History’s spotlight usually misses the mechanics.
Sure, there are reels of footage and stacks of photos of B-29 Superfortresses rumbling in formation across the Pacific sky, bombs dropping, fire and smoke rising in their wake. Books have been written and movies made about the heroic men who flew them into battle, who took the war to Japan.
But each of those bombers had four big engines, 2,200 horsepower and 18 cylinders apiece. And without somebody to take care of those engines, to plug the leaks, fix problems and replace parts, those B-29s weren’t going to Japan. Those somebodies were mechanics. And one of them was Howard Williams.
His pal Forrest Kramer called me the other day and asked whether I’d be interested in talking to Williams, 90, who lives at Keystone Cedars assisted living in Cedar Rapids. Of course, I said. In the back of my mind is the daunting reality that opportunities to hear about World War II from eye witnesses are disappearing daily.
Williams grew up in tiny Bassett, Neb. In March 1943, he was drafted into the Army and eventually sent to Amarillo, Texas, for the Army Air Corps’ aircraft school. He was destined to be a gunner on a B-17 over Europe, among the most dangerous jobs of the war. But there’s destiny, and then there’s paperwork.
There were four Howard Williamses in Amarillo. One of them was 6-foot-6. The Army thought Bassett’s Howard Williams was 6-6. But he was only a 6-footer.
“I got called out about 4 o’clock in the morning,” Williams said of the day he expected to be sent to gunnery training. “And they called everybody’s name but mine. And I said to the sergeant, ‘Say, you didn’t call my name.’ And he says ‘I know it. You’re disqualified for height.’
“I said, ‘I’m not.’ And he said, ‘Well, don’t argue with me,’ ’’ Williams recalls.
“If I hadn’t washed out of that B-17, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m sure of that,” Williams said.
Williams’ altered path led to Seattle, where he was trained on the ins and outs of a new weapon, the B-29 bomber. He also was sent to Kansas to learn how to fix them.
It wasn’t long before he was in Los Angeles, boarding a ship. “They wouldn’t tell us where we’re going,” he said. The secret destination was Saipan in the Northern Marianas Islands.
Saipan is about 1,400 miles from Japan, within the range of B-29 bombers. Getting those planes and crews and mechanics to Saipan would mean finally bringing the war to mainland Japan through a sustained bombing campaign for the first time. Williams and the Army Air Corps had an immensely important job to do.
And that’s why U.S. Marines paid such a high price to take Saipan from its Japanese defenders, with more than 3,000 Americans dead and 13,000 wounded. On July 6, 1944, Marines faced an infamous, desperate “Banzai charge” by 4,000 remaining, pinned-down Japanese soldiers intent on fighting to the death. The attack failed, and July 9, Marines raised the American flag over the island.
Williams, whose ship circled a nearby island while Marines captured Saipan, climbed into a landing craft and sailed for the island. Crews were building multiple 1.25-mile long runways for the B-29s.
Marines made way for the bombers. Now, it was Williams’ job to keep them flying.
Williams at first worked on multiple planes with the 498th, 499th and 500th bomb groups, all under the command of the 73rd Bomb Wing. As more planes arrived, he was part of a four-man mechanics crew that focused on a single aircraft. That meant getting to know the flight crews, some of which didn’t come back.
He remembers working on one plane in particular, dubbed “Leading Lady.”
“The Leading Lady got shot down on about the fourth mission,” Williams said. They were told little about the fate of missing planes. “All you knew was that they weren’t back.”
It turns out that the Leading Lady was shot down on a bombing mission over Nagoya, Japan. Only its tail gunner survived and he was a POW until the end of the war.
Bases on Saipan were strafed by Japanese aircraft several times, Williams said.
“One time I was eating dinner and they came in and strafed us,” Williams said. “I was sitting in the cafeteria. When they went over and started shooting, I jumped under the table.
“I made my way to the front end of the Quonset hut. I got into the kitchen and got under the tin sink. God, I thought that was a good place. I looked out and saw the foreman running around the kitchen with a big kettle over his head.”
He also remembers listening to “Tokyo Rose.”
“She’d come on and say ‘Tell them boys on Saipan, they’d better go home to their sweethearts and mothers because they’re not gonna last,’ ” Williams said.
But they did last. According to a 1946 history of the 73rd Wing, bombers taking off from Saipan and nearby Tinian Island dropped more than 48,000 bombs on Japan. The wing lost 182 aircraft, more than 1,000 were damaged, 69 personnel were killed and 964 were missing. Bombers flew more than 155,000 hours, 88 percent of that time in combat, thanks in no small part to the mechanics.
As the war ended in September 1945, Saipan B-29s began dropping a different kind of payload: 55-gallon drums of food, clothes and cigarettes for allied soldiers in POW camps as far north as Manchuria.
For Williams, the war ended with his discharge in Denver just before New Year’s 1946. He got back to Bassett and, understandably, “messed around” for a few months. He returned to his prewar job with the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, a career that would take him to Cedar Rapids in 1964.
“I’ve had a full life. I’m very pleased and thankful for it,” Williams said.
A few years ago, Williams and his family visited the Strategic Air Command Museum. SAC had just received a B-29, but it was being refurbished and was closed to the public.
“Fortunately, I talked the guy into
letting us go into the maintenance shop,” Williams’ son Mike said. “And we got up in there and underneath the bomb bay doors. It was pretty interesting. He knew every inch of that plane. Everything about that plane.
“My son was there. He was about 15 then and he was asking questions. (Dad) led him around that plane. It was really pretty neat. You could see him getting emotional.”
So, for that moment, the spotlight shone on the old mechanic.
“It was a beautiful airplane,” Williams said.