Sunday, 16 August 2015

IT HAPPENED SEVENTY YEARS AGO

Map showing Japan, Iwo Jima
& the Mariana Islands
(US Public Domain)
This August 15 is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. I have a connection to the anniversary, although somewhat small by comparison to the many who were much closer than I was to the historical event.

In October, 1984, a month after the release of my first book, Two Wings and a Prayer (my collection of first-person stories from 60 different Allied air force veterans during World War II), my wife and I were invited to the 40th Bomb Group reunion in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. By the way, one of the stories from my collection was from my father, Jack Wyatt, an engine-airframe mechanic with the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1941-1945.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed putting together the war accounts from Brits, Canadians, and Americans: either by face-to-face interviews, phone interviews, or letter writing. No email back then. Three of the stories were from members of the 40th Bomb Group who flew out of the Pacific Theatre of Operations in their struggle against the Japanese. One of these airmen, Jim O’Keefe, from Larkspur, California, invited us to the reunion. We accepted, gladly. My wife, Bonnie, and I had a great time, and being the only Canadians in the gathering of a couple hundred, we were treated as celebrities. We loved it, of course.

So, what was the 40th Bomb Group?

Consisting of four squadrons, the 25th, 44th, 45th, and 395th, the 40th Bomb Group was designated a very heavy (VH) bomber group within the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). Formed in the spring of 1941 and first used in submarine patrol over the Caribbean flying Douglas B-18’s, the 40th didn’t actually start dropping bombs until it was based in Chakulia, India in early 1944. By then they were deploying the “Billion Dollar Bomber,” the long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The first mission took them to the rail yards at Bangkok, Thailand, a thousand miles away. Over the next few months, they followed up with other raids on Japanese-controlled territory before moving their base of operations to Hsinching, China.

The B-29 that the 40th Bomb Group used was a monster: the largest and heaviest mass-produced airplane in the world up to that time, at a cost of $780,000 in 1945 dollars to construct. With an overwhelming wingspan of 141 feet, it could carry a bombload of 20,000 pounds. It had pressurized cabins for its crew of 11, remote-controlled guns, and four 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone engines each capable of more than 2,000 horsepower, the most powerful in aviation. The propellers for them were more than 16 feet in diameter.

Colonel Paul Tibbets before leaving for the world's
first atomic strike, 1945 (US Public Domain)
In April, 1945, the 40th was ordered to its new base on Tinian Island, part of the Mariana Islands, where nearby Saipan and Guam were also used for more B-29 Superfortress outfits. Tinian was a unique tropical island. Twelve miles long and six miles wide, it was the largest operational airfield in the world, containing four 8,500-foot runways on North Field used by four bomber groups belonging to the 313th Bomb Wing; and two the same size on West Field, the latter two used by the 40th and three other groups in the 58th Bomb Wing. Up until the first week of August, the 40th Bomb Group and the others bombed several Japanese cities--mostly with incendiaries--while taking the killer 3,000-mile round trips over the Pacific from the Marianas that lasted about fifteen hours. If not for strong coffee and Benzedrine, the crews would not have made it.

In May, a new bomber outfit joined the 313th on North Field: the 509th Composite Group. Everything about this new bomber group seemed to be hush-hush, according to those in the 40th. They figured something was up. Then a few months later, their suspicions were confirmed: In the darkness of 02:45 hours, August 6, a B-29 Superfortress marked with the name Enola Gay and piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, left North Field under maximum load. Escorted by five other B-29’s, Enola Gay dropped the world’s first atomic bomb codenamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan nearly seven hours later. The 9,000-pound bomb produced 20,000 tons of TNT. The detonation and following firestorm killed approximately 90,000-100,000 people. To make matters worse for the Japanese empire, two days later, August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.


Hiroshima, Japan, following the 1945 atomic bomb strike (US Public Domain)

On the morning of August 9, the 509th Composite struck again. A B-29 called Bockscar, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney, dropped another nuclear bomb: this one on Nagasaki, while two other B-29’s rode shotgun. Codenamed “Fat Man,” it had a plutonium core with the same power as “Little Boy,” although heavier at 10,000 pounds. About 40,000-50,000 were killed: less than Hiroshima because Nagasaki was surrounded by hills, while Hiroshima was relatively flat and more spread out. A few days later, August 15, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito surrendered on national radio, finally putting an end to not only the Pacific war but also World War II, since Germany had surrendered three months earlier.
Now, seventy years later, we come to the on-going great debate: Did the Americans have to drop the bomb? Let’s look at the numbers…

In early 1945, the American High Command in the Pacific--who knew nothing about the atomic bomb being tested under the secretive Manhattan Project--had already written up plans for the amphibious invasion of Japan, a large-scale landing on the southern-most island of Kyushu. Scheduled date: November 1, 1945. Identified by the codename of “Downfall,” the plans were laid out in two parts. First, there would be Operation Olympic, followed up by Operation Coronet for the spring of 1946.

The Americans knew without any doubt that the Japanese would defend their country to the last soldier and civilian. The Battle for Iwo Jima earlier in 1945 was an excellent example to prove that point. Despite many defeats up to August, 1945, the Japanese still had 10,000 kamikaze aircraft, six aircraft carriers, four cruisers, one battleship, dozens of midget submarines off the assembly line, and an army of 900,000 fanatical fighting men. The Americans up to August, 1945 had lost 400,000 personnel all told on all fronts around the globe. At least that number or more was the projected American loss of life if Japan had to be invaded. In fact, back home, American assembly lines had already manufactured half a million Purple Heart Medals (for those wounded or killed in action) in anticipation of the Japanese invasion. Meanwhile, Japanese losses were expected to be into the millions, after having already lost two million in global action: a lot more than the combined missions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


North Field, Tinian, after the Hiroshima strike, showing left to right, Big Stink, The Great Artiste, and Enola Gay of the 509th Composite Group (US Public Domain)

We should also keep in mind that Japanese and German scientists were working on their own versions of  atomic bomb. Japan was still a few years off, but Germany was getting close. If either one of the Axis countries had beaten us to the bomb, they would have dropped it on us. Luckily, the Americans were further ahead, helped along by a number of Jewish scientists in the Manhattan Project, some who had left Europe once Hitler took power in Germany.

Concerning the 40th Bomb Group, I asked a few of their vets over the years if they thought the atomic strikes on Japan were warranted. One of them told me that although the 40th Bomb Group had contributed mightily to the war effort, it was the atomic bomb that put an immediate stop to the war, plain and simple.

But the best reply was from someone who said, with full intent: “I don’t remember the Japanese ever apologizing for Pearl Harbor.”


FYI--The 40th Bomb Group’s World War II record is as follows: 70 combat missions, 25,343 combat hours, 9,200 tons of bombs dropped on enemy targets, 46 ½ enemy planes destroyed, 22 probably destroyed, and 64 damaged. The cost: 32 B-29’s lost in combat, 53 men killed, 26 wounded and 134 missing.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

THE LAST GREAT BASEBALL SHOWMAN

In the same year as America’s bicentennial birthday, I saw my first major league baseball game: Chicago White Sox vs Detroit Tigers, Mothers’ Day, May 9, 1976 at old Tiger Stadium. It was my only live game of the year. And I’ve regretted to this day. I should have gone to more because I missed out on seeing live the greatest rookie pitching sensation since Bob Feller 40 years before. For that one season, this mound artist was the toast of Detroit and the biggest drawing card in the American League. His name: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

So, what exactly did I miss out on? Well…

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych (US Public Domain)
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, August 14, 1954, Fidrych was a 10th round amateur draft pick by the Detroit in 1974. Pitching only 25 games in the minors spread over two years, the gangly right-hander was called up to the Tigers to stay following spring training in 1976. A mere two years out of high school, he made his big league debut on April 20, throwing one inning of mop-up relief. He made another relief appearance May 5, before starting his first game on May 15, six days after my own big league start, you might say. In front of 14,500 fans at Tiger Stadium, Fidrych went out and beat the Cleveland Indians 2-1, throwing a complete game, striking out five batters, walking one, and giving up two hits, after a no-hitter in his first six innings. It was only the beginning of better things to come.

Following a 2-0 loss to Boston’s Luis Tiant at Fenway Park, Boston on May 25, Fidrych whipped off eight straight victories to bring his record to 9 wins with only one loss. Right from the start, Detroit loved him and his antics. They had never seen anyone quite like this curly-haired, six-foot-three, skinny drink of water. Fidrych sprinted to and from the mound. He got down on his hands and knees to manicure the mound with his bare hand between innings. He talked to the ball. He clapped his hands or shook hands with his infielders when they made great plays. It turned out that the infielders liked playing behind him because he worked fast and threw strikes. The average complete-game time for his starts was two hours and 11 minutes, about 15 minutes faster than the league average.

Fans at home and on the road flocked to see “Mark the Bird,” named after Big Bird of Sesame Street fame. Fidrych’s reputation really took off during a June 28 nationally televised game at Tiger Stadium against the front-running New York Yankees, whom he beat 5-1. Fans chanted, “Bird! Bird! Bird!” for a non-stop 10 minutes after the game, which forced Fidrych to appear and acknowledge the crowd with a tip of his cap. Doing that, the chant only continued.

Now The Bird was a national folk hero.

On July 9 in Detroit, he pulled in 51,041 fans for a start against Royals Dennis Leonard who won 1-0. That month, Fidrych started the All-Star Game for the American League at Philadelphia. On August 11, he drew another 51,000-plus Detroit crowd when he won 3-2, giving him a 14-4 record on the year. Two weeks later, 40,000 fans turned out for one of his night-time starts, a game that he won 3-1 over Chicago in only one hour and 48 minutes. By the end of July, Fidrych’s starts had packed over 334,000 fans into American League ball parks around the country.

Tigers announcer George Kell was a huge fan of the hurler as the season continued. “Nobody ever pulled them in the way he does—nobody,” Kell said at the time. “Not Feller, Newhouser, not McLain, not any of them. Everywhere we go, they ask one thing: ‘Is The Bird going to pitch? And when he isn’t, they get mad!” Tigers manager Ralph Houk added: “In all my years in baseball, I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think even the great Walter Johnson started this fast.”

By the end of the 1976 season, “The Bird” drew 901,239 fans or 31,077 per game. The Tigers saw over 600,000 fans at Tiger Stadium in his 18 starts there, averaging 33,649 fans per game: keep in mind that the Tigers attendance was 1.46 million in total on the year for its entire 77 home games, up 39 percent from 1975. All season long, he signed autographs galore and received more fan mail than any other Tiger: such as gifts, letters, greeting cards, and sweets. He also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice and The Sporting News. The next year, he made front cover of the coveted Street and Smith’s baseball yearbook. I know because I have a copy. Off-field, the cool, casual Fidrych was just a regular guy: a bachelor who liked to wear T-shirts with blue jeans. He lived in a small Detroit apartment, and loved to chew and pop bubble gum, on the field and off.

Fidrych finished 1976 with a 19-9 record, a league-leading 24 complete games in 29 starts, as well as an MLB-best 2.34 ERA. His 19 wins were more than any Tiger rookie in 68 years. He beat every American League team at least once, five of them twice, and he was 4-0 against Cleveland. He threw four shutouts and walked only 53 batters in 250 innings, while striking out 97. Not to jinx a good thing while it was hot, management gave Fidrych his personal catcher for the entire season: rookie Bruce Kimm caught all of Fidrych’s starts.

A packed Tiger Stadium in 1961, the same park Mark "The Bird" filled 15 years later. Detroit Free Press photo taken by Tony Spina  (US Public Domain)

The Bird won the American League Rookie of the Year award, taking 22 of 24 votes, and was runner-up to Baltimore Orioles Jim Palmer in the Cy Young voting. Strange thing, the 1976 Detroit Tigers closed out the season fifth-best in the American League East with a 74-87 record. For Fidrych’s superb efforts--not to mention how he filled opposition ball parks--the Tigers gave him a $25,000 bonus and signed him to a three-year contract at $255,000: pretty good after starting the year at the minimum $16,500 and reaching $30,000 at season end due to a new player agreement taking affect.

Then the fun all came crashing down in spring training the next year when he ripped knee cartilage, followed by a torn rotator cuff once he returned to the lineup, although the latter wasn’t diagnosed as such until almost a decade later. Over the next four seasons, Fidrych threw only 27 games, winning 10 and losing 10. Released by Detroit after pitching Triple A for Evansville in 1981, he signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox and pitched for their Triple A affiliate in Pawtucket for a season and a half. At 29 in mid-1983, he retired from the game. He later bought a 107-acre farm in Northborough, Massachusetts, and settled down to country living with his wife, Ann, whom he had married in 1986. They had a daughter named Jessica.

On April 13, 2009, Fidrych was found dead under a dump truck that he had apparently been working on. Authorities ruled that his clothes had tangled around the spinning power takeoff shaft, suffocating him to death. A sad way for an icon of the game to go. He was 54.


Two days later, the Detroit Tigers paid tribute to the much-loved Mark “The Bird” Fidrych with a moment of silence and a scoreboard video presentation at Detroit’s Comerica Park before a game with the Chicago White Sox: quite a sendoff for someone who had pitched only 58 major league games.