EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.
The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
• Second of two-part series
Being a replacement pilot, I never knew from one day to the next if I was flying or not, my job was to always be ready.
During the month of June I flew to Osaka, Omuta, Himeji and Kagamigahara. Each mission was about 16 hours of pure monotony mixed in with 30 minutes of sheer terror.
We took off after dark and flew all night over open ocean to get over our target in daylight.
Visibility after nightfall with no running lights was a real concern. Star shine, moonlight and blue-orange exhaust would sometimes reveal another plane on a parallel course in the darkness.
But if the exhaust was visible, we were too close for comfort and we would cautiously ease away. There were others doing the same thing above us and below us and on either side.
Many times we were met by enemy fighters over the target. Our gunners did a good job of keeping them off, but the most disturbing thing was see one of the Japs intentionally ram one of our planes. That was an awful thing to witness and there were generally no survivors.
On most of our missions to Japan, we flew right past Iwo Jima, which was now a base for our P-51 fighter planes. Many of our B-29s had to make emergency landings there on Iwo, which saved a lot of airmen. Thank God for the Marines.
This was a huge operation here on Tinian, the largest airbase on earth, so I hear. Whenever new replacements showed up, we often bragged to them about how much tougher things had been back in India.
There were bombing missions leaving here just about every day. All together there were 450 B-29 bombers on this little island with a support crew of almost 100,000 men.
I began to realize that we were now poised at the right place with the right planes and the right men to finally end this war.
Our orders for operations changed drastically. We were now to bomb at low level and at night. But worse than that, our guns were stripped out of the planes to make more weight available for extra bombs.
Most of the guys thought this was completely crazy and this General LeMay is going to get us all killed. When I was called to go along, I truly figured that my time was up and I wouldn’t be coming back.
On the flight north to Japan I noticed that the crew was a little more nervous than usual, me included. Once we got over land, the searchlights came on below. All at once a roving searchlight lit up the cabin. It quickly left us, and then a half dozen others picked us up and hung on.
Shells began to explode in orange-red flashes around us, jolting and rocking our plane. We could hear the shells crack and thump. Shell fragments striking the plane sounded like gravel being forcefully thrown on a tin roof.
It seemed like at least a dozen searchlights had found us. The cabin was brighter than day. I thought that the rain of shell fragments must be turning the plane’s skin into a sieve.
Some strange looking big round flares were being shot up at us. We saw stricken and burning B-29’s plunging to earth all along the fearful bomb run. It was impossible not to watch the death of our fellow airmen.
This is the most scared that I had felt in this war so far. ... I felt like a sitting duck in a shooting gallery.
The plane lurched upward as the bombardier yelled, “Bombs Away!” Thank goodness!
We made a descending power-on turn to depart the target area, but we were still coned by the searchlights and being shot at. The plunking and thumping sounds continued but thankfully began to slowly diminish.
We really hit our target hard for tonight, and now we’re headed home ... coming in on a wing and a prayer.
Watching those cities burn at night was a dreadful thing, but considering the alternative, it was easier to stomach. Thousands of our boys were dying on Okinawa, and one could only imagine how much worse it was going to be invading the mainland.
Later there were also missions to Hachioji, Imabari and Fukuyama that I flew. It never got any easier watching your friends die.
On Aug. 6 there was news that a plane from our island base had just dropped a new kind of super-bomb on Japan. It was news to us, and there was much speculation over whether this might end the war. One could only hope.
Three days later there was word that a second atom bomb has been dropped, but our planes were being readied for another mission. None of us wanted to go again, not this close to the end.
A briefing was scheduled for 0030 on Aug. 11. The Group Commander walked up to the front of the room and talked matter of factly about the mission for a few minutes. Then he stopped abruptly and said, “We have no official word of the Japanese surrender proposal, but tonight’s mission has been cancelled.”
The crews whooped and whistled. We all filed out of the building slapping each other on the back. I stopped and looked up into the starry sky. Could it be? Maybe, just maybe!
Early on Aug. 15 a few shouting men burst out of the communications hut with news that President Truman had just announced that Japan had surrendered!
Within a few minutes everyone in the group knew that the war was ended, although many were skeptical and insisted on hearing the news direct over the radio for themselves.
For the rest of the morning men stood around in small groups grinning happily and trying to think of appropriate comments for such an occasion. A few went off shouting and screaming in wild fits of exuberance, while others headed for their quarters for some liquid refreshment.
We got orders to turn in all firearms by 1700. I found a quiet place to sit down and reflect. I thought about all of my friends that didn’t make it. How sad that they are missing out on the celebration. ... I pulled out a rag and tried to wipe away all the bad memories from my face.
There were parties that lasted long into the night. It seemed everyone felt a need to be with some of their buddies and experience this together. I was just grateful to be alive to see this.
Many felt vaguely frustrated, not only because they had no way to properly celebrate the occasion, but also because of the fact that the war was actually over. There was no war in the entire world for the first time in nearly a decade, and it was all but incomprehensible to us.
Within days the ground crews were removing the bomb racks from our planes and replaced them with cargo platforms. The service center had made up some new stencils and they were painting in big letters “PW SUPPLIES” on the under side of both wings.
There was a briefing about the many thousands of Allied men, mostly American men that were starving to death in Japanese prison camps. Our group was going to go in low and drop food and medicine to save as many of them as we could. It was going to be a volunteer only mission.
I joined in and helped load pallets of supplies into the bomb bays of the planes. It was the hardest physical work that I had done in some time. Afterwards I went down to the operations hut and put my name in as a volunteer pilot.
On Aug. 29 they called me to go on a relief mission. There was a briefing at 2300. I was flying with Lt. Jack Riggs on a drop to a Miyata P.O.W. camp on Kyushu Island near the southern tip of Japan. We studied the maps for a safe approach to the camp.
Sixteen planes to take off at midnight, to save lives. A new kind of mission for me, a better kind of mission.
Walking to the flight line I was re-introduced to the crew. I already knew most of them, but being a replacement, I went around and shook their hands again, just the same. This meant more to me than dropping bombs.
Lt. Riggs was from Kansas. Capt. Baker was from Tennessee. Lt. Williamson and Sgt. Gustaveson were from Pennsylvania. Lt. Aiken was from Missouri. Cpl. Dangerfield and Cpl. Miller were both from Utah. And there was Sgt. Frees from Illinois, Sgt. Groner from New York, Sgt. Hodges from Virginia, and Sgt. Henninger from Ohio.
I proudly reminded them that I was from Waxahachie, Texas. Somebody joked about all my cattle and oil wells. We all had a good chuckle and climbed on board the cold and dark plane. It was the first time I remember laughing as we strapped into the cockpit.
Our 30-ton B-29 rumbled down the long lighted airstrip and just before the end of the runway slowly pulled up over the dark glimmering sea. After a short time one of the planes had to turn back with engine trouble, but other than that the flight was long and uneventful.
Along the way we talked about how enjoyable it was to fly a low level mission with nobody shooting at us.
As we approached Japan we could see that everything socked in with a complete cloud cover. We stayed on top in almost clear weather, searching for an opening to get down to our drop altitude of 800 feet.
We circled over the P.O.W. camp for a couple of hours but no such opening appeared. Running out of time, we were not about to take this food and medicine home with us and leave these brave men to die, so we decided to scratch the original flight plan, go back out over the water and get down under these heavy clouds.
Slowly we descended down through the clouds until we picked up a visual on the ocean surface. We turned for the harbor and flew in just underneath the cloud deck. Several were studying the maps as to the whereabouts of the camp and also the mountains that lay ahead of us.
Flying through a fog and light rain suddenly we spotted the camp up ahead. Bomb doors open, we dropped down a little lower. There inside the camp was visible in big letters spelled out on the ground, “P.W.”
We came in low and slow and I could see hundreds of men inside the fence frantically waiving their arms and jumping for joy. I motioned for them to move but there was no time, nor did they even see me.
Lt. Riggs called back to the crew in the bomb bay, “Not yet. Not yet. Not yet. Now! Drop! Drop! Drop!”
Immediately we both pulled back on the yoke to climb. “Max power! Max power! Climb baby! Please climb!”
There was a loud banging noise! A voice called over the intercom that one of the parachutes was hung up on the bomb bay doors and the pallet was beating against the plane!
We were now back inside the clouds and flying blind. I screamed to the radar operator, “Where are those hills? Give us help!” He came back on the intercom, “Turn Right! Turn Right!”
Riggs and I strained mightily to turn and climb. ... There was a brief break in the clouds and we saw what was coming. ... Trees!
There wasn’t time...
It was Aug. 30, 1945, a Thursday and I was 21 years old.
We were Airmen once and young. Remember us.
My name is John Cornwell, and I lived on North Rogers Street.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2013 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.