|Back row L
to R: Harold Luettschwager, George Meranshian , Bill Monroe, Ed
Shahinian, Herb Small, John Shahinian, and Jess Riblett.
Front row L to R: Don Pedroni, George Petoff, Vernon Karstens,
and Jerry Francis.
Each of our crew members
was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and The Air Medal with up to
six Oak Leaf Clusters for meritorious action during bombing missions on
our tour of duty.
brothers in the same outfit were not all that uncommon but identical twin
brothers on the same bomber crew were rare indeed – we know of
no others that carry the distinction of Ed and John Shahinian. George
Meranshian, along with the Shahinian brothers, gave us three airmen of
Armenian descent on the same B-29 crew – another rarity unmatched in the
entire 20th Air Force.
WW II we pretty much went our separate ways except for rare notes or cards
at first then nothing as we proceeded to lead our individual lives. But
I always wondered what happened to my close buddies. Then came retirement
in 1987. I had time to look for and find the 73rd Bomb Wing Association
(it found me, actually) consisting of surviving airmen and other support
personnel who had been stationed on Saipan (northernmost of the Marianas).
I was astounded to find six of our crew listed on their roster and proceeded
to contact all those still living (nine in all) – we knew our pilot had
died in 1967 and I have been unable to find our radio operator. We started
attending the association’s yearly reunions held in various cities all
over the U.S. We have had up to seven crew members (plus wives) in attendance.
It goes without saying that we have a wonderful time at these reunions
recalling our experiences and enjoying each other’s company (spouses have
bonded too). Being of that age, we are all – with one exception – married
to our first wives.
This is what a typical
mission was like:
our B-29 airplane fully loaded to its maximum payload of bombs, we proceeded
on our takeoff run down a 9,000 ft runway- one of two parallel runways
– flying off a 200’ cliff (providentially located there to give us room
for nose down attitude to accelerate to climbing speed). After reaching
that speed we climbed to our assigned cruising altitude on our way to
a target on the Japanese mainland, some 1400 – 1500 miles distant, with
no possible emergency landing facilities on the way. Sailors have
a saying that the sea is unforgiving – and airmen know the air is unforgiving
absolutely- minor problems or mistakes can be (and often are) fatal. Then
after reaching mainland Japan and climbing toward the bomb run altitude
we were met with fierce fighter plane defense and heavy antiaircraft fire
– the Japanese did not take kindly to our presence there – for the entire
length of the bomb run (some twenty miles). Then after dropping our bombs
and getting safely out of fighter and antiaircraft range, we started our
journey back to Saipan. This was another 1400 – 1500 miles in that same
air and over that same expanse of water. Most of these return flights
were uneventful except for one notable mission – our first – which I will
tell you about later.
To survive 35 such
missions, each crew member had to do his job and do it well – and we trusted
each other to do just that. Out of that trust came friendship and out
of friendship love – we became a very close knit family as did
many other wartime bomber crews.
Our first mission,
a high altitude bombing raid over Tokyo, nearly became our last. First
some background information to set the stage. I was sworn into the Army
Air Corps in September 1942 and called to active duty in January 1943,
then proceeded to all the schools leading up to becoming a navigator.
I was progressing nicely in this training until I got to the celestial
part of navigating when the Air Corps determined that I had considerable
difficulty identifying individual stars. Dead reckoning navigation, where
you use land marks and speed calculations was no problem (a breeze actually).
But celestial is based on one’s ability to use obtain fixes on
individual stars. So I washed (flunked) out of navigation school – an
ego shattering experience as I had an easy time through high school. I
was really looking forward to earning my wings and becoming an officer
so I could attract the young ladies of that era, and was feeling depressed
after being sent to gunnery school in Kingman, AZ. A sympathetic WAC (Women’s
Army Corps) clerk wrangled me an assignment to Bombardier School. I was
elated – this was a second chance to become an officer, and I passed easily
obtaining the dual rating of bombardier/navigator. Now to the story.
About halfway home
to Saipan our navigator became hopelessly lost (it was nighttime and overcast
– undercast in this case- and while we could see the stars OK, picking
out any of the few landmarks – tiny Pacific islands – was impossible).
I knew something was wrong when he asked me on the intercom for help and
found him very worried at his work station. The responsibility of crew
safety weighs heavily on one’s mind, and this was overwhelming to him.
I realized that first I had to reassure him that together we would find
our location (took a lot of convincing). Turns out there is a LORAN
system that works great in determining longitude (east-west position)
but is worthless for latitude (north-south). We were at a far enough south
latitude so as to make any fix on Polaris (our North Star) difficult if
not impossible. I managed to get several good fixes so then we
knew our latitude and ground speed. Our calculations showed that we were
near one of the little Pacific islands. Miraculously there was a break
in the cloud cover and we could see that island. Now we were on
course and headed home – ironically my celestial navigation abilities
were just good enough to determine our location. It was the one and only
time I used my celestial navigating “expertise” during our tour of duty
although I helped with routine calculations on several missions. During
all this frantic activity the rest of the crew was busy with their own
duties and unaware of any problems.
all this was going on our Flight Engineer had calculated that we had barely
enough fuel left to reach Saipan, still some 500 miles distant. Our pilot
started a gradual descent so as to conserve as much fuel as possible.
We all had visions of ditching far short of the friendly Saipan runways
or at least a dead-stick (no power) landing. But there was enough – we
could have flown another hour or more if necessary. The Flight Engineer
– usually extremely accurate with calculations – had made a mistake. Those
were a nerve-wracking worry-filled 500 miles. The prospect of ditching
is an airman’s worst nightmare. This was our longest mission (over 16
hours) and being our first I sure wondered what it was that I had gotten
myself into nearly three years before when I enlisted. Scared? Yes, on
every single mission – but not terrified (there is a difference).
We all had our superstitions and mine were to always start with two freshly
sharpened pencils and I never cleaned my 45 caliber service pistol! Other
crew members had their own superstitions. Ed Shahinian never washed his
flight suit and his twin brother John hummed “Long Ago And Far Away”,
a popular love song of our time in his “doghouse” tail gunner’s location.
George Meranshian read his Bible constantly. Don Pedroni carried his baby
shoes upon which he recorded our individual missions. Herb Small carried
a Tallit (prayer shawl) and Teffilin (small leather boxes containing scriptures).
These are items carried by those of the Hebrew faith while traveling.
Also in the same O.D. bag was an Army issue prayer book. We did not want
to deviate from the routines of past missions. I had never worn a cap
on these flights until I received a package from my folks with my old
baseball cap enclosed and wore it on our 22nd mission, the only mission
we aborted as will be told later in this account. The enlisted men on
our crew confiscated and burned that cap – no objection on my part! Memory
of that cap escapes me – I just don’t remember anything about it – but
our enlisted men sure remembered and I trust their memories.
Sketch by Capt Raymond
Creekmore- AIR FORCE staff artist
that is what happened on our way back to Saipan on our first mission.
Before I go on with what happened en route to Japan on that first mission,
I need to add some more background information.
While we were still in the process of crew training on B-29s prior to
combat assignments, we became acquainted with many others who were slated
to become replacement crews for those lost in combat. We became quite
close to one particular crew. I was best buddies with the bombardier and,
paired off by position, the rest of our crew did the same. When our overseas
assignments came, this other crew preceded us to Saipan by about a week.
When we arrived there they had already flown one high altitude bombing
mission and gleefully lorded it over us “rookies”. They were the first
replacement crew in our squadron and we were the second. Despite the good
natured ribbing, they passed on valuable information about weather conditions,
airplane performance, Japanese resistance, bombing results – etc. etc.
etc. Now back to our first mission.
At that time we were required to fly in fuel-inefficient formations all
the way to the target area – presumably for maximum protection against
enemy fighter aircraft located mainly on the island of Iwo Jima. Even
though these were loose formations until we neared the Japanese mainland,
it was crucial that we maintain awareness of all B-29s around us.
It was my job in particular to observe all planes above, below, left,
and right for 270 degrees of vision in front of our airplane – since the
nose of the airplane was my location and afforded the best view of air
traffic over a wide range of the sky. All other crew members who were
not otherwise busy with calculations and such were also responsible for
air traffic observations. Believe me I developed great neck muscles resulting
from head swiveling., About two hours into our flight at an altitude of
5000 feet I was horrified to observe the most ghastly sight imaginable
- two B-29s colliding and slowly falling out of the sky into the Pacific
Ocean and no parachutes in sight. Our crew always wondered what it must
have been like for those two crews in the last moments of their young
lives. Upon landing and going to the debriefing room after this long first
mission we were devastated to learn (you guessed it) that in one of those
two bombers were our close buddies (on their second mission). Not a pleasant
task to pack up and send personal belongings to their families.
Our high altitude (upwards of 30,000 feet) bombing missions with 500 lb.
to 1000 lb bombs, and airplanes flying in formations for maximum protection
against Japanese fighter planes (Zeroes mainly), were mostly ineffective
due to the phenomenon known as the Jet Stream. Up to that time little
(read nothing) was known of its existence or its disastrous effect on
our bombing runs. The results varied from poor to downright lousy. If
we flew with the current our groundspeed was too high for the bombsights
to compensate. If we flew into it we were sitting ducks for Japanese fighters.
If we crabbed (yawed) at any reasonable angle to it, the resulting yaw
angles effectively destroyed the hoped-for bomb trajectories. It was this
set of circumstances that convinced Curtis E. LeMay (our 20th Air Force
Commanding General) that we were wasting valuable resources and endangering
many lives in a futile effort - simply put it just wasn’t working. Gen
LeMay conceived the tactic of low level (8000 feet and lower) bombing
runs using incendiary bombs carried by individual airplanes flying at
night under the cover of darkness. While the conventional bombs were bulky,
individual incendiary bombs were small and had to be bundled together
in clusters thus adapting to the existing bomb release system.
We flew a number of these firebomb missions with little Japanese resistance
– too dark for their fighters and too low for effective antiaircraft guns.
Then came the mission when our bombs did not release cleanly. There are
two bomb bays on the B-29 (forward and aft). The bombs from the aft bomb
bay released just fine but the lowest ones in the forward bomb bay jammed,
effectively damming up the ones above and causing a huge log jam of bombs
whose little arming propellers had spun off thus making a live ammunition
dump of the entire airplane!!! WE HAD TO GET RID OF THEM! Or else
– well you can imagine what else. Fortunately Boeing had equipped these
planes with fire axes. While our co-pilot flew the airplane on a steady
and bump-free course, our Airplane Commander (pilot) and I crawled into
the bomb bay and proceeded to chop away at the thin cables binding the
bombs until miraculously the log jam broke and all the bombs tumbled out
on their way to a burning Tokyo below. Relief, beyond any possible description!!!!
Ed Shahinian remembers that he was also involved in chopping out those
But this was not accomplished without some difficulty. There is limited
space in the open bomb bay of a B-29 and there was no way we could go
in there with parachutes. It never occurred to us to be frightened of
the altitude and exposure to all kinds of peril. We were concentrating
on getting rid of those damned bombs then getting the hell out of there
to return to Saipan. One minor bonus – we had a spectacular view of 25
per cent of Tokyo being destroyed.
While on this mission I became eligible to vote. Sometime during the release
of those bombs it became April 2nd , my 21st birthday.
If you are wondering why it was necessary to burn out residential areas
of Japan’s cities, it was due to the nature of their manufacturing process.
While our factories were centralized with parts making and assemblies
done under one roof, Japan’s were divided into parts making in individual
homes and assemblies done in large plants. Every home would have a little
lathe or milling machine or drill press in the kitchen. Parts made in
these homes would then be taken to assembly plants where they became integrated
into minor/major assemblies to finish the manufacturing process. So we
were not targeting homes to kill innocent civilians – we were destroying
their war making capability. Besides they were forewarned. Prior to these
raids the cities were blanketed with leaflets describing the destruction
and possible loss of life to follow.
In late February and early March 1945 many Marine and Army Infantry battalions
were stationed on Saipan which became a huge staging area prior to the
invasion of Iwo Jima, a strategic Pacific island, being located about
halfway between Saipan and Japan. These troops would sit at the end of
our runways watching B-29s take off much as spectators watch the Indianapolis
500 car races, anticipating disasters. Remember, we had only 200 feet
of “wiggle” room to gain climbing speed. They did see a few tragic splashdowns
(very few thankfully). I talked with some of these men who agreed unanimously
that they would never fly in combat. We airmen, of course, had zero interest
in ground fighting. One of the soldiers was John Chapman (not the famous
Johnny Appleseed) from my home town of Broadalbin, NY. We had a couple
of nice visits involving beer drinking before his outfit left for Iwo