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Recollections of an RB-29 crew in Japan

Shoot Down Search and Rescue Attempt Recollections

by Roland Robitaille, B-29 Tailgunner

The day started out with a knock on the door by the orderly at 7:00 a.m. He informed us six enlisted men to get dressed in flight clothing and hurry to the chow hall as soon as we could; we needed to be at the briefing room in 45 minutes.

At the briefing, we found out that our aircraft commander had volunteered his crew for a search mission for a downed RB-29. Our aircraft commander and the aircraft commander of the downed aircraft were good friends. The downed craft was from the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron based at Yokota AFB Japan. The briefing officer told us that this was a very serious situation, and that a message was sent to Moscow not to interfere with this search aircraft. He also told us that we would not have to preflight our aircraft for this mission, that several crews were sent out to preflight for us.

L to R, Back Row:
Lt. Elmer Pahl - Bombardier, Capt. Doug Hassing - Navigator,
Lt. Alfred Baker - Pilot, Capt. Dale Allen - Radar Operator,
Capt. Eugene T. Hassing - Aircraft Commander

L to R, Front Row:
A1/c Robert Swift - Radio Op., A1/c Pasquale Dentale - CFC Gunner,
A1/c Robert Owings - L Gunner, M/Sgt. Robert Forrester - Engineer,
A/1c Otha Nelson - R Gunner, A/1c Roland Robitaille - Tail Gunner

There were no bombs aboard; they loaded us with extra ammo, fearing the worst. Our navigator was given the flight path we were to take on our way to the search area. About 8:30 a.m., aircraft 9727 (Hot 't Trot) left Yokota on this 14 hour and 50 minute mission.

It was a very clear day over the Sea of Japan, and at no time did I see any surface vessels. I don’t remember much conversation on the intercom, but I remember a wide turn, and when it was completed, I was looking at the airfield north of Vladivostok (I was the tail gunner)

A1/c Robitaille giving his tailgunner
position a preflight check.

I think this is when we came down to a lower altitude and started seeing orange objects on the water, possibly life jackets or dinghies. On a closer look, it was either sponge or a kelp bed. It wasn’t much longer, when I happened to look at l:00 o'clock low and saw a B-29. I called in, ‘aircraft commander from tail gunner, go ahead tail gunner, B-29 at 1:00 low’. Almost instantly, the aircraft went into a left bank. I got to look at it for about 15 seconds, until the left bank put me in a position that I could no longer see it. In that short time I noticed it sitting high in the water. I looked for rotating props (not visible), still props (not visible), aircraft looked fully intact. Commander must have made a perfect ditching. All men aboard should have escaped injury unless some were hit by gun fire. Shortly after we went into a left bank, our left gunner called in on the intercom that he sees the B-29 directly beneath us. Someone answered for him to get off the intercom and not clutter the intercom. What he saw were the two open doors to the life raft compartments and they were empty. They are situated above the wings in the fuselage.

As time went on and we are still in a left bank and nothing being said on the intercom I thought I would take my chances on a butt chewing. I called in, ‘aircraft from tail gunner’. ‘Go ahead tail gunner’ ‘Sir, do you have that B-29 in sight yet?’ ‘What B-29?’ ‘Sir, I called it in.’ ‘Aircraft commander from radar.’ ‘Go ahead radar.’ ‘Skipper, the tail gunner did call it in as did the left gunner.’ From the commander, ‘tail gunner, how long ago was this?’ ‘Sir I don’t have a watch, but I would guess about 15 minutes.’ The skipper than asked the navigator, ‘where were we about 15 minutes ago? Get us back to that position.’ When we got back to approximately the same position, the shoreline looked about the same as when I first spotted the B-29. At this spot, there was a wake in the water that started below us and went directly to Vladivostoch with no vessels in sight. The left gunner remembers seeing something like boxes or crates floating in the water. We continued searching and, as darkness fell, low scud clouds began to form, making it difficult to see. We kept looking in hopes that we might see a flare, but no such luck. Fuel was getting low, so we had to return to base. During interrogation, the interrogating officers asked questions of the officers, but never did ask the six enlisted men any questions.

In 1987 the 98th Bomb Wing Veterans Association held a reunion in Dayton, Ohio. I got to see our left gunner for the first time in 35 years. We talked about that mission, and he said that this mission has bothered him a great deal all these years. I told him to forget it, that we had done our jobs.

About three years ago, the POW-MIA Coalition Newsletter published an article telling of an American officer from a downed RB-29 that was seen alive in a hospital in Mikden in 1956. This started to bother me. I mentioned this to the State VFW POW-MIA Chairman and he told me to tell someone about it. Not knowing who to call, I let it ride. In 1992 President Boris Yeltsen told U.S. authorities that Russia had captured the crew of a downed B-29 and took them into Soviet territory. The hard-line communist said that Mr. Yeltsen was lying.

In August of 1993, I went to the VFW National Convention in Dallas, and was assigned to the Foreign Affairs and National Security Resolution Committee. At that meeting, General Needham spoke about POW-MIA’s. When he was finished Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Ed Ross spoke on the same subject and mentioned the crew of a downed RB-29. This is when I jabbed our State Senior Vice Commander in the ribs and said ‘I have something to tell these people.’ He replied, ‘go to it.’ I met Secretary Ross at the door as he was leaving and I told him that I had some information that might be of some interest to him that relates to the RB-29 downed June 12, 1952. He then asked that we go down the hall away from the crowd, and began asking questions and taking my name and address. He asked if I would be home after the convention. I told him I was very active in the VFW, but that if there was going to be contact made that I would stay around the house. He thought it possible that I was the person they were looking for.

On Tuesday, August 31st, a person from the Department of Intelligence and Foreign Affairs called and asked a few questions, which I answered. He asked if he could have a 30-minute uninterrupted call for the next day. I agreed. As expected, I received the call the next morning from DIFA. He asked that I tell my story as I rememberd it, and not to worry about forgetting something, that we would be going over it again. When I finished relating my story, I asked him if the RB-29 went down mechanically or was shot down. He replied that it was shot down. The reason I asked was because at the briefing we were told that we were going on a search mission for a downed RB-29. (We were informed at the VFW Convention that someone was working on that issue in Moscow at that time.) He then said that being that I was helping them, he would read the entire report on that incident. Before he read the report, he said I had furnished them with the missing pieces to the puzzle. As he read the report, I could see where my story fit. He also told me he would send me a copy of the report. At the conclusion of our conversation, he informed me that as soon as the people got back from Moscow, they would be given this information and would get in touch with me again.

About 10 days later, I received a call from Major Burkett, DIFA, who had just returned from Moscow and had been going through the archives looking for some information. He asked that I go over the story again. When that was completed, I gave him the addresses and telephone numbers of my left gunner and radio operator, and the names of the remainder of the crew. He had already checked with Maxwell AFB on our crew records, but they were missing. He asked that I call my left gunner and radio operator and tell them that he would be calling on them soon. That I did. Major Burkett said that a story would be out in the not-too-distant future. A few days later, he contacted my left gunner and got his story. The left gunner offered the address of our navigator, but the major said that he and the tail gunner had given them all the information they needed.

After our conversation with Major Burkett, everything was quiet until December 9. On December 9, I received a call from my brother in Oak Harbour, Washington. He asked if I had seen the news on TV or read the newspaper. I said ‘no’. It was an article about another RB-29 shot down 2 1/2 weeks after I left Yokota AFB Japan. In this case, a 62- year-old Russian sailor turned in a 1950 Annapolis class ring to the US authorities. He had seen an advertisement in the newspaper asking for information on our missing servicemen. It was thought that the ring belonged to the pilot, but a gunner said that it was the navigator’s ring. The wife of this officer was notified, but she hasn’t been given the ring yet. To make things simple, I’m including the newspaper clipping from the Seattle Post Intelligencer of December 8, 1993.

See *Readers Digest story, dated February 1996, entitled “Ring of Truth” for more on this latter subject.


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