It was Capt. Harold Keathley’s 33rd combat mission flying “Skookum,” a B-29 “Superfortress” over Japan loaded with incendiary bombs. The target: Aomori, located along the coast of Honshu, the northernmost main island.
What made this bombing mission special was that the crew flew from Tinian Island in the Pacific to Aomori and back, a distance of 2,250 miles. The mission was billed as the longest bombing run in World War II.
It was July 29, 1945. Keathley and his crew, were members of the “Billy Mitchell” group. More specifically, they were in the 468th Bomb Group, 15th Bomb Wing, 20th Air Force flying out of Tinian.
“We flew into Iwo Jima, refueled and loaded up with bombs that morning,” the 82-year-old resident of the Oyster Creek subdivision in Englewood, Fla. recalled. “We reached our target at night.”
Kenneth McCaleb, a newspaper reporter who made the trip to Aomori with them, picks up the story from there:
“Keath, as he is called by his pals, is 22 and scarcely looks it. The plane was carrying a record load of nearly ten tons of jellied gasoline incendiaries. Near landfall on the coast of Japan, we donned flak suits and helmets over our ‘Mae Wests’ and parachutes.
“The ‘bombs away’ signal has just sounded from this ‘Superfortress.’ It is the signal for an historic moment. It means that this and other B-29s of the bomb wing from Tinian are setting fire to the city of Aomoria. It’s the longest bombing mission in history and the deepest penetration of the Nipponese empire by the United States planes.”
Keathley’s and the other “Superfortresses” on the mission flew at 30-second intervals, one behind the other. On the way to their target the B-29s maintained an altitude of approximately 30,000 feet. When they approached the target, they dropped down to about 10,000 feet to make it easier for the bombardier to hit their targets.
However, this raid was an incendiary raid that didn’t require pinpoint accuracy.
All of the bombers on the Aomori raid returned to base successfully. But such was not the case earlier in the air war over Japan.
“There were 15 B-29s in our squadron. We were in combat a total of 16 months. During that time our squadron lost 24 bombers, which was about 160 percent,” Keathley said. “We lost bombers to everything from midair collisions over the target, to flak and mechanical problems. So you know the good Lord was watching out for me.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, the day Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Keathley was flying a milk run.
“I got a soft one that day. I was dropping leaflets on cities we were going to bomb two days later. That was the only mission I flew with pamphlets,” he said.
“I knew nothing about the Hiroshima mission until I got back to base on Tinian. By then there were pictures on the bulletin board of the atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima.”
After Gen. Curtis LeMay took over the 20th Air Force, Keathley flew the first two firebomb raids on Tokyo after the general took command. They had been bombing the capital city at 30,000 feet up till then and not doing too well with their accuracy.
“On my first firebomb raid on Tokyo we dropped our bombs at 5,800 feet. On our second mission we bombed at 7,800 feet,” he said.
Keathley’s flying career wasn’t limited to B-29s. At 18 he joined the Army Air Corps on Oct. 28, 1941, after growing up in Kenton, Tenn. Eventually he got in the aviation cadet program, where he trained on B-17 “Flying Fortresses.”
He graduated from flight training in June 1942 and was selected to continue with B-29 flight training at Clovis, N.M.
Initially Keathley was sent to the China, Burma, India Theater of Operations. One of his first combat missions was to take a B-24 “Liberator” and fly it over “The Hump” loaded with gasoline into China for Allied forces that were desperately short of fuel.
“One afternoon they told me, ‘You’re going to be assigned for 60 days to fly a B-24 loaded with fuel over the Himalayas.’ I was sent to fly converted B-24s they called C-109s. They had a rubber bladder filled with fuel in their bomb bay,” he said. “They told me to go down and get checked out on a B-24 I flew three hours in a 24 to familiarize myself.
“The next afternoon they said, ‘We’re ready for you to fly to Dacca, India, with a load of fuel. I flew from Dacca over “The Hump” into China and unloaded my fuel. Then I flew from China to Mytkyina, Burma, where I got some more fuel to fly back to my base at Dacca. They had just taken the Japanese base at Myitkyine when we flew in. The (Japanese) were still surrounding it.”
After spending two months flying gas into China, Keathley and his B-29 ended up flying out of Tinian. Their squadron commander was Col. Jim Edmundson, who had commanded a B-17 at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.
” He was a fine gentleman,” Keathley recalled. ” He retired to Longboat Key (off Sarasota). By then he was a three-star general in the Air Force. He gave us a party at his home on Longboat about a year before he died.”
Edmundson’s wife was Curtis LeMay’s daughter.
Keathley stayed in the Air Force for 25 years and retired in the early 1960s. For 16 years he flew bombers for LeMay’s Strategic Air Command. After World War II he switched to B-47s but never got into the B-52s that SAC flies today. He retired as a squadron commander and a major.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, June 18, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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HAROLD L. KEATHLEY June 29, 1923 – October 13, 2010 Our father Major Harold L. Keathley (USAF retired) took his final flight on October 13, 2010 to join his beloved Genny who predeceased him on July 28, 2002.
He leaves behind 7 devoted children to honor his memory, Susan Bobo (Gerald, deceased) of Jupiter, Florida, Tim Keathley of West Palm Beach, Florida, Phil (Dawn) Keathley, of Hobe Sound, Florida, Cyndi (Woody) Guin of Hobe Sound, Florida, Kerry (Linda) Keathley of Placida, Florida, Kevin (Karen) Keathley of Little Rock, Arkansas and Chris (Beth) Keathley, of Cornwall, Vermont.
Survivors also include 16 grandchildren; Beth (Jimmy) McDowell, Jason Bobo, Casey Keathley, Chelsea Keathley, Hannah Keathley, Amy Guin, Judson (Krysten) Guin, Erin Guin, Abigail Keathley, Courtney Keathley, Sean Keathley, Christopher Keathley, Emily Keathley, Ellen Keathley, Nora Keathley, Charlotte Keathley and 9 great grandchildren.
Harold is also survived by 2 siblings, Bob (Betty) Keathley of Union City, Tennessee and Jere (Bill) Campbell of Ballwin, Missouri. A celebration of his life will be held at 11:00 a.m. Monday, October 18th, 2010 at the Jupiter-Tequesta Church of Christ at 11701 S.E. Federal Highway, Tequesta, Florida, 33469.
Internment service will follow at Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta, Florida. Online condolences may be made at www aycockfuneral homejupiter.com Those who wish may contribute to Tidewell Hospice at 1144 Veronica Street, Port Charlotte, Florida 33952. Paid Obituary
Published in the TC Palm on Oct. 15, 2010