Durkee's Crew


Lester W. Snyder, Rapid City, SD

There are a couple of facts which may help to put this account into the proper perspective and explain why some things happened as they did. First, the Imperial Headquarters, Japan, knew every time that a B-29 took off from anyone of the Marianas Islands, of which the island where the crew was stationed, Tinian, was one. When only one or two planes took off, the Japanese assumed that there was to be either a weather or a photographic reconnaissance mission. In such cases little attention would normally have been paid to the flight. That should have meant an uneventful flightfor Durkee's crew on the day we are concerned with here. However, the Japanese had been fooled within a week before, when an atomic bomb had been dropped on them. That might account for the vicious fighter attack the crew experienced. The enormity of the atomic bomb blast also might explain why the fighters broke off and left the area when the pilots saw the bomb bay doors open, especially since the aircraft was over a major city, Tokyo. But let's look at what happened, as the crew remembers it.

On the morning of August 11, 1945, Durkee's crew was briefed for a weather reconnaissance mission to central Honshu, the Tokyo area. The regular crew had received a replacement for Bill Whitmore at the Central Fire Control position. Furthermore, the crew was to be supplemented with an Instructor Navigator and a Photographer. The crew was briefed on the requirements of the mission, and during the Briefing the Radio Operator was instructed to shut down his transmitter when the aircraft was one hour from the coast of Japan. The Navigator was to advise him when the aircraft reached that position. Unfortunately, he must have forgotten and just continued handing position reports around the gun turret to the Radio Operator, even after landfall had been made. The turret mentioned was the top forward four-gun turret. It was about four- or five-feet in diameter and extended from the top of the cabin down to within a few inches of the floor. It was directly in the middle of the forward crew compartment. The Navigator and the Radio Operator could not easily see each other.

As the aircraft approached the mainland of Japan the crew spotted what appeared to be a weather balloon at the altitude of the aircraft which was 25,000 feet. As the aircraft passed to the left of the balloon the gunners used it as a target to test fire the guns. Some of the crew later joked about the fact that somebody had been angered. The firing alerted the Radio Operator, Ed DePury, and he went over to ask the Navigator Buzz Langdon, about the position. Buzz just motioned for him to look out the Navigator's window (on the left side) to see Mount Fuji. Ed immediately returned to his position and shut down his radio gear.

The airplane was on auto-pilot and the Pilot, Gene Jordan, was watching out the front and sides when he saw three "Tojo" type fighters coming out of one-o'clock high with wing guns flashing. Someone later commented that it was reminiscent of Christmas tree lights. The Pilot, Gene Jordan, was the gunnery officer and called out the fighters and the firing orders. Once engaged the Central Fire Control took over directing the firing. Some of the first shots pierced the right side of the ship, some coming in just above the Flight Engineer's, Roy Becker's, position. Roy Becker was wounded slightly and his instrument panel was damaged. The engine instruments, the hydraulic system, one voltage regulator and part of the oxygen system including the Aircraft Commander and Radio positions were knocked out.

In addition to Roy, the Instructor Navigator, Brady, was wounded. He had been sitting on the forward hatch leaning back against the gun turret with his head beside the water jug which hung on the side of the turret. The position was fortunate because, although he was wounded in the shoulder, shrapnel shattered the water jug which then protected his head. Also, Ed DePury was heard over the intercom saying he might have been hit. However, after a closer look he found that he had been doused with warm hydraulic fluid.

When the Japanese shots pierced the skin of the aircraft, at 25,000 feet, obviously pressurization was lost. The Aircraft Commander, Wallace "Nick" Durkee, switched off the auto-pilot, said, "You have it", to Gene Jordan and proceeded to put on his oxygen mask and try to get some oxygen. The other regular aircrew members also routinely donned their oxygen masks. However, the Photographer, who occupied a seat in the rear crew compartment next to the Radar Observer, Lester "Les" Snyder, did not even pick his up. Les pointed to the mask, but he just put his head down on the radar desk. Les Snyder picked up the mask and tried to put it on his face. The Photographer's reaction was to push Les off his seat. Les then turned on the continuous flow knob and placed the mask by his face. As a result of that tactic the Photographer sat up and put on his mask, oblivious to what had happened.

The aircraft had been fitted with two 600-gallon long range fuel tanks in the forward bomb bay. Supposedly the fuel had been used and they were empty, but at least one of them must have had some residual fuel in it. Also, the tanks and hoses were supposed to be bullet-proof and leak-proof. It wasn't as safe as everyone thought. Evidently at least one round of ammunition must have broken a pump or connector, and fuel leaked into the bomb bay. Then something ignited the gasoline fumes. It is immaterial whether it was a 20mm projectile, a spark from electrical equipment or something else. Whatever it was, there was a tremendous explosion in the bomb bay. One actually could feel the aircraft bend upward in the middle. The bomb bay doors were blown back on their hinges, with the actuators ripped from them, so that they could not be closed. The hatches to the bomb bay were blown open and the ring-gunner (CFC), Doug Williams, left the Central Fire Control position, convinced the hatch should be closed again. The Left Gunner, Bob Leopard, realizing the fighters probably would be coming back for the kill, firmly convinced Doug he was needed at his gun-sight, and he returned to the position.

Then the real hero of the venture stepped forward. It should be remembered that the crew recommended that Ed DePury be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his action on the mission. Apparently, the draining fuel was ignited by the explosion and the wind from the open bomb bay doors was causing a fire to swirl around in both bomb bays. Ed, whose radio position was closest to the fire, reported it on the intercom and requested a fire extinguisher. The extinguisher that had hung on the forward turret was handed to the Navigator, Buzz Langdon. He finally handed it to Ed after much difficulty. It kept slipping from his grasp because it was covered with the blood ofthe Navigator Instructor. Ed DePury took the slippery extinguisher and got out into the open bomb bay as far as he could. He sprayed the entire contents of the bottle in the direction of the source of the fire, which seemed to be located almost all the way aft in the forward bomb bay. It is amazing that he was able to maintain his footing in his precarious position with the Pilot, Gene Jordan maneuvering the aircraft. When Ed had emptied the first bottle, someone, probably Buzz, handed him another. He then proceeded to empty the second bottle on the fire. Then, believing that he had not made progress on the raging fire, he went back to his position and prayed. Miraculously the fire seemed to "extinguish itself”.

When the Radio Operator, Ed DePury, first reported the fire, the Pilot hit the Salvo switch to drop the tanks, which was the proper thing to do. However the tanks would not jettison because the safety switch in the bomb bay was still in the "Safe" position. Although the Bombardier position on the crew was occupied by a Weather Observer, Ray Christena, who did not have the benefit of training on control and operation of the bomb bay racks or the nose gun-sight, there were no problems that arose as a result of that. The safety switch was on another crew member's preflight check list and there was no opportunity to fire from that position since the fighters came in from the high position.

With the crew compartments depressurized and the oxygen system not operating one hundred per cent, when the Pilot, Gene Jordan, was given control of the aircraft, he pushed the nose down and opened the throttles to gain speed and get to a lower altitude and a more favorable air pressure. The fighters banked into a turn to form up off the right wing, just out of range. Then they apparently started to make another pass in an effort to finish their destruction. As the pilot made a turn into the fighters, still in a shallow dive and with full power, somebody was heard over the intercom saying that he had hit one. Smoke was observed coming from one of the fighters and it is generally conceded that it was the Right Gunner, Auston Ikerd, who had made the "kill". T hen miraculously the fighters broke off their run and left the area.

With the fighters gone but the fire raging out of control a precautionary alert for abandoning the aircraft was issued over the intercom. The crew members in the rear compartment all clipped on their chest chutes, including the Tail Gunner, Donn Allegree, who had come in from his position in the tail. Les Snyder got them lined up at the rear hatch ready to jump if such an order was given. Meanwhile Les monitored the intercom for further instructions. Finally the decision was made to stay with the ship.

The Aircraft Commander, Nick Durkee, requested a heading out of the area from the Radar Observer, Les Snyder. Probably he asked the Radar Observer instead of the Navigator because the members in the front compartment were preoccupied with the chaotic conditions up front. Les directed the pilots to fly a heading that would take the aircraft out over the center of the bay. It was then decided that Iwo Jima was the only logical destination available to the crew. The airport on Iwo had been captured from the Japanese by the U.S. Marines a short time before. As the aircraft headed south from the Empire the pilots found that flying the aircraft was a bit tricky. The power settings on the engines had to be guessed at since the engine instruments had been knocked out. Also The Radio Operator, Ed DePury, discovered that fuel still was spraying into the bomb bay and the fumes were invading the crew compartment. In response, he advised the rest of the crew and requested that there be no smoking. The leaking fuel injected another uncertainty into probability that the aircraft could reach Iwo.

Eventually everyone settled into their positions as the aircraft headed toward Iwo Jima. Remembering that submarines often were able to pick up crews that could not make it to land, the Aircraft Commander, Nick Durkee, radioed a request for a submarine. The Radio Operator, Ed DePury, found himself talking to someone on a submarine and explained the predicament of the crew. The submariner asked for the position which Nick obtained from the Navigator, Buzz Langdon. The submariner said that he would be standing by and if it was decided that ditching was necessary, he would initiate a radio signal which could be homed in on. It was evident to all that ditching would be a last resort because of the riskiness, especially with the bomb bay doors open.

Somewhere along the way a flight of P-51s showed up and did barrel rolls around the tail of the aircraft. They then went about their own business and finally the crew sighted Iwo. To the amazement of all, the aircraft had made it all the way, even with all the drag ftom the open bomb bay doors and the loss of fuel ftom the leaks. Then another problem presented itself. The Command at Iwo Jima did not want a ship flying over the island with open bomb bay doors. The solution was to launch a fighter to look over the situation. After looking up into the bomb bays and seeing no bombs, the pilot cleared the aircraft to the pattern.

The Aircraft Commander, Nick Durkee, entered a right pattern but the aircraft was in so tight that he decided to make a pass over the runway at pattern altitude. That correction was a blessing in disguise because the pilots observed construction equipment at the approach end of the runway and a B-24 about one third of the way down the runway and off to the right side. The pilots were desperate to land the aircraft because they knew the aircraft could not remain in the air much longer. However the ground crews evidently were able to get the runway cleared quickly for one more wreck to come in.

As the aircraft turned onto final approach both the Pilot and the Flight Engineer informed the Aircraft Commander that he had a maximum of three applications of the emergency brake system and should not release the brakes once they were applied. The hydraulic fluid was very limited since the system had been knocked out by one of the Japanese projectiles. Gene Jordan and Nick Durkee brought the plane in as slowly as they could, in a very nose high attitude and wefe able to stop the bird on the runway, on the third and last possible application of the brakes.

Finally the crew was on the ground and relatively safe. The crew was met by medical personnel and ground crews and were escorted to a tent for debriefing. The crew had joined the multitude of aircrews whose lives were saved by the capture ofIwo Jima. Although the aircraft was in very bad shape (it had eleven 20mm holes, alone, in the fuselage) she had returned the crew to safety. The maintenance engineer at Iwo could find no logical reason why the aircraft had not been blown up in mid-air. He said that the crew must have been the first one to come back alive with trouble like that.

Thanks to the Marines, the crew was able to spend the night in a tent on the sands ofIwo Jima. The next day the crew flew a B-29, that a previous crew had left for temporary repairs, back to Tinian. The day following the crew's return, the Aircraft crew chief came calling on the pilots wanting to know what had happened to "his airplane". There may have been a doubter or two on the crew but the following Sunday the entire crew showed up at the Chapel, which usually served as the mission briefing room. The members filled the front two benches. In the words of Ed DePury, "We are truly fortunate that the mission ended as it did". That could be considered as somewhat of an understatement.