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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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.”


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