Bill Springer will never forget his first night on Iwo Jima, March 1, 1945.
He was a 20-year-old P-51 Mustang fighter pilot attached to the 72nd Fighter Squadron of the 21st Fighter Group in the 7th Air Force. They had just flown in when the Japanese attacked that first night on the island during World War II.
“Three hundred Japanese marched right down the road dressed in U.S Marine uniforms and helmets. Nobody challenged them or anything,” the 78-year-old Gulf Cove, Fla. man said.
“They hit our tent area. Our fighter group had been set up in a block square area,” Springer explained. “Although they were still fighting and shooting up on the north end of the island, we had no perimeter guards set up.
“We lost over 100 people that night. Forty pilots were killed or wounded. They chopped off heads with their big Samurai swords,” he said.
The only thing that saved Springer was that the enemy infiltrators hit the north end of the tent city. That was the farthest spot from where he was housed.
From April 1 until the Japanese unconditionally surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, he and his buddies flew fighter escort missions alongside the B-29 Superfortresses during their daylight bombing raids over many of the enemy’s major cities. It was more than a seven hour round-trip from Iwo Jima to Tokyo and back.
Like mother hens, the P-51 Mustangs, 120 strong, would fly fighter protection at the wing tips of the giant four-engine B-29s. The fighters and bombers rendezvoused at Kita Jima, an uninhabited rock 40 miles north of Iwo.
The bombers flew from Guam, Saipan or Tennian, 500 miles further south of Iwo Jima and more than 1,000 miles away from their target. Hundreds of Super Fortresses were in the air on each bombing raid, protected by scores of P-51s.
During the four-and-a- half months Springer flew bomber protection, he made seven long-range runs and shot down two Japanese Zero fighters and possibly a third fighter. He also came close to ditching one time.
He had 150 fighter hours. A pilot was sent home after 14 long-range missions over enemy territory.
“I was flying a fighter sweep instead of a bomber missions. On a sweep we were given a target to attack,” he explained. “The target that day was a Japanese airfield that had 240 airplanes on the runway the day before that our bombers had spotted.”
The enemy would fly its plane out of harm’s way when it knew the P-51s were coming. That’s what they did the day Springer and his squadron attacked.
“We passed over the field at 12,000 feet. As I turned to go into my dive, I took a hit. It caught me right under the parachute I was sitting on. It hit between the chute and the rescue kit that was also under my seat,” Spring said.
“I didn’t know where I’d been hit,” he said. “After I cleared the target, my controls went out. I flew with my trim tabs (which decreased control pressures).”
He immediately contacted an American submarine stationed seven miles off the Japanese coast to pick him up if he went down. The sub skipper gave him its coordinates in case he had to bail out.
“‘This is a brand new airplane’ I was thinking as I flew toward the sub. I think I can bring it back using my trim tabs,’ Because my controls weren’t functioning properly and I was using my tabs, I had to maintain at least 160 mph. air speed or lose it. I made three approaches before I put it down and I still almost ran out of runway,” he said.
Normally he would land his 51 at approximately 120 mph. flaring it out about 90 mph before setting it down.
“The sad part for me was, if I had bailed out, the sub would have come over and picked me up. I would have been on the boat for about four weeks before it put into Manila, in the Philippines. As soon as I got back I would have gotten an automatic six weeks of R and R, either in Sidney, Australia or Hawaii,” Springer said. “I really heard it from the other guys in my squadron. I was dummy number one, they thought.”
It was a flight to Osaka, Japan that was almost Springer’s undoing. All 120 of the P-51s in the 21st Group were flying escort for hundreds of B-29s.
They had been warned about the deteriorating weather conditions. Despite the weather the group commander, who wasn’t well liked, ordered them into the air.
“When we got over Osaka it was black as the ace of spades. We never should have gone up. The wind was blowing over 30 knots and we had no visibility,” Springer said.
“We lost 30 airplanes and 29 pilots. Most of them crashed into each other because they couldn’t see,” he said.
It was Aug. 6, 1945, and Springer was flying patrol near Iwo Jima with three other P-51s when he spotted three B-29s in an early morning flight.
“Two of the B-29s were flying pretty close together. The other was trailing behind about a quarter-mile,” he said. “I lined up close to them. One of the bombers was the Enola Gay, heading for Hiroshima.”
A dozen hours later Springer and his buddies would be partying after receiving word Col. Paul Tibbets dropped the first atomic bomb on the enemy.
Eight days later, World War II ended after the United Sates dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Lt. Bob Springer, U.S. Army Air Corps survived it all.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on # and is republished with permission.
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