1st Lt. Bob Wachter of Port Charlotte, Fla. was the navigator on a B-29 bomber called “Old Upper Cut” that flew on the last “Super Fortress” mission of World War II. When his squadron left Guam on Aug. 14, 1945, he didn’t know they would fly not only the last, but the longest bomber raid of the Second World War.
Their target: the only operating oil refinery the Japanese had. It was located on Akita Island, the northernmost island in the home island chain. The final assault required a 15-hour round trip involving 70 B-29s from three bomber squadrons flying from Guam, Tennian and Saipan.
Wachter’s bomber was part of the 501st Bomb Group, 315 Bomb Wing of the 20th Air Force stationed on Guam. His crew flew 18 combat missions from April into mid-August 1945 when the war ended.
“‘Ol’ Blood ‘n’ Guts,’ Gen. Curtis Lemay, commander of the 20th Air Force, trained us to fly missions at 30,000 feet, but we never flew one above 12,000 feet. We lost a lot of fine men and planes because of that,” Wachter recalled.
“We never bombed in daylight; I used celestial navigation to guide us to our targets,” he said. “One night when we were bombing Tokyo, I looked out my navigation window, on the side of the plane, and saw one of our close buddy’s ships get hit and go down in flames.
“We also got hit over Tokyo one night and lost the number four engine to flak. Our number three engine wasn’t acting very healthy either,” Wachter said. “We had been told there would be an American submarine in Tokyo Bay if we had to ditch. If we bailed out into the harbor, it would pick us up.”
The crew of “Ol’ Upper Cut” didn’t have to try the emergency escape plan courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
“After we started having engine trouble, I gave Andy, our pilot, the course to get us back to Iwo Jima, hoping we could fly to Iwo on three engines,” he said. “Another B-29 pulled up beside us and said it would guide us back to Iwo Jima.”
An hour later, Wachter realized they were off course.
“I called the navigator of the other ship and told him to check his instruments. He got back to me and said his compass was off,” Watcher said. “For the rest of the return trip they followed us back to Iwo. We safely landed on the tiny island, had our engine replaced and returned to our base on Guam.”
It was because of these bombers American Marines paid such a high price a few weeks earlier for that 8-square-mile speck of sand in the Pacific. The Japanese had built an airstrip on the island that American forces captured and enlarged to accommodate B-29s. The Air Force used it as an emergency landing strip during the U.S. bombing of Japan at the close of the Second World War.
Some 6,800 American servicemen lost their lives capturing Iwo. The island was a godsend for the 2,500 B-29 crews, like Wachter’s, that made an emergency landing there. Ten men flew in each of those heavy bombers that landed on the island. Most of them probably wouldn’t have made it all the way back to their base hundreds of miles farther away.
B-29s from Lemay’s 20th Air Force literally sank all of the Japanese oil refineries by war’s end. Most of these refineries were built on reclaimed land, and when they were bombed the built-up land receded back into the sea. The Japanese had no way to produce gasoline for their war machine. This critical shortage helped bring their armies and navies to a standstill.
“It was 3 p.m. Aug. 14, 1945, when we flew off Guam on our last mission along with 35 other B-29s from our squadron,” Wachter said. “It was more than a seven-hour one-way flight to the oil refinery we were to bomb that night.
“The mission was calculated so close because of our gas-consumption problem. We flew the entire mission at 12,000 feet. Our engineer was constantly leaning out the gas mixture to our engines to extend the distance our bomber could fly. We lost several bombers on the return flight because they ran out of gas on the way back,” he said.
“By the time we flew over the target in the middle of the formation at midnight, it was ablaze. We approached the refinery in single file and dropped our bombs one after the other,” Wachter said. “It was one big terrible fire below us with dozens of explosions everywhere.
“On our seven-hour return flight, our major concern was gasoline. When the wheels of our B-29 touched down on the runway back on Guam about 5 p.m. the following afternoon, Aug. 15, 1945, our number four engine conked out. Then our number two engine quit and we coasted to a stop. We had run out of fuel,” he said.
“When we landed, our ground crew and everybody else on base were firing a lot of guns in the air. We were told the war was over and they were celebrating,” Wachter said. “We had flown off to bomb the last Japanese oil refinery on the day they surrendered and returned to base the following day after the war was over.”
The war for the crew of “Old Upper Cut” wasn’t quite over yet. They spent the next few days flying care packages to American POWs held as prisoners of war in Japan.
“On the roof of a building in a POW compound near Tokyo was a banner that read, ‘Pappy is Here,'” Wachter recalled.
The famed Marine flying ace, Medal of Honor recipient and commander of the “Black Sheep Squadron” Pappy Boyington was shot down a year or so earlier and taken prisoner. He survived the camp and went on to become a war hero, but much of his later life after the war was a disaster.
A short time later, Wachter and his crew flew their bomber back to Honolulu and on to Sacramento, Calif. They had to spend a couple more days touring the area in their B-29 and giving public relations talks to people around the country.
Finally, they were given a 30-day leave and sent home on a troop train a couple of days before Christmas of ’45. On the way out of Chicago to Grand Rapids, Mich., where he grew up, Wachter’s train wrecked.
“Our cars were thrown all over the place and several of our guys were seriously injured. I was lucky, but all of us had to sit there in that cold troop train for hours,” he said. “I finally got home two days after Christmas.”
Wachter got out of the service a short time later, but remained in the Air Force Reserves. He retired in 1983 as a lieutenant colonel after serving 40 years, two months and 29 days.
He and his wife, Esther, moved to the Port Charlotte area in 1990.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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Robert F. Wachter, Sr.
May 29, 1922 – May 8, 2010
Robert F. Wachter Sr., 87, of Rotonda West, died May 8, 2010.
Visitation will be from 9 to 10 a.m. Thursday at the Lemon Bay Funeral Home in Englewood. Funeral services will follow at 10 a.m., also at the funeral home.
Burial will be in Gulf Pines Memorial Park in Englewood.
Survivors include his loving companion, Esther Lyle Hagen; five sons, Robert Jr., of Topock, Ariz., Richard of Alto, Mich., Jerry of Kilmarnock, Va., Randy of Portland, Ore., and Jeff of Grand Haven, Mich.; a stepson, Jack Barrows of Sarasota; a brother, Merle of San Miguel del Allende; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.