PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — A little more than 72 years after World War II ended, Jack Cramer is revisiting his former combat days as the navigator of the Goin’ Jessie, a fabled B-29 Superfortress bomber.
The Portland Tribune profiled Cramer, a retired Portland lawyer, as part of its 2017 Veterans Day coverage. He was also featured in a special section distributed through all Pamplin Media Group newspapers. Since then, Cramer has been contacted by three local residents with relatives who also crewed or supported the bombers during the war, which officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945.
One of those talking to Cramer is Tigard resident Anna Donner. Her cousin, Bernard “Barney” Bennison, was the navigator of the Dinah Might. He died when the bomber went down in the Sea of Japan on April 15, 1945.
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Cramer did not know Donner’s cousin, whose bomber flew in a different squadron, but they were both based on Tinian Island in the North Pacific during the final stages of the war.
“It’s amazing to meet someone who must have seen him during the war, even if they did not know each other,” Donner said after she and Cramer met and exchanged stories on Thursday, Dec. 7 — coincidentally the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Mark Story also recently contacted Cramer. His father, John, was also stationed on Tinian Island, where the Goin’ Jessie and other B-29s were based. The island was seized from the Japanese to support the bombing missions over Japan. John Story was a technical sergeant who worked as a remote-control turret mechanic.
John died in April 2013. Mark has a shoebox of memorabilia and insignia from his father’s military service that he hopes Cramer can help him identify when they meet.
The third person to reach out to Cramer is Don Young, the namesake son of the flight surgeon for another B-29 squadron. During the war, his family lived on different Air Force bases in this country, where the crews trained. Young’s father and the crews then relocated to Tinian Island.
“I wanted to learn more about what it was like to live on the island then,” Young says.
Even so long after the end of WWII, there are many things that those who lived through it can still teach each other — and us.
The Goin’ Jessie is best known for surviving a mission over the Japanese city of Nagoya with only three engines. A painting of the B-29 over the city hangs in the Commemorative Air Force Museum in Mesa, Arizona. But it is not the most famous of the bombers linked to those who contacted Cramer.
Donner’s cousin flew on the Dinah Might, which became the first B-29 to land on Iwo Jima. It made an emergency landing while U.S. Marines were still taking the island. A photograph of the bomber on the makeshift airfield is considered the second most iconic war picture taken on Iwo Jima, after the raising of the American flag.
“When the picture was published in the paper, my dad put it on the wall and we told everyone that was our cousin’s plane,” Donner says.
But when they got together, Cramer and Donner debated over whether her cousin was on the Dinah Might when it landed on Iwo Jima. Donner bought a copy of the 1965 book “Iwo Jima” by Richard F. Newcomb at a Tigard Library book sale. It includes the famous picture of the B-29 on the island, along with a picture of its crew there that includes Barney. But Cramer brought a book on the official history of all the bomber squads that includes both planes, and it says a different crew was flying the Dinah Might on that mission.
“That’s the amazing thing about the war. There’s still so much to understand,” says Cramer, who flew his final five missions in five different B-29s.
Regardless, the fame of both bombers pales in comparison to two B-29s flown by the crews supported by Young’s father. They were the Enola Gay and the Bockscar, the bombers that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, ending the war.
The Young family lived on different U.S. Air Force bases in this country while the crews trained for their historic mission. Although he was not aware of the upcoming mission, Young knew it was shrouded in secrecy.
“If anyone talked too much, someone came in the middle of the night and took them away. But I thought it was like that for everyone,” he says.
Among those who came over for dinner was Col. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, who was one of his father’s fishing buddies.
Although Young’s father did not talk about the historic mission after the war, the son figured it out when details were published in the news and taught in high school history classes. But he was still surprised to learn from Cramer how much the secrecy extended to the Tinian Island air base.
“Jack told me he never met my father because his group was surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed guards. I’d never heard that before,” says Young, whose family moved back to their Michigan home after the war. He subsequently moved to Portland, where he read Cramer’s story in the Tribune.
Mark Story confirms the secrecy, saying his father told him about the barbed-wire fences and guards. But his father believed he saw the “Little Boy” — the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — being loaded into the Enola Gay while working on a turret. He had no idea what it was at the time, Mark says.
A wartime childhood
Although Cramer’s parents lived in Eugene and Portland for much of the war, he left the University of Oregon to enlist in the U.S. Air Force shortly after Pearl Harbor and did not experience much of life on the home front. But Donner spent a large part of her childhood in Portland during the war and still remembers the fear and sacrifices of those days.
Her father was a welder in Montana and her family moved to Portland when she was just starting the first grade. He got a job teaching welding at the Oregon Shipyards in North Portland, where her mother also worked on the Liberty Ships that were built there. Her family — which included two other children — lived in the Portland Auto Camp in the northeast part of town. It was essentially a series of small cabins intended for overnight sleeping that were converted to permanent housing during the war.
“We started out in a one-room cabin with a toilet but no shower. Eventually we moved into one that was a little bigger,” Donner says.
During the war, she attended the now-closed Columbia Grade School at 716 N.E. Marine Drive, near the Portland-Columbia Airport, which is now Portland International Airport. It was considered a potential target for Japanese bombers.
“On one side of Marine Drive was the Columbia River. On the other side, I remember large guns were hidden under nets. During school, we’d practice running outside and hiding in a ditch in case of an attack,” Donner says.
Looking back, Donner is saddened by some of her memories. They include the reaction to seeing Japanese families being held in what is now the Portland Expo Center before they were sent to internment camps.
“Our school bus went by where they were held. The Japanese children would wave to us and we made Heil Hitler salutes back at them. It was so cruel, but that was how we were taught to react,” she says.
According to Donner, some of the most negative images of Japanese and Germans were presented in the newsreels shown before movies throughout the war. They frequently included grisly images of atrocities and combat, even preceding movies aimed at children and families. Until the war ended, Donner says, she feared the government would discover her grandparents were German immigrants and that her family would be sent to an internment camp, like the Japanese.
Today, Donner says she and her husband, Harold, are fascinated with the war and watch everything they can find about it on TV.
“I don’t think they teach much about those days in the schools anymore. I worry that children growing up now don’t really know anything about it,” she says.