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World War II gunner reflects on perilous missions

PLANT CITY

Evan Richard "E.R." James vividly recalls the anxiety he felt each time his B-29 began a bombing run. It started in the pit of his stomach, as the plane descended to about 5,000 feet from a cruising height of 30,000 feet. The descent enabled the bombardier to zero in on targets, but it brought the plane perilously close to antiaircraft guns. As the bomber broke through the clouds, flak and puffs of smoke would come into view, jostling the aircraft as it approached its target. Several times, flak burst through the fuselage and wings, scaring the hell out of James and the crew. "Up there, you're pretty safe. It's when you make your descent, that's when you could get into trouble," he recalled.

James, now 87, and the other 10 crew members survived their bombing raids over mainland Japan and the scores of enemy airstrips and harbors that dotted the western Pacific.

"A few times we were attacked. We had some pretty good plane damage, but no Purple Hearts," he said.

As Veterans Day approaches, he is once again reminded of his service.

His church, First Presbyterian in downtown Plant City, will hold a special ceremony Sunday to honor members who served in the military. Of the 25 who will be brought to the front of the church, about 10 are World War II veterans.

Church volunteer Helen Howard, herself an Air Force vet, said the group will receive boutonnieres and individual recognition by stating their name, branch of service, years of service and rank. A reception will be held afterward.

"This year, since Veterans Day is on a Sunday, we thought we would take this opportunity to rally behind our troops in a special way — World War II, Vietnam veterans, even the Gulf War," Howard said. "We have a lot of pride in their service and we wanted to show them how proud we are of them."

James, a retired steel plant manager who moved to Plant City 12 years ago from Niagara Falls, N.Y., is low-key when asked about those 12 months on Iwo Jima and Saipan.

He had just finished high school in Niagara Falls when he joined the Army Air Corps. Roman "Bud" Figler, a friend and neighbor from across the street, enlisted two years earlier and had trained to become a pilot. James thought he'd do the same.

He was shipped off to boot camp at the Jefferson Barracks Military Post just south of St. Louis a week before his graduation ceremony.

After a year of training at Fort Myer in Virginia, Clovis, N.M., and Denver, among other places, he was shipped out to Hawaii to catch a flight to Saipan as part of the 873rd bomber squadron.

He never made it to flight training school. It turned out the Air Corps had enough pilots by the time James finished boot camp, so he was sent to learn to be gunner.

The change disappointed him, but he has long since made peace with it. Recalling the story nevertheless provokes a memory of a poem popular with other aspiring pilots at the time:

They promised us wings of silver

And they promised us bars of gold

To make us aerial gunners

To die at 19 years old

E.R. James finally arrived on Saipan in 1944 at the height of the war in the Pacific.

More than 1,000 men were stationed on the mountainous island, the largest of 15 islands belonging to the Mariana Archipelago in the western Pacific.

Thankfully, his crew included an experienced pilot, co-pilot and bombardier. James' gunner station was at the plane's midpoint under a plastic dome that poked out from the fuselage. From his vantage point, he could scan for enemy fighters and direct guns affixed at different points along the plane.

"We were more experienced than the average crew," he said. "We would get a lot of missions to find these spots nobody else could find, these little specks out there, and destroy their docks or airfield or communications."

He went on 15 missions over the next year, bombing encampments on wisps of sand and coral. A handful of raids took him over mainland Japan, where the plane dropped incendiary bombs and encountered the most flak.

Even if spared a direct hit, the puffs of smoke and concussion from explosions were enough to violently shake the aircraft. Some of the planes collided with each other and then plummeted.

James remembers firing several times at enemy planes, but can't say for sure whether he shot any down.

"I don't have any proof of definite kills," he said.

He does remember his first mission, or at least the trepidation he felt as the plane took off.

"I just remember I was scared. I'm sure everybody was scared, but nobody ever said anything," James said. "We were from a generation where you just did what you were told to do."

That anxiety would recede as his experience grew, but it never left him entirely. He learned to cope by telling himself he had made it back the last time and would probably do so again.

After nine months on Saipan, the crew was transferred to Iwo Jima, where they remained until after VJ Day on Aug. 15, 1945. James recalls the exhilaration — made blurry through "jungle juice," of course — of surviving the war.

A couple of months later, he was flying to Hawaii and then home. He recalls looking down at the sea and watching a "highway" of troopships steaming eastward and realizing he would be home before them.

He returned to Niagara Falls, where he met the woman who would become his wife of 60 years, Wynona.

They had two boys and a girl. James worked at a steel plant for 30 years, retiring in 1980. The couple now live in the Walden Lake community. James like to spends his days playing golf.

"When we left it was December and with luck we would make it home by Christmas, and we did make it home in time," he said. "We had made it. We had survived."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

World War II gunner reflects on perilous missions 11/08/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 3:22pm]
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