Valor: A Wing and a Prayer

Oct. 1, 1994

July’s “Valor” told of the survival of a B-29, commanded by Lt. William F. Orr, that was severely damaged during the June 1, 1945, incendiary raid on Osaka, Japan [see “Beating a Stacked Deck.”]. On the same mission, a B-29, K-37, of the 330th Bomb Group based at North Field, Guam, endured an equally terrifying experience.

While K-37’s crew waited on the hardstand for a 2:47 a.m. take off, the aircraft commander, Capt. Arthur Behrens, took Chaplain Paul Shade aside and told him, “Paul, I’m not coming back from this one.” His prophetic words did not include the crew.

K-37 arrived over the initial point at about 11 a.m. Before bombs away, the aircraft was hit by what probably was a barrage of heavy flak. The flight engineer, MSgt. Charles Whitehead, remembers a number of almost simultaneous explosions. There was “a blinding flash inside the airplane, a tremendous roar, and a violent concussion.” The left side of the nose was blown away, killing Captain Behrens instantly, shattering the left arm of copilot 2d Lt. Bob Woliver and blinding his left eye. Sergeant Whitehead’s shoulder was perforated by bits of metal.

Destruction on the flight deck was cataclysmic. The aircraft commander’s instrument panel was destroyed, and the copilot’s panel was left with only a magnetic compass and the needle and ball. The left control column was snapped off a foot above the floor, the flight engineer’s panel and the radio knocked out, and the hydraulic system ruptured. Shattered glass, hydraulic fluid, and blood covered the floor of the flight deck. Sergeant Whitehead looked through a large hole in the top of the fuselage to see barrels of the four .50-caliber guns in the upper front turret twisted “like pieces of spaghetti.”

K-37 immediately went into a spiraling dive from 20,000 feet. The dazed copilot, Lieutenant Woliver, recovered his faculties enough to pull out with his good right arm at an estimated 10,000 feet. There was undetermined damage to the flight controls, leaving the B-29 in a nose-down attitude. Keeping the nose up required heavy back pressure on the control column. The B-29 now was over water, headed toward China. Bomb bay doors could not be opened to jettison the bomb load.

Not knowing K-37’s location, navigator 2d Lt. Robert Fast computed a heading for Iwo Jima as best he could. During the four-hour flight, Lieutenant Woliver never left his seat, though periodically he became so weak from loss of blood that he could not control the aircraft. During these periods, either Sergeant Whitehead or bombardier 2d Lt. John Logerot took over the control column. With no instruments working, power settings, speed, altitude, and fuel consumption could only be guessed at. The course Lieutenant Woliver was flying would have missed Iwo Jima by 100 miles, but it did avoid the front that Bill Orr’s crew had to penetrate.

As they headed for a probably fatal ditching somewhere in the Pacific, Lady Luck smiled on K-37. A P-61 Black Widow night fighter based at Iwo was on a radar calibration flight. The P-61’s radar operator, Lt. Arvid Shulenberger, picked up an emergency signal from the B-29’s identification, friend or foe system. When the Black Widow came up on K-37 from the right side, all appeared to be well–four turning and no sign of damage. Then pilot Maj. Arthur Shepherd swung the P-61 to the other side of the B-29 where they could see half of K-37’s nose shot away. With hand signals, the P-61 crew got Woliver on a heading for Iwo Jima.

Lieutenant Woliver knew he could not land the airplane in his weakened condition, with partial sight, no instruments, and no brakes. He ordered the crew to bail out over the island. Woliver himself was too weak to get out of his seat and leave through the nose wheel well. Lieutenant Logerot, suffering from flash burns, stayed with the damaged plane, got Woliver out the wheel well, and was the last to leave K-37. He was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism. The tower at Iwo ordered the P-61 to shoot down K-37, which continued to fly erratically near the island. It took nearly all its ammunition to send the B-29 bearing Captain Behrens’s body into the sea.

Lieutenant Woliver, who had stayed at his post despite grave wounds and saved the lives of his crew, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and died in 1988.

The ordeal of Woliver and the crew of K-37 is a story not only of individual valor but of shared courage by an aircrew in the face of almost certain disaster. The fulfillment of Capt. Arthur Behrens’s premonition that he alone would not return from the Osaka mission is an intriguing encounter with the mysteries of human intuition.

Thanks to Don Murray for telling us about this mission and to crew members Charles Whitehead and Robert Fast for providing details.

Published October 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.