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Posted: November 20, 2012 11:44 a.m.

Part 1: Oglesby and B-29 Superfortress bombers

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Former prisoner of war Oglesby (front, second from left with glasses) at Calcutta Hospital.

Unusually tall, handsome and impeccably dressed with a perfect command of the English language, the Japanese officer attempted to hoodwink the captured B-29 crew saying, "I am also an American. I was in Japan visiting my parents when war broke out, so I was pressed into service with the Japanese. I am with you 100 percent. I am a graduate of UCLA and I will take care of you. I will have breakfast served to you." The American flyboys chowed down on scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits. An uncommon feast for American POWs, but they ate it with gusto, fully aware they could be eating their last meal.

Born in Williamsburg, Va., in 1922, Nicholas "Nick" Oglesby spent most of his youth on a 500-acre farm in Charlottesville. His father taught mathematics at New York University before accepting a position at the University of Virginia, plus received addition money teaching math once a week at the Prudential Insurance Company.

After high school, Oglesby attended Randolph Macon College near Richmond. "It was great," he said. "But my grades were lousy. I went home, worked the farm a bit. Then my dad got me a job in the physics lab at the university. I learned to be a technician. I had excellent instructors. They spun these things called centrifuges at speeds up to 20,000 revolutions per second." After the war, Oglesby received a letter from the University of Virginia to recognize his hard work in developing the first atomic bomb. "That was news to me," Oglesby said.

Nineteen-year-old Oglesby heard on his car radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. "I wondered why they would attack a lady," he said. "I had no idea who or what Pearl Harbor was."

Oglesby quickly learned the ‘lady’ called Pearl meant war. He said, "I wanted to be a pilot, but I’d worn glasses since my fifth birthday, so pilot training wasn’t really an option." He was tested and retested by the Army Air Corps. "I made a score of 98 on instruments and ordnance," Oglesby said. "I had a choice of five bases, so I picked Duncan Field in San Antonio where my dad had served in World War I." It was not to be. Upon arriving at Duncan Field, Oglesby was told the "number" on his forms indicated he was a machine gun turret operator. He was sent without further ado to Lowry AFB in Denver, Colo., for a 16-week training course.

Oglesby said, "We trained on the new remote control gun system for the P-61 Black Widow but that was canceled in two weeks. We were told our plane would be the B-29 Superfortress. We had no idea what the heck that was." Sent to the 58th bomb wing in Marietta, Oglesby saw a B-29 for the first time. He said, "A B-25 pilot was there for training, too. He took one look at the big bomber and said, ‘That’s a damn lie; that thing will never get off the ground.’ I agreed with him."

After further training, Oglesby was sent to Pratt, Kan., to join a squadron and crew: 45th squadron, 40th group, 58th bomb wing, 20th Air Force; Capt. Robert Shanks the pilot. "We flew all over the country," Oglesby said. "Wherever we landed, base personnel were in awe of the B-29 and wanted a tour of the bomber. They never got past the armed guards."

March, 1944 –

 

Oglesby said, "We were ready for deployment. The B-29s were sent ahead of us with other crews, so we took a train to Virginia and boarded the Newton D. Baker and took the slow boat to China; well, to Casablanca, in reality. From Casablanca, Air Transportation Command flew us across Africa to Chakulia, India. We landed at midnight in suffocating heat. The first thing we heard was Tokyo Rose on the radio welcoming Captain Shanks and his crew to India. She knew all our names. Sort of spooky when you think about it."

Sent into combat, Oglesby’s Superfortress bombed targets in Japan, Manchuria and Japanese-controlled cities in China like Shanghai. "We flew at 30,000 feet, but from that altitude, our accuracy suffered," he said. "The Japanese fighter aircraft routinely intercepted our formations and you may not believe this, but the first time I ever fired a gun in the military was against a Jap airplane."

As the gun commander, Oglesby sat in a Plexiglass bubble at the top of the aircraft with a 360 degree view. He said, "Gun turrets were positioned in front and back of me. The tail gunner had a 20mm cannon plus two .50 machine guns." Via the computer, Oglesby commanded different gun positions. He said, "The bombardier was a front gunner; two guys sat below me on the left and right sitting backwards. Our gun sights had a series of dots in circles that measured the width of a fighter’s wings. From the sights, the computer could calculate how close the fighter was, calculate his speed and direction and our speed and direction then fire to where the Jap plane was projected to be in a split second. In simpler terms, our bullets were waiting for him."

One very important target was the Japanese single-track railroad system through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. The train system was made famous in the celebrated movie, "Bridge over the River Kwai," which won seven academy awards in 1957, including best picture. Oglesby said, "It was imperative we destroy that bridge."

 

Dec. 14, 1944 –

 

Eleven of the giant B-29s are stacked up vertically at 30,000 feet down to about 24,000 feet for a better likelihood of hitting the bridge, but the objective was overcast for the second time in as many days. The secondary objective Rangoon, was targeted. It, too, was obscured by thick cloud cover. The B-29s were forced to jettison their bomb loads.

Oglesby said, "We were stacked high and could see the bomb bay of the B-29 above us. We had 500 and 1000 pound bombs. The bombs didn’t arm until dropped and were fairly safe until they did arm. I had seen trucks loaded with bombs just back up real fast and slam on their brakes and the bombs would tumble out like a sack load of potatoes. However, when dropped from a plane little propellers on the bomb would spin, arming the weapon."

On that day something went horribly wrong. Oglesby said, "One of the bombs exploded in midair. Of the 11 bombers, two went down over Rangoon and only one made it back to base. One B-29 flew for 100 miles before it blew up in midair. We managed to get about 70 miles away but had lost 20,000 feet in 20 minutes. We were going down. Captain Shanks yelled over the intercom, ‘HIT THE SILK!’ We were at 6,000 feet over enemy held territory."

The entire crew jumped into Japanese captivity, but back home, the truth fell victim to wartime propaganda.

One day after the bombing mission, the New York Times headlined, "Big strike on railroad marshaling yards in Rangoon by B-29 bombers cause devastating results. No B-29s were lost."

 

To be continued.

 

Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. Contact Pete at aveteransstory@gmail.com. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.

 

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