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In eye of Hiroshima, man recalls war experiences

Courtesy photo

At one point during Drayton Benner's time on Tinian, this B-29 – with one engine on fire and its wheels stuck – belly landed on its nose wheel on its first and only raid. It also returned to base the final 100 miles using only one engine, Brenner wrote in his diary.

"The Seabees came in force to our area, with great equipment and proceeded to build four runways, from ocean to ocean, with individual parking spaces along each on each side for the B-29 aircraft. I don't remember how long it took them, I don't know, about four or five days to do that. There were just mobs of them and they just worked! How they worked! Fantastic."

Benner's armament shop was near runway No. 4. His "purpose in life was to repair any aircraft which returned from a mission with more

damage than it could handle."

Until the Marines took Iwo Jima in March 1945, both Saipan and Tinian suffered from Japanese fighter aircraft and bombing raids. Benner remembers digging a six-man foxhole in the coral of Tinian. It took two to three days because the men had only limited use of one jackhammer.

"But bombs never hit close to our living area. The greater hazard at these times was the shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns on Saipan about three miles away. We and they shot across the channel at the enemy aircraft, causing quite a bit of heavy pieces of stuff to rain down on us."

The bombing of Japan from Tinian started Feb. 4, 1945. Thirty-two B-29s from Tinian bombed Japan for the first time. No planes were lost, Benner remembers.

The United States was sending B-29s to Tinian as fast as aircraft manufacturers could build them. And many of the pilots were new, and pretty green, said the 17-year Prescott resident.

"It was always a memorable sight to watch 'four at a time' B–29s running down the straight-away from sea to shining sea and lifting a very heavy aircraft, full to the gunwales with gas, loaded to the hilt with bombs, and full magazines for the gunners.

"And there were times when the picture was not pretty," the armament expert said. "Should a pilot decide to abort the mission, hopefully he would clear the runway, circle over the channel and drop his bomb load before being permitted to come back and land.

"There were those that aborted before the end of the runway, many times causing the arsenal to explode. Many times I have picked myself up off the ground murmuring 'what happened?'

"There were quite a few unfortunate happenings during our tenure at Tinian," Benner's memoirs explain. One incident is "forever etched in my memory."

"We were now in the stages of burning the enemy cities. As such, 100-pound incendiary bombs were used. These were attached in the bomb bay normally, but then others were attached to them, etc. until the bays were literally full of bombs. This is how the cities were burned.

"On one of the night missions, an abort was requested on takeoff, circled without permission over the area and crashed at the end of our shops area. A more intense, brilliant fire you may never see."

In January 1946, the Philadelphia boy the Army drafted in early 1942 left the coral island that had been his home for more than one year.

He caught a troop train from Los Angeles to the East Coast.

"Oh, boy. Nobody took baths or showers. Had to eat troop train food. It took forever because you'd get sidetracked, you know, if there was something else coming or going. We were supposed to get off at Fort Dix. A lot of guys jumped the train and said 'I'm going home first.' So I got off and spent a day with Bill and Mom. Got a shower, I was still cruddy. But then I went back to Fort Dix and got mustered out, got my $100.

"It wasn't too long before I got to Freeport, Long Island where the Waasers were. Of course, on one of my furloughs, I had given Dottie a ring. Asked her to marry me."

So, Tinian became a memory.

Contact Dorine Goss at dgoss@prescottaz.com.

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