Last Plane Off Tinian – Ben Nicks and Stan Black, two brothers in arms

27 May

            It was May 27, 1945, 1600 hours, and on a little lifeboat of land called Tinian Island floating in the South Pacific more than five hundred B-29 Boeing Superfortress Very Heavy Bombers began to wind up their engines. The four, twelve cylinder, air cooled, radial power plants would carry them to the Empire of Japan and back. The First, Fifth, and Ninety-ninth squadron, a total of 48 aircraft and 528 men, were going to fly. They went about their normal pre – flight duties in a normal way. Manifold pressures were closely watched, radios and tubes warming up, ammunition belts checked, turrets revolved, fuel transfer system tested, and lots of chatter on the aircraft intercom. They chattered about the mission, they chattered about the target, they chattered about wives, girlfriends, and girlfriends, and wives, but what the never chattered about before any mission was still not being chattered about that day. There was no mention of it, nothing was said about how it could happen, when it could happen, or where it could happen, or even how it happened to the last guys. In fact, it did not even exist for their crew, not really, it only existed for other crews, and even then, it existed mainly for other squadrons. It would never happen to them. They would always come home.

            What they would not know for hours is that on this day, May 27, 1945, it would finally come calling. It would call the names of eleven young men in the First Squadron, Ninth Bomb Group, 313th Wing, of the Twentieth United States Army Air Corp, the very squadron that Aircraft Commander Stan Black and Aircraft Commander Ben Nicks were members of. Eleven men from one of those crews would not return to their bunks that night.

            Captain Stanley Black and Captain Ben Nicks first met at McCook Field in Nebraska in June of 1944. McCook Army Airfield was near McCook, Nebraska in Red Willow County. Its runways were 7,500 feet long by 150 feet wide, a good size for the B-29 Superfortress. There were barracks for about 5,000 men and 110 administrative buildings that housed the chapel, the clinic, the command offices, classrooms, and all of the training facilities. It was a training base, one of eleven in Nebraska in WWII. Men who already knew how to fly came to McCook to be trained in the Very Heavy B-29 Superfortress. In 1944, the B-29 was a thing of shock and awe and given WWII conditions it could still shock and awe today. It was called the plane that “Won the War” in the Pacific and rightfully so. Almost exactly 100 feet long with a wingspan of 141 feet, it could fly at 25,000 feet while nestling 22,000 pounds of bombs in its belly cruising at 200 MPH for up to 4,500 miles. It was the only aircraft that could take the war to the Empire’s Front Door and back home again. The four Wright Cyclone R-3350 engines were capable of producing 2,200 horsepower each to pull the fuel, bombs, twelve 50 caliber machine guns, 10,000 gallons of aviation fuel and the eleven souls on board from their gravity well on earth up into its true home at 25,000 feet high in the sunlit sky. That is if you had an excellent crew and you were lucky that day. The B-29 had several of what we would today call “known issues” that affected their performance ability. After all, what good were eight thousand eight hundred horses with wings strapped to your back if they were all overheated, starved for air, and very thirsty? If a pilot and crew became unlucky enough to lose control of those horses it did not make any difference which side you were on or how many kids you had, you were going down before you ever got up. That is what happened when you played with the laws of physics, and B-29s did that every day. They bet their lives that the ordinance loaders had not overloaded the bomb bay too much, that you could obtain a proper take off speed before the engines overheated and lost power, or any one of several other almost minor obstructions occurred were you not in a B-29 playing chicken with 32,000 pounds of bomb and aviation fuel on board just waiting for a spark, any spark.

            Ben Nicks and Stanley Black were hut mates throughout their stay at McCook. They trained together constantly and even though Ben Nicks had been an instructor pilot on the B-24 Liberator, he still learned a bundle of new tricks. The B-29 was equipped with several new technologies. It had a central fire control system that allowed a Master gunner to remote control all twelve machine guns at once if need be; it had a very new technology called a “gyroscope’’ that allowed for much better navigation during the long bombing runs; RADAR that allowed bombing ‘invisible’ targets under the clouds; and a pressurized compartment that allowed much greater comfort while flying.

            Ben and Stan had many things in common. Both were newly married with truly beautiful war brides and beautiful daughters. Both had joined the Army Air Force before Pearl Harbor Day to get their military time behind them only to get caught up for the duration when America declared war. Both men had already taken countless risks but had yet to fly in combat. Now, both men were going to fly their B-29s and their crews from Nebraska to a brand new landing zone almost exactly one half of the way around the world. The Marines, who had been doing more than their fair share of fighting and dying, had just finished taking control of small and rocky chunk of land in the Marina’s chain named Tinian Island. What that did was bring the US Army 20th Air Force that much closer to the Empire. The closer the B-29s got to Japan the closer, and the faster, the war would be over. During the first week of January 1945, Ben and Stan loaded their aircrafts and crews, kicked the tires, lit the fires, and with hair smoking, took off for war.

            Flying first to Herrington Field in Herrington, KS, they made a quick stop to calibrate the magnetic compasses to the correct declinations. Then to Mather Field in California for one overnight stop before departing over the Pacific waters for Hawaii. The stop in Hawaii was just long enough to get some good sleep, good chow, and good aircraft maintenance before they were off again. Their next destination was far over the Pacific to an island by the name of Kwajalein.

            The Battle of Kwajalein Island came after the bloody lessons America had learned at the Battle of Tarawa. This time the US launched a coordinated double assault (Kwajalein and Roi-Namur) to stress the Japanese forces and from 31 January 1944 to 3 February 1944, US Forces combined efforts to bring both Islands under American control. It still was not an easy thing. Wherever the Japanese fought, they fought hard and they died almost to the man. The attack on the island of Roi-Namur left 51 Japanese soldiers alive from a garrison of 3,500. These only meant that those 51 soldiers may have fought with strength and valor, but were unable to bring themselves to die at the time the Japanese Warrior Code required. Throughout the island hopping campaign of WWII, we saw that same scenario repeated repeatedly. The Japanese soldier, and the Japanese civilian, were deeply indoctrinated with the Samurai Bushido code (the ‘way of the warrior’) and would follow that code to their very end. It is a code of honor, respect, and loyalty among many other traits and requires an act of suicide to regain one’s honor should they fail to die in battle. Even Japanese civilian would hurl themselves and their children from the face of a cliff and commit suicide rather than surrender.

These are some of the reasons why the B-29 would one day be used to deliver the only two nuclear weapons ever used in warfare in a successful attempt to end the war without an invasion of the Japanese mainland.

            This kind of fierce warfare is what Ben and Stan first flew into when they arrived on Kwajalein Island. Upon landing on the airfield at Kwajalein, the man all inspected the area. They had never set foot in that part of the land and felt like strangers in a strange land. Historical diaries tell us that not much was said during that inspection of the airfield and command area. It was there that both crews first encountered signs of war. Bullet ridden Japanese aircraft pushed to the side of the runway by bulldozers. A small graveyard for enemy burial. A deep jungle where shots rang out day and night and American patrols still pulling in Japanese POWs from that same jungle. Their two nights on Kwajalein did not provide much sleep.

            On 15 January 1945, the two B-29s first came within sight of Tinian Island. Their diaries describe one end as a ‘large, flat, volcanic rock with runways cut into it.” Tinian is separated by only 5 miles of water from its sister island, Saipan. The Battle of Tinian was not as expensive for the Americans as many of the Island Hoping battles had been. From a force of 10,000 Japanese, we find again that an overwhelming number of them either fought to the death or escaped into the jungle to continue fighting. Eight thousand and ten Japanese were killed and eight hundred and sixty two escaped while only three hundred twenty eight surrendered at the end. The Marines lost three hundred twenty eight killed and one thousand five hundred seventy one wounded from an attacking force of thirty thousand men. Before the end of the war, Tinian had become one of the busiest airports in the world. Fifteen thousand Seabees started arriving even before the battle was over. In fifteen weeks, they had built three runways each 450 to 500 feet wide and 8,500 feet long (had never been done before) and sturdy enough to handle every overloaded B-29 that the command could throw at it. It should be no doubt to anyone anywhere that the Marine capture of Tinian Island with its resulting inhabitants of fifty thousand American and Allied men and women along with hundreds of B-29s, their air crews, maintenance, administration, medical, clergy, cooks, typists, and best dishwashers anywhere made a substantial, if not the single most combined contribution, to end the war in the Pacific and thus WWII.

            Nevertheless, it was only the first week of January 1945 and the war was still far from over. Ben, Stan, and their men still had plenty of flying, fighting, and dying to do. They first settled into tents hastily thrown up by the Seabees and went about their business. Their were many missions types to be flown. The basic mission was the daytime high altitude bombing and added to that was nighttime incendiary raids over Tokyo. The high altitude raids would destroy infrastructure and the incendiary raids were designed to burn the cities to the ground and deny the enemy housing, comfort, and civilian workers for plants. These proved to be very successful strategies but still the Empire of the Sun fought on. In January of 1945 the 20th Army Air Force issued orders that would result in the most dangerous missions yet flown by the B-29 crews. These missions would result in the loss of the very last plane that the 9th Bomb Group would lose in WWII. The 9th Bomb Group was the group that Ben and Stan had been assigned to since the days in Nebraska.

            In late March of 1945, this new mission type began. It was the low altitude night aerial mining of the primary Japanese seaways that were used to bring supplies to Japan. They were designed to deny Japan the use of those water borne supplies. Because the mines had to be precisely dropped into water, missions were low altitude. They began from 12,000 feet but were soon changed to 7,000 feet or 5,000 feet depending on the weather. By this time both Ben Nicks and Stan Black had lost their original aircraft as other crews had flown them and they had either ditched or crashed. In fact, Ben had named their first aircraft Little Iodine, after his first daughter Margaret, and that aircraft had ditched but the crew had survived. They named their second aircraft Little Iodine II, again after his daughter Margaret. That aircraft took off one day for a mission and never came back. To this day, no one knows the fate of Little Iodine II. Ben Nick’s got another aircraft and this time the crew made him change names, this time to “Tinny Anne.” Stan Black’s first B-29 was named Thundering Loretta, but sure enough, she had also been lost while another crew was aboard. Consequently, by this time in the war, most pilots and crews would rotate through other aircraft flying a different one on each mission. Also, not every pilot and crew flew every mission as the number of aircraft required varied. That was the state of affairs as they were 66 years ago on this very date, May 27, 1945.

             The mission for May 27, 1945 was another low altitude-mining mission dropping from about 6,500 feet with each aircraft dropping independently. Both Ben and Stan walked over to the flight operations mission board at the Ops center. There they would learn who was to fly that day and all of the other mission details. They arrived together and looking at the assignment board they first saw that Ben’s aircraft, “Tinny Anne” was scheduled to make the trip that day. However, Ben was not scheduled to be the Aircraft Commander, instead it would be Ben’s best friend in all of the Army Air Force, Aircraft Commander Stanley Black, and crew would fly that day, May 27, 1945.

So it was sixty-six years ago today. Stan Black and crew were on the list to be the last plane out of Tinian at 17:11 that day. The name of the mission was “Starvation 1” and it required one hundred two B-29s and crews. Three crews and aircrafts would be lost that night, 33 men. After action reports tell us that Aircraft Commander Stanley Black was over his target at about 23:30 that night when a riverboat with mounted searchlights and anti-aircraft guns opened fire on the Tinny Anne. Another crew first saw his aircraft illuminated in the searchlight and attempting evasion maneuvers. Those were not so effective in a B-29. The same crew further observed only four muzzle blasts from the riverboat but they must have been well placed. Two of the AA shells exploded only 20 feet from his port wing folding it up like it had a hinge on it. Thus began the fall from 6,200 feet. Fortunately, it only takes a brief time for a B-29 to go down from that altitude as compared to 25,000 feet. Not so fortunately, it leaves much less time for any crewmember to escape. One did, a young man with a big happy smile by the name of Charlie Palmer. Two or three crewmembers from the other aircraft saw Charlie’s parachute open. No other chutes were seen that night. The B-29 burned as it fell thus providing a bright light as air whipped the aviation fuel into an intense and hot burning white light. Were their other chutes, they would have been seen. Other crews in other B-29s were able to follow Aircraft Commander Stanley Black, along with his heroic crew, all the way down to the water. Later they would all comment how bright that fire light was. It went out almost completely as the B-29 hit the water. Nevertheless, some fire still burned on the water’s surface as the other B-29s turned under the night’s moonlight and flew towards home. They were all thinking of home again, and while they would not talk about it, it had come to call that night. I believe some of them were thinking about Stan Black and his brave crew. Eleven* more men lost in one Great War that produced a million heroes and heroines all over this world. War is the ‘ultimate failure of diplomacy’ and, it is truly Hell on Earth.  Those that must prosecute it for us deserve so much better, but, at least let us remember them on this and every Memorial Day.

“The Saviors will not home tonight. Themselves they could not save.” A.E. Houseman.

   The Stan Black Crew with one change that night. See Footnote 4 below. Top row from left to right Nick Balasack, Bob Atlas, Stan Black, Charlie Frank, and Forest Lee. Bottom Row – We are sadly not certain of the correct sequence, but the names are Charles Siddens, Maurice Chrisman, Nikilas Bonack, Joe D. Mann, James Bowers, and Charles Palmer. Anyone who knows the correct sequence please email me at pfforensics1@gmail.com.

*It was later learned that Charlie Palmer was captured upon landing.  The generally accepted date of his death is June 20, 1945. While there was a Japanese General Military order as to the disposal of all POWs before the end of hostilities (kill them all) it is now known that Palmer was executed for another reason. The commander of his camp, the Fukuoka Prison, which is now a girl’s school viewable via Google Earth, went rouge and had his POWs executed because his home town had been firebombed. The Camp Commander was tried and executed after the war. There is also some evidence that Charlie was exposed to medical experiments during his short captivity but that has not been proven. The cause of death was beheading.

Footnotes:

     1.       Aircraft Commander Ben Nicks, as many of you know by now, is the father of my dear wife, Flo Nicks – Adams. As a father–in–law, no one could have asked for better these 30 years.

     2.       Ben is now 92 years old, going on 60, and lives in Shawnee, KS

     3.       If you are reading this on the afternoon of May 27, 2011, or any following May 27th, you may rest assured that Ben is at his church in Shawnee saying a special Rosary for the best friend he ever had in the AAF, Stanley Black.

     4.       A gunner by the name of Joe. D. Mann volunteered to take Norman Diegler’s place on the mission that night as he “liked Lt. Black”. The offer was accepted and thus Joe Mann was on board and regular crew member Norman Diegler was not. Norman is alive and retired in Tennessee.

     5.       Stan was married and had a three-year-old daughter when he passed on. In accordance with Stan’s specific written wishes, his wife later remarried, but she never forgot Stan. He lives in her memory and in his three-year-old daughter’s now full grown heart.

     6.       For the duration of the war, Ben and his crew never named another aircraft.

     7.       I wish to thank Ben Nicks, Howard Mumm, and the Group Historian Rick Feldman for their assistance and support.

Thank all of you for reading this! Mike Adams, Hutto, TX  – please write with questions or comments – pfforensics1@gmail.com
On a personal note I would like to say that the USA is still producing Military Heroes and Heroines every day, right up to today. Let’s remember  all of our men and women in all of our wars.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: