"There was a significant air war after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History has missed the importance of the last mission I was on, even though it was understandable that the A-bombs upstaged other events at the time." Jim B. Smith, radio operator of the Boomerang and author of the book, The Last Mission.
Now comes the truth about the real end to World War II -- the B-29 raid that became known as the last mission -- and the story of some of the men who were a part of it.
The name of the plane was the Boomerang, a B-29B nicknamed the "Superfortress": 99-feet long; with a 141-feet wingspan and powered by Wright/Cyclone R-3350 air-cooled radials. With a maximum speed of 363 miles per hour and range of 3,500+ miles and a ceiling of 40,000 feet, this was a plane to be proud of. The Boomerang, along with most of the other B-29Bs, had been stripped of all of its guns except for the tag tail turret (two 250 caliber and a 20 millimeter machine guns) to carry more bombs. The Boomerang's crew consisted of 10 men of the 315th Wing, most of them in their late teens and early 20s.
Carl Schahrer was the commander and pilot; John Waltershausen the copilot; Dick Marshall, bombardier; Hank Gorder, engineer; Tony Cosola, navigator; Dick Ginster, radar operator; Hank Carlson, scanner; Henry Leffler, scanner; Sidney Siegel, tail gunner; and Jim B. Smith, radio operator (and a last-minute replacement when the original radio operator was hospitalized). Stationed on Guam, the crew got along well, and fought and worked hard together the summer of 1945.
News of the end of the war spread on August 10, 1945. The Japanese had sent word that they accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.
Although bombing missions were initially canceled while negotiations continued with the Japanese, on August 13, 1945 the 58th, 73rd and 313th Wings of the U.S. Army Air Force were placed on standby to strike three more targets -- Hikari Naval Arsenal, Osaka Army Arsenal, and the Marifu Railroad Yards, which had not been attacked successfully in the past.
Everyone else was celebrating the end of the war enthusiastically on Guam, although many of them thought the standby Wings would not have to complete their missions.
The men of the 315th Wing celebrated harder than most, believing the war really was over, even after they found out the three standby Wings were indeed flying towards Japan as scheduled on August 14, 1945 at 5 a.m. In various stages of hangovers, the crew of the Boomerang were writing letters home, playing poker or tossing a football, but everything came to a stop when a Jeep sped into camp. The Staff Sergeant driving it jumped out and ran to the barracks bulletin board to post a notice.
There were yells of, "This is the news we've been waiting for, gang, it's surrender time!"
But when they reached the board, they found it was not surrender time, it was briefing time. As they stood looking at the order in front of them, they all thought the same thing: "The war is not over. What happened?"
The room was packed and reeked of alcohol as the briefing officer announced the 315th Wing had been ordered to a maximum effort, 143 plane mission.
The crew of the Boomerang had the experience. After all, they'd flown nine combat trips over Japan and all of them were still in one piece. But they knew that if this mission went as planned, they would not only be testing cruise control to the "max," they'd also be testing worn-out engines and worn-out crews who had been flying all-night missions that averaged close to 14 hours.
The briefing officer explained that the word "Apple" would be sent in Morse code as soon as the United States received word of the Japanese surrender. That would be the order for the 315th Wing to salvo their bombs and return to base. The radio operators were ordered to monitor their frequency from the time engines were started.
"It's my guess you'll receive the scrub word 'Apple' before you reach Iwo (Jima)," the briefing officer added.
"There were a number of men of different crews that were far from sober when it came time for takeoff. I still can see one of the pilots that needed someone on each arm to help him walk to the plane." John Waltershausen, copilot of the Boomerang.
"Some time passed, I don't recall how long, then the order came through to start engines. We were idling for a while and nothing was moving. The thought went through my mind, those suckers out there are really consuming a hell of a lot of fuel, let's do it or get off the pot. About that time an order came through to cut engines. We were all thinking the mission had been scrubbed. Soon thereafter, we got the order to start engines again. This time when those engines kicked over they were really laying down a smoke screen from having idled so long, but everything was checking out fine. This time it was for real."Dick Marshall, bombardier of the Boomerang.
The crew of the Boomerang had no knowledge that at 2:49 p.m. (3:49 Guam time), 53 minutes before they were ordered to fly, the Japanese Domei News Agency broadcast an urgent message to the United States and Pacific Theater which was picked up by an American radio operator on Okinawa:
FLASH FLASH TOKYO AUGUST 14 -- IT IS LEARNED THAT AN IMPERIAL MESSAGE ACCEPTING THE POTSDAM PROCLAMATION IS FORTHCOMING SOON.
(It was later assumed Japan wanted to keep the United States informed of their imminent surrender to deter any further bombing.)
Tokyo 4:00 p.m. Lieutenant Colonel Masataka Ida and Major Kenji Hatanaka were plotting their strategy for a revolt. The plan was to occupy the Imperial Household Ministry and cut off the Palace from all outside contact. The Emperor would be protected from his "traitorous" advisors to help His Majesty preserve Japan. Hatanaka announced he already had positive contacts with the Imperial Guards Division and believed the whole Army would soon follow.
At 8:30 p.m., the Emperor signed "HIROHITO" at the bottom of the Rescript, and the Imperial seal was affixed.
The date given next to the Imperial signature and seal, "The fourteenth day of the eighth month of the twentieth year of Showa (enlightened peace)."
The crew of the Boomerang were filled with anxiety, anticipating at any moment the mission would be canceled. The pilot asked the radio operator every few minutes if he had heard the word "Apple." The answer was always, "No."
Tokyo Major Hatanaka repeated his fear that once the Emperor had recorded the Rescript and it had been broadcast, the planned revolt would not be able to accomplish its objectives.
Meanwhile, the recording team for the Imperial Broadcast (from NHK radio) waited for Emperor Hirohito to record the Rescript.
The Prime Minister, Suzuki Kantaro, signed the Rescript at approximately 10:00 p.m.
At the same time, the Boomerang was 400 miles south of Tokyo and still had not heard the word "Apple."
The Boomerang and its crew were now 200 miles from Tokyo, and the pilot asked for the last time if the code word had been given. The answer again, "No."
The Japanese early radar warning system picked up the approach of the 315th Wing. Since the B-29Bs would be flying just east of Tokyo, the city responded with a blackout. It was 11 p.m. The Japanese Cabinet put the final signature on the surrender documents just as the blackout occurred.
"I recall flying over Tokyo only because the radar operator told us. We couldn't see anything, although it was a clear night. It was close to midnight." Carl Schahrer, pilot of the Boomerang.
The Emperor was getting ready at 11:05 p.m. to be transported to the Imperial Household Ministry where he would make his recording of the surrender message. But Chamberlain Irie, worried that Tokyo might be hit with an atomic bomb, urged the Emperor to wait in the bomb shelter until they could get information regarding enemy targets. The Emperor agreed and went to the underground bomb shelter for an estimated 20-30 minutes.
When the Boomerang approached Kodama at midnight, 37 miles west/northwest of Tokyo, 36 airplanes from the 27th Air Corps (Japanese) came looking for them.
The Emperor completed his recording after a second taping, oblivious to the plans for the revolt. Two sets of records containing the Emperor's surrender were put into metal cases. The lids didn't fit tightly, so they were put into two 18-inch khaki- colored cotton bags, originally designed to hold uniforms. By this time, the Emperor heard rumors of strange activity by his Army. It was decided it was too risky to get the records to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Chamberlain Tokugawa was given the records and ordered to hide them. He did so in an office safe used by a member of the Empress' staff, locked the safe, then piled papers on and around to camouflage it.
"I went back into the bomb bay to arm the bombs. I crawled out onto the catwalk and proceeded to pull the cotter pins from the detonating fuse on each bomb. When I finished, I returned to my bombsight in the nose of the plane, and prepared it with the data I was going to use on this run. Once we crossed the coastline at the predetermined point, we would have about 100 miles or roughly 20 minutes to target." Dick Marshall, bombardier of the Boomerang.
The initial point, Awa Shima (western coast of Honshu), 3827N-1391430E, could be easily identified for a good approach to the target -- the type of landmark that would show excellent definition on the radar. It was right in line with the Boomerang's flight path and the target city of Akita. As far as the crew of the Boomerang was concerned, the mission was still a go, with no "Apples" in sight.
"As we turned north, we could see a huge column of smoke going up to a level higher than we were, probably about 20,000 feet, and we could see the fires coming up beneath it. We were at about the center of the columns of bombers that night." Carl Schahrer, pilot of the Boomerang.
A couple of searchlights found the Boomerang. The crew in the back of the aircraft began dispensing their radar chaff. Lights bounced off the plane for a minute and then two fighter runs came at them from twelve o'clock. By the time the Boomerang's tail gunner could get a fix on the fighters, they were out of range. Then, out of nowhere, there suddenly appeared pacing night fighters. They were just out of gun range, which told the crew of the Boomerang that the unarmed B-29Bs were still an American secret. The crew felt a moment's relief.
The bombardier yelled, "Clutch in!" They were on their final bombing run. Even though they'd been through this many times before, the tension was increased since they figured this was going to be the last mission of the war.
"Now it was my turn. An actual bomb run would be around three minutes, but prior to the run the exact altitude and the exact air speed had to be maintained. Once the pilot had that, he would tell me when it was all mine. That was my signal to engage the bombsight. From that moment on, any correction in the sight I would make would also correct the flight path of the plane. As the target would pass through the cross hairs of the optical sight, the bombs would automatically release. I also had a manual switch in case of malfunction. The bomb bay doors were open, and the pilot told me to go ahead." Dick Marshall, bombardier of the Boomerang.
Bombs away! It was approximately 1:18 a.m. local time: Two hours and 18 minutes after Japan's acceptance of peace had been transmitted to the allies.
"We went out the other side and made our first turn toward the east and changed altitude. I think we dropped a couple thousand feet to avoid anti-aircraft. The turns and altitudes were all pre-planned before we left Guam. Then we made our other turns and headed back south. We would have been 30 miles east of Tokyo. We came down across Iwo Jima and then to Guam." Carl Schahrer, pilot of the Boomerang.
But the mission wasn't over yet -- the Boomerang was still 1,800 miles from base, with about 3,000 gallons of fuel left. And the Palace revolt was still underway.
Tokyo The Palace was securely locked up at 2:00 a.m., under the complete control of the rebel guards. The air raid alert blackout, triggered by the 315th Wing, was still in effect. The Palace was pitch black. Hatanaka went back to the Imperial Household Ministry Building where he learned the Emperor had indeed recorded the Rescript and left the premises. The rebels and 2nd Regiment guards swept through the Imperial Household Ministry building, as well as the Palace grounds, in search of the Emperor's recorded Rescript.
Reporters from the Prime Ministers' official residence notified their papers about the signing of the Imperial Rescript, proof the war was over. But warnings were included in these dispatches that no mention of the Rescript could be made until the Emperor's anticipated noon broadcast.
There was one other story given to the morning newspapers: The Imperial Japanese Army was in revolt against the "submissive and cowardly government that has persuaded the Emperor to terminate the war."
The editors didn't know which story was safe to publish, and which represented the truth, but they knew they couldn't use both.
The newspaper offices were still following full blackout orders. The only light available was provided by candles. It was easier for the editors to believe the reports of a military revolt, since every Japanese knew their armies would never surrender to the enemy. Many also believed the signing of the Rescript was a ploy to trigger a U.S. invasion, which would turn the advantage to the Japanese.
Hatanaka and Colonel Ida decided that under the present circumstances, the only way they could now reach their objective was to continue to occupy the Palace. They vowed they would search every room until they found the recordings. Then, with the recordings in hand, they could cancel the Emperor's planned broadcast at noon, and that would give them time to turn things around.
The Bureau Director of NHK radio was brought in for questioning and finally admitted the recordings had been hidden in the Imperial Household Ministry building and were still there. He confessed there had been expectations of a big bomb hitting Tokyo, and that many feared the bomb would come with the blackout. Then he added that the widely rumored military revolt against the peace process had been a distinct threat to the safekeeping of the recordings. A search of the Ministry was soon under way.
Chamberlain Toda was tipped off that the conspirators were looking for the records. He quickly took refuge in an office, but was soon found by an officer and six soldiers. The fact the records were hidden in the Household Ministry made the search extremely difficult, since the Ministry was made up of small rooms that all looked alike. Soldiers found names on rooms that had no meaning to them, and they had no idea who stayed where.
The search for the Imperial recordings became progressively more frantic and violent. The soldiers began to kick in doors, and scattered contents of drawers on the ground.
Officers and men of the First Regiment of the Imperial Guards were now in position at NHK radio, including Hatanaka. The NHK building had also been totally secured, and no one could enter or leave. Hatanaka demanded he must broadcast an explanation for all his actions, but he was told repeatedly they were not able to broadcast during the alert. Hatanaka soon lost all control and with tears in his eyes told the officers it was all over. He added, in almost inaudible words, they had given everything they had to save Japan, and there was no more to give.
At 7:21 a.m., NHK radio broadcast a special bulletin. "His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor, has issued a Rescript. It will be broadcast at noon today. Let us respectfully listen to the voice of the Emperor."
"It was a war begun as a fight for oil and ended by the lack of it." Asahi Shimbun (Newspaper)
"God was on the side of the nation that had the oil." Professor Wakimura, Tokyo Imperial University, in postwar interrogation.
Word of the official surrender burst over the Saipan radio frequency. The broadcast ended with the announcer saying: "This, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of World War II."
The bulletin was repeated over and over. The crew of the Boomerang yelled and whooped and the pilot, who was considered conservative, pulled the Boomerang into a series of wild maneuvers. The crew was ecstatic and relieved to know they weren't going to test their luck over Japan ever again.
"I was too young to appreciate what I was doing. I think most of us were like that. There was a sense of adventure -- we were just too young to be frightened." Tony Cosola, navigator of the Boomerang.
Members of the 315th Wing received a Distinguished Unit Citation for flying the longest mission in history and destroying the Akita target. A note from the Unit history microfilm reads: "This target was of extreme importance to the enemy as it processed crude oil from the fields around Akita, the largest natural source in Japan proper. The damage assessment on all structures averaged 86%."
Photos revealed that no part of the target was untouched.
In his book, The Two Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morrison states: "It was a very near thing. That night a military plot to seize the Emperor and impound his recordings of the Imperial Rescript (which was to be broadcast the 15th) was narrowly averted. Attempts were made to assassinate Suzuki and others. But the Emperor's message to his people went out in the morning...If these elements had had their way, the war would have resumed with the Allies feeling the Japanese were hopelessly treacherous, and with a savagery that is painful to contemplate."
"Other retaliatory options included an Allied invasion which would have inflicted awful losses on both sides. Those of us who remember President Truman know he would have responded promptly to any Japanese military action coming after Japan's cabled surrender.
"Major Hatanaka and his co-conspirators believed a U.S. invasion would give Japan the greatest advantage, and even though some believed the U.S. would eventually prevail, all of the conspirators believed any extension of the war would result in a favorable revision of the unconditional surrender terms. They were dedicated to this end."
Also from his book, The Last Mission, Jim B. Smith states: "If the option of invasion had been implemented, the cost in lives would have been extremely high on both sides. The United States was set to invade Kyushu on November 1, 1945, and Honshu on March 1, 1946. The Japanese still had significant military capability, including ammunition. There were 5,350 kamikazes left and another 5,000 for orthodox use. Aircraft were to be readied on small grass strips in Kyushu, Shikoku, and western Honshu, and in underground hangars and caves to be used for kamikaze operations against the Allied amphibious forces invading Kyushu. There would have been massive losses to the Allies even before they landed on shore. Japan had 2,000,000 home island soldiers, and they were well prepared against an invasion. U.S. intelligence claims we would have lost upwards of 800,000 men in the invasion and the Japanese would have lost millions."
"It's the small events unnoticed at the time that later are discovered to have changed history." President Harry S. Truman
The war was finally over.
*Nose fuses were omitted because delay bombs were not available. The non-delay tail fuses were selected because they allowed bomb bursts at roof level and the blast effect severely damaged structures and destroyed building contents. The non-delay fuse also allowed maximum blast and fragmentation effect on the other target installations.
Smith, Jim B. The Last Mission J.B. Smith Enterprises, Ltd. 1995.
Kerr, E.Bartlett. Flames over Tokyo : the U.S. Army Air Forces' incendiary campaign against Japan, 1944-1945 D.I. Fine, 1991.
Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against The Sun: The American War With Japan Free, 1984. Random House, 1985.
Werrell, Kenneth P. Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II (Smithsonian History of Aviation Series). Smithsonian Institute Press, June 1996.
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