The stories that follow come from veterans of World War II air combat, recalling many decades later events that happened in their youth, during the 20th century’s most violent years. Like many veterans, they have shared their stories in lectures and interviews, which are preserved in archives large and small throughout the country. In this way, the vivid voices of the Americans who fought 70 years ago, accepting casualties that would be unthinkable today, are amplified.
SOURCES: LOC: Veterans History Project, Library of Congress; NASS: National Air and Space Society Lecture; NMPW: National Museum of the Pacific War; RWN: R.W. Norton Art Foundation Oral History Project; WVHP: Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (Excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
73rd Bomb Wing, Pacific Theater. B-29 Gunner
Our first day we arrived on Saipan, we were picked up at the airport by one of the sergeants from the base, and they brought us to our quarters and said, “This is where you guys are going to be.” We walked in, and all the beds are made, the uniforms are hanging up, and everything’s in place. And I said to the guy, “Hey, we can’t go there, this place is occupied.” He said, “Don’t worry about it, they’re all dead.” That’s our first day. And I really got a little bit discouraged, you know. What the hell am I doing here? Mommy, I want to go home. The whole crew was 18 or 19. We had an old guy of 26, and we called him Pops.
There were 11 people on that plane. I was left gunner and my friend was right gunner. My twin brother was tail gunner. On our first raid, our best crew members that we’d gone through training school with collided with another B-29, and 22 guys died right then—our first mission, you know. We were 18 years old, what do we know about war? It was tough. We were all crying and, oh boy, it was awful, but what the hell. It happens….
The B-29 was the best airplane made at the time. It [had] remote control gunsights. It wasn’t hand-held like a B-17, where it’s 65 below zero and you’ve got this heavy suit on and you’re freezing to death. We were air-conditioned and heated. My guns were 40 feet away from me. I never touched a machine gun. I had a control. As long as I kept [Japanese airplanes] in the reticle of the gunsight, theoretically the computer would track it and would shoot it down. Theoretically…
There was a constant fear of [kamikazes]. See, the Germans and the B-17s in Europe, at least those guys knew they were fighting a normal war. I don’t know of any case of a German fighter plane crashing into a B-17 purposely. But the Japanese would do it. If they could knock down a B-29 with one plane, they would do it. Anything.
We destroyed that country. We absolutely decimated it. That war was won by Air Force power alone—not the atomic bomb. All the atomic bomb did was destroy a city and hasten the surrender of Japan. Toward the end of the war we’d go over five or six targets a night, drop pamphlets and say: One of these cities is going to be bombed tomorrow, we want women and children out of this town.
Never considered as to whether I was killing babies or dogs or animals or nothing. We were doing a job and that’s all we cared about. We wanted to go over there, destroy the cities, burn the cities. We had fire raids over Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Nagoya, where 300 to 500 B-29s flew over there and dropped fire bombs. We destroyed 27 square miles of Tokyo, one night. We could see the flames for hundreds of miles. We could smell the smoke. We were only at 10,000 feet. We just burned the bejesus out of that town. But that was war. We weren’t contrite, we were happy because we knew we were doing a great job. (Source: LOC)