The Last Mission

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We thought the mission would be a long one. Our targets in Japan were now farther and farther from our fighter base on Iwo Jima, where we were flying our P-51 Mustangs to the Empire. At first these missions were escort for the B-29 Superfortresses on their bombing runs, but as the war wound down, escort was no longer needed, and our job was now to fly up to the Japanese mainland and strafe airfields, destroying what remained of the Japanese Air Force on the ground. This would make the coming invasion a bit easier.

We were right about the length of our mission. When the cover was removed from the large briefing chart at the front of the tent, a low moan went up from the fighter pilots. The red cord on the map, indicating the course to the target and its location, stretched from Iwo Jima to an airfield considerably north of Tokyo—the longest mission to date and mostly over water.

After takeoff we joined up with the B-29 that was to provide navigation for the fighters, which had very little navigation gear of their own. The flight up to Japan, about three hours, was mostly boring. Nothing but water below. No islands. No place to land if our single-engine fighters developed trouble.

The sight of beautiful snowcapped Mount Fuji snaps us back to reality. There is work to be done. External fuel tanks are jettisoned to increase our maneuverability. We begin our descent to the mainland, assume our combat formation, and race across the target airfield, all guns firing. There is some anti-aircraft fire, orange golf balls rising from the ground to meet us. One pass and we’re out of there.

We are on the deck now, flying very low and very fast, looking for targets of opportunity on the way home. Trains, boats, power stations—anything that will weaken the enemy’s ability to resist the projected invasion. We make short work of a train and several small steamboats, and as we race across the beach toward the open sea, I spot trenches, rows of barbed wire, pillboxes, and other fortifications. The invasion will not be easy.

We find the B-29 and form up behind it for the long trip back. Each of us is hoping that we have not been hit and that our Packard-built engines will keep running long enough to get us home, for as rotten a piece of real estate as Iwo Jima is, it always looks pretty good after seven or eight hours of sitting in the hot, cramped cockpit of a Mustang.

Suddenly, with no warning, my engine quits cold. I must have been hit after all. Efforts to restart are futile. And since the flight manual states that the Mustang, because of the large air scoop below the fuselage, will float for only about two seconds, the one remaining choice is to bail out. This of course is before the days of the ejection seat, so the pilot has a choice of jettisoning the canopy and diving for the wing or rolling the airplane over on its back and dropping out. I choose the latter because it seems so practical and so simple. Just roll the airplane upside down and drop neatly out, right? Wrong . My seat cushion and dinghy somehow get caught in the armor plate behind the cockpit, and I find myself in the unenviable position of being partly out of the airplane, which is rapidly picking up speed.

Suddenly everything is very quiet. I don’t know how it has happened, but I have parted company with the airplane, which, incidentally, I cannot see and never saw again. I pull the rip cord on the parachute and hope that it opens. It does, and now it’s time to think about landing on the water, which is extremely rough, and about getting into the one-man dinghy that is attached to my parachute harness.

Despite the high seas and strong winds, I soon find myself safely in the dinghy. All by myself in the middle of the biggest ocean in the world.

It seems like an eternity, but in only a few hours I spot an air-sea-rescue PBY low on the horizon. Frantically I signal with my mirror, ignite an orange smoke flare, and throw out some green sea-marker dye. He is turning toward me! He sees me! He is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I know I will be picked up.

Or will I? He flies by, waggles his wings—and leaves! I later found out that he judged the sea to be too rough to attempt a water landing. But he has radioed my position to an air-sea-rescue destroyer, and I am soon hauled aboard and plopped onto the deck, a very wet, tired, seasick, and ever so grateful young man.

The next morning, while I am enjoying the first decent meal I have had in months, a single B-29 Superfortress flies over. It is very high in the blue Pacific sky. It is headed north. On the nose of the airplane is painted the name of the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay.