Monday, April 7, 2008

War Stories: The Shrouds

Once the Japanese surrendered, the war was technically over. But the work of the military was not finished. The Japanese provided the latitude and longitude of their Prisoner Of War camps, enabling the Allies to airlift supplies to sustain them until they could be repatriated. My father flew two such supply missions. However, the first one went horribly wrong.

The POW camp they had been assigned to supply was located on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. This meant that it was the farthest away from Saipan, where my father’s B-29 was based. A typical round-trip of this distance would consume nearly all of the fuel the aircraft could carry.

The Black Magic bomb bay was loaded with 55-gallon drums containing food, medical supplies, clothing, etc. Each drum had a parachute pack attached, which would deploy when the canister was released.

The latitude and longitude coordinates provided by the Japanese were merely coarse identifiers of the camp location. For this reason, the Black Magic had to execute a search pattern when they arrived, which consumed more of their limited fuel. Eventually, they located the POW camp, the bomb bay doors were opened, and my father dropped the relief supplies.

When he completed the drop, the crew discovered that they were unable to close the bomb bay doors. The drag from the open bomb bay was costing them airspeed and fuel. It would be impossible to return to Saipan unless they could be closed. The Flight Commander dropped altitude to around 1,000 feet and ordered my father to inspect the bomb bay. This is because with the payload gone, he had suddenly become a nonessential crew member.

He clambered back and opened the bulkhead door that accessed the bomb bay, and discovered a terrible problem. The crew that typically loaded the bomb bay had years of experience loading ordinance, but had never loaded it with parachute-equipped relief supplies, and had loaded the bomb bay incorrectly. Some of the parachutes had deployed prematurely in the bomb bay, as they were dropped. The shrouds had snagged in the bomb bay door mechanism, the canisters had torn free, and the B-29 was now trailing streamers of parachute shrouds.

The only way to traverse the bomb bay was to creep along a narrow catwalk, barely wide enough to plant one foot in front of the other. Because of the cramped quarters, my father removed his parachute so that he could move and work unencumbered. And yes, the irony of a bombardier falling through the bomb bay doors has not escaped me.

He crept back to the rear of the bomb bay, grasping tightly to any available handhold, buffeted by the slipstream and jostled by turbulence. At the low altitude they were flying, he could see the faces of Japanese workers in the rice paddies, as they watched the huge airplane pass overhead. He worked for what he estimates to be 2 hours in the bomb bay, pulling, tearing and cutting at the tangled shrouds in those conditions, until the bomb bay door mechanism was free to operate. He claimed that for days afterwards, he could barely straighten the fingers on his cramped hands, he had been holding on so tightly.

Because they had consumed so much fuel, the Pilot shut down two engines, feathering the props to reduce drag, and they slowly crept across the Pacific Ocean to Iwo Jima, the nearest friendly air base. As it was, they barely made it on fumes.

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