as recalled by Bob Sebring, Gil Easton and Bob Pope
This is a story that I found on some old diskettes that Bill Agee, former historian of the 500th Bomb Group, was kind enough to send me. It's about the last mission of Z Square 46, "Su Su Baby", of the 883rd Squadron, 500th Bomb Group, 73rd Bomb Wing. The original writers were flight engineer Bob Sebring and copilot Gil Easton. I have added more recent comments from Bob Pope, the navigator. I have also used Missing Air Crew Report 12936, 73rd Bomb Wing Ditching Report No. 19 dated 30 May 1945, and an on-line excerpt from A Navy Family by Richard R. Pratt, RADM USN, ret., who was captain of the rescuing destroyer USS Hudson in 1945, to fill in gaps and help resolve discrepancies.
A little background. The Holmes crew in Z Square 46 was assigned to fly Weather Strike Mission # 264 on 7 March 1945 to the vicinity of Kure Naval Base. In addition to taking weather measurements along the route, they carried 2.5 tons of bombs to drop on the base or a suitable alternate target. But on the way back they ran into trouble. Fuel ran low and they were forced to ditch.
The Holmes crew was Crew 354 of the 883rd Bomb Squadron, 500th Bomb Group:
Airplane Commander 1st Lt Theodore Holmes
In addition, Major John Gay, Operations Officer of the 883rd Squadron, was along on this mission, officially as the weather observer, but as you will see from the narrative, he decided to delegate that duty to the copilot and took the right seat. My understanding is that a trained weather officer did go along on the early WSM's but on later missions this duty, which consisted primarily of taking various weather measurements along the route and encoding the data for transmission, devolved upon the copilot of the regular crew.
I have done some minor editing to correct typos and integrate the individual narratives. Otherwise, these are the words of Sebring, Easton and Pope.
SEBRING: I still have some very vivid memories of that last mission. In retrospect, there were two reasons why we ran out of gas. First was the as-briefed set-up of the mission.
We first flew to Okinawa and arrived there at something over 20,000 feet. We were recording weather information at all points of this trip -- at Okinawa because that invasion was scheduled for the near future, at Tokyo because the first big low-level fire raid was scheduled for the next night, and at Kure because the weather patterns usually moved from west to east. The Kure weather was likely what we could expect at Tokyo for the night of the fire mission.
The Tokyo to Kure leg was flying into the headwind of the jet stream and seemed interminably long to me. If the mission planners had been aware of the implications of this, they could have planned the mission to be flown from Saipan to Okinawa, then Kure, then Tokyo, then back to Saipan, and we would have made it easily.
The second reason was too much flying at high altitude. On our usual high altitude bombing missions, we delayed the start of the climb so that we just achieved our bombing altitude at the I.P., and then, after a short bomb run, we almost immediately started to let down. The whole idea was to minimize operation at high altitude, and to minimize the weight of gas and bombs that had to be carried at altitude, thus saving on fuel consumption. However, on this mission we were at high altitude for the entire Okinawa to Tokyo and Tokyo to Kure legs of our trip, which added up to many more hours at high altitude (and high fuel consumption) than was the case with our usual missions.
On that leg going across Japan, I was very concerned about the gas supply and knew that it was going to be a very close thing. I mentioned this to Ted [Holmes, Airplane Commander] and Major Gay, but with the Major on board there was no way we were going to deviate from the briefed procedure.
POPE: Bob Sebring's account of the mission route and planning is accurate. He recalls the event very well. Our weather recon mission over Japan was planned to fly east to west over Honshu to the Sea of Japan. At that time the jet stream (the high velocity, high altitude west to east air flow) was not well understood, and our flight path took us directly into the teeth of the wind. Our B-29's could fly 300 mph, but on the west leg of the flight I recorded a ground speed of only 60 mph. We were flying into a 240 mph headwind. Thus our flight time to cover the course was extremely long and we consumed too much fuel and we would have run out of gas before reaching Saipan.
EASTON: Our take-off from Saipan was approximately 1730 hours on the afternoon of March 7, 1945, to fly one of the nuisance-weather missions over the Japanese mainland, of which there were three flights a night. I was flying my last mission with Crew 354, as I found out later, because I had been assigned as AC to another crew, which I would not care to identify, as the aircraft commander of this crew was demoted.
Major John E. Gay, who also had to get in his mission [Staff and command officers had to fly a certain number of hours to retain their flight status. Also, it was good leadership to show your men that you were willing to put your butt on the line sometimes too. - JEB], went as weather observer on this trip. Inevitably, I was given the task of weather observer, and Major Gay flew in the copilot's seat. Perhaps this observer position was erroneously labeled "replacement" on this flight. Major Gay was the operations officer of the 883rd Squadron.
As weather observer, I had very little contact with the engineering, navigation, or routing of this mission. Robert Sebring's analysis of the route and planning seems very accurate, as I recall. My brief contact, while monitoring the weather, was the period over the Kure Naval base area. At that time, we were briefly caught in a searchlight and experienced some inaccurate anti-aircraft fire. At about this time, as Sebring, our flight engineer, recalls, the whole crew became aware of the marginal fuel situation and the aircraft was adjusted for minimum fuel consumption. I continued to send coded weather information until about 0600 March 8, at which time the crew became engrossed in ditching preparations.
SEBRING: I think that if it had been daylight when we got as far as Iwo, that we might have been one of the first to land there, but as it was, with the battle still going on, no lights and uncertain conditions, we didn't consider a night landing there. [Iwo Jima was invaded on 19 Feb and not declared secure until 27 Mar. However, B-29's began making emergency landings there as early as 4 Mar. - JEB]
EASTON: About 30 minutes prior to ditching, I went forward from the navigator's station, which I had been using, to talk to Ted Holmes (Aircraft Commander) about ditching and ask if he would rather have me in the co-pilot's position during ditching. He at first indicated he would prefer this, but then decided it would be better for me to ditch in the rear with the gunnery crew, as there was some apprehensiveness about the ditching procedure. Major Gay offered to give up his seat and ditch with the crew in the rear, but both Ted and I thought I should because of my familiarity with the crew.
At this time I proceeded to the rear through the tunnel and found everyone was almost ready to ditch, except for one crewman, who seemed obsessed with staying in his gunner's position and had to be firmly urged to go to his ditching station. Within minutes, we all had our positions with our backs against the rear bulkhead. Robert Fisher, right gunner, was leaning against me between my knees, as he was smaller than myself.
[A brief description of ditching positions might be useful here. The safest position was sitting against an internal bulkhead and facing backward. This meant that the flight engineer and the tail gunner were already in good positions. Not only that, they both had escape hatches or windows right next to them. The pilot and copilot had the worst positions, because they had to stay belted in their seats facing forward while they guided the plane into the sea, and then try to exit through their respective windows. Regarding ditching positions for the other crew members, the various revisions of the B-29 manual made wildly varying recommendations but in the end left final authority to area commanders.
EASTON: Just prior to ditching, Ted called on the intercom to prepare for the impact, and shortly I felt the attitude of the aircraft change as Ted broke his glide. I recall shouting to the crew “Here we go!”, and in a few seconds I heard a coarse rumble, which indicated the rear of the plane had touched the water. This is the last I remember until I woke under water.
POPE: In preparation for the ditching, the radio operator, Ralph Lietz, and I were positioned comfortably in the tunnel over the bomb bay which connects the forward pressurized cabin to the waist cabin. After notifying the aircraft commander so as not to alarm him, I shot out the astrodome with my pistol so we could use it as an escape hatch. The crash into the ocean was not severe, and Lietz and I exited when the plane came to a stop. [The tunnel is not mentioned as a ditching position in any of the manuals I have seen, but crews in the 73rd Bomb Wing found it to be excellent for this purpose. The Holmes crew was not the first to use the tunnel this way, but this is the only time I have heard of two men using it. - JEB]
SEBRING: As far as the ditching itself, we had enough warning to prepare and were in radio contact with the convoy that picked us up. [When beginning to descend for ditching, the crew had luckily sighted a convoy returning to Saipan from Iwo Jima and decided to ditch near it. Location was about 120 miles north of Saipan. - JEB] I had removed the escape hatch by my seat and discarded it in the bomb bay. My seat was low, so that I sat level with the cockpit floor, with my legs extended down beside the nose wheel well and next to the skin of the fuselage. For the ditching, I sat pushed over toward the right side of the airplane and Al Sparks, the bombardier, sat beside me leaning against the same back rest.
After we hit, Al went across my lap and out the open hatch. I couldn't get out right away because my legs were caught down in the foot well, apparently because the fuselage structure had buckled, or the lower turret or radio racks had come loose and created some damage to me and the airplane.
The plane had broken in two just behind the wing [the ditching report says the break was at the radar compartment – JEB], and the front section was down by the nose, buoyed up by the empty wing tanks. By the time I got out, I was about 20 feet below the surface. I inflated my Mae West and floated to the surface, bumping into the #3 propeller on the way up.
After surfacing, the first person I saw was Al Sparks, who was floating vertically, but his head was intermittently awash and he was either unconscious or perhaps already dead. There was also a life raft nearby, which apparently had been released and inflated after the impact. I was able to get an arm around Al to hold his head above water and then get to the life raft and hang onto the side. It was impossible to get either Al or myself into the raft.
EASTON: When I came to under water, I could see a lighter area, so I pulled the “rip cord” of the Mae West inflation cylinder. It seemed as though I would never surface, so I pulled the second rip cord and popped out of the water. I had swallowed, or breathed in, a lot of salt water and was partially choking, so I took a deep breath and was hit in the face by a wave. The next thing I recall, Collins, the tail gunner, had my head draped over his feet on his one-man life raft and was calling for assistance.
I was periodically passing out during this time. At some point, I re-awoke and found myself looking straight into Al Sparks' face. His eyes were open as he floated past being supported by Sebring on the edge of a life raft. I could recognize that Al was probably dead at this time. I passed out again.
SEBRING: Hanging onto Al and the side of the raft, I saw Easton, looking green and ghastly, go floating past on a one-man raft. I guess we were all suffering from shock. The waves were so high that I had only that one brief view of him before he was lost to sight.
POPE: After climbing out through the astrodome, the next thing I recall is being in the water and holding on to Ralph [Lietz], who was in turn holding on to the static discharger on the right wingtip. Ralph said to me that he had broken a bone and asked if I could let go. No problem, I thought – I'll grab the aileron. I did not realize that the plane's wing was acting like a huge sail, and when I let go of Ralph, the plane drifted rapidly away from me. So I was alone in that huge ocean. Fortunately, the USS Hudson's lifeboat was already nearby and they hauled me in.
SEBRING: My raft was tethered to the airplane and I was concerned that it might be pulled under if the plane sank, but the boat from the destroyer arrived shortly after and they pulled Al and me on board. I don't remember seeing anyone else, although Charley Mohn [ring gunner], whom I talked to much later, said there were “bodies and blood all over the place” in the boat that took us back to the destroyer.
EASTON: When I came to again, I was on my back in a navy whaleboat. As the destroyer crew started to put me in a litter, I heard one of them say, “Watch his leg, it's bad.” We were taken topside of the destroyer USS Hudson and given transfusions, which immediately brought me back to life. I spent the remainder of the trip back to Saipan, about 24 hours, in the captain's cabin making a thorough mess of it.
POPE: After I got on board the Hudson, one of the officers suggested that they might pick up the aircraft and carry it back to Saipan on the ship's crane, but when I told them how much it weighed they decided that was not possible, so they fired on the drifting hulk and sank it – to remove a floating hazard and prevent false sighting reports.
I was put into one of the officer's quarters. Every few minutes a sailor would look in and offer me coffee or something stronger. Having swallowed a quantity of seawater, I felt lousy and declined everything until someone offered me ice cream. Then the world became livable again! The Hudson's officers and crew have to be commended for their conduct of the rescue and their care for the survivors.
EASTON: I spent about two weeks at the field hospital on Saipan and was then flown to Tripler Hospital on Oahu. Later I was transferred back to the States, to Walla Walla Army Hospital. I recovered sufficiently from back and knee injuries to be returned to active duty in August 1945.
POPE: When I returned to Saipan I was assigned to the Air-Sea Rescue Group, which coordinated the location of submarines and surface craft with the bombers' flight paths in case of emergencies like ours.
SEBRING: I spent the rest of 1945 and part of 1946 in a succession of military hospitals – Saipan, Honolulu, San Francisco, Fort Devens (in Massachusetts) and Pawling and Mitchel Field, New York – being treated for a badly broken right ankle. It was eventually determined that I would never regain normal use of the ankle and I was medically retired from the Army on 3 Mar 1946.
The 500th Bomb Group crew lists succintly record that Sebring and Easton, along with ring gunner Mohn and radioman Lietz, were all sent stateside for treatment of their injuries. Pope and tail gunner Collins suffered shock but returned to duty after R & R. Four men went down with the plane: aircraft commander Holmes, left gunner Ellis Granger, right gunner Robert Fisher and radar operator Norman Anderson. The bodies of Sparks and Gay were recovered but they were pronounced dead on the rescue ship, USS Hudson, and later buried on Saipan.
The primary factor in the deaths of half the crew was the plane breaking in two upon hitting the water. If a B-29 remained intact, it could float for a long time. But the break caused some parts of the plane to flood quickly, drowning anyone unable to get out quickly. A secondary factor may have been equipment inside the plane breaking loose upon impact and injuring or killing some of the crew.
Sources agree that the tail section sank fairly quickly. Gunners Granger and Fisher, and radar operator Anderson probably never got out of the plane, as their bodies were not recovered, even though the Hudson made a thorough search of the area. Somehow Easton and Mohn did manage to get out, or possibly were thrown out when the plane broke in two. Easton doesn't recall how he got out; he only remembers coming to well under water and having to fight his way to the surface. On the other hand, the tail gunner, Collins, had enough time to exit his compartment safely and inflate his life raft.
In the front section, as Sebring has indicated, the nose began to sink rapidly while the empty wing tanks buoyed up the wing area. Sebring estimates he was about 20 feet under water when he made it out of the plane. The Ditching Report states flatly that Holmes, the airplane commander, never got out of the plane. Certainly, it would have been difficult to squeeze out of the airplane commander's window if water was pouring in through it. Or maybe he was badly injured or unconscious. We'll never know exactly what happened to Ted Holmes.
Major Gay's body was recovered, so we know he made it out of the plane. The MACR simply states he died of shock. Unfortunately, there is no indication of cause of death for Sparks. We know he made it out of the plane before Sebring did, so he should not have drowned... unless he hit something in the water. We know Sebring bumped into the #3 propeller on the way up. Maybe Sparks did too, and maybe harder. Perhaps he was knocked unconscious. We just don't know.
The death toll would probably have been higher except for the good fortune in finding the convoy and the prompt and efficient rescue action by the captain and crew of the USS Hudson, who saw the plane descending and headed for her even before she hit the water. Bravo Zulu to the crew of the Hudson.