemed to be in slow motion. So we won the war! So what do we do now? I initiated a program of training missions so the crews wouldn’t lose their touch. We followed the news of General MacArthur’s flight north in a specially marked transport planes, picking-up a Japanese Delegation that had flown to Okinawa and continuing-on to a meeting in Yokohama. Our only real activity was flying missions to Japanese Prisoner of War Camps, where Americans were imprisoned, and dropping packs of food and medicine by parachute. There was a lot of personal satisfaction in flying these missions, and we were amazed that we never got shot at.
Finally, the word came out that on September 2nd, the final surrender papers would be signed on the deck of the battleship, Missouri, in Tokyo Bay. We waited with baited breath until the announcement came that 20th Air Force would fly a 500-plane show-of-force mission, at low altitude, over the ceremony. This was the mission that everyone wanted to fly, and since it was going to be a half-strength mission, lots of crews would have to sit-it-out on the ground. We didn’t have long to wait for the word.
I received a phone call in my tent that my boss, Brig. General Roger M. Ramey, Commander of the 58th Bomb Wing, wanted to see me at-once. I climbed into my Jeep and headed for his Headquarters. I thought there might be quite a few people there, but I seemed to be the only one, and they waived me right into the General’s office. He said, “Eddie, I just had a call from General LeMay, down on Guam, and he told me that, ‘My 58th Wing had been in the war longer than any of his other Wings, and he considered us his best Wing, and had chosen us to lead the Show-of-Force Mission over the Missouri. And, now I’m telling you, Eddie, your Group is the best Group in my Wing, so the 468th Group is going to lead the parade, and I’m going to fly with you.”
I set General Ramey up with one of my best Combat Crews to lead the mission, and flew Deputy Lead on his wing. It was quite a day. The sky was full of B-29s, but I’m sure they had a better view of it all from down-below than we did. There were two things about the mission that struck me at the time. One, of course, was the tremendous, historic event that was taking place beneath us in Tokyo Bay. The other was the amazement at being able to fly around over downtown Tokyo at 1,000 feet altitude and not have anyone shooting at us.
From there-on, it was all downhill. A Point System was developed to determine who were the most deserving people to go home first. A project called “Sunset” was announced, in which our airplanes would all be flown back to the States. My Group, having spent a year in the CBI and being composed of people, like me, who had flown a previous combat tour, was set to go home almost intact. A Fighter Group commanded by a friend of mine, Colonel Harrison Thyng, that had been based on Ie Shima, a little island near Okinawa, was scheduled to leave their planes behind and fly home with us in our B-29s. They had been deployed to the Pacific directly from their tour in Europe and they were a high point outfit. We worked for days painting and polishing our airplanes so that we would look like a real outfit when we got back to the States.
We had been watching the news about the Russians with concern. We knew that they had jumped into the war against Japan in the last couple of days without firing a shot, and grabbed-off Sakhalin Island, the Kuriles, hunks of Manchuria, and the Northern half of Korea, and it looked as though they were ready to grab for more. We also heard disturbing news about their conduct in Europe, grabbing the Balkans, the Baltics, and most of the rest of Central Europe. Many of my guys came to me and said, “Colonel Jim, why are we going home? The war isn’t over until the Russians are under control, and then, we can all relax.” I pretty much agreed, but I could only tell them that I was sure our outfit would be kept intact, we’d take some leave, and then we’d be ready to go for the Russians, or do anything else they wanted us to do. I couldn’t have been more completely wrong!
The 468th arrived back at Sacramento, California, with all of our wonderful crews and all of our shiny B-29s, and found we were in the middle of a frantic demobilization frenzy. Before we could climb down out of the cockpit, some guy came climbing-up through the Nose Wheel Well with a handful of papers. “Sign these,” he said, ”and turn-in all of your equipment, and tomorrow, you’ll all be civilians.” We were dazed, but we followed this guy into the building where there were three processing lines: Those who wanted to get out of the Army in a hurry, Those who wanted ‘out’ even faster, and Those who wanted out of the Army ‘yesterday.’ What a shock! I had a tough time explaining that I was a Regular Army Officer and wasn’t about to turn-in all of my equipment, sign their damn papers, and walk out there in a pin-striped suit. I shorted-out the circuit. They didn’t know what to do with me.
“What happens to my airplanes?” I asked, as they were trying to process me. I was told not to worry about them, they would be left in a backyard corner of the field, and someone else would figure-out what to do with them later. “There’s no hurry,” I was told, “since nobody wants them anymore.”
“What about my outfit?” I asked. I was told that, “ I no longer had an outfit,” and “to forget about it.”
“Where do I report for Duty,” was my last question. I was told, “You have an automatic 60-day leave, and you may go home.” Eventually, I was told, “Someone will probably send you some Orders that tell you what to do.”
In just one lousy morning, back in the States, my Group had taken more hits than it had during its many months of combat. My people were scattered to the four winds, my beautiful B-29s were headed for the scrap heap, my proud outfit had ceased to exist, and I had been placed on indefinite hold. It was a glum homecoming for a conquering hero!
So ended my World War II. Of course, this isn't’ the end of the story. Things slowly began to fall back into place. New units were formed and most of us were involved in the manning, equipping, and training of these new outfits. I took another fine B-29 Group back out to Korea and got-in another 32 combat missions in that little affair. Now, it would seem, that the Cold War is over. At least, we are fond enough of the Russians to be bailing them out of their difficulties with money provided by American taxpayers, and we are in the bewildering world of today, where places like Bosnia and Haiti and Somalia hold our attention.
I’m sure it will come out alright, America always manages to fumble along and come-out on top. But on this 4th of July 1995, I can’t help wondering if most of my troops weren’t a lot smarter than our leaders in Washington, 50 years ago. While America was the proud owner of the finest fighting machine the world had ever known, wouldn’t it have been wise to keep it intact for just a little while longer? Sure, the Emperor of Japan had unconditionally surrendered, but weren’t there some other players in the game that we should know a bit more about? When you have three aces showing and another one in the hole, it isn’t very smart to fold your hand and walk away. Maybe, if we’d played our hand a little better when we had a winner, instead of trying to set a new world record in demobilization, we might not have had a Korea and a Vietnam and a Cold War. Who knows?
At least, these are some of the thoughts that run through an old soldier’s mind as he sits at his desk on the 4th of July, 1995, and remembers some of the events of which he was part, 50 years ago.