Facing death in a B-29 while bombing Japan in WWII

The crew of the badly damaged B-29, “The Spirit of F.D.R.” stands on the tale beside the nearly disintegrated rudder of the huge four-engine bomber. Jim Hussmann of Venice, Fla. is squatting in the foreground. Photo provided

By Jim Hussmann
Special to the Sun

After graduating from the Air Corps’ Navigation School in San Marcos, Texas in December 1944, Jim Hussmann of Plantation Golf and Country Club south of Venice, Fla. was ordered to report to Alamogordo, N.M., where he and 10 other airmen specialists were to begin training as B-29 bomber combat crew.

“We completed the training in early March 1945, and flew to Lincoln, Neb. We were ordered to deliver a new B-29 ‘Superfortress’ to Tinian Island in the Pacific by way of Sacramento, Calif., Hickman Field near Honolulu and tiny Kwajalein Island.”

“Tinian is a small island located in the Marianas Island group a few miles south of Saipan and 60 miles north of Guam. At hat time, Tinian was the largest airdrome in the world with four parallel 10,000-foot runways that were packed with B-29s.

“We became part of the 504th Bomb Group, 398th Bomb Squadron of the 20th Air Force. Our crew was assigned a battle-tested B-29 named “The Spirit of F.D.R.” It was named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had just died.

“Perhaps ‘The Spirit of F.D.R.’ looked over us because the following several months we made long bombing and mining missions to Japan. That long-range Boeing B-29 was designed and built to drop bombs from 60,000 feet, far beyond the reach of anti-aircraft guns and fighters.

However, it was soon discovered that at that altitude over Japan, the strong jet-stream air currents and layered crosswinds of 100 or more knots per hour were so ferocious that even the heralded Norden Bombsight was totally ineffective.”

“Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the 20th Air Force, began to drastically lower bombing altitudes to increase effectiveness. On the ground Allied forces were moving steadily closer to the Japanese Empire for the inevitable invasion of Japan–unless the Air Force could bomb the enemy into submission.

“Our aerial bombardment took on a sense of purpose. We wanted to beat them in the air so our men didn’t have to die on the ground.

1st Lt. Hussmann (left), navigator aboard “The Spirit of F.D.R.” stands with Sgt. Howard Trentman, one of the plane’s waist gunners, on Tinian during World War II. Photo provided

“Our mining missions literally shut down the Japanese sea to sea traffic to Japan. Flying at 5,000 feet, we dropped bombs that caused firestorms over Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya.

“On the afternoon of July 3, 1945, normal preparations were being completed for a bombing mission that night. Our crew and 35 other B-29s of the 504th group were signed to bomb Himej, Japan (located on the northern shore of the Sea of Japan). Our bomb bays were loaded with 180, 100 Pound M-47 incendiary bombs.

“The flight to Japan, some 1,600 miles away required nearly seven hours to reach the target at approximately midnight. Each plane and crew flew its own solo mission to and from the target.

“As we approached Himej, we could see the already-raging fires from earlier Anti-aircraft gunners greeted each arrival with a shower of the exploding field.

“We reached the IP (Initial Point) and turned the plane onto the bomb run. The B-29 was now under the control of the bombardier and his Norden bombsight. The bomb bay doors were open as we approached the drop zone. Then fate intervened.

“‘My God, bombers!’ came the shriek from our tail-gunner. At the same moment, another B-29 thundered over head. (On instinct we dove right. Seen at the last moment by the other bomber it climbed sharply left).

“It swerved while in a sharp climb, causing its bombs to be released horizontally. ‘The Spirit’ shuddered as the impact from the other B-29 bombers tore through the tail section and side of our planes.  Instead of waiting for the indexes on the bomb sight to cross over the target, our bombardier threw the salvo switches and our boom bays meted en masse. The pilot struggled with the controls and finally we resumed level flight.

“A quick assessment of the situation showed no one was hurt, but our B-29 had no rudder.We could not easily control the left and right movement of the plane. The pilot’s controls were inoperative, but the co-pilots’ were reacting normally.

This picture of the crew of “The Spirit of F.D.R.” was taken on Tinian Island in 1945. Standing from the left: Airplane Cmdr. Donald K. Dresslert, Tarzana, Calif; Pilot Ronald M. Roskelley, Glendora, Calif.; Navigator James C. Hussmann, Dayton, Ohio; Radar Operator William D. Siefker, Indianapolis, Ind.; Bombardier Samuel L. Boritz, Bronx, N.Y. Squatting from left: Flight Engineer, Charles W. McFarland, Omaha, Neb.; Radio Operator Stanley Kwolek, Detroit, Mich.; CFC Gunner James Howard, Valparaiso, Ind.; RH Gunner Howard J. Trentman, Cincinnati, Ohio; LF Gunner Billy T. Magee, Jackson, Miss.; Tale Gunner Elis Mattingly, Vincinnes, Ind. Photo provided

“The co-pilot slowly turned the aircraft around and headed for the sea. The turn was accomplished by slowing the left engines and applying power to the two right engines.The plane made a wide arc that took us across the island of Honshu and out over the Inland Sea of Japan.

“I fired two flares as we broke radio silence to request ‘root beer,’ the code word for, ‘We’re in trouble and need a buddy ship.’ A B-29 sided up to us and gave us additional firepower protection.

“The pilot suggested we disarm, bail out and surrender. Since the plane was flying straight and level, the crew voted to stay aboard and perhaps jump over a rescue submarine stationed in the Pacific.

“With the rescue sub in sight, our plane was still going strong. We voted to try for Iwo Jima, 800 miles away, located halfway between Japan and Tinian.

“As daylight approached our buddy ship, still flying beside us, told us we had lost the vertical stabilizer starting a foot above the tail-gunner’s head. Other bombs left gaping holes in the side and bottom of the aircraft.

“My job as navigator took on additional immediate responsibilities. Not only must I get ‘The Spirit of F.D.R.’ to Iwo Jima, but I must be able to give instant longitude and latitude positions to the radio operator so he could attempt to radio our positions if the crew had to bail out.

“My only tool was celestial navigation. Since it was daylight and there were no stars, I had to use the sun and my sextant there in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

“The age of 10 of the 11-man crew ranged from 18 to 22. The 11th member was ‘The Old Man” at 26. I would not characterize the crew as fearless warriors, but our youth allowed us to believe we were invincible.

“We made it to Iwo Jima. Since the plane was still flying , the decision was made to try for Tinian, still some 800 miles to go.

“There were anxious moments. From where I sat I could see part of the shattered tail, as loose pieces of the flapping fuselage were ripped away by the ferocious wind.

After 60 years Jim Hussmann, navigator aboard a B-29 bomber named “The Spirit of F.D.R.” returned to Tinian Island in the Pacific for a commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. He looks at a plaque he received during that trip. Sun photo by Don Moore

“As we approached Tinian, we took a vote: Should we land or jump? It was unanimous–‘Let’s stick with the plane.’

“Priority was given to crippled planes or those low on fuel. All planes were called off as ‘The Spirit of F.D.R.’ approached the runway. The pilot aimed for the westernmost runway, but the plane drifted nearly out of control. Our B-29 finally touched down on the easternmost of the four parallel runways.

“As we scrambled from the plane I lay face down on the ground and kissed the sandy soil.

“Our ground crew was alerted by our distress call over the target. They stayed at the runway all night waiting and praying for us to return. They showered us with cheers, tears and lots of love when we finally made it back to base.”

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005 and is republished with permission.

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Comments

  1. My grandpa was part of this crew. Howard Trentman. He died before any of his grand kids were born. So glad that I found this story.

  2. Enjoyed reading this story. I was a mechanic on B-52 engines during the last half of the 60’s stationed at Blytheville AFB and Anderson AFB Guam.

  3. My Uncle, Sam Durham jr, was on Saipan in the 499th. He was a B-29 CO. He was moved to LeMay’s staff 1/45 assisting Ops. Chief, William H. Blanchard.

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