It was March 9, 1945. Sgt. Bob Wallace was a radioman aboard “Pride of the Yankees,” a B-29 Superfortress flying lead bomber on the first firebomb raid over Tokyo during World War II.
“We had some general from the Pentagon flying copilot on our plane,” the 87-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. man recalled. “We were the pathfinders that led the rest of our planes into the target that night.
“After we dropped our fire bombs, the general wanted to take a closer look at the city. We ended up circling the burning city flying 7,000 to 8,000 feet above the ground,” Wallace said.
Some 200 to 300 B-29 heavy bombers attacked Japan’s capital city that first night. It was just one of many raids over many enemy cities by the 20th Air Force during the spring and summer of 1945. It seemed to the 26-year-old radio operator aboard “Pride of the Yankees” like they circled low over the burning enemy city forever. They finally left and returned to their base on Saipan more than 1,400 miles away because they were running out of fuel.
“We could still see Tokyo burning 200 miles away,” Wallace said. “I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.”
The closest call Wallace and his crew had to disaster during the 37 missions he flew over Japan was on one flight when both inboard engines on their bomber developed engine trouble.
“We had made our bomb run and right after we left Japan, two of our engines started overheating as the oil pressure dropped,” he said. “Our engineer told the pilot we were losing oil pressure and he needed to feather the props on the problem engines.
“We were flying home to Saipan when the engineer told the pilot what the problems were,” he said. “If you wouldn’t feather the props, the engine would spin out of control and eventually seize up and fly off.
“The B-29 was a wonderful airplane that could carry 40, 500-pound bombs, 20-tons of bombs long distances with 6,800 gallons of gasoline. However, this put a lot of load on its four engines,” Wallace explained. “There was also a fire problem with the engines because they were made of magnesium alloy. When they caught fire they would go up like a tender box.
“It was March 1945 and we still had a couple of hours to get back to Iwo Jima. The Marines had just taken the island. We feathered the props and made it safely back to Iwo.
“We lost our two outboard engines on one flight right after we left Japan on another bomb run.
“Early on, B-29s had lots of engine troubles. During the year we flew missions, our plane had 18 engine changes,” Wallace said.
The hairiest time aboard “Pride of the Yankees” came when Wallace and his crew sat out a flight and another crew flew the bomber on a raid over Japan.
“Our plane, with the other crew in it, got its inboard port engine shot up by antiaircraft flak. It was running out of control when the prop came off and flew into the No. 1 engine beside it. With both engines out, the pilot limped all the way back to Saipan, because we hadn’t taken Iwo Jima yet,” Wallace said. “It was a big deal to fly a B-29 with two engines out on the same side. The pilot did a hell of a job getting the plane back to Saipan.”
“Pride of the Yankees” was one of the early B-29s to fly off Saipan. They arrived on the island with their bomber in October of ’44 and flew their first mission on Nov. 24, 1944. Their last mission was flown July 9, 1945.
Wallace joined the Air Force in 1942 because he didn’t want to end up as a “foot slogger” in the Army. Wallace was 25 and had just gotten married. He was working for Atlanta Light and Gas Co.
After training as a radio operator, he was told that his group was being trained to fly as part of a B-29 crew. This new generation of bombers was not even ready for war yet.
In the fall of 1944, the “Pride of the Yankees’” crew finally got its B-29. A short time later they were sent to California. From there they flew to Honolulu, Kwajalein and finally Saipan.
When Gen. Curtis LeMay took command of the 20th Air Force in early 1945, he quickly realized the air crews were having considerable trouble hitting their targets.
“On our first mission we were flying at 29,000 feet and hit a 220-knot headwind from the jet stream coming off Japan. We could make no headway and had to drop our bombs on a secondary target. We missed it altogether.”
“There was no compensation in our bomb sights for a head wind like that. For a couple of months we dropped our bombs on the wrong targets because of the jet stream,” he said.
‘”Shortly after LeMay arrived, he called all the air crews flying bombing raids together for a critique. He asked the navigator in the lead plane to stand up and take a bow because we weren’t hitting our targets. A voice in the rear of the audience spoke up and said, ‘General, I think he’s on sick leave today.’ That brought a laugh from the crowd,” Wallace said.
For the next several weeks, the 20th Air Force had bombing practice until they could hit their targets. LeMay also cut the altitude on their bombing runs down from 30,000 feet to 7,500 feet, which made them much more accurate.
Wallace’s last official mission was in July 1945. However, he flew two extra missions beyond the 35 needed because a serviceman was rotated home. He flew the extra two as a fill-in radio operator because the bomber group was shorthanded.
“Our crew was gonna be sent back to the States for reassignment as instructors. We were on leave in Honolulu on Aug. 15, 1945 (Pacific Time) when we got word the Japans had surrendered,” Wallace said. “It was my birthday. It was the best birthday I ever had.”
Name: Robert Wallace
D.o.B.: 15 August 1916
D.o.D.: 1 March 2011
Hometown: Eau Claire, S.C.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: July 1942
Discharged: October 1945
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Unit: 882nd Squadron, 500th Bomb Group, 73rdWing, 20thAir Force
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, Five Air Medals, Pacific Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal.
Married: Marguerite Horne (Deceased)
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. It is republished with permission.
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Robert B. Wallace
15 Aug. 1916 – 1 March 2011
Robert B. “Bob” Wallace, 94, of Punta Gorda, formerly of Atlanta, Ga. died March 1, 2011.
Services will be at Greenwood Cemetery in Atlanta, Ga. Roberson Funeral Homes & Crematory Punta Gorda Chapel, is in charge of arrangements.