When the Japanese surrendered in World War II — Aug. 15, 1945 — Robert Wieman of St. Paul got his orders to fly his A26 to Japan as part of the occupation forces.
While 11 other airplanes navigated around a tropical storm in their path, Wieman wrote in an Air & Space Magazine article last year, he thought he could save time by flying through it.
In all my flying, this was the most difficult thing I had ever been called on to do. I remembered how hard my instrument-flight instructors had been on me. “Fly the instruments—not your head!” My B-25 instrument-flight instructor kept telling me, “Relax, you’re too tense, you’re squeezing the life out of the throttles and the control column. You need sensitivity on the controls, especially when you’re flying on instruments, and when you’re tense, you lose it.” Once, when I got into a precarious situation, he hit the back of my throttle-squeezing hand really hard with his microphone. “I said RELAX!”
Whitney was sitting to my right. We didn’t exchange any words. I thought it best not to tell him I was battling vertigo. I was too busy just trying to keep us right side up. The gunner, Hugh Dunwoodie, was in his compartment behind the bomb bay, just in front of the tail section. I knew how rough our ride up front was: I can’t imagine what it was like for him back there.
The second updraft was more violent. My efforts to slow the rate of ascent had minimal effect. Once again, when we hit 17,000 feet, we leveled out. At that altitude, the turbulence wasn’t as bad, nor was the lightning and rain. I still feared anoxia, but there was nothing I could do about that.
It became increasingly clear that my efforts to fight the storm were useless. I gave up battling the up- and downdrafts and concentrated on keeping the airplane level, heading in approximately the direction of Enewetak. But the vertigo continued. Imagine hanging by your feet from a tree branch 10 feet off the ground, with someone standing in front of you telling you, “No, you’re not upside down, just ignore those sensations and go about your business.”
The downdraft continued sucking us down at 3,000 feet per minute. This time we leveled out at 5,000 feet. Then we hit a third updraft. I had a feeling the storm was becoming less intense. The airplane was becoming just a little bit easier to control.
Good story. But not as good as the one he tells today in a letter to the editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which provides yet another reminder of how the Internet connects us in more ways than we can imagine.
In a recent phone call, a lady said, “If you are the author of the Smithsonian Air & Space magazine article about flying through a tropical storm over the Pacific during World War II, I wish you’d call me because I think you know my father.”
I called her and determined that she was the daughter of the gunner on my A-26 attack bomber crew — (I was the pilot) — on our way to Japan (August 1945). She said in an attempt to learn something about her dad’s World War II experience, she Googled him. Among other things, she got my Smithsonian Air & Space article because I had mentioned her dad’s name (as my gunner) in the article.
My daughter, on a recent vacation trip to California, called on the gunner’s daughter and had a wonderful, most unusual reunion. The gunner’s daughter said she knows no one who knew her dad during the war and is so anxious to talk to me. She has booked an airline flight to St. Paul for a visit with me on my 93rd birthday in May. I am the only survivor of that World War II bomber crew.