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Some Mission to Tokyo Crewmembers Are Forever Young

Nowadays, we think of the Americans who fought World War II when we see aging veterans on a tour of the memorial to them in Washington. In their 80s and 90s now, many still travel to reunions, attend veterans’ meetings and give talks to schoolchildren.

But others fought as well. They’re the ones who are forever young.

Many never married. They didn’t have careers, families, or late-in-life get-togethers at the National World War II Memorial.

They’re the ones who didn’t live to see the surrender ceremony signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB 63) in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

A poster designed by F. Clifton Berry for the American Battle Monuments Commission reminds us: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”

Mission for McDonald

In the book Mission to Tokyo, B-29 Superfortress pilot Robert “Bud” McDonald watches bombers taking off from Guam at dusk on March 9, 1945 for the great firebomb raid on Tokyo. McDonald is a newly arrived pilot and airplane commander, not yet ready for combat and has not yet completed the familiarization flying that had to be logged before he could take off on his first mission.

1st Lt. Robert "Bud" McDonald

1st Lt. Robert “Bud” McDonald was a B-29 Superfortress airplane commander in the war against Japan in 1945.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Reynolds

McDonald, 23, from Michigan, was a look-alike for Hollywood celebrity Bert Parks. He was one of the very young that was married. He’d tied the knot with Gloria DeWolf while in training at Blytheville, Arkansas

. While there, McDonald may have been acquainted with a local bandleader whose four-year-old son was the future actor George Hamilton. To his sister Nancy Reynolds, McDonald himself was “just like a movie star.”

The Tokyo mission was the start of a weeklong “fire Blitz” against Japan’s wood-and-paper urban industrial centers. McDonald led his B-29 crew on the second fire mission, to Nagoya on the night of March 11. Later, they were assigned an aircraft and named it The Merry Mac’s, dubious apostrophe and all, although it’s unclear whether the name was ever painted on the plane.

 

Mission to Kawasaki

On the night of April 15, 1945, 194 B-29s attacked Japanese industrial facilities in the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki. It was a tough night for bomber crews. It was a clear night in the area and the searchlights, enemy flak and fighters were particularly effective. Twelve B-29s were lost.

B-29 shot down by flak

With one wing gone, a B-29 falls in flames after a direct hit by enemy flak over Japan. US Air Force photo

Bud McDonald, now called Mac by crewmates, was on just his fourth mission and every one of them was tough.

McDonald and the crew of The Merry Mac’s did not return from Kawasaki. McDonald’s former navigator Lew Parry, who’d been replaced on this flight by 2nd Lt. Wilfred M. Flesher, later spent years trying to reconstruct what happened. Japanese fighters were behaving aggressively in the area, so a fighter could have shot down The Merry Mac’s. Witnesses thought they saw Mac’s no. 4 engine windmilling, so the crew could have been lost to one of the mechanical failures that claimed so many. Or, Parry decided, they could have been shot down by anti-aircraft fire. But nobody really knew. No one ever has.

Lost with Bud McDonald – forever young, they remain today – were co-pilot “Kit” Kittrell, Flesher, bombardier Alvin Dillaber, radar operator 2nd Lt. Carl J. Kleinhoffer, flight engineer Red Henrickson, radio operator Wallace Oldford, central fire control gunner Sgt. Andrew M. Evans, left blister gunner Sgt. Glenn E. Weesner, right blister gunner Sgt. Richard X. Walling, and tail gunner Sgt. Norman H. Wells. Also lost was an observer, 1st Lt. Oscar J. Groft.

 

Surrender Ceremony

Battered from the air by explosive, fire and atomic bombs, Japan ceased fighting on August 15, 1945. B-29 crews won the war without an amphibious invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The surrender was inked aboard the Missouri in Tokyo Bay, on Sunday, Sept. 2, 1945. Speaking to Allied and Japanese officers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, said: “The issues, involving divergent ideals and ideologies, have been determined on the battlefields of the world and hence are not for our discussion or debate.”

Staff Sgt. William J. "Reb" Carter

Staff Sgt. William J. “Reb” Carter, a B-29 blister gunner, flew over the Missouri surrender ceremony. Photo courtesy of Doug Carter

A 2,400-aircraft flyover was supposed to begin during the signing – the largest aerial formation ever assembled. It was a mixed gaggle of Army and Navy aircraft, including carrier-based aircraft, and it was having difficulty getting into position. The weather in and around Tokyo was poor and the beginning of the flyover was delayed.

The Japanese signed first. Observers looked around for the planned flyover and saw empty sky. The horde of warplanes was out there in the distance beyond eyesight, getting into position. The delay was irritating to those who’d orchestrated the ceremony. After the Japanese finished, MacArthur began signing as the supreme allied commander.  Because this was such a historic event, MacArthur used several pens, each of which was destined to become a treasured artifact.

Columbia correspondent Webley Edwards was providing a real-time radio report of the surrender ceremony. “General MacArthur is using a fifth pen,” Edwards spoke into his microphone. “Everyone is going to get a pen out of this surrender document and here comes one of the big B-29s which I suppose is the leader of the flight which was to put on a demonstration of air power here over the bay this morning.”

But it wasn’t the leader. An irreverent B-29 airplane commander, Capt. George Bertagnoli, who wasn’t even scheduled to participate, had arranged to get his B-29 over the Missouri ahead of the crowd. Bertagnoli was a “really good man,” left blister gunner Sgt. William J. “Reb” Carter said, “but he had a rebellious streak, too.”

Bertagnoli, Carter and crew looked down. As they passed overhead, they saw MacArthur sitting at the signing table on the ship’s deck. The Edwards broadcast boomed on their plane’s interphone. They heard Edwards say, “Here comes one of the big B-29s” and then they heard the sound of their own engines in their earphones, conveyed by the broadcast.

B-29s Tokyo Bay

USAAF B-29 bombers fly in formation over USS Missouri (BB 63), during the surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945. National Archives.

As the Bertagnoli crew flew overhead, Edwards continued. “The weather [is] miserable for a demonstration of air power. The maximum ceiling is not more than fifteen hundred feet, but everything is going to plan…”

MacArthur announced that representatives of the victorious allied nations would begin signing. Six minutes after the Bertagnoli crew came and went, Edwards said observers aboard the battleship were still waiting for the massive flyover. The brief, stiff shipboard ceremony was ending when allied warplanes began parading overhead. Many veterans of the great Tokyo firebomb mission were aboard the B-29s passing overhead. Many, like Bertagnoli and Carter went on to live full, rich lives, and ultimately, to visit Washington’s National World War II Memorial, which opened to the public in 2004.

About five miles southeast of the battleship was the spot where a B-29 named The Merry Mac’s had disappeared five months earlier. The crew has never been found. The date of the ceremony aboard the Missouri, Sept. 2, 1945, would have been The Merry Mac’s’ airplane commander Bud McDonald’s 24th birthday.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-53955">
    Philip Ludolph

    B-29 crews had it tough in the early days. Mechanical issues with the P&W3350s such as fire and the constant specter of always running out of gas on the way home. It wasn’t till the P&W4360s came along in the B-50s was it a much better plane. Pressurized cabins and computer ranging gun sights meant new tactics in the air at high altitudes. New skills for dealing with determined attacks by hordes of Japanese fighters, even at high altitude made it tough. Those brave young men that flew too Japan must be sincerely congratulated. We owe a lot to them. Esp those who lived in the Pacific rim during those horrible days during WWII.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-54592">

    Ditto Phillip’s comment. I flew as copilot in 29s during the Korean War with the same unreliable engines. We crashed The Outlaw after #1 caught fire on takeoff. On a later mission (post Korean tour), we went into what should have been a fatal spiral when #2 caught fire and the prop ran away, wrenching the engine from its mount. Luckily we were over Ellsworth AFB and able to make a very ify emergency landing. I was the only officer on the crew who was not a WWII veteran and, to be honest, they were not happy campers. I was also the only one who stayed in the AF and later flew B-47s and B-52s. (@jetageman) Also the only one still looking down at the grass.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-54606">

    I know from providing Mr. Dorr information about the experiences of my father, William J “Reb” Carter, who is featured in this article and in “Mission to Tokyo”, Mr. Dorr ‘s works are both factual and entertaining. Thanks to Mr. Dorr for this excellent article which will help future generations appreciate the sacrifices made by members of our military; especially those who are “forever young”.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-56391">

    “Mission to Tokyo” is a great read and a wonderful tribute to all who served in B-29s in WWII. He does a wonderful job of presenting this history and personal stories of so many who served, giving you both the individual perspective as well as the larger picture. I am especially glad that those who are forever young have people like Mr. Dorr to give them a voice to tell their story.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-56415">
    Robert F. Dorr

    Thanks to everyone who had kind words about “MISSION TO TOKYO” and the young men, some of them forever young, who served and sacrificed. It was an honor and a privilege to write a book about B-29 Superfortress crews and to be in contact with veterans and family members, especially the family members of those who did not return. Elsewhere on Defense Media Network you can find a variety of historical accounts by many authors. All share the goal of wanting the stories of these Americans to be told and, as much as possible, to be told in their voices.