Stories, etc.: Letter 7: Samuel R. Fleming to Richard A. and Charlotte G. Fleming

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Editor’s note: I have tried to let the letters tell their own story, but a word of explanation is required here. The following letter was never mailed. It was hand delivered along with the personal effects of First Lieutenant Samuel R. Fleming, who was killed on June 19, 1945, in an electrical fire aboard one of the B-29 aircraft that were to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. The airplane in which Lt. Fleming died was not his assigned plane, which Col. Paul Tibbets later named Enola Gay; had he survived, Fleming would have been one of the crew who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Apparently because the letter was tucked into Lt. Fleming’s Bible, it was overlooked by the military censors. As a result, it affords a rare unexpurgated glimpse into the thoughts of a bomber crewman at an advance base during the Second World War. I apologize in advance for Lt. Fleming’s use of the derogatory term "Jap"; this is the phraseology of his time, and I think it improper to edit his words. On the other hand, as I did with Henry Penyard’s letter, I have taken the liberty of inserting place names and other identifying information that Lt. Fleming omitted in observance of censorship regulations.

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Page 1 of Samuel’s letter

[509th Composite Bomb Group
Tinian Island, Marianas Group]
18 June 1945

Dear Mom and Dad,

Well, we’re here! After six months of Stateside training, we’re actually back in the war. We flew out of Fort Crook in Omaha on Friday. I could almost be back at college again, because they’ve got us bivouacked in the “C[olumbia] U[niversity] district.” The island is about the same size and shape as Batman’s home city, so thanks to some homesick [New Yorker] in the army, the whole island is mapped out with names like [Broadway and 42nd Street] and so on. The unit has actually been here a few weeks, sorry I haven’t written anything except for the postcard I sent from Omaha, but my life has been really hectic! There was some snafu, [Col. Tibbets] had to go Stateside at the last minute to take delivery of our last consignment of planes, and I was part of the crew that he took with him. We’ve just returned to [Tinian]. Anyway, just because all the so-called streets have pretty names doesn’t mean this is [New York]. The roads are hot and dusty, and so is everything else, and the facilities are really primitive. But it used to be worse. We have Quonset huts now, but not too long ago it was pup tents and a latrine that was just a wide plank with holes cut every two feet. Our shower is still a big outdoor water tank set up on four poles, with a pull chain hanging down to work the valve. The natives live in dumps, mostly metal hovels hammered together out of the corrugated iron scraps we leave behind.

I expect you’re wondering what was the deal with having to go back to the States to get those planes. I know I was! Well, our unit has had the pleasure of acquiring 15 brand new specially equipped [B-29s]. I’ve been assigned as [RCO] (that’s the [Radar Countermeasures] Officer) in Serial Number [44-86292]. And here’s an odd one, I’m writing this with an old silver-trimmed pen that I found in the plane when we ran through our preflight checks. It was wedged behind the putt-putt, that’s the [Auxiliary Power Unit], just outside the radar room. I’m going to keep it. Don’t get me wrong, Mom, I love the set you gave me when I graduated college, but they stick up out of my pocket — and that’s good for “uniform, out of, two particulars,” which is almost certain to change my name to George for a week. (“George” is the officer at the bottom of the pecking order, and he gets all the scutwork that none of the other officers want to do.) This pen has no clip, so I can slip it way down in my pocket and button the flap over it. I wonder how it came to be in the airplane, and I wonder if the guy who put it there meant to leave it for luck, like nailing a horseshoe over a barn door.

To return: the new planes handle amazingly well. All [Superfortresses] are great, they’re the best planes I’ve flown in, but this bunch is outstanding. We know our mission is special, we’ve known that since we signed up for this unit, but we’re not allowed to talk about what we’re actually going to do — or, for that matter, when. The maneuvers we’ve been training on aren’t in the Pilot’s Handbook, I can tell you that much, but I can tell you that they’ll be a lot easier with these planes than with the ones we trained in. The rumor mill is working overtime in the other units, but we just tell them we’re here to win the war. That’s kind of a slap in the face, actually, because those guys have been flying to Japan for months, and they don’t all come back.

Actually, we’ve been instructed not to talk to the guys in other units, and those orders are backed up by fences and MPs with submachine guns, but you know how it is, they can’t cut us off entirely, we sneak a chat when we can, down at the far corner of the compound or sometimes when they send a couple of us over to the main commissary to bring back a Jeep-load of flour that didn’t make it into the Deuce-and-a-Half on the regular run. Just the day before yesterday I was over there and the MP with me had to visit the latrine. I got to talk to a tail gunner named Thompson for a couple minutes, and he told me that the thing we should worry about the most, more than the flak or the Zeroes, is the suicide planes. These aren’t ordinary planes like the ones the Japs were using last year, they’re rocket powered and very small, and they spout a big bright flame when they’re coming in, so the crews call them balls of fire. They’re designed just to ram into you. They’re called “baka,” which somebody said means “fool” in Japanese. I believe it! They don’t even have any landing gear, just a carriage that falls away on takeoff, so they can’t go home even if something goes wrong. They’ve been doing some heavy damage to the Navy off Okinawa. Apparently Thompson was really scared by one that flew under a [B-29] on the way back from one of his missions, it was right in the middle of a kamikaze attack, but the O.M. doesn’t think they’ll be a problem for us.

I also learned a great trick from Thompson. The chow here is pretty bad, so this genius had a brainstorm and sent home to ask for jars of baby food. They’re not heavily rationed, and they’re small and pretty durable, so they arrive in good shape. Could I persuade you to send me a couple dozen jars? I’d like fruits mostly, they ought to go down better. I’m doing all right so far with the Australian mutton they serve us, anyway. It’s pretty leathery and it tastes like last week’s dinner, but I can handle it. But the fruit is something else! It tastes about like the leavings in a hog trough after the hogs have picked it over.

You’ll be happy to know that we have a great chaplain here, his name is Captain Swingle, and he’s actually a very restrained and thoughtful Methodist, not at all like that fire-and-brimstone Baptist in Omaha, Reverend Carlton. I feel right at home at Captain Swingle’s services. But we don’t have a chapel. Instead, we have our services outdoors. It’s kind of nice, really, being a little closer to the Almighty, sort of. On Sundays, we sit on long benches with a podium set up for the minister to preach from, but right before a mission the crews just cluster together outside the briefing hut with the Protestants in one group, the Catholics in another, and so on.

Oops. They just played taps, I have to put this away. I can mail it in the morning. Give my love to Carol.

  Love,
Sam

Letter 8: Richard A. Fleming to Thomas F. Long
Index to the letters

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