A Story of Heroism in B-29s Over Tokyo
The B-29 Superfortress Rover Boys Express was cleared for takeoff from the 8800 foot runway at Isely Airfield, Saipan. Three chaplains were beside the runway blessing and exchanging waves with the flight crews of the departing seventy-six B-29s. The time was 3 AM on January 27, 1945. The 15 to 16 hour bombing raid was the fourth mission for the Rover Boys. The target 1500 miles north was the Musashino Aircraft Factory. Trained as both a Navigator and a Bombardier, Hap Halloran was the Navigator in the crew of the B-29 Rover Boys Express.
The B-29 accelerated using nearly all of the runway to lift off. Snuffy Smith raised the wheels and nosed the plane over to follow the island contour down 500 feet to the Pacific to gain airspeed and raise the flaps. Then, they flew at 1,000 feet altitude until reaching the climb point 2 hours from the coast of Japan. It was a hairy gaggle of 76 B-29s staying in visible contact, on course, with safe separation between aircraft. At the climb point, the B-29s climbed steadily to 32,000 feet heading for the initial point of Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan. The Superfortresses crossed the coastline near Hamamatsu and aligned the formation by squadron in preparation for the final run to target. At Fuji the formation turned right for Tokyo.
The formation picked up the jet stream tail winds as they turned east for the target which gave the bombers a ground speed of 450 knots. The cloud cover was mostly overcast and thick. The flak became heavy at Mt. Fuji and continued exploding below as the B-29s flew inbound to the target. The flak stopped as the bombers approached Tokyo.
When the flak ceased there was a lull before the Japanese fighters came up to greet the B-29s. A record number of fighters were sent up on January 27, 1945. 300 fighters were confirmed from historical data acquired after the war. Over 950 attacks were made on the 76 Superfortresses by the Japanese fighters. The heaviest attacks were waged against Hap's squadron and his bomber, V Square 27, bore the brunt of hits from those attacks. The formation approached the arming point and the bomb bay doors were opened in preparation for the crucial portion of putting the bombs on target.
The outside air temperature at 32M was minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit while inside the pressurized B-29 the temperature was a perfect 70 degrees. The flight crew were dressed lightly with only summer flight suits and underwear comfortable on Saipan and in the B-29s. It was dead of winter down below but walking home was absent from the minds of the Superfortress aviators.
Enemy fighters were all around the B-29 mass. Attacks were initiated randomly throughout the huge formation. They had not expected the fighters to reach 32,000 so easily. The intercom shouted into Rover Boy headsets, "Fighters at one o'clock heading directly at us!" The Rover Boys responded with the gunners firing forward as two twin engine Toryu fighters dove at Rover Boys Express. Sometimes the fighters rammed the B-29s so the crew was desperate in trying to knock down the Toryu fighters. A fighter had rammed a lead B-29 in the past and the midair resulted in two other B-29s being downed by contact with the debris.
The nose of the Rover Boys Express suddenly exploded in noise and shrapnel. The explosive decompression added to the shock and terror of the moment. Rounds from the enemy guns created shrapnel which joined with the rounds ricocheting throughout the interior of the front of the aircraft. The bombardier was bleeding profusely from a serious wound. The aircraft commander, Snuffy Smith, was bleeding from shrapnel hits in both arms. Three engines had been knocked out and two of those engines were on fire. The entire front section of the fuselage was filled with smoke. Radios were knocked out along with all instrumentation. The B-29 was slowly losing altitude in a lazy right turn. The remainder of the flight continued on course for the target. Nine B-29s would be lost during the fighter engagement.
The Rover Boys Express was left alone over Tokyo in a cold and hostile sky. 5 crewmembers were in the aft section. Guy Knobel crawled back to the tail section to tell the five to bail out. The B-29 continued to be attacked by the fighters. Enemy cannon fire raked the fuselage from front to rear in efforts to bring the stricken aircraft down. Knobel found the tail section badly damaged with tail gunner Cecil Laird dead at his gun. The remaining three gunners and radar operator in back came forward. The ten Rover Boys that remained alive hurriedly prepared to bail out. The escape hatch was through a door in the deck of the front section. The door was opened with great difficulty and as they proceeded to the final step for bailout the nose wheel would not drop from the space as required to escape. The escape route was blocked. The forward bomb bay doors were open so the crew decided to open the entry door to the bomb bay. The crew could see Tokyo below the bombs that could not be dropped or jettisoned. The bay doors were not fully open but there was room to pass between the bombs and the doors. Bombardier Bobby Grace, his flight suit covered with blood was first to bail out. Flight Engineer, Willie Franz, was next to parachute out the bomb bay. Jimmy Edwards, pilot, was next to make his way through the bombs and into the thin atmosphere. Radio Operator Guy Knobel was next to parachute through the bombs. Hap Halloran tried to talk Aircraft Commander Snuffy Smith into jumping next but the bloodied pilot ordered Hap to jump.
Hap squeezed past the bombs and when his body was half way below the bombs the air sucked him from the bomb bay. Hap remembered the three reasons to not open his chute early. Enemy fighters had sometimes shot pilots as they descended in the parachute. The minus 58 degrees could freeze a pilot to death during the long descent. Plus, the oxygen would not last long and a parachutist could die from lack of oxygen during the descent. Hap bailed out about 27,000 feet and let himself free fall. When Hap judged his altitude at 3-4,000 feet he pulled the ripcord. Soon three Zero fighters showed up. The Zeros buzzed him once and circled again for another pass. Hap was afraid he would be gunned down on the second pass so waved his arms high. The last Zero waved back and turned aside. The Zeros disappeared. Hundreds of people were moving towards the spot he was floating toward. He waved his arms at the people as a friendly gesture. Hap landed hard in a vacant lot and the wind dragged him until he hit a wall. The mob was upon him immediately, beating him with poles, wood, and stoning him with large rocks over all parts of his body. Hap was kicked, beaten and dragged bleeding until he lost consciousness.
Hap awoke to see the civilians scattering as armed Japanese soldiers came toward him. They cut off his parachute, Mae West, and tied his feet together. They bound his arms and beat him severely with rifle butts all over his face, body and head. They blindfolded him and threw him into the bed of a truck. He was taken to a prison run by the Japanese Secret Service Kempei Tai prison. Hap was forced to sign a confession admitting war crimes. He was kept blindfolded and beaten daily. The B-29s fire-bombed Tokyo at night while he was imprisoned at Kempei Tai near the Imperial Palace. The wooden roof of his cell caught fire in the conflagration that swept most of Tokyo and Hap thought he would burn to death. Hap was left to die in his cell. Hap was a survivor. He maintains that his faith in God kept him alive when undergoing repeated beatings, severe torture and starvation.
The end of March 1945 marked the most degrading time of Hap's imprisonment. A guard and interpreter opened his cell, placed a blanket over his blindfolded head and led him outside where his hands and feet were tied and he was thrown into the bed of a truck. After a long drive the truck stopped at a place that Hap later recognized as a zoo. Hap was forced to take off all his clothes and his blindfold. He was put in a lion cage and his hands tied to the bars of the front of the cage. For a day and a night, Hap was exposed to viewing Japanese civilian men, women and children as a nude, bearded, filthy, B-29 aviator with dirty long, unkempt hair and covered with runny sores from bedbugs, lice and fleas. The zoo exhibition was the low point in his life. Hap was taken to Omori prison from the zoo.
The Omori prison guards removed Hap's blindfold and after 67 days of darkness he was temporarily blinded. It took Hap a long time to adapt to sunlight. Hap found many B-29 crewmembers at his new home. Discovering his command pilot Snuffy Smith at Omori was cause for great elation. Another huge positive was no longer being in solitary confinement. Although the conditions were harsh, Hap felt his chances for survival were better than before. Hap was demoralized to later learn the Japanese camp officers were told that the B-29 aviators would all be killed and no trace of them was to be found after the war. Beheading was the listed Japanese preferred method of death for the crews although other methods were authorized. While in Omori, Hap met and became close friends with Marine Medal of Honor winner Pappy Boyington. One day, Hap told Pappy that Congress had awarded him the Medal of Honor. Pappy said, "Right now I would trade it for a hamburger sandwich!"
August 15, 1945 marked a change in POW camp Omori. A large group of B-29 flyers arrived from the Japanese Secret Service prison. The original barracks housed 32 B-29 flyers and four Navy/Marine flyers. In addition there was Pappy Boyington and Commander O'Kane with crewmember survivors of the submarine USS Tang. One drawback was that the large group were never allowed to see or contact the 500 prisoners who were captured in the Philippines and Asia at the beginning of the War. A few days later signs were painted on the roofs with huge "PW", "Pappy Boyington Here" and "566 Prisoners Here" signs. Reconnaissance aircraft flew over and dropped notes and cigarette cartons. In late August B-29s flew over and dropped medicine and food. Ships began congregating in Tokyo Bay. The prisoners knew the ships must be American. The spirits were high in the POW camp. Hap and his friends saw landing craft coming from landing ships flying the American Flag headed for Omori. The Japanese refused to turn over the prisoners but Navy Commander Harold Stassen forcibly took the prisoners aboard the vessels and on to the hospital ship the USS Benevolence. Hap still had the blood stains on his ragged clothing from his beatings months before. All the POWs were infested with lice and fleas. Hap had not had a bath in over 7 months. Freedom Day, August 29, 1945, was a wonderfully memorable day for the POWs.
Hap had survived the War. While a prisoner, he went from his normal weight of 215 lbs to 115 lbs. Hap learned that six of the eleven Rover Boys died following the shoot down of their B-29. Hap was saddened to hear of the deaths of his fellow crewmembers, 2/Lt Robert Grace Bombardier, 2/Lt William Franz, Jr. Flight Engineer, SSgt Robert Holladay Right Gunner, SSgt Anthony Lukasiewicz CFC Gunner, Sgt Vito Barbieri Left Gunner and Sgt Cecil Laird Tail Gunner. Hap kept in touch with the remaining four crewmembers, Aircraft Commander Snuffy Smith, Pilot Jimmy Edwards, Radioman Guy Knobel, and Radarman John Nicholson. Hap Halloran is now the only survivor of the eleven man crew of the Rover Boys Express. He had made lasting friendships during his ordeal to include famous VMA-214 Blacksheep Skipper, Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, Marine Corps Medal of Honor winner. Hap and Pappy remained close until Pappy died in 1988.
Thank God and America for heroes like Hap Halloran, United States Air Force.
Visit Hap's website at www.haphalloran.com for additional pictures and information.
*Photographs are from the Hap Halloran collection.