LIFE ON TINIAN ISLAND
Rare text content from a B-29 Commander (scroll down) + original Photos of Tinian Island in the Marianas, the launching point for the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Original photos from Bill Webster and the granddaughter of Airplane Commander Roscoe G. Booth. While there were few women on Tinian, there were nurses. The nurses in the hospital in these photos were with two men from Booths crew being presented with Purple Hearts, (Malzahn & Peebles). These were among the first Purple Hearts for the 6th Bomb Group men who were wounded on a March 27th mission over Shimonoseki Straights – the first mining mission for B-29’s of the Pacific War. The Plane “Trigger Mortis” was destroyed, and two 6th Bomb Group crews were lost that night.
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Life on Tinian: B-29 Crews 1945
Ed Vincent, B-29 Aircraft Commander
Tinian Island 1945 ©Ed Vincent 2021
The devastating WWII bombing campaign over Japan in 1945 was fought from the relative safety of the massive, newly constructed American air bases located 1500 miles away in the Marianas Islands. This distance of isolation was made possible by the game-changing long range bombing capability of the new Boeing B-29 Bomber.
Some 800 B-29s in 21 US Army Air Force Bomb Groups were deployed to ten air strips distributed on three Marianas islands (Tinian, Saipan, Guam), collectively allowing us to get as many as 600 B-29s in the air to Japan per hour. The Bomb Groups were deployed to the Marianas during the early construction period of the bases and contributed manpower to their completion with the Navy SeaBees. The 6th Bomb Group was assigned to North Field on the Island of Tinian, what would become the largest and busiest airport in the world. Life for USAAF crews on Tinian was not only about the bombing missions and living conditions but also the construction of their air bases.
6th Bomb Group B-29s and crews first landed on Tinian Island in December 1944, just four months after the Marianas Islands had been captured from Japan by divisions of the U.S. Army and Marines. The Navy SeaBees had built a single usable 8500 foot runway on North Field made of crushed coral for B-29 arrivals. North Field would become home to five bomb groups, including the top secret 509th atomic bomb group. We had flown 8000 miles to Tinian from our crew training base in Grand Island, NE, making stops in San Francisco, Hawaii and Kwajalein, an island strategically captured earlier in the year for B-29 operations. My plane lost two engines mid-Pacific in route to Hawaii prompting a “May Day” call. Fortunately, a mistaken fuel transfer was discovered after the first engine failure and we reached Hawaii safely on three engines, where the one engine was replaced. On our approach to Tinian, Tokyo Rose “welcomed” us to Tinian naming both the 6th Bomb Group and its Commander, Col. Gibson. We were listening to American music on a Japanese radio broadcast at the time. Obviously, the secrecy of our deployment was no secret.
TENTS, CRACKER JACKS AND EARLY BASE CONSTRUCTION
Accommodations when we landed were tents with dirt floors and cots for sleeping located a couple of miles from the airstrip. There were no structures yet built for 6th Bomb Group operations. Our toilet facility was simply a hole in the ground dug by the SeaBees. We ate K Rations for the first few weeks on the island, a Cracker Jacks-sized box containing dry food like cookies and crackers. This was later upgraded to C Rations which also included a can of Spam. There were no tables or chairs. We were supplied an elevated tank of water with a spigot available for drinking and bathing. Showers were taken “buck naked” to the world.
During the initial two months, our B-29 operations were limited to a couple of short “training” missions to the Japanese-held Truk Islands to attack airfields responsible for early air attacks on Tinian. The Navy SeaBees were still completing the four parallel runways that would be used for coordinated B-29 strikes on the Japanese homeland from North Field. The airfield would not be fully completed until May. The SeaBees had built the Tinian harbor and seven mile harbor-to-air field coral road that would later become a paved four-lane divided highway to continuously supply the massive B-29 assault. The air crews volunteered to help facility construction projects with the SeaBees creating the small town infrastructure of buildings for the 6th Bomb Group Area. This included a church, post office, officer and enlisted men clubs, outdoor movie theatre, mess halls, outdoor recreation grounds and operations buildings built over several months. Ground crews constructed waiting and maintenance quarters, wooden shacks, at their B-29 hardstands along the runway. There was no shortage of manpower and not surprisingly the crews had good construction skills. The 6th had some 675 aircraft-assigned servicemen alone, average age 22. Similar construction was undertaken for each of the bomb groups at different locations surrounding North Field to complete our air base.
14-15 HOUR MISSIONS
The first 6th Bomb Group missions over Japan started mid-February 1945 prior to the completion of the airfield. My first mission was bombing the Nakajima Aircraft factory in Tokyo March 4, a high altitude daylight mission. From this point, 6th Bomb Group crews flew regular bombing missions over Japan through the end of the war, typically 6-7 missions per month (March – June) for each crew, each mission being 14-15 hours non-stop, roughly 20 hours “sack to sack”. I flew a total of 32 missions over Japan in a six month period. One week I flew three missions. Ground crews met each returning B-29 and occasionally worked around the clock repairing damage or malfunctions in preparation for its next mission. The flight and ground crews were each responsible for their B-29. Some weeks were very tiring and stressful. I lost 30 lbs in 3 months. Between missions air crews continued to assist construction of the 6th Bomb Group Area and were often directed to attended classes on a variety of topics related to Japanese culture, geography and targets of general importance to the war effort.
LIFE AFTER BASE COMPLETION
By about May 1945, the SeaBees had completed construction of the crew Quonset huts that would replace our tents. These were welcomed by all: more room, wooden floors, electric power, room lights and front deck. Many men borrowed tools to make chairs, desks and raised flower beds from scrap wooden shipping crates.
Seems like everything shipped to Tinian came in a wooden crate, so scrap wood was readily available. Most crews spruced up their Quonsets with entryway flower beds. I built a complete desk with drawers and chair using a hand saw and a few hand tools that the USAAF made available. 6th Bomb Group members built a creative clothes “washing machine” consisting of a wooden wash tub and windmill activated reciprocating plunger that was used by many crew. We didn’t have many changes of clothes so the washer was a nice addition. By this time we were also given the luxury of shared bathroom facilities with toilets and a shower room.
The most popular of the new buildings were the officers and enlisted men’s mess halls. They allowed us to give up C rations for real cooked food. It wasn’t home cookin’ but included lots of spaghetti and meat balls, hash and like items having ingredients that could be transported great distances from the home front. Independent of our mission schedules, the mess halls seemed to be open whenever a meal was needed. Small meals, like sandwiches, were also prepared and included onboard for each mission.
As was military protocol, officers and enlisted men were assigned different accommodations in different areas of the camp throughout our deployment. While our aircraft crew worked tirelessly together as a team of brothers during missions, the flight deck officers were separated from the gunners and ground crew on base, both physically and socially. Our officer Quonsets housed crewman from two aircraft, about 10 servicemen. Most of our social hours on Tinian were formed around that bond. There was no interaction with the crews from other bomb groups, except for baseball. Each bomb group had a baseball team that played other bomb group teams from North Field.
Air crew life on Tinian was virtually void of women. In 1945, women were prohibited from combat in any capacity. There were nurses on the island, but we rarely, if ever, saw them unless needing medical services. They worked in the Army 374th Hospital in 12 hour shifts, seven days per week and lived within an isolated, heavily guarded, fenced-in area of Quonsets. The nurses were escorted to and from the hospital and could not leave their quarters during free time unless they were part of a supervised group activity. One of the nicer beaches was reserved for exclusive use by the nurses.
Local families interned at Tinian’s Camp Churo were hired by the US Army Air Corp. to do day-to-day base tasks like sidewalk sweeping, laundry and food preparation. These were Japanese and Korean civilians that were allowed to work within the 6th Bomb Group living area under supervision. There was no ill-will expressed from either side. To our surprise, some locals committed suicide jumping off an ocean cliff believing Americans were ruthless murderers from descriptions given to them by their prior Japanese military occupiers. To the contrary, the U.S. military treated the locals very well, allowing them to work their farms and create new businesses.
With the exception of the war, Tinian was a very pleasant place to live. Being on the same latitude as Hawaii, its weather was very similar: about 80F year around, with occasional rain lasting only a couple of hours. Enforcement of military dress code was abandoned most of the time. Our crews commonly wore shorts without shirt. The island had beautiful beaches that we visited occasionally in free time and when we could borrow a jeep to get there. After February 1945, Tinian was free of Japanese attacks. Our location 1500 miles from Japan and clearing of Japanese airfields at Truk and Iwo Jima kept us clear of their offensive capability. Our B-29 crews lived on Tinian in relative safety except during missions, which were quite dangerous.
Most of the time between missions was well earned discretionary time. We caught up on sleep, read, wrote letters home, played horseshoes, threw football, played baseball or a pick-up basketball game, played cards, swam at the beach or went to the club for a beer with fellow crewmen. Letters from home were always appreciated, most taking about 10 days in transit. Movies were offered occasionally at the movie theater and on rare occasion we had entertainers visit from home. Poker was a favorite pastime. Large scale poker was played at the Officer’s Club each month starting directly after pay day. All the tables were full at the beginning resolving to a single table at the end. My navigator invariably held a spot at the final table. He was an excellent poker player and routinely sent a lot of money home from other crewmen’s pay checks.
The 6th Bomb Group had its own doctor and dentist. I had all four wisdom teeth removed by the dentist. He was initially set up in a tent. We had no barbers or barber shop. Crew members had to find a fellow crew member to cut their hair. One of the fellas was pretty good and many of us sought him out when needing a cut.
Our Catholic chaplain conducted Christian church services every Sunday morning. While the services were rarely full, I believe most of the 6th Bomb Group servicemen considered themselves believers and that likely helped them cope with the dangers encountered on our missions. The chaplain prayed for each crew with their Aircraft Commander at their B-29 hardstand prior to each mission.
In late August, my entire flight crew received a week’s “rest leave” in Kauai. We flew to Lihue and were greeted by our gracious hosts, the Alexanders, who managed a pineapple plantation. Their plantation house included tennis courts and a pool. We were served breakfast in bed every morning by a tall, good looking blonde and a good looking brunette, something we hadn’t seen for nine months. During the week we played golf, tennis, swam and were given tours by our wonderful hosts all around the island, including Waimea Canyon. Our meals were tailor-made for each guest and included fresh pineapple. We learned upon our return to Tinian that our “neighboring” air crew had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Within a year of the taking of the Marianas Islands from Japan, the war was over, won from the air by B-29 bombers operating from those islands. An unparalleled, monumental effort in both the home front and Marianas, as well as military victories throughout the Pacific, was required to make that happen. B-29s were mass produced at lightning speed, as many as 10 per day at the height of the air campaign. The Navy SeaBees with help from the USAAF created four Marianas airbases, including 21 bomb group operational areas, within the span of a few months sufficient to begin the bombing campaign. A massive supply chain was created with trans-Pacific maritime logistics to supply over 800 B-29 crews and aircraft for their collective thousands of long range bombing missions over Japan, each aircraft consuming 25 tons per mission in munitions and fuel alone.