By John L. Frisbee,
Beating a Stacked
With a jagged slash
halfway through the fuselage, Lt. Bill Orr's B-29 was in imminent danger
of breaking up in midair.
June 1, 1945, Twentieth Air Force launched 521 B-29s in a daylight incendiary
attack against Osaka, Japan's second city in both population and industrial
production. One of the bombers from the 61st Bomb Squadron, 39th Bomb
Group, based at North Field, Guam, was commanded by Lt. William F. Orr.
Lt. Bill Costa, Orr's navigator, remembers his aircraft commander as a
superb pilot who had been a crop duster before the war. He was older than
most of his crew, "a father to all of us." Before that mission--the
crew's 14th--ended, Bill Orr would call on all his skills as a pilot and
on his character as a leader.
Moments after bombs-away,
the B-29's number three engine was hit by flak, and the propeller feathered.
It wouldn't stay feathered but began spinning at an increasing rate. Lieutenant
Orr knew the oil line operating the feathering mechanism had been cut.
There was only one way to slow the speed of the windmilling prop and prevent
a friction-induced fire in the engine: reduce the bomber's speed to just
above a stall. Orr throttled back the three good engines to minimum essential
As they crossed the
coastline of Japan at about 20,000 feet, the windmilling prop separated
from its shaft, slicing halfway through the right side of the fuselage
about three feet inside the bomb bay. It then flew back, damaging the
right horizontal stabilizer. The impact of the separated propeller knocked
out the B-29's Loran system, damaged the radio equipment, and, as Lieutenant
Orr soon was to learn, did other critical damage.
When power was applied
to the three functioning engines, the B-29 immediately began to roll to
the right. It took the combined strength of Orr and copilot flight officer
Monte Frodsham to bring it under marginal control. The flying propeller
had destroyed power controls for the No. 4 engine, which had been running
at reduced power. Unable to increase power on that engine and with drag
induced by the huge gash in the fuselage and the torn-up stabilizer, Orr
and Frodsham could not keep enough power on the Nos. 1 and 2 engines to
hold altitude. To make matters worse, they now were on instruments, penetrating
a turbulent front. The B-29 was in danger of breaking up or, if the pilots
lost control, of spinning into the sea.
Orr had the crew throw
out everything they could to lighten the plane. With only as much power
on the two left engines as Orr and Frodsham could handle physically, the
bomber continued to lose altitude. They finally broke out of the front
at 3,500 feet, about 500 miles south of Osaka. Navigator Costa recognized
an uninhabited island, Sofu Gan. Then the No. 3 engine caught fire.
It was clear they
couldn't make it to Guam. The radio operator, Sgt. Jim Schwoegler, sent
out a Mayday, not knowing if his transmitter was working.
Lieutenant Orr decided
not to ditch the plane in its damaged condition. He ordered the crew to
bail out while he and Frodsham maneuvered the B-29 far enough away so
it would not endanger the men in the water when it crashed. Seconds after
Orr and Frodsham bailed out, the bomber exploded. Flight engineer MSgt.
Edward Kanick's parachute did not open. All other members of the crew
splashed down safely.
About two hours after
their midday bailout, it appeared that Sergeant Schwoegler's transmitter
had worked. A Navy PBY amphibious seaplane showed up, but the sea was
too rough for it to land. Soon a B-17 appeared and dropped a Higgins boat
by parachute. It landed near radar officer Lt. Art Swanberg, who climbed
aboard, started the engine, and, directed by the B-17, picked up the rest
of the crew. The boat was stocked with dry clothing and food to see them
through a reasonably comfortable night.
The following day
the survivors were taken aboard the submarine USS Tinosa. They
were transferred two days later to another sub, USS Scabbardfish,
and returned to Guam on June 10. The crew flew eight more missions before
their war ended.
For his "magnificent
airmanship and gallant leadership," Lt. William F. Orr was awarded
the Distinguished Service Cross. Today, almost a half-century after that
1945 mission, the surviving members of his crew remember him with respect
and affection as a great pilot and leader who was "always concerned
with our welfare." He remained on active duty until 1966, when he
retired at Sacramento, Calif., where he lived until his death.
Thanks to Bill
Costa and Bob Weiler, members of Bill Orr's crew.
1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been
amended for accuracy.
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