Today I am going to share a story about my Grandpa – a true American hero. For my whole life I have looked up to my Grandpa and for good reason; he has lived a life that is normally reserved for novels. Successful in life (amazing wife of 64 years, 8 children, 21 grandchildren, 5 great grandchildren), business (top life insurance salesman 13 times), athletics (scratch golfer well into his 80’s, starting pitcher for the Gophers, etc.) and served his country in the Pacific in World War 2. I am very close to Grandpa, and was honored to MC his 60th anniversary party in 2008.
When I was younger, Grandpa would tell us grandchildren bedtime stories about his time in the war. He told stories of island hopping in the pacific, using shark teeth as razor blades, almost running out of gas while flying over the pacific ocean and many tales of the lighter side of war. I have fond memories of these stories from my childhood.
As I grew older, Grandpa’s stories became a lot more real. He enrolled in the air force at the age of 17. By 18, he was the anti-aircraft gunner on a B-24 Bomber – one of the most dangerous positions you can hold in the entire war. His unit was stationed in the pacific and he spent time hopping islands like Guam and Okinawa as the US military converged on Japan. He came under fire many times, lost many comrades along the way, and ultimately he persevered.
I knew all of this for some time and learned quite a bit over the past 30 years, to the point that I thought I had heard it all. But the story he told me today beat them all by a longshot.
August 9, 1945. 3 days after the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, the war was still going in the pacific. That day, Grandpa was on a mission that consisted of 48 planes with orders to bomb the harbor in Nagasaki, which was a major base for the Japanese navy. His plane was the lead plane in the formation – the first line of defense.
As they approached the harbor, anti-aircraft guns and Navy ships opened fire on his plane. Naturally, their fire was concentrated on the first plane in the formation, because even if they missed, they had a good chance of hitting the planes behind them. Grandpa was literally the target these guns were aiming for.
Drawing fire from the Japanese Navy and other gun embattlements, their plane was hit several times. Fortunately for Grandpa, he was not among the injured. Unfortunately, the pilot took fire right in the buttocks, in a bloody mess. The co-pilot didn’t fare much better, and he ended up with flak in his neck.
Quick to react, Grandpa left his position to check on the flight crew and didn’t like what he saw. He lifted the pilot from his seat and dressed the wound as best he could on the floor behind the cockpit. Next, he went to the co-pilot, who was naturally picking at the wound in his neck and told him to hold steady and NOT take the shrapnel out of his neck. The co-pilot obliged, but also said that he was incapable of flying the plane. That left Grandpa, 19 years old with no formal flying training, to guide the plane back to Okinawa.
Fortunately, the co-pilot was coherent enough to give instructions, so as Grandpa sat in the pilot seat, he followed the first instructions of “turn right and get the hell out of here.”
Inland Japan was surprisingly pleasant at the time, with no guns shooting at the plane for a few minutes. But the trip wasn’t without incident. August 9th happens to be famous for another incident that occurred in Nagasaki.
Looking forward, Grandpa saw something that few people in the world can claim that they saw. A mushroom cloud that looked like this:
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, so he remarked to the co-pilot “Have you ever seen an atomic bomb?” to which he got a non-response. “Well, look ahead and you’ll see one now.”
With no time to dwell on the sight in front of him, he turned again and headed toward Okinawa. By this time the co-pilot was not doing too well and the color had left his face. It was up to Grandpa and the folks on the other side of the radio to get him in safely.
Miraculously, he was able to fly the plane back to the base with little more than a rough landing. (I asked Grandpa how he knew what to do and he said “for over 30 missions I would watch what the pilots did every moment I had. I knew what to do well enough.”)
When he landed, medical staff and military personnel were waiting for him. The co-pilot survived, but he’s still not sure what happened to the pilot. Grandpa told his story and observations to his superiors, including that he thought he saw an atomic bomb was dropped. “no way” they said – they never heard anything about a second mission to drop an atomic bomb. They had no knowledge of what had happened, and communications had not yet caught up with them.
The next day, he was told that he was right – the bomb was indeed dropped over Nagasaki.
Ironically, three days earlier, after the August 6th bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, Grandpa was told that he was going to be sent on a rest and relaxation trip to Australia. Instead, he survived a major incident in world history.
And this wasn’t even his last mission…
The Last Mission
You would think that flying into the face of the atomic bomb would be his last mission, but it was not. Shortly after Japan’s surrender, Grandpa was sent on a mission to see whether the Japanese had truly surrendered. 3 planes flew from Okinawa up the Yangtze river, where many Japanese ships were stationed. They were told to fly above the range of the guns, and then gradually lower altitude to see if they would draw fire from the Japanese ships.
While the Japanese guns followed their every move, no fire came on the planes, so they retreated to the South China Sea on their way back to Okinawa. As they approached the sea, they hit turbulent weather and broke formation. Grandpa’s plane lost contact with the other two planes, and he’s not sure that they ever made it back to the base. Even after the war, 66% of these flight crews were likely dead.
Putting Things Into Perspective
It’s difficult for most people under 40 years old to realize line between life and death that many men walked during their youth in previous generations. One false move and many of us might not be here today. I hear these stories from my Grandpa and I feel equal parts inspired, scared, blessed and optimistic.
My Grandpa is a great man and I am just so happy to have him in my life. You are a real life hero, and I will do my best to make sure your stories live on for many more generations. I love you Norby.
I only hope that some day I can be as much of an inspiration to future generations. It certainly won’t be through military means, but we can all aspire to leave our marks in many other ways.