Valor: Beating a Stacked Deck

July 1, 1994

On June 1, 1945, Twentieth Air Force launched 521 B-29s in a daylight incendiary attack against Osaka, Japan’s second city in both population and industrial production. One of the bombers from the 61st Bomb Squadron, 39th Bomb Group, based at North Field, Guam, was commanded by Lt. William F. Orr. Lt. Bill Costa, Orr’s navigator, remembers his aircraft commander as a superb pilot who had been a crop duster before the war. He was older than most of his crew, “a father to all of us.” Before that mission–the crew’s 14th–ended, Bill Orr would call on all his skills as a pilot and on his character as a leader.

Moments after bombs-away, the B-29’s number three engine was hit by flak, and the propeller feathered. It wouldn’t stay feathered but began spinning at an increasing rate. Lieutenant Orr knew the oil line operating the feathering mechanism had been cut. There was only one way to slow the speed of the windmilling prop and prevent a friction-induced fire in the engine: reduce the bomber’s speed to just above a stall. Orr throttled back the three good engines to minimum essential power.

As they crossed the coastline of Japan at about 20,000 feet, the windmilling prop separated from its shaft, slicing halfway through the right side of the fuselage about three feet inside the bomb bay. It then flew back, damaging the right horizontal stabilizer. The impact of the separated propeller knocked out the B-29’s Loran system, damaged the radio equipment, and, as Lieutenant Orr soon was to learn, did other critical damage.

When power was applied to the three functioning engines, the B-29 immediately began to roll to the right. It took the combined strength of Orr and copilot flight officer Monte Frodsham to bring it under marginal control. The flying propeller had destroyed power controls for the No. 4 engine, which had been running at reduced power. Unable to increase power on that engine and with drag induced by the huge gash in the fuselage and the torn-up stabilizer, Orr and Frodsham could not keep enough power on the Nos. 1 and 2 engines to hold altitude. To make matters worse, they now were on instruments, penetrating a turbulent front. The B-29 was in danger of breaking up or, if the pilots lost control, of spinning into the sea.

Orr had the crew throw out everything they could to lighten the plane. With only as much power on the two left engines as Orr and Frodsham could handle physically, the bomber continued to lose altitude. They finally broke out of the front at 3,500 feet, about 500 miles south of Osaka. Navigator Costa recognized an uninhabited island, Sofu Gan. Then the No. 3 engine caught fire.

It was clear they couldn’t make it to Guam. The radio operator, Sgt. Jim Schwoegler, sent out a Mayday, not knowing if his transmitter was working.

Lieutenant Orr decided not to ditch the plane in its damaged condition. He ordered the crew to bail out while he and Frodsham maneuvered the B-29 far enough away so it would not endanger the men in the water when it crashed. Seconds after Orr and Frodsham bailed out, the bomber exploded. Flight engineer MSgt. Edward Kanick’s parachute did not open. All other members of the crew splashed down safely.

About two hours after their midday bailout, it appeared that Sergeant Schwoegler’s transmitter had worked. A Navy PBY amphibious seaplane showed up, but the sea was too rough for it to land. Soon a B-17 appeared and dropped a Higgins boat by parachute. It landed near radar officer Lt. Art Swanberg, who climbed aboard, started the engine, and, directed by the B-17, picked up the rest of the crew. The boat was stocked with dry clothing and food to see them through a reasonably comfortable night.

The following day the survivors were taken aboard the submarine USS Tinosa. They were transferred two days later to another sub, USS Scabbardfish, and returned to Guam on June 10. The crew flew eight more missions before their war ended.

For his “magnificent airmanship and gallant leadership,” Lt. William F. Orr was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Today, almost a half-century after that 1945 mission, the surviving members of his crew remember him with respect and affection as a great pilot and leader who was “always concerned with our welfare.” He remained on active duty until 1966, when he retired at Sacramento, Calif., where he lived until his death.

Thanks to Bill Costa and Bob Weiler, members of Bill Orr’s crew.

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