HIGH POINT, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Chris Lingerfelt was still just a teenager when he got his first taste of war, flying as a gunner on a B-29 Superfortress bomber.
Of the nearly dozen crew members, only one — the pilot, Holly W. (Andy) Anderson — had any age on him. He was all of 29 — “We considered him middle-aged,”
Lingerfelt recalls — but he carried himself with an air of confidence well beyond his years. Some seven decades later, Lingerfelt still remembers how the pilot always managed to put his men at ease with four simple words: “You gotta have faith.”
“We didn’t know exactly what he meant,” says Lingerfelt, now 88 and living in Thomasville. “I’m not sure whether it meant faith in God, or faith in the airplane, or just faith in general. Maybe it was all of the above.”
Regardless, Anderson’s unbridled faith was contagious among his young Army Air Corps crew members, especially against the backdrop of World War II, a war in which more than 400,000 Americans were killed.
“It got to where he could’ve given us an order to jump out of the plane, and we would’ve probably done it, because we knew he knew what he was talking about,” Lingerfelt says.
Never was that mindset truer than on May 3, 1945, during a mission that very easily could have added Lingerfelt’s crew to the U.S. death toll.
First, though, a disclaimer: Had the crew been the least bit superstitious, they might not have even flown that day. You see, the Quonset hut they were living in on Guam didn’t exactly have a stellar track record. The first crew that lived in the hut went down on their first mission, and the second crew to live there never returned from their second mission. Lingerfelt’s crew was the third one to live in the hut, and this was to be their third mission.
The target, Lingerfelt recalls, was Tachiarai, which was home to a Japanese air base.
“Everything was going fine till we got within range of the Japanese fighter pilots,” he says, explaining that the U.S. raid was greeted by a “reception committee” of about 25 Japanese planes. “The flak was heavy — it was really thick — but we didn’t take any real bad hits. Well, shortly after we dropped our bombs, we felt a jolt and heard this loud explosion, and it shook us up pretty bad.”
According to Lingerfelt, the anti-aircraft attack shook the plane violently. As the right wing lifted and the left wing tilted downward, the plane began to drop, perhaps as much as 5,000 feet. Anderson, the pilot, had been prepared for just such an incident, though, having put the plane on autopilot prior to the bombing run, just in case anything happened; sure enough, when the B-29 was hit, the autopilot helped Anderson get the plane straightened back up.
“Of course, the Japanese fighter pilots saw us falling and they were coming at us heavy, and we had no defense because our guns had been disabled,” Lingerfelt says. “But then our guys, the P-51s, just kind of appeared out of nowhere.”
The American fighter planes shot down a few of the Japanese planes, and the rest scattered. The P-51s then escorted the crippled bomber toward IwoFollowing the dropping of the atomic bombs, Chris Lingerfelt’s crewflew over Japan and captured this photograph of the devastation. Jima, which had been secured by U.S. forces only a few weeks earlier.
In the meantime, Lingerfelt and other crew members ventured toward the back of the plane to assess the damage.
“It was frightening,” he recalls. “There was a large hole on the right side of the plane, big enough to drive a jeep through. We could see a whole lot of the Pacific Ocean through that hole — and we weren’t too far from it at the time, because we had dropped so much.”
On the left side, the lower aft gun was twisting in the wind as it barely hung on. And in the cockpit, the co-pilot’s controls were severed and the pilot had no rudder control, which obviously made steering the plane difficult. Furthermore, the fuel supply was dwindling quickly.
As the B-29 approached Iwo Jima, Anderson told his crew he wasn’t sure he could land the plane safely with some of the controls not working.
“You have the option to parachute out,” he told his men. “We’ve got a million-and-a-half-dollar airplane up here, and I’m gonna try to take it in.”
Not a single crew member bailed on their pilot.
“We knew if he was gonna try to take it in, he was pretty sure he could take it in,” Lingerfelt explains.
Pilot Holly W. Anderson (left) and the plane’s flight engineer surveythe huge hole in their B-29, the result of Japanese anti-aircraft fire.Hey, you gotta have faith.
As they got even closer, Anderson informed the crew that he wasn’t sure whether the brakes would work when the plane hit the runway — and it was a short runway.
So as long as they were going to stay on the plane with him, he said, they might as well make themselves useful.
“He told us to attach our parachute harnesses to something strong inside the plane, and then deploy the chute out the hole,” Lingerfelt says. “So we did that and they billowed out, and evidently they helped.”
Indeed, the plane rumbled to a gradual stop — still on the runway, safe and sound.
Over the course of the next month, there would be a few more close calls for Lingerfelt and his fellow crew members, but none as close as this one. It was scary, but no one was even injured.
As Lingerfelt likes to say, “B-29 No. 29 in the 29th Bomb Group served us well.”
You gotta have faith … but sometimes a little superstition comes in handy, too.
(c) 2014 The High Point Enterprise. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC