When West Texans Scott Downing and Oliver Thomas served their country by joining the Army Air Corps during World War II, neither could imagine what such service would entail. Both were just young men, only years removed from high school, yet both would soon be shot down over Japan and held as prisoners of war (POWs) in what would prove to be the darkest months of their lives.
Downing and Thomas were B-29 crewmen who took part in the firebombing of Japan during the last year of the war. Downing was a bombardier in the 505th Bomb Group’s 313th Wing and Thomas was a flight engineer in the 504th Bomb Group’s 313th Wing.
On March 29, 1945, Thomas began what would be his 17th and final bombing raid on Tokyo. The raid was to be carried out from 20,000 feet. Thomas had a bad feeling about it from the start because he feared the relatively low altitude combined with the high visibility of a daytime run was going to make his B-29 an easy target for anti-aircraft fire.
And Thomas’ fears were not misplaced. Seemingly seconds after his bombardier opened the bomb bay doors to drop the ordnance on Tokyo, the B-29 shuttered badly and the left gunner subsequently reported that the number three engine was on fire. The bomber then went into a twisting, circular dive, and at an altitude of only 4,500 feet over Tokyo Bay Thomas and his crew bailed out.
After bailing Thomas watched and was happy to see that all 11 crewmembers made it out of the plane. Remembering the low altitude from which he jumped, he then looked down and noticed the ground was rushing toward him. But before he could choose where he might land, he came down “on the side of a canyon, sliding down about 20 feet through thick underbrush, [and sitting] in the bottom of a dry creek bed.”
Thomas was captured by Japanese villagers and taken to a military governor who ordered a Japanese Army lieutenant to place Thomas on a train for transport to the POW prison outside of Japanese Western Army Headquarters. Prior to World War II, the prison had been a horse barn. Its stalls had since been “converted” into cells, all six of which had a floor space of approximately eight feet by 12 feet.
The Japanese crammed 19 American servicemen into these cells, making things so tight that at night the prisoners had to sleep on their sides in order for everyone to fit. And if they wished to turn over, they had to stand up, turn in place, and then lie back down.
En route to the prison, Thomas had to change trains in the Japanese town of Chiba. While walking from one train to the next, Thomas and the other POWs with him were blindfolded, made to kneel, and then “beat with what [Thomas believes were] the butt[s] of … rifles or bamboo poles.” Thomas’ hands, which had been bound from the moment he was captured, hung down in front of his waist. Soon, one of the blows he received across his face burst his sinuses, and he felt his own mucus run down the inside of his arms and onto his hands.
Thomas believed that this brutality was “undoubtedly … an effort on the guards’ part to get some revenge for [the flight crew’s] activities over Japan.”
When Thomas finally reached Western Army Headquarters the Japanese removed his blindfold and interrogated him before beating him again “with a bamboo pole, about an inch in diameter and three feet long.” He was then escorted to his cell, where he subsisted on a ball of rice a day for the next four and a half months.
On May 24, 1945, Downing and his crew took off from the U.S. base on Tinian Island, en route to their 20th bombing raid on Japan. From Tinian they flew 1,400 miles to the southern coast of Japan, where they made formation with hundreds of other B-29s and headed toward Tokyo.
The raid went smoothly until shortly after midnight, when Downing felt his bomber shutter and noticed the interior of the B-29 was filling with smoke.
When Downing and his crew realized their bomber had been hit by enemy fire, they began bailing out just 15 miles northeast of Tokyo. It was 1:00 a.m. on May 25, 1945, when they began to parachute into the night, and before all the crewmembers could get out the bomber exploded in mid-air. Only eight of the 11 crewmembers made it out, and of those eight Downing was the last to get clear of the plane before it disintegrated.
Once on the ground, Downing tried to hide out but was quickly captured by Japanese farmers who had seen him parachute through the sky. He was bound and taken to the same makeshift prison in which Thomas had been sitting for more than a month.
The rice ball on which Downing and Thomas subsisted each day grew smaller and smaller as the summer months passed. What had been a ball of rice the size of a baseball upon Thomas’ arrival in March became something nearer “the size of a golf ball” as the war’s end approached. In fact, food was so scant that POWs who were physically able would get on their hands and knees and drag their tongues across the floors of the cells in an attempt to pick up any kernels of rice that had fallen and were struck in the cracks there.
Unlike many of the men with whom they were imprisoned, both Downing and Thomas survived their captivity and enjoyed being liberated after the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945.
As a historian, I’ve collected the history of these two gentlemen over the last six years. And without fail, on the occasions that I’ve been fortunate enough to sit down with one of them, he has smiled and told me: “I only did my duty. And I would do it again if called upon.”
This Veterans Day, let’s thank God for Downing, Thomas, and all the other brave men and women in our armed forces who have served or are serving right now.
It is their service to this country that reminds us that freedom still isn’t free.