Remembering Two Veterans
Back in the late 1990s while my wife and I were helping my father-in-law, Fred Sawada, move to an assisted living facility, we re-discovered among his papers, a letter his older brother George had written to their father and the original copy of Fred’s Silver Star citation.
Fred’s father, Shinsaku Sawada, came to America in 1918 and settled in Seattle with his wife and three children. In 1928 he lost his wife to tuberculosis. His eldest son George, writing to his father in 1943:
…you told us she’d gone away. That we mustn’t cry. You smiled at us, but not from the heart. How sad you looked when you thought we were safely tucked in bed, and your pretenses dropped like a heavy load.
Shinsaku built his tailoring business and saved for his children’s education. Again from George’s letter: Then came the depression and overnight we were poor. Your business and the college fund were lost. I wanted to leave school and go to work... “No,” you said with quiet doggedness. “You shall continue your education.” George had graduated from the University of Washington and his younger brother, Fred, my father-in-law, was a private in the U.S. Army, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. We were sent to relocation centers. I could not understand why you attempted to restore my faith in the government which had denied you the right of citizenship... I did not realize the love you bore for this country, made more dear because here it was that mother had been laid to rest: “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” Wisely you said, “This is your sacrifice, accept it and you will no longer be bitter.”
On the 5th of July, 1943 Sergeant George Katsuya Sawada was killed by a sniper while serving as a Medic in the 442 Regiment in Italy. Fred Sawada idolized his older brother. George was studious while Fred was hardheaded, impetuous and fearless. Wounded on five separate occasions, the following is from his citation for the Silver Star:
“For gallantry in action on 2 August 1944, in the vicinity of ****, Private First Class Sawada volunteered to act as lead scout for a four-man patrol assigned the mission of reconnoitering the Southern *** River bank. The night was dark and very quiet. While moving through a sparse vineyard he suddenly motioned his comrades to stop. He then advanced ten yards with his patrol leader. At this point they heard an enemy patrol advancing toward them. He held his fire until his patrol was observed by the enemy. Then, as the enemy patrol prepared to take up positions, he opened fire. In the resulting skirmish, the entire enemy patrol of seven men was either killed or wounded. Soon, six or seven machine guns, attracted by the fire fight swept the field with grazing fire. When the patrol was ordered to withdraw, Private First Class Sawada remained behind to cover their movement with his fire. He silenced one automatic weapon on his right flank, then engaged another. Only after the patrol had reached a covered position did he join his comrades. The determined aggressiveness, courage, and initiative displayed by Private First Class Sawada, enabled his patrol to withdraw without suffering a single casualty."
A few years before my dad died my three sisters and I helped him to write “Born on the Hill,” which is his memoir of growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in upstate New York, going on to Ag School at Cornell and then becoming a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Here he recalls his three most memorable flights:
In a fifteen-month period we had followed the invasion of Kawajalien, Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Philippines, and Japan. During the same period, we made supply flights to Australia, Fiji Island, New Caledonia, with fueling stops at Tarawa, Canton and Christmas Island. My last trip was to Japan after the war was over. There are many stories that could be told but I would like to relate the tale of three flights.
The Most Satisfying
We all know about the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 but much less has been written about the simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines. On January 2, 1942, Manila fell and American and Philippine troops were retreating to the Bataan Peninsula and finally to the Island of Corregidor. Among the thousands of American prisoners there were sixty nurses who survived the ordeal. They were all commissioned officers who had been through Hell.
We had the privilege of flying one group on the leg into Hickam Field in Oahu. After nearly three years as prisoners of war they were a sight to behold - all with smiles, some with tears, all unbelievably skinny, with long straggly hair. On our way we had to make a stop at Johnston Island. The Naval Commander was ready with a feast for breakfast. The Navy always had the best food and that morning at the head of the line was a huge bowl of fresh oranges. Those nurses grabbed those oranges and tore them apart and ate them like a dog would go after a fresh meat bone. It was the first fresh fruit they had had in months. I can tell you I stood there and watched with tears in my eyes. We flew them on to Hickam where they stayed for about a week before returning to the states.
When they arrived in California you would not believe they were the same women who had flown with us. They all had newly fitted uniforms and had been given a beauty treatment that made them all look great. We were all proud to be a part of their return celebration.
The Near Disaster
We had laid over in Kawajalien and were heading home with a full load of wounded, crew and fuel. My co-pilot on this trip was 2nd Lt. Jason Shurtleff, a big Swede who I was training to become a first pilot. As we rolled out to the runway I turned the controls over to him and told him it was all his for takeoff. It was a night with an overcast sky so we could not see the horizon once we were over the ocean. We did the usual run up and check list. The tower gave us our clearance to roll. The takeoff was normal and we started our climb.
At one thousand feet I pulled the flaps to see how he would react with the sudden sinking you get when the flats are pulled. His reaction was immediate as was mine when I felt the plane start to roll sharply to the right. I grabbed the controls and shouted for him to hold on. We had a problem.
The left flap was up and the right one was down and with both of us on the controls there was still no way we could stop it from turning right and if either one of us let go she would roll over and we would be in the ocean in seconds.
The next thing I knew, my engineer, Harry Hilinski hit the flight deck and reached for a hydraulic valve down under the throttle guardant. When he opened the valve the right flap came up and we were saved. The whole nightmare probably did not last more than 30 seconds, but our clean dry uniforms were now soaking wet. This valve is closed sometimes when the plane is on the ground to prevent someone from accidentally pulling up the gear. Harry was a good engineer, but we had some how missed it on our final check. The C-54 was later modified with a cable connection so this could not happen.
We had forty-four soldiers on board who had been wounded and were now heading home and we were within seconds of sending them all to the bottom of the ocean. I could not think about it for months without breaking into a cold sweat.
The Happiest Day
In August, 1945 I had been promoted to Check Pilot status and was doing regular check flights on Pacific flights and some regular crew check flights at Fairfield Suisun. On August 15, I had just started to roll down the runway when the news came over the radio that the war was over. It was a time to celebrate knowing that there would be no more wounded to bring home. It was bittersweet when we realized that we had dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing thousands. At the time we did not even know what an atom bomb was.
As much as I enjoyed flying I had made up my mind that a military career was not for me. With that decision I knew this would be the last time I would ever fly a military aircraft and I would truly miss it.
When the war was over I had sufficient service numbers to be released immediately. I ask for release as soon as possible. On October 15, 1945 orders were cut for me to transfer to the AAF Separation Center at Westover Field, Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts - that being the closest base to my home in Norton Hill. I had leave time due me, so I was not discharged until December 15, 1945.
I had wanted to fly since I was a ten-year old farmboy. But in my wildest dreams I never imagined that not only would I learn to fly, but that I would fly all over the world and be paid for it.
Being a pilot in the Ferry Division gave me a unique opportunity to fly many different types of military aircraft. During my four years in the service I flew 17 different types of aircraft from trainers to single engine fighters, twin engine bombers, four engine bombers and transport planes.
My delivery of aircraft took me to every theater of operation in South America, Africa, India and Europe. When I was transferred to the AAF Transport Division and the Pacific Theater my flights took me to over twenty islands plus Australia and my final trip to Japan. Even though I was out of the country much of the time my home base was always in the U.S. I was never in a combat unit and never had to drop a bomb or fire a weapon.
The Army Air Corps played a critical role in all theatres of the war. I was proud of the role that I played delivering planes and supplies and returning with our wounded soldiers.
And what of those lifelong friends that I made way back in Basic Training? Bob Hurst flew planes over “the Hump” to India. We stayed in touch with him and his family for many years. Bob died in 1968. Walter “Rosie” Kent’s plane crashed in Alaska as he was delivering planes to the Russians. The plane was discovered decades later in a remote part of the Yukon. And Ed Kruer, who was short enough to fly pursuit planes, was lost over the Atlantic escorting