A group of veterans from Wings of Marianas of the 73rd Bomb Group paid a visit to the B-29 Bombers on the Prairie Museum and were honored with a special ceremony thanking them for their service at the B-29 All Veterans Memorial.
Memories of missions long ended and friends they watched die are still clear for the ever dwindling numbers of World War II Veterans.
The B-29 Bombers on the Prairie Museum at the Pratt Regional Airport played host to 13 members of the Wings of the Marianas group made up of members of the 73rd Bomb Wing Association that was holding its reunion in Wichita last weekend. Some members of the group actually trained trained, for a time, at the Pratt Army Airfield, the first B-29 crew training facility in the world. Pratt Army Airfield is now Pratt Regional Airport.
Following their visit to the museum, the veterans were treated to a meal at the Club D'Est then a special ceremony at the B-29 All Veterans Memorial with guest speaker Lt. Col. Dave Schmidt, Jadyn Thompson singing the National Anthem and God Bless America, Mark Graber playing Taps and members of the 1161st Forward Support Group providing a gun salute.
Hugh Phillips, 95, Staff Sgt. had 30 missions in and around Tokyo then got to go home as the war was ending. His B-29 was "Fever from the South." The name comes from a combination of a three and two in the dice game "craps." Although Phillips didn't gamble himself, he let his crew gamble at the foot of his bed. the crew decided "Fever from the South" was good name for their B-29.
Phillips, like the other veterans, was stationed on Saipan in the Marianas Island chain. His first mission was on Dec. 15, 1944. By July, 1945, his crew had completed 30 missions and got to go home.
His position was a gunner in a little blister in front of the rear turret. The blister was so small, Phillips couldn't get into position with his helmet on so the helmet had to go in first then he followed.
His first and second missions were a Mitsubishi aircraft works in Nagoya, Japan.
On mission one, they were unable to deliver their bombs. Fuel was critical on the missions. They had enough fuel to get a fully loaded B-29 to the target and an empty plane back to base. Since they couldn't deliver their bombs, they had to drop them somewhere to get rid of the weight. The pilot and bombardier talked it over and as they passed over a fishing area, they dropped the bombs there. For a week, the other crews teased Phillips and his crew about being fish bombers.
On their second mission, they had completed their bomb drop when the right gunner went a little "nuts" and was yelling that parts were coming off the plane. Phillips said the knew this couldn't be right because if the gunner was right, the plane couldn't fly. The gunner kept yelling so the pilot spoke back harshly to him and told him "Baldwin, shut up."
What the gunner thought he saw was big sheets of metal coming off the No. 3 engine. Phillips said he knew what the gunner was describing couldn't be correct because the color was wrong.
It turned out it was 90 weight oil leaking and freezing as it came out of the engine. But their engine troubles were not over. The No. 1 engine also started to leak so they shut it down and just let the wind rotate the engine. The No. 3 engine was also shut down and feathered to reduce drag.
The pilot got the plane safely back to base using just two engines.
Baldwin was removed from the crew and they never saw him again, Phillips said.
Each crew member had memories of their missions that took place over 70 years ago. Ed Lawson, a senior Gunner in charge of fire control, who is 93, could fix about anything on a gun that needed fixing.
On his first mission, his saw the group commander's plane shot down and watched as the yellow parachutes come out of the plane.
"It was heart breaking. It was scary, I tell you that," Lawson said.
He found out later, one of the crew members was beaten to death after he was captured.
Lawson was injured when a Japanese plane attacked their field in Saipan. He just wasn't quite fast enough to get to the shelter and was injured in the foot. Because of that injury, he missed a mission where his plane was shot down and the man that took his place was killed.
One of his duties was to throw 90-foot long strips of metal from the plane to confuse Japanese radar. He had to hold on with one arm at an open bomb bay door. It was a very haunting moment. Lawson also remembers the burning smell after a bombing run.
Lawson eventually completed 35 missions and his crew, like other crews, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He received an extra $2 a month in pay for the medal.
Staff Sgt. Carl Barthold, 94 and was a radio operator, a spare gunner, fire suppression, first aid and whatever they needed him to be, recalled on one mission the co-pilot was sleeping in a turret listening to static while either going to or returning from a mission, when they were attacked. Barthold got on the controls and shoved the throttles to get the plane clear. The co-pilot woke up and ask him what he was doing. Barthold said he was trying to keep from getting shot.
Barthold completed 30 missions and then went home.