Freedom Still Isn't Free

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.