B-29 Veterans

A reunion of World War II B-29 bomber pilots is featured. Originally aired in 2002.


Many who have served in the armed forces—have seen firsthand the price of democracy. Veterans of World War II have carried that awareness with them for nearly 60 years. In July of 2002, a select group of veterans gathered in Cedar Rapids to remember an airplane that symbolizes their priceless contribution to freedom. It was known as the “Superfortress,” and many believe it was the weapon that won the war in the Pacific. It was the B-29 bomber. Designed to carry large bomb loads long distances, it also had a pressurized cabin, allowing it to fly high over enemy defenses. Its own defenses were interconnected with primitive computers that allowed all five gun turrets to be aimed and fired from one location. And on August 6 of 1945, it was a B-29 named the Enola Gay that ended World War II.

Merle: The B-29, perhaps you know, is probably best known because it dropped the two atomic bombs. But we probably did a year of bombing before they carried those atomic bombs.

Morgan: Merle Gerry was stationed on Saipan during World War II. Saipan was one of the Marianas Islands, just within striking distance to Japan.

Merle: There were three Marianas Islands. Saipan was first to operate, and then Tinian and then Guam. Even though the B-29 had the greatest bombing range of any bombers we had, it still was about to the limit of the distance we could fly. The other airplanes could not reach Japan from those islands. So that was the purpose of taking those Marianas Islands, to get us within bombing reach of Japan.

Morgan: Not only a lot of distance but a lot of time has separated Merle from the war in the Pacific and the B-29 Superfortress. When World War II ended, Merle moved back home to Iowa. Nowadays he volunteers at the Grout Museum in Waterloo where he catalogues materials.

Merle: I haven't seen that plane for about 58 years, I guess. After I got off the airplane after a 16-hour flight to Japan, around midnight, I guess, I walked away from it and I never went back. Probably two months later, why, I was on my way home. But I've never seen one since that time.

Morgan: Built by Boeing, the B-29 was manufactured in five different factories. The last B-29 was built in 1946 on the 28th of May in a factory in Renton, Washington. And even though nearly 4,000 B-29s were built, only one is still capable of flight. It's named Fifi, and it's operated by the Commemorative Air Force. On July 29 of 2002, it touched down at the Cedar Rapids airport, giving Merle and a group of B-29 veterans an opportunity to step back in time.

Harold: I was a bombardier and navigator.

Morgan: Harold Madsen was originally stationed with the 20th Air Force in India but was later transferred to the Marianas Island of Tinian.

Harold: I flew two of the fire raids over Tokyo. And those nights, why, about 800 planes dropped fire bombs on Tokyo. The whole city was on fire. You could see flames for a hundred miles or so.

Bud: They were tough. They burned up a lot of things in Japan. But we had to do it. They were the ones that started this thing, so we had to end it. And we did... In fine fashion.

Morgan: Bud Lonergan was stationed on Saipan as a crew chief and flight engineer.

Bud: We trained together. We lived together. We prayed together. And, brother, we hoped that we did a lot to win the war.

Wendell: You're all in that mess together and you're all dealing on the same thing, trying to win the war and go home.

Morgan: As a personal equipment officer, Wendell Van Syoc counted the planes as they returned from each mission and saw some so damaged that they crashed while landing.

Wendell: There were three of us in a jeep, and we saw this plane coming in. And he hit the end of the runway, and this was the result. So we started dragging some people that had been thrown out of the plane, we started dragging them away from the heat. And we kept dragging them away across the runway, dragging them away out of the heat. And I looked back -- and this was horrible -- there was one guy up there in that bombardier's part, just waving all around in there. The heat was coming on his tail. He just had to die right there.

Eugene: Our airplane was Hog Wild that was the name of it. And it was wild all right.

Morgan: Eugene Harwood was a navigator. His job was to navigate his plane to the bomb site where the bombardier would then take over. But it was on a mission to drop supplies on a prisoner of war camp that his plane was shot down, forcing him and six others to bail out.

Russell: We found out that the war was over on our way home, on our way back to Guam. That was the longest mission we flew. It took us 17 hours.

Morgan: Russell Cantine was a navigator stationed on Guam and was on the last bombing mission over Japan. Russell was also part of the armada of over 1,200 planes that flew over the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay as Japan signed the peace treaty ending World War II. Bob Neymeyer, historian for the Grout Museum District, is working to make sure we don't forget there is a price to pay for democracy. Bob has begun collecting oral histories from veterans of all wars, histories that will be part of the Grout Museum's collection in a new Sullivan brothers veterans edition.

Bob: As an historian, it's not only an important, it's a critical resource. If we don't have these stories, all we have is the written word written by historians that often times were second or third time removed from the story itself. So it is an important primary resource that we have to have. The second part of it is that if you didn't have all these folks, the war wouldn't have happened, the victory wouldn't have been won, D-Day wouldn't have happened. It's a great story.

Living in Iowa

Iowa PBS, 2007


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