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Posted: November 27, 2012 9:17 p.m.

Part 2: Prisoner of war Oglesby makes it home

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World War II veteran Nick Oglesby was a B-29 remote control gun commander and former prisoner of war.

This is the second part in a two-part series profiling World War II veteran Nicholas Oglesby who flew a B-29 Superfortress which bombed targets in Japan, Manchuria and Japanese-controlled cities in China. The first part of this story can be found here.

Something went horribly wrong on Dec. 14, 1944. 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." The pilot of the Superfortress, Capt. Robert Shanks, realized he had lost his effort to keep the crippled B-29 airborne. Losing altitude and already below 6,000 feet, he ordered his crew to "Hit the silk" over Japanese-held Burmese territory. Nicholas "Nick" Oglesby, the remote control gun commander, decided to free-fall as long as possible, fully aware the Japanese had a tendency to fire at hapless allied airmen parachuting to earth.

Oglesby said, "I fell until I saw a hut, then pulled the ripcord. I landed near a Burmese gentleman who was just as startled as I was. I gave him my chute as a peace offering." Two other crew members showed up. The three flyboys were led to a village, given food and water, before a woman from another village who spoke English came to speak with them.

Oglesby said, "She said Japanese troops were en route to the village. They knew where we were. She begged us to surrender or the Japanese would kill the men in the village. We didn't even know where we were, much less thought we had a chance to survive in the jungle, so we decided to surrender."

The Japanese arrived at midnight, roughed up the flyboys a bit, then hustled them into a small boat for a river crossing. Incredibly, the entire crew was reunited for a 10 day journey via river launch, sampan, car, truck, railroad and marched into Rangoon as POWs.

Christmas Day, 1944: Oglesby and his crew are imprisoned in a structure likened to a penitentiary. A Japanese officer, handsome and unusually tall, told the crew, "I am also an American. I was in Japan visiting my parents when war broke out so I was forced to serve with the Japanese. I am with you 100 percent. I'm a graduate of UCLA and I will take care of you. I will make them serve you breakfast." The boys were served scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits. The Americans couldn't believe they were feasting on such a fantastic breakfast, but they also knew not to believe the Japanese officer's poppycock manipulation tactics.

Later under intensive interrogation, Oglesby said of the ordeal, "If they didn't like what we said, they'd beat us and batter our heads. They wanted to know all about the B-29. Shoot, we decided to tell them. We told the Japs a B-29 could fly above 60,000 feet, fly at 600 mph, and carry a 60,000 pound bomb load. They were so delighted with the new information, they gave us cigarettes. (A B-29 had a service ceiling of 31,800 feet, top speed of 358 mph and a maximum 20,000 pound bomb load.) American flyboys, you got to love them.

Three men to a cell, repeatedly screamed at by delusional half-naked British and American POWs, and occasional mistreatment, but the B-29 crew was close enough to talk when the Japanese guards left the building. Oglesby said, "We talked about everything - home, girlfriends, our parents - it kept us alive." Something else also kept the Americans alive: Nukazuke. Oglesby said, "They fed us nuka and rice with an occasional piece of meat or vegetable, but it was nuka that kept us alive." Made from corn husks, bitter to the taste, nonetheless very nutritious, of the 100 prisoners in Compound #5, only 1 captive perished - he refused to eat the nuka.

April, 1945: Japanese trucks arrive and dump Japanese uniforms onto the ground. Oglesby said, "That was the first change of clothes we'd had since our capture. We were told because of our decent health and walking ability that we would be sent to Singapore to board a ship for Japan as slave labor."

The POWs were first marched north to Mandalay, then sent southward towards Singapore. The Japanese were getting nervous, well aware British troops were on the move and less than 10 miles away. Amazingly, instead of the expected cruelty experienced by many POWs throughout the Pacific, the Japanese handed over a document to a captured British officer which gave him custody of the POWs so the Japanese could make good their escape.

Oglesby said, "We were behind Japanese lines, but free. It felt good. Most of us lay down and slept but soon we heard British planes strafing a nearby village. We were still dressed in Japanese uniforms so we used white linen to make a sign on the road - POW - but the British planes thought it was a trick. They strafed our column. We took cover and only one man was killed - the British officer that had been put in charge of us."

Terrified, the POWs scattered for safety. The Burmese people fed them while an officer made his way to friendly lines to seek assistance. In pitch dark, a squad of Bengalese soldiers arrived with blankets, rice, tea and rum. "We fell asleep after we ate," Oglesby said. "We awoke with British bullets whizzing over our heads at Japanese soldiers."

With the enemy gone, the POWs finally safe, their war was over. "A tank arrived with a blade attached to the front and carved out a makeshift runway," Oglesby said. "A Gooney Bird (C-47 transport plane) arrived and we were flown to Calcutta to the 142nd general hospital. We even got back-pay, can you imagine that?"

A commanding general made sure the flyboys got what they needed, including new wristwatches. After eating good food for three days, Oglesby still weighed less than 100 pounds. "The food was great," he said. "Steak, potatoes, anything we wanted. We ate so much most of us had to go outside to puke. No matter, we went back inside for more. One airman ate 14 fried eggs for breakfast every morning for two straight weeks."

Oglesby's entire crew left the hospital at the same time, boarded a C-54 for the flight back to the states and reflected on their survival. Back home, it was time for the crew to finally separate. "That was tough," Oglesby said. "We'd fought together, parachuted together and survived together. That kind of experience creates intense personal bonds."

Oglesby returned to Marietta, married Roselyn "Bootsie" Maddox, and used the G.I. Bill to earn a business degree from the University of Virginia. His father's employer, Prudential Insurance Company, offered Oglesby a job. He stayed with the Prudential until his retirement.

"I have to use a walker now," he said. "But it's not old age." In perfect health, a car accident in 1995 broke all his bones from the knees down. "I survived aerial combat, being shot down, and Japanese captivity. It took a car accident to slow me down. Heck of a note, don't you think?"


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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