B-29 crewman recalls horrors of war, relief of V-J Day

World War II veteran Mel Price of Mount Pleasant holds a photo of the B-29 crew he served with in the Pacific based on the island of Tinian, where the atomic bomb planes where stationed.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Seventy years ago, Mel Price was part of giant flock of hundreds of U.S. planes flying in formation over Japan.

Tucked inside the confines of a B-29 bomber, Price, a radio operator, was part of a massive show of force darkening the sky in a configuration meant to slam home to the Japanese people that the war was over and American might remained overwhelming.

Still, as the U.S. recognizes “Victory over Japan Day,” Price wonders if anyone younger than 70 years of age will much care.

“What I’m thinking is: How many people today remember World War II?” he said.

Wednesday marks the date when the U.S. recognizes the Pacific war came to a close some three weeks after the Aug. 6 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, followed by Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Four years of American involvement formally had ended with the signatures of the American military, its allies and the Japanese empire on board the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

More than 100,000 U.S. military personnel lost their lives throughout the Pacific theater, but that paled in comparison to the estimated 60 million to 80 million who died worldwide between 1939 and 1945, including civilians caught up in fighting, murder and conquest across Asia and Europe.

Price, 89, who has lived in Mount Pleasant since retiring, represents the dwindling ranks of Americans called to serve. Of the tens of thousands of men and women from South Carolina who participated in World War II, fewer than 13,159 survive and live in the state, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs figures estimate.

Price, who grew up in New York, was drafted in 1943, some two years into the war. He joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a radio operator and heading on a course toward joining the crew of a B-29, the last and biggest bomber in the war. After training at multiple bases around the country, he eventually would reach his final duty station, on the island of Tinian in the far Pacific.

As a radio operator, Price’s duties included tracking and updating target reports, following changes in the weather over the bombing sites and making sure where rescue ships were placed if his plane had to ditch on the 1,500-mile route to Japan, mostly over open seas.

“Every ‘B-29er’ held their breath during takeoff with their payload that exceeded what the plane was designed for,” he said.

His first mission would be the worst, he recalled. Over Kobe and Osaka, heavy flak would leave 72 holes of various sizes in the airplane. And after dropping its bombs, the plane’s bay doors wouldn’t close, creating a fuel-draining drag that slowed the craft as the plane limped home.

The crew was forced to make an emergency landing on the recently captured island of Iwo Jima. It was just the beginning of an untold number of hazardous trips to the Japanese home islands.

“After seven (missions), I quit counting,” Price said. “Each additional one was meaningless in numbers due to General (Curtis) LeMay’s order to serve until war’s end.”

What he does remember is how the landscape below changed with each mission into shattered cities and widespread destruction.

“Everything was flattened,” he said. “I don’t know how they lived or where they lived.”

While Price would be stationed on the coral rock of Tinian for months, he had no idea of the top secret nature of what was going on behind some fencing on an isolated part of the island. That’s where the crew of another B-29, the Enola Gay, was preparing to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

All Price could see was that the area was heavily guarded by military police and there wasn’t much interaction with those inside and those outside the wire.

“We had no idea who they were and why they wouldn’t fly,” he said of the curiosity surrounding the Enola Gay’s crew.

Price later learned of the dropping of the atomic bombs at about the same time as the rest of the outside world — through press accounts.

“I didn’t feel really overjoyed,” he said. “I was happy that it ended.”

Price retired to South Carolina in 1990 after working with Bethlehem Steel. Today, he hopes the current generation of Americans don’t ever become critical of what the soldiers, airmen and Marines were forced to do in World War II.

“My only answer is, if you weren’t there, don’t say it,” he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.