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The Last American to Die in World War II

B-32 Dominator crew included the final U.S. casualties of the war

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Almost everyone remembers that fighting in World War II ended on Aug. 15, 1945, and that a formal surrender ceremony was signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri (BB 63) in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2.

An unexpected air action took place. Involved were a well-known Japanese air ace, a little-known four-engine American heavy bomber, and U.S. Army photographer Sgt. Anthony J. Marchione.

But between those two dates, an unexpected air action took place. Involved were a well-known Japanese air ace, a little-known four-engine American heavy bomber, and U.S. Army photographer Sgt. Anthony J. Marchione.

B-32 Dominator

The Consolidated B-32 Dominator heavy bomber. It was a fallback design requested by the United States in the event the Boeing B-29 Superfortress was not ready to go. Robert F. Dorr Collection photo

On Aug. 18, 1945, two B-32 Dominator bombers took off from Yontan, Okinawa, for what should have been a post-war photo mission over Japan. The flight was scheduled to consist of four bombers, but two were unable to take off because of mechanical problems. Nearly all Japanese troops had laid down their arms, but the situation remained tense.

The B-32 was pressurized and was armed with remotely controlled defensive guns. Consolidated built 115, and they saw combat in the Philippines and against Japan, but not a single example of a B-32 survives today.

The B-32 was the bomber that the Army Air Forces developed as a backup for the B-29 Superfortress, which by then had waged a hugely successful air campaign against the Japanese home islands. Its builder was Consolidated, which was responsible for the earlier B-24 Liberator. Four 2,300 turbo-supercharged Wright R-3350 Double Cyclones, the same engines that were a constant cause of headaches for B-29 maintainers, provided the power. With a 135-foot Davis wing (a thin, high-aspect design) similar to that of the B-24, the B-32 was pressurized and was armed with remotely controlled defensive guns. Consolidated built 115, and they saw combat in the Philippines and against Japan, but not a single example of a B-32 survives today.

 

Marchione’s Mission

Sgt. Anthony J. Marchione

On Aug. 18, 1945, three days after World War II officially ended, U.S. Army photographer Sgt. Anthony J. Marchione (1925-1945), 20th Reconnaissance Squadron, was aboard a B-32 aircraft when it took cannon fire, wounding Marchione severely. He later died and was the last American to die in the war. Robert F. Dorr Collection photo

On the Aug. 18 mission, the B-32s belonged to the 386th Bombardment Squadron. Marchione was aboard aircraft 42-108578 as a photographer with the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron.

According to government microfilm records, when the two B-32s reached Tokyo, anti-aircraft batteries opened fire on them. With flak bursts exploding at what appeared to be a safe distance, the bombers then came under attack from what the American side identified as Nakajima Ki-44 army fighters, known to the Americans as “Tojos” and by Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero naval fighters, dubbed “Zekes” in U.S. parlance. In fact, the Tojos were probably Kawanishi N1K2 Shiden, or “George,” fighters.

The B-32 pilots initially attempted to communicate – the war was over, they’d been told – but efforts to prevent shooting were to no avail.

The B-32 pilots initially attempted to communicate – the war was over, they’d been told – but efforts to prevent shooting were to no avail.

One of the Zero pilots was the Japanese ace Lt. Saburo Sakai.

Saburo Sakai

Japanese fighter ace Saburo Sakai (1916-2000) as a petty officer-pilot photographed during fighting in China. Sakai flew in the last fatal air action of the war, although the extent of his involvement remains unknown. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Sakai (1916-2000) published an account in the Japanese language and is also by-lined on the quasi-biography Samurai! written in English by Martin Caidin. Sakai’s two separate accounts differ, as do accounts written by others, as to whether Sakai fired his guns that day. The Japanese Navy did not keep official records on individual air-to-air victories, but Caidin credits Sakai with 64 kills, making him Japan’s fourth-ranking ace and the second-ranking to survive the war. In his Japanese-language memoir, Sakai wrote of engaging a bomber he initially thought was a B-29 Superfortress.

“What I saw was a completely different aircraft,” Sakai wrote. “The single vertical stabilizer was enormous and swept upward toward the rear. I had never seen this plane before. I had never heard of it, either, but later learned it was a B-32.”

Sakai also wrote that “apparently, this action was legal and we were never questioned about it by [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur’s forces.” But he also claimed, somewhat confusingly, that unlike his fellow fighter pilots he did not fire any shots that day.

The Japanese Navy did not keep official records on individual air-to-air victories, but Caidin credits Sakai with 64 kills, making him Japan’s fourth-ranking ace and the second-ranking to survive the war. In his Japanese-language memoir, Sakai wrote of engaging a bomber he initially thought was a B-29 Superfortress.

Former 1st Lt. Richard E. Thomas, co-pilot of 42-108578, said in a 1997 interview that the anti-aircraft fire was ineffective but that the Japanese fighters pressed home their attacks. If any of the fighter pilots were refraining from taking action, Thomas didn’t notice it. “A Japanese aircraft came at the B-32 as if to ram us,” Thomas said.

The left front seat of the 60-ton bomber, boring through the Japanese sky at 300 miles per hour, was empty. For reasons unclear, pilot 1st Lt. J.R. Anderson was not in the cockpit during the engagement. Thomas said he could not remember why. Thomas pulled the yoke all the way back and “pulled the aircraft up into a very steep climb” – two Japanese fighters closed in. Sakai was nearby and the record is unclear as to whether he was one of the shooters. Cannon fire hit the B-32 in the wings and fuselage.

 

Blasted Bomber

Also in a 1997 interview, former Staff Sgt. Joseph Lacherite, another photographer, remembered hearing unusual radio traffic on his headphones. According to Lacherite, co-pilot Thomas asked the other B-32 to slow down so the damaged bomber could keep up.

Howard Amster

Howard Amster was the radar navigator in the B-32 Dominator that became engaged in a battle with the Japanese, Aug. 18, 1945. Robert. F. Dorr Collection photo

Then, said Lacherite, an attacking Japanese pilot came on the radio and in English said, “Yes, please slow down so I can shoot you down, too.” According to stories Lacherite was told after the war, that voice belonged to Sakai. Again, while Sakai’s presence during the engagement is not in dispute, his exact role is described differently in different accounts. Sakai was fluent in English.

Cannon shells exploded on the side of the fuselage where the two photographers were hunkered down. With a furious noise, shrapnel penetrated the plane’s thin metal skin and wounded Lacherite across a wide area of his body. He was in sudden, severe pain (and his eventual recovery would take more than five years).

Marchione rushed to help and found Lacherite bleeding profusely. Marchione was trying to help when a new burst of cannon fire brought more shells exploding against, and inside, the B-32. Marchione was gravely wounded.

Members of Marchione’s family remember him as typical of the era’s citizen-soldiers. Born in 1925 in Pottstown, Pa., he played the trumpet in high school, according to his sister, Theresa Sell. “He became a photographer after joining the military and took hundreds of pictures,” his sister said.

Marchione served earlier on the crew of an F-7 Liberator, the photo version of the B-24 bomber. Air Force microfilm records show that Marchione flew three combat missions before the war ended. Now, three days after the official cessation of fighting, Marchione failed to respond to medical aid aboard the B-32 as it limped back to Okinawa. He succumbed to his wounds before the bomber landed safely,  just a month before his 20th birthday – apparently, the last American to die in World War II.

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

  • Robin M. Cathcart

    Thanks, Bob, for this information!

  • Hi
    Among other sources, Wikipedia states neither the pressurization system nor the remote control system worked, and the production aircraft were all unpressurized and used manual turrets.

    I believe it was General George Kenney who determined the Sperry remote fire control system was impossible as a combat system for WW2 in the famous quotation:
    “A man could learn to play a violin good enough for Carnegie Hall before he’d master that thing.”
    The periscope system was counter intuitive, and if I recall correctly, only the engineers who designed and built it had any luck in making it work.