Freedom Still Isn't Free

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.