Hager Blair of Quails Run condominium in Englewood, Fla. was a Kentucky country boy who lied about his age and joined the Army at 16. After graduating from radio school, he volunteered for aerial gunnery school and ended up in 1942 taking gunnery training in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I started combat in the summer of 1943 in twin-engine, B-25 ‘Mitchell’ attack bombers, flying combat missions out of New Guinea in the Pacific,” the 84-year-old former Air Force sergeant recalled. “Then I transferred to four-engine B-24 ‘Liberators’ flying from Owi Island, part of the Schouten island group northeast of New Guinea.”
Of the 58 combat missions Blair flew during the Second World War, the mission that made the biggest impression on him was the one his squadron made on Oct. 10, 1944, to knock out the Japanese oil refinery at Balikpapan, Borneo.
“Thirty-six B-24s in our group took off in intervals beginning at 10 p.m., headed for the refinery. We carried 500-pound bombs and in one bomb bay, we had an extra fuel tank to give the plane the extra range it needed,” he said.
“Upward of 100 bombers flew this mission with us. It was a big deal,” Blair said. “The weather was good as we approached Borneo. As we neared the target, one of the waist gunners called out over the intercom, ‘Look at the fighters taking off from the airfield!’
“I looked down to my left from the tail turret and several were just getting off the ground. Since we had no fighter protection, we expected them to attack us with bullets, but instead they dropped phosphorus bombs on our formation. The bombs exploded above us, and streams of phosphorus flew out in all directions,” he said.
“I saw one bomber get hit with phosphorus between its No. 1 and 2 engines. The wing came off like it was cutting through butter. Then it went out of control,” Blair said. “Another plane had a fire in its No. 2 engine, but they stayed with it until the wing almost burned off. After they bailed out, she blew up.
“If you bailed out, there (wasn’t much) chance you’d survive, because there was only jungle and ocean. If the Japanese caught you, most of the time they’d chop your head off,” he said.
In the midst of the bombing and the attacks by Japanese fighter planes, the crew of Blair’s B-24 had a close encounter with the enemy.
“All at once this fighter flared out dead behind us. He was so close I could see the expression on his face. The only reason our crew got back that day is because, for some reason, this guy didn’t shoot,” Blair said 65 years later. “It seemed like an eternity, but I finally pulled the trigger without aiming or moving the turret, just shooting. The cowling around his engine flew off and his left landing gear moved. Then he was gone.
“All at once our aircraft shuddered, and I was looking at the sky. I thought we had been shot down, but we hadn’t. What happened was our pilot nosed the plane down steeply to gain speed and get us away from the target area and the fighters. In a moment we were back over the water headed for home,” he said.
When they reached home base on Owi Island once more, the members of the 2nd Bombardment Squadron, 22nd Bombardment Group of the 20th Air Corps had made their longest mission of the war — 18.5 hours. Four of the 36 B-24s in their group had been shot down over the target.
After the war, Blair made the Air Force a career. He joined the Strategic Air Command and went to work for Gen. Curtis LeMay as a communications expert.
“One thing about Curtis LeMay — you didn’t fly in one of his airplanes unless you were a volunteer. Another thing he demanded — the best from his flight crews. We trained all the time,” he said.
“My last four years in the service, I was stationed at Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral. I was involved with the recovery of the first astronauts. My job was in telemetry. When the astronauts’ capsule parachute opened on their return to Earth, I had equipment that signaled the exact location. I told the recovery team where they were,” Blair said.
Blair retired after 22 years in the Air Force. He and his wife Ruth moved to Quails Run in 1976.
This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009 and is republished with permission.