The Last to Die

The war in the Pacific ended as it began, with a surprise attack by Japanese warplanes

Before flying on a B-32, Marchione (front, second from right) had been on a B-24 Liberator crew that included his buddies Rudy Nudo and Frank Pallone (front, second and third from left, respectively). (Jerry Viracola, via Chuck Varney)
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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.

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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.


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