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
Just after 2 p.m. on August 18, 1945, U.S. Army Sergeant Anthony J. Marchione bled to death in the clear, bright sky above Tokyo. A month shy of his 20th birthday, Marchione died like so many before him had in the Second World War—quietly, cradled in the arms of a buddy. What sets his death apart from that of other Allied airmen is that the young man from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, died after the Japanese had accepted the Allied terms of surrender. He was the last American killed in air combat in World War II.
I learned Marchione’s story in the late 1990s while working on a book about the Consolidated B-32 bomber, the aircraft Marchione was flying in when he died. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces less than two years earlier, in November 1943. The oldest of three children of Italian immigrants, he was a good-looking kid, five foot six and 125 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. I learned from his sister,
Theresa Sell, that he had enlisted because he had expected to get drafted. “He chose the Air Corps because he’d just always wanted to fly,” she recalled in a 1997 interview. “I was still in high school when he went into the service, and with all the [patriotic fervor] at the time, my sister Geraldine and I thought it was neat that he was going.”
Marchione wanted to be a pilot, but the Army had other plans; it trained him to be an aerial gunner. In November 1944, at Davis-Monthan Army Air Field in Arizona, he joined a Consolidated B-24 Liberator crew that was being transferred to Will Rogers Army Air Force Base in Oklahoma City for training in photo-reconnaissance. While pilots Robert Essig and John Ziegler learned the intricacies of flying the F-7, the reconnaissance version of the B-24, Marchione and fellow gunners Rudolph Nudo, Frank Pallone, and Raymond Zech went through a course to become photographer’s assistants. By August 1945, their unit, the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron, had moved to Okinawa, which had been captured by U.S. forces less than two months earlier. It was there, at Yontan Airfield, that Marchione first saw a Consolidated B-32 Dominator.
The B-32s at Yontan were part of the 386th Bombardment Squadron, which conducted anti-shipping sweeps of the South China Sea and, if needed, could fly combat missions against the Japanese mainland. But Japan’s surrender in mid-August abruptly changed the squadron’s duties; crews now were to fly daytime photo-reconnaissance missions to monitor Tokyo’s compliance with the cease-fire.
But there was another, more furtive reason for the flights, according to Rudolph Pugliese, who as a young lieutenant was the 386th’s assistant intelligence officer. Besides gathering information on such things as the route that Allied occupation forces could follow into Tokyo, “the photo-recon missions were also intended to test the fidelity of the Japanese,” Pugliese told me in 1997. “According to the terms of the cease-fire, our planes were supposed to be able to fly freely over Tokyo. If they actually could, that would mean the Japanese weren’t planning any nasty surprises for the occupation forces.” U.S. commanders wanted to be assured that the Japanese would not employ their still-robust air defense system, with early-warning radar stations, air raid sirens, and a fleet of fast fighter aircraft with experienced pilots ready to scramble to protect their homeland.
While the B-32’s design included a belly camera just aft of its retractable ball turret, the 386th’s Dominator crews did not include aerial photographers. For photo-recon sorties, mission planners enlisted crews from a pool of 20th Reconnaissance Squadron photographers, gunners trained as photo assistants, and commissioned navigators who would “steer” the aircraft during the photo run by using the B-32’s Norden bombsight. Among the 20th Recon Squadron members assigned to the pool were Marchione and his F-7 navigator, Second Lieutenant Kurt Rupke. The pool system was not popular, Frank Pallone told me. “We called them ‘bastard crews,’ because guys were taken out of their regular crews and had to fly with people they might not ever have met before,” he said. “Marchione, Nudo, and I had been tent mates since the Philippines, and I think it bothered all of us that Tony was in the pool.”
The first Dominator mission to include 20th personnel flew on August 16. A B-32 named Hobo Queen II and a second aircraft were dispatched to the Tokyo area; the second Dominator had to turn back when it developed engine trouble. Hobo Queen II pushed on and, though it was “painted” by Japanese early-warning radars while approaching and leaving the Tokyo area, its crew photographed the airfields at Katori and Konoiko, east of Tokyo, without interference.
Things didn’t go as well the next day, however, when Lieutenant Colonel Selmon Wells, flying Hobo Queen II, led three other B-32s to the Japanese capital. Although just 25 at the time, Wells was a seasoned commander who had flown more than a dozen combat missions aboard a Douglas A-20 Havoc. He told me in 1998 that, despite the absence of Japanese activity the day before, he was “uneasy” about the August 17 mission. “I’d been at war for nearly two years by then, and I knew the Japanese were tenacious fighters who had no problem pulling dirty tricks on their enemies,” Wells said. “I think I was subconsciously expecting something to happen.”
Though Wells could not have known it at the time, events in Tokyo were virtually ensuring that something would.
By August 13, it was obvious to die-hards within Japan’s government and military that Emperor Hirohito—shaken by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just days earlier—intended to accept the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender. Though an attempted coup against the emperor had been foiled by loyal troops on the night of August 14, hardliners in the military swore to fight on. On August 15, Hirohito addressed his country by radio, announcing his intention to “bear the unbearable” and surrender to the Allies, intensifying the anger and sense of dishonor many in Japan’s military felt.
Among those most capable of translating those feelings into action were the Japanese navy fighter pilots at Atsugi and Yokosuka airfields, outside Tokyo. At Atsugi, the 302nd Air Group was openly rebelling against Hirohito’s cease-fire order. And the Yokosuka Air Group included many pilots—such as aces Saburo Sakai and Sadamu Komachi—who felt Japan’s airspace should remain inviolate until a formal surrender document had actually been signed.
Both Atsugi and Yokosuka were home to some of Japan’s best fighter aircraft, including the Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero-Sen (known to the Allies as “Zeke”), the J2M3 Raiden (“Jack”), and the N1K2-J Shiden-Kai (“George”). The presence in the Tokyo area of such fighters, and of pilots skilled in attacking U.S. heavy bombers, practically guaranteed that Wells’ formation would receive a hostile response.
As the four B-32s made their way northeast along the coast of Kyushu on the August 17 mission, they were tracked by Japanese radar. Over Tokyo Bay, a few bursts of flak trailed the Dominators as they broke formation to begin their individual photo runs over different targets.
On the ground, pilots at Atsugi and Yokosuka had been warned of the approach of what were described as four B-24s. Aircraft lifted off from both airfields and raced to gain altitude, their pilots seeking to position themselves above the incoming bombers. While no one is certain as to which Japanese pilots took part in the attacks that day (in Saburo Sakai’s 1995 autobiography, for example, he says he participated, though other sources say he flew only on the 18th), there’s no doubt about what happened next.
Beginning at 10:30 a.m. and lasting for two hours, three of the B-32s were attacked by what their crews later described as Japanese army Ki.44 “Tojo” and Ki.61 “Tony” fighters (which looked somewhat like the Japanese navy’s “George” and “Jack,” respectively). The interceptors made multiple attacks, but the Dominators’ gunners largely kept them at bay with .50-caliber machine guns (each aircraft had 10). Though the B-32s suffered minor damage, no Americans were injured. Nor, apparently, were any of the Japanese: Though the B-32 gunners later claimed to have damaged one fighter and “probably destroyed” two others, surviving Japanese records list no losses for that day or the next.
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.
The turret problem didn’t seem to matter, since most of the Japanese were attacking Anderson’s Dominator from the front and sides. Komachi took another tack, however. He’d gotten above and ahead of the B-32, flipped inverted, and screamed down from 12 o’clock high. His fire raked the bomber, knocking out the left inboard engine. It was almost certainly during this attack that the first airman was injured aboard Anderson’s plane: A 20-mm cannon round hit the rear upper turret, sending shards of plexiglass into Smart’s forehead and left temple. He yelled “I’m hit!” and clambered down from the shattered turret.
Marchione and Lacharite were securing the camera gear when they heard Houston’s call about incoming fighters. Just before Smart descended, Lacharite stepped to the Dominator’s starboard waist observation window to try to spot the attackers.
“Just as I did that, I saw a plane headed right at me,” Lacharite told me a few years before his death in 2000. “That’s when I got hit. Rounds came right through the skin of the plane and hit me in both legs. I got spun around and landed on the floor. I grabbed the cord from one of the barracks bags that carried camera gear and wrapped it around one leg as a tourniquet. Then I wrapped an intercom cord around the other leg as Tony pulled me to a cot raised a few inches off the floor.”
As he was moving Lacharite, Marchione was on the intercom telling Anderson what had happened, and the pilot replied that he was sending Rupke. Marchione had just turned back toward Lacharite when a 20-mm round punched through the right side of the aircraft and slammed into him, knocking him against the other side of the cabin. He had just slumped to the floor when Rupke arrived.
“When I got there, Tony was bleeding from a big hole in his chest,” Rupke told me in 1997 (other eyewitnesses said Marchione was hit in the groin). “He was still conscious when I got to him, and I told him everything was going to be all right. He said ‘Stay with me,’ and I said ‘Yes, I’ll stay with you.’ I did the best I could to stop the bleeding and I held him in my arms.” As Rupke was trying to care for Marchione, Houston came forward from the tail turret, and he and Smart did what they could for Lacharite. Within minutes, the navigator, Second Lieutenant Thomas Robinson, and radar officer, Second Lieutenant Donald H. Smith, arrived to help. They gave Marchione oxygen and blood plasma and applied compression bandages to his wound, but about 30 minutes after being hit, the young gunner died in Rupke’s arms.
As soon as the B-32s were attacked, both had gone into rapid dives and turned toward the sea. This allowed their airspeed to exceed that of the Japanese fighters, and both Dominator pilots began to pull away from their attackers.
The 10 attack passes it had undergone left Klein’s airplane with no real damage, but Anderson’s was in bad shape. Besides the dead engine and shattered turret, the B-32 had lost partial rudder control and was punctured in about 30 places.
Both Dominators appeared over Yontan just after 6 p.m., and soon after landing they were surrounded by what the nose turret gunner Keller described as “every colonel in the Fifth Air Force, all wanting to know exactly what happened.” (He told me this a few years before his death in 2004.) Marchione, Lacharite, and Smart were removed from the aircraft through the bomb bay and whisked away in ambulances, while the other crewmen were sequestered for a full debriefing.
It was the last air combat of the war; the next day, as part of the cease-fire agreement, the propellers were removed from all Japanese fighters. From then on, Allied flights over Japan went unchallenged. Preparations for the occupation of Japan continued, and the Allied advance party landed at Atsugi on August 28, a week before the formal surrender.
While reporters on Okinawa filed stories about the August 18 attack almost as soon as it happened, the incident was largely buried under news of the coming occupation. The story got the biggest play in the hometown newspapers of those involved. The Fort Worth Star Telegram ran stories on Texans John Houston and Jimmie Smart, while Lacharite was written about in Massachusetts, where his recovery took several years. It was, of course, in the Marchione home in Pottstown that news of the attack hit hardest.
“When we heard the war was over, there was a tremendous celebration in town,” Theresa Sell told me. “And of course, our family participated in that. Then, on the 19th, it all changed. I was at work, and I had just gone to the ladies’ room when my boss sent someone in to get me. When I walked out, he wouldn’t tell me what the trouble was, only that I had to go home. Of course, when I got there my mother and dad were in pretty bad shape.”
The War Department had sent a telegram stating that Marchione had been killed in action, but it gave no details, nor did it mention the disposition of his remains. It was several weeks before Ralph Marchione, a shoemaker, and his wife Amelia got word that their son had been buried on Okinawa the day after his death. And it wasn’t until three years later, on June 10, 1948, that they were notified of his impending repatriation. The casket bearing Marchione’s remains returned to Pottstown—accompanied by his Army buddies and fellow Italian-Americans Frank Pallone and Rudy Nudo—on March 18, 1949. The last American to die in air combat in World War II was buried days later in St. Aloysius Old Cemetery with full military honors.