Tracy man was pilot for 35 missions in WWII

Being an impressionable young man about to serve his country in World War II, Dick Donaldson bought into the propaganda of war as much as anyone.

Dick Donaldson, of Tracy, holds up a photo of himself and his crew members in front of their B-29 plane. Donaldson is second from the right, while the commander, Hans Gammel, far right, is giving instructions to his crew. The plane was named City of Austin. Photo by Scott Thoma

“At the time, all we wanted to do was to kill as many Japs as we could,” admitted Donaldson, 94, of Tracy, describing the enemy over 70 years ago.

Although Donaldson dismisses any notion that the actions the U.S. military took in World War II were unnecessary, he still harbors a feeling of uneasiness. And several years ago, the man who piloted 35 combat missions in a B-29 in WWII, decided to pen his thoughts and experiences about what he and other veterans dealt with.

“Our nation was attacked, and we had to defend ourselves. And it was certainly justifiable that we fought the war to its conclusion,” one passage read.

But Donaldson, who was a 1st lieutenant, felt too many innocent people were killed that had nothing to do with the circumstances or decisions made before and during the conflict.

“I’m ashamed of what we did to all the civilians,” he said; his facial expression reflecting his remorse. “It was never talked about much, but we bombed 67 Japanese cities and killed a lot of innocent civilians. We weren’t at war with the people of Japan. It was the actions of their leaders that caused the war to begin with.”

In Donaldson’s writings, he said it best when he described the reason soldiers feel such hatred for their enemy even though they don’t really know them.

“Once war begins, leadership, with the help of the media, can fan the flames of hatred until men will do things in the name of patriotism that they wouldn’t consider doing under any other conditions,” he wrote.

Donaldson graduated from Tracy High School in 1941 and was a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Upon hearing the unfortunate news, Donaldson and other young men at Carleton, as well as those across the country, knew that many of them would be soon going off to war.

“We didn’t care much about studying for a test, or other things going on at college after hearing the news of the bombings,” Donaldson told.

It was at that time that the stereotyping of Japanese as evil villains began. America bonded into a close-knit group and boosted their mindset into an “us against them” mentality by playing patriotic songs, reading slanted newspaper accounts of the war, and watching numerous war movies being orchestrated by the motion picture industry.

“We took the position that since the Japanese leaders had committed a crime by sending their military forces in a sneak attack against us, all of the Japanese people were equally guilty,” Donaldson read from his writings. “(But) 99.9 percent of the Japanese people had nothing to do with the decision and probably wouldn’t have favored the attack if they had been part of the process.”

Once the war started, however, the majority of the Japanese people supported their government, Donaldson pointed out.

Donaldson returned to Carleton for his sophomore year, but had a strong desire to join the military and serve his country in a time of need. He and a classmate were then sworn in as members of Army Air Corps Reserve.

“My parents wanted me to stay in school,” Donaldson said. “And any student under the age of 21 needed their parents to sign off. Mine wouldn’t sign.”

All branches of the military soon started college programs to allow students to enlist but remain in school until graduation. Convinced he would be in college until 1945, Donaldson received word that all members of the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve would be called to active duty in February 1943.

Donaldson would be assigned to basic training at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, the same place his father spent basic training for World War I.

After moving around the country to a myriad of training bases, Donaldson wound up in Santa Ana, Calif., for training and where the young men would soon learn their Air Force assignments.

“We all hoped for pilot training,” Donaldson said.

The men were put through vigorous physical and mental tests for things such as strength, endurance, depth perception, stress and personality.

“I was able to survive my pilot training,” Donaldson said. “And those of us that passed the tests were moved to another part of camp for preflight training.”

Donaldson was first assigned to train to fly the B-24, the same type of plane that Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame was in that crashed in the Pacific Ocean and was later picked up by the Japanese and taken prisoner.

Donaldson later assigned to the B-29 program and ordered to report to the 19th Bomb Group, 314th Wing in Great Bend, Kan.

The B-29 planes were developed after World War II had already begun and were the largest bombers among the U.S. Air Force’s arsenal. With a wingspan of 141 feet, the B-29 was 99 feet long; 3 feet longer than a regulation basketball court. It was powered by four 2,200 horsepower turbo-supercharged engines.

“I described it to my parents as flying an apartment building from a front porch,” Donaldson joked. “The B-29 was so large that they tried to avoid calling one of the pilots a co-pilot. So they called the pilot an airplane commander and the co-pilot the pilot.”

This was worn by Dick Donaldson in World War II. It is on display in the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum in Tracy. Contributed photo

To qualify as an air commander, a minimum of 1,000 flight hours as an instructor in a B-17 or B-24 were required. A pilot, however, was not required to amass a predetermined number of flight hours.

The B-29 would feature an airplane commander, pilot, bombardier, navigator, engineer, radio operator, two waist gunners, a tail gunner, and a central control gunner.

Donaldson was part of “Crew 26.” Their first assignment would take them to the Hawaiian Islands where they would then depart for Guam. Upon arriving at the Hawaiian Islands, the crew could see the devastation left behind two years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, jacking up their resentment for the enemy even more.

Guam, a small island 15 miles wide by 22 miles long, would be the crew’s second home for the next six months.

Each American plane had a name assigned to it. Although some planes featured scantily-clad women and racy names, Donaldson’s commander, Hans Gammel, ordered the men to steer away from those types of things.

“(Hans) was from Austin (Texas) so we named our plane the City of Austin,” said Donaldson, pointing to a photo of his squadron standing in front of the plane, which had the state of Texas painted on the sign with a star indicating the location of  Austin within the state.

On Feb. 24, 1945, anxious to finally test their skills, Crew 26 finally got the call. But the first mission would prove anything but clear sailing for Donaldson and the others.

“We were planning to fly there at around 2,500 feet all the way to Japan, which was 1,560 miles from Guam,” said Donaldson. “And then once we got there, we would climb to the bombing altitude of 28,000 feet because the Japanese Zeroes were small and unable to carry enough fuel to fly and fight at that altitude.”

But extreme cloud cover was both above and below Donaldson’s plane, so they were unable to see the other American planes in formation.

“It was scary,” Donaldson admitted. “We couldn’t fly in formation at all because we couldn’t see each other, and we didn’t know if we would hit each other. We were flying blind. But we finally got a little break in the clouds as we approached the Japanese coast.”

Because of some minor engine problems, Crew 26 lagged behind the 200 other U.S. planes included in the missions and were soon being shot at by anti-aircraft fire.

“We were always told that the Japanese anti-aircraft fire wasn’t very good,” Donaldson told. “The first shots we saw were right in front of us, so I sure thought they were pretty good.”

Crew 26 eventually dropped their bomb load on the intended target and then headed back to Guam.

“On that first mission, we bombed an aircraft factory that manufactured engines,” Donaldson recalled.

In all the other 34 missions flown by Donaldson, he and his crew were fired at by air and ground attacks each time.

“We were hit a few times,” said Donaldson. “I remember we were struck in the wing and the landing gear. One shot went just over the head of our bombardier. We never were struck in the body of the plane, though. We were very fortunate.”

But others were not as fortunate.

Of the 15 planes that were part of the squadron Crew 26 was in, seven were shot down, and the crew members aboard were never heard from. Another time, the B-29 Donaldson was piloting witnessed another B-29 plane shot down by Japanese Zeroes off the coast of Japan on June 26, 1945.

Immediately, the crew aboard the Austin dropped a life raft, food, water and an emergency radio to the downed flyers. Seven of the 11 downed crew members quickly climbed into the raft. The four others did not survive the plunge into the Pacific.

Immediately, Donaldson’s radio operator called a nearby U.S. submarine to pick up the survivors. The sub surfaced and headed full steam to the downed crew members. Until the submarine arrived, however, the Austin needed to make sure the men in the raft were well protected.

Dick Donaldson shows where the B-29 plane he was a pilot in fired at two Japanese schooners about to capture a raft of seven downed crew members (lower right) of another B-29 plane. The depiction was painted by Donaldson’s son, Scott. Photo by Scott Thoma

“We spotted a couple of Japanese schooners in the area,” said Donaldson. “They spotted the men in the raft and were headed toward them and would have taken them prisoners.”

Left with no alternative, the Austin circled the schooners several times, first unsuccessfully attempting to bomb the vessels. Gammel then made a higher pass at the schooners with the nose of the B-29 plane in a downward trajectory so all six 50-caliber machine guns could fire upon them. One of the schooners caught fire and burned, while the other suffered heavy damage.

The men in the raft were soon rescued.

Donaldson’s son, Scott, an artist, depicted the event in a painting that now hangs in the kitchen in his father’s apartment in Tracy.

This was just one of 35 missions flown by Donaldson in a span of six months and 13 days during World War II.

Despite being fired upon numerous times, Donaldson revealed that the scariest moment in the plane came during a takeoff in Guam for one of their missions.

Because of the size of the B-29, a two-mile runway was needed for takeoff.

The plane was carrying a full load of bombs when Gammel clipped the top of some trees while lifting just past the end of the runway. The plane started to lose altitude and faced a 600-foot drop off a cliff.

“We dropped our bomb load and most of our fuel to lighten the load so we could gain some height and land,” said Donaldson. “I really didn’t think we were going to make it. One of the engine blades was damaged but kept running. The plane really vibrated, but we managed to turn around and get the plane landed.”

Americans used the B-29s to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that basically ended the war.

“I was on my way home when those bombs were dropped,” said Donaldson. “We didn’t know anything about it until after it happened. They kept it a secret to everyone except those involved.”

Had the war not have ended at that point, Donaldson would have been assigned to 38 additional missions, while also being promoted to a captain.

“I was happy never to have been a captain,” Donaldson said, flashing a wide smile. “I was ready to go home.”