The Last to Die
The war in the Pacific ended as it began, with a surprise attack by Japanese warplanes.
- By Stephen Harding
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
Jerry Viracola, via Chuck Varney
(Page 3 of 5)
As the Dominators began the long flight back to Okinawa, Wells radioed ahead a detailed report about the attacks. At Yontan, the news prompted “much confusion and surprise,” Pugliese recalled. “We were all stunned by the attack, because we knew there were high-level talks going on between us and the Japanese. This wasn’t supposed to have happened, and we were all wondering if the war was actually over.”
According to statements by various commanders in mission reports, crew debriefings, and official histories, the attacks convinced U.S. commanders that it was vital to continue the recon missions over Tokyo. Allied planners needed to know whether the incident was an isolated act by die-hards or an indication of Japan’s intent to reject the cease-fire and continue fighting.
Mission 230 A-8, carried out on August 18, was therefore something of a repeat of the previous day’s flight: It would cover many of the same targets, though it would involve only two B-32s; the other two were pulled from the flight because of mechanical problems. First Lieutenant James Klein would lead the mission in Hobo Queen II, with First Lieutenant John R. Anderson in command of the second Dominator. In addition to its usual crew, each B-32 was provided a photo officer (a commissioned officer; usually a first lieutenant or captain), an aerial photographer (an enlisted man; usually a sergeant or staff sergeant), and a photo assistant from the 20th Recon Squadron. Tapped to fly with Anderson were Marchione, Rupke, and 29-year-old aerial photographer Staff Sergeant Joseph Lacharite. None had ever been aboard a Dominator.
Following an early-morning briefing during which they were warned of the possibility of Japanese fighter attacks, the crews climbed aboard the two B-32s and were in the air just before 7 a.m. Though Japanese radar tracked them on the approach to Tokyo, the airplanes encountered no opposition while on their photo runs. Then, Klein told me, “things went bad fast.”
Soon after the B-32s appeared over Tokyo, the air raid alarms sounded at the Yokosuka base. Sadamu Komachi recalled in a 1978 article in a Japanese magazine that the sight of American bombers flying so serenely above devastated Tokyo was too much for the gathered fighter pilots to bear. They ran to their aircraft and took off to intercept. Hobo Queen II was flying at about 20,000 feet and had just completed its last photo run when Klein got the first inkling of trouble.
“One of our gunners said he could see fighters taking off from one of the fields below us,” Klein said in 1998 (he died in 2004). “I turned the plane so I could see them, and sure enough, they were on their way up. I wasn’t too concerned about us, since it would take them a while to reach us, but Anderson was a good 10,000 feet below us.”
Klein radioed a warning to Anderson but got no response. As it turned out, though, Anderson’s tail gunner, Sergeant John Houston, also saw the fighters. “By the time I spotted them, they were already at about the same altitude as we were,” Houston said. “I was facing backwards, and they were coming in from my 11 o’clock, three or four moving from my left to right. I just put the sight on them and started shooting. One fighter came so close I couldn’t miss. I gave him about 50 rounds and saw hits on the wings and fuselage. He kept coming until he was within about 100 feet, and then he just blew up.”
In the two top turrets, Sergeant Benjamin Clayworth (who was forward) and Sergeant Jimmie Smart (aft) also engaged the attackers. Smart hammered a fighter coming in from 3 o’clock high, and as it rolled beneath the Dominator, Clayworth yelled over the intercom that he saw it explode. In the nose turret, Sergeant Burton Keller fired at those attackers making head-on runs after their passes at Klein’s aircraft. The only guns aboard Anderson’s B-32 not pumping out .50-caliber rounds were those in the belly turret, which had been inoperable even before the aircraft left Okinawa.