In the spring of 1937, Hitler delivered a speech on revolution and German life, the Japanese readied themselves for the slaughter of tens of thousands in Nanking, and Scott Downing graduated from high school in the sleepy West Texas town of Canyon. He then took a job with Boeing in Seattle, Washington, and had no idea that he was only eight years away from being shot down in one of Boeing’s bombers and held as a POW by fascist Japan, Hitler’s strongest ally. Nor could he know that his first bombing mission, carried out in February 1945, would be a near-death experience and a harbinger of things to come.
In September 1942, Downing enlisted in the Air Corps cadet program and was sent to Fort Hays, Kansas, for basic training. He made bombardier, went to Houston preflight school, Harlingen Ariel Gunnery School, and then to Big Spring, Texas for advanced bombardier training. Downing graduated from Ariel Gunnery School a 2nd Lieutenant, and headed to Harvard, Nebraska, where he joined the rest of his B-29 crew. He was in Harvard just six months before he and his crew were transferred to Tinian, located about two miles from Saipan, 90 miles from Guam, and 1,500 miles from Tokyo. Downing and his crew kept these perimeters in mind, knowing that on any given flight back from a bombing mission over Japan they might need to make an emergency landing in Saipan or Guam.
Downing’s first mission was a high-altitude bombing raid on an aircraft plant 70 miles northwest of Tokyo. He and his crew took off from Tinian in the pre-dawn dark on Feb. 10, 1945. They met up with bombers from other bases, and made formation in the air above the southern coast of Japan by the early afternoon. They began to close in on the target about 3 p.m.
The bombing mission had been flawless until their final approach to the target when fate, like the wind, changed course. They encountered strong headwinds and Japanese fighters. “I could see the formation in front of us, and we were about half way to the target,” said Downing. “Two B-29s ran together, they were in a spin when we flew right over them.”
When Downing and his crew reached the aircraft plant, the formation released their bombs, many of which missed the target, then retraced the route along the Japanese coast before flying back to their various bases. For Downing and his crew, the return to their base would require a flight of approximately 1,400 miles.
Once Downing and his crew got out over the water they became somewhat disoriented and lost their way. They were not alone: “We listened to radio transmissions between the base and other planes,” said Downing. “We figured out we weren’t the only plane that was lost.” One of the other planes crashed only 75 miles from base when it struck an island.
Downing and his crew were unable make radio contact, and cloud cover was too thick to see their base. Hoping that flying at a lower altitude would enable them to spot the lights of the base, they dropped below the clouds, flying at an altitude of only 400 feet. Suddenly, they hit a downdraft that pushed the plane toward the water. Said Downing: “Our altimeter was spinning — I sat in the nose of the plane— I yelled at the pilot to pull up, and he did, but we still hit the water.”
The B-29 survived its encounter with the wave, but it kept vibrating and shaking. “We had been flying 16 hours, we were still lost, and now, on top of that, our plane was damaged,” said Downing.
Shortly after hitting the water, Downing’s pilot finally made radio contact with Saipan. The radio operator told the pilot what direction to fly to reach the base. “We had taken off with 7,400 gallons of fuel; we landed with under 200,” said Downing. “We literally didn’t have enough to go around and try again if we had missed the base on the first approach.”
Once Downing’s plane landed and rolled to a stop, the control tower radioed down and asked what went wrong because they had never heard a plane make such noises. After inspecting the B-29, they discovered the source of the noise. “We realized that when we hit the water we had bent a prop back about a foot,” said Downing. The rear of the plane had quite a bit of damage as well, with a hole about five feet in diameter in the fuselage near the tail-gunner and a tail assembly that was so badly damaged that the entire assembly had to be replaced. (As bombardier, Downing’s seat in the plane was only feet from the propeller blade that was mangled, which meant he had been only feet from taking the brunt of the wave himself.)
By the time Downing flew on what would be his last mission, Army Air Corps’ bombing formations had changed significantly, thanks to General Curtis LeMay. The goal of the high-altitude raids, like the one in which Downing had taken part, had been precision bombing. But the targets were often missed because bombs dropped from 30,000 feet passed through various updrafts, downdrafts and jet streams during their fall, which altered their trajectory and caused bombs, no matter how accurately aimed, to drift off course.
LeMay changed the bombing raids so that they were conducted at night instead of day, were done at low altitude – 6,000 feet instead of 30,000, and carried out by massive formations of approximately 300 bombers on any given raid.
These changes in bombing techniques represented more than a simple tweaking of World War II bombing tactics, they were a complete shift in American bombing philosophy. Yet, since these changes did not make the flight crews immune to enemy fire or the Kamikaze tactics, B-29 crews remained at great risk. And this meant a significant number of Americans were forced to bail out and parachute into enemy hands.
As a matter of fact, Downing was thinking about how many Air-Corpsmen had been captured by the Japanese when the bomb bay doors on his B-29 opened during his final mission over Tokyo on the night of May 25, 1945. Once Downing and his crew dropped their ordnance, they turned their aircraft northeast and headed toward the base. It was then that they noticed one of their bomb bay doors was jammed open. “It was while we were trying to get that damn thing shut that we were hit,” said Downing. “The number three engine was on fire and burning.”
Although the crew began bailing out, Downing and three others waited until the last minute to jump because the fires set by the bombing raid made the night sky as bright as the day. When Downing finally bailed, he did so conscious of the fact that his plane had been hit at approximately 10,000 feet, and he decided to freefall to 5,000 feet before pulling his ripcord. During his free fall, the plane exploded, killing the three crewmembers that had yet to jump.
Downing landed about 15 miles outside of Tokyo and was captured by Japanese farmers. He was taken to a POW prison near the Japanese Western Army Headquarters. The “prison” was nothing more than a horse barn that had been converted into a jail to house the POWs. The six stables in the barn had been turned into six cells, each of which measured less than eight by twelve feet.
Nineteen POWs were assigned to Downing’s cell, which did not contain any chairs or beds. The only way that they could all lie down was to lie on their sides. Even then things were so tight that if one of the prisoners needed to turn over he had to stand up, turn in place and lie back down. They were denied baths, a change of clothes, and the opportunity to shave throughout their captivity. Talking was strictly forbidden among the POWs and punishment for doing so was swift and harsh.
Downing and his cellmates had no secrets: “In one corner of the cell there was a four by four concrete slab, raised up about four inches above floor level, and there was a round hole in it with a wooden lid on it, it was on an outside wall, and there was a wooden bucket sitting in it that caught the waste.” The four by four slab also constituted part of the area on which the POWs slept at night, with one prisoner lying right on top of the hole each evening.
For roughly three months, Downing subsisted on a baseball-sized ball of rice each day, and his weight fell from 165 to 120 pounds. These months were marked by a horrible monotony of fear and homesickness, occasionally interrupted by guard-administered beatings that were given to keep the Americans in their place.
The monotony was also was also broken by things nearly too inhumane for Downing to recount. For example, two men who shared the cell with Downing were badly burned. One of these men actually died in the cell as Downing and the other POWs listened to him gasp for one last breath, and less than a week later they watched as the second man was escorted outside, never again to return. Downing believed approximately twenty-two men passed away in that prison, half of which were poisoned with potassium cyanide and half of which were badly injured men who were left alone to die in agony.
But everything changed once the atomic bombs were used against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So much so that on Aug. 15, 1945, just six days after the second atomic bomb had been dropped, Downing and his fellow prisoners were moved to a five acre man-made island between Tokyo and Yokohama called Omori: this move was part of an agreement between the United States and Japan in anticipation of the end of the war.
On Omori the prisoners had more freedom and could talk, bathe and exercise. Downing spent two weeks there before being officially liberated on Aug. 29th aboard the hospital ship Netherlands.
He remembered the afternoon of the 29th quite clearly:
We were watching the water: we knew Omori was only a temporary stop. Then we saw American ships pulling in and anchoring at about 3 o’clock on the 29th. We saw a minesweeper, we saw a cruiser and we saw a hospital ship. It wasn’t more than an hour after[ward] they anchored [and] they were in there after us. They emptied that camp by dark; emptied it of five hundred people (there were more than just Americans there. There were some British, some Australians, and maybe some Dutch out there). There were about 155 of us B-29 fliers.
Although Downing was finally headed home, he carried with him the agony he had seen and endured during the preceding months. He had watched helplessly as fellow airmen were stripped of all but the shadow of their humanity. He witnessed brutal and bloody beatings, guard-escorted walks into a never-ending night and strained to hear the sound of moving air as injured cellmates fought for one last breath.
Yet even now, Downing refuses to be praised or called a “hero” for what he suffered on behalf of his country. An old man by any measure, he sits in his recliner nearly 70 years after his liberation and says: “I was only doing my duty. And I’d do it all again if called upon to do so.”
This is the price of freedom.