On the morning of June 5, 1945, B-29s of the 52d Bomb Squadron, 29th Bomb Group, lifted off the runway at North Field, Guam, for the long flight to Japan, their target the industrial city of Kobe. Leading the squadron was Maj. George A. “Tony” Simeral, one of the most experienced aircraft commanders in the 314th Wing. In 1942 and 1943, he had flown 30 combat missions in the Mediterranean as a B-24 commander. Then came a year as a B-24 instructor–duty he considered dull and almost as dangerous as combat. He volunteered for B-29s and was assigned to the 29th, which arrived at Guam in February 1945, with Major Simeral as commander of a lead crew.
Prior to June 5, Simeral had flown 12 B-29 missions. He was the pilot of City of Los Angeles on April 12, when his radio operator, Medal of Honor recipient SSgt. Henry “Red” Erwin, saved the crew by carrying a burning phosphorus bomb to the flight deck and throwing it out the copilot’s window. [See “Red Erwin’s Personal Purgatory,” October 1989.]
When the B-29s arrived at the assembly point for their Kobe strike, enemy fighters attacked. As City of Los Angeles began the 12-minute bomb run, heavy guns defending the target opened fire. The deputy leader was shot down, and Major Simeral’s aircraft took flak hits on the number four engine, ripping a three-foot hole in the outer wing panel through which 800 gallons of fuel began siphoning away.
With the Superfortress’s wing and engine sheathed in flames and only two minutes from release point, Major Simeral had two alternatives. He could drop out of formation and concentrate the crew’s attention on controlling or putting out the fire. The formation would then be without a lead bombardier, on whose release all other bombardiers dropped their bombs. It would be too late for the other bombardiers to bomb accurately. The mission would fail.
Major Simeral instead chose to keep power on the burning engine, increasing the danger of explosion, and lead the squadron to the release point. His bombardier, Lt. Bill Loesch, made the necessary final adjustments and put the squadron’s bombs on target. Mission accomplished. Now Tony Simeral’s mission was to save his crew.
He shut down the burning engine and was forced to drop out of formation. Twelve enemy fighters immediately attacked the lone and damaged bomber. Lieutenant Loesch and the waist and tailgunners, Cpls. Herb Schnipper, Vern Widmayer, and Ken Young, shot down three fighters and damaged several others, driving them off. Near land’s end, the fire was extinguished. Then a second wave of fighters closed in. The situation rapidly deteriorated from perilous to critical. Sgt. Howard Stubstad’s upper and aft turrets were out of ammunition, but from the now-distant formation a B-29, piloted by Lt. Leo Nathans, dropped back in time to drive off the fighters.
Without enough fuel to return to Guam and with undetermined damage to the right wing, a dead engine, and two turrets out of ammunition, Major Simeral told navigator Capt. P. I. Youngkin to set course for Iwo Jima. Flight engineer Sgt. Vern Schiller calculated that with precise cruise control, fuel for the 700-mile flight was marginally adequate. Simeral was informed that there were enemy fighters in the vicinity of Iwo. If they made it, they would have to rely on friendly antiaircraft artillery and fighters to protect the nearly defenseless bomber.
Three hours later, Iwo came into view as their fuel gauges hovered near zero. However, the crew’s relief was short-lived. A damaged B-29 ahead of City of Los Angeles crashed on the runway, closing it down. With what little fuel remained, Major Simeral had to attempt a landing on a short fighter strip, which they would have to share with a fuel-starved P-51. To add to the tension, the strip could not be seen from the flight deck of a B-29 until the last moment because of terrain.
Once the strip came in sight, there was another unhappy surprise. The left wing flaps extended fully, but those on the right wing went down only part way. The B-29 started to roll. Unable to raise the flaps, Major Simeral and his copilot, Lt. Roy Stables, used their combined strength to level the bomber and spike it on the runway.
For courageous leadership that saved a threatened mission, followed by superb airmanship, Major Simeral was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (predecessor of the Air Force Cross), the highest award for valor next to the Medal of Honor.
After V-J Day, Tony Simeral served as deputy commander of the Great Falls Air Defense Sector, Mont., and as F-4 systems support manager at Ogden Air Materiel Area, Utah. In those positions, he flew both the F-101 Voodoo and F-4 Phantom II, which he found “a lot more fun than bombers.” A much-decorated Colonel Simeral retired from the Air Force in 1968, and now lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Published January 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.