The Boothill Coffee Club by Ernie Frazier
Edgar Frank Combs -“Firebombing Tokyo was a scary thing.” Edgar Combs shares a characteristic that is common to many of the warriors in this book. He doesn’t look or act the part of a military man. During the many years I’ve known him, I never heard him speak of his wartime experiences until his sister told me that I should hear his story. I did and found it remarkable.Wrong answers for the psychologistsI enlisted at age 17 in the Army Air Corps with the goal of being a pilot. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with the right answers for the Psychologist and the other interviewers so I decided I’d become a radio operator. My hearing couldn’t differentiate between loud sounds so I flunked that test, too. That’s when they gave me the choice of either being a ground crewman or a gunner o an airplane. I took gunner school. Basic training was in Wichita Falls, Texas. Since I was just a big skinny, tough farm kid, I sailed right through the obstacle courses and even a 20-mile hike didn’t bother me. Gunnery school was more fun since we got to do a lot of target practice. Before long I was assigned to a crew to be a tail gunner on a B-24. I heard they called them flying coffins. We trained & flew on them for a while until my assignment got changed. The B-29’s were coming out, men were needed to man them, and I wound up taking a lot of training for that. My status changed from tail gunner to being a replacement for disabled airmen and I was assigned as the left blister gunner on a flight crew in Peyote, Texas. That’s where I was involved in my first action. On one training flight we went out with a full load of bombs and gasoline and flew to a bombing site. We were to drop the bombs, fire our guns, then fly 1,0000 miles to see if we could complete what was a simulated combat mission.Shooting up our own plane We dropped the bombs and began to circle down, lower and lower and began firing at the targets. I was a blister gunner on the left side of the plane. We had five turrets mounted with .50 caliber and guns and the tail gunner had a 20-millimeter cannon. Our training mandated that we gunners change turrets from time to time and familiarize ourselves with the way the turrets fired. It was a dangerous maneuver if the gun barrels were hot and we had specific steps to follow when we switched turrets. Well, I changed with another gunner and we forgot one of the steps. One gun barrel was red hot and as we swung the turret around, it fired automatically three times. Those three bursts blew out two of our engines! Things looked bad but they got worse. Our fuel tanks still had a lot of fuel plus we had two huge fuel tanks stored in the upper bomb bay. With two engines gone, we weren’t going to complete our thousand-mile trip. We had to abort our mission and try to get home in one piece. We circled back over the bombing target and dropped the fuel tanks. The bottom tank fell free. The upper tank stuck and pulled a connection hose loose. That sprayed fuel back into the airplane. Our radio operator was pretty sharp. He shut down all of equipment as quick as he could and said, “Don’t anybody smoke or use anything that makes any sparks!” Our pilot radioed the base and asked for instruction. They asked him how serious the situation was and would the ship explode before we could land. He said, “I think I can make it.” They replied, “That’s a very dangerous situation.” We were in bad shape. On top of everything else, the bomb bay doors stuck open because the bomb bay fuel tank jammed the doors. We got our parachutes on while they debated whether to have us bail jump if we had to. The pilot said, “Well, I can brig it in.” He laded it as smooth as silk and we didn’t get a scratch anywhere. We got a black mark as a crew, but our commanders let us stay together and put us through more training. One piece of advice we heard was, “Now when you move your turrets, don’t turn the control lever loose. Hold onto it until you get there.”B-24’s blow up in training Another training mission took us down around Charleston, South Carolina. We didn’t shoot it out this time but one of our engines conked out anyway. Our pilot called for instructions and was advised to land at a B-24 base there. While we waited for a ferry plane, we watched the B-24 crews train. They called them flying coffins and we found out why. In just one morning, one of them blew up and another one crashed. The very next day another one blew up. I decided there must have been a providential reason why I was no longer assigned to those aircraft. Eight died in one of the wrecks and several were killed in the others. Casualties were expected in training so the survivors weren’t grounded. They got more training and tried again.Bombing JapanNebraska was the staging area for B-29s and we flew from there to New Mexico, California, Honolulu, Midway and on to the Marianna Islands. We would be flying out from a base on Tinian Island to bomb Japan. Our planes were so heavily loaded that it looked like they’d crash in the ocean before they could gain enough altitude to survive. It was scary. Only one plane could take off at a time and the flight leader was the one guy who was supposed to know where we were going. It was cloudy, a pilot could lose track of the leader and had to get on the radio to get instructions, in cod, as to what corrections to make to join up with the formation. By the time we’d get to Japan, we’d be flying in tight formation so we could muster tremendous firepower if we came under attack.Foul-up Strange things happened. We had one flight commander who’d come under enemy fire before. We were going in on one bombing target and he lost his nerve and pulled away without dropping bombs. Our pilot was unhappy because the commander was suppose to lead us into the target whether we got shot at or not O that mission, our pilot followed him out ad we didn’t drop our bombs until we got over the ocean. Of course, that didn’t do a lick of good and our pilot was enraged. We’d risked all the men’s lives and went through all the time and expense of flying to Japan, only to abort our mission out of fear. The next time we flew out, the same commander did the same thing and avoided the target. Our pilot just peeled off the formation and came back over the target and we dropped our bombs where we were supposed. He thought he was doing the right thing but back at the base the top brass told him, “You don’t do that. You don’t break formation unless you are hit of something is wrong with your plane.” Our pilot answered, “Okay, but give somebody who will to the target.” They did just that. However, our new commander was a man who would ride his throttle. An engineer usually sets the throttle on the B-29. He had instruments to show him the most efficient way to use his fuel and fuel was precious. This commander didn’t trust his engineer so he took the throttle away and set it where he wanted it. That usually meant using more fuel than he should. His plan ran out of fuel over the Pacific and they went down. Only one man survived. Fire bombing Tokyo was a scary thing. Usually there were about 27 B-29s that made up the flight. We used our own weaponry and had no fighter escorts near by. They’d be up ahead of us or back behind because if we saw a plane to shoot at they didn’t want to be too close. Right over the Japanese Islands, the Kamikaze pilots would attack. We were on a bombing run right over a huge thermal cloud. We were at about 10,000 feet and the cloud was boiling up toward us like a massive oil fire. It caused a tremendous turmoil in the clods all around and we could see the fires burning down in the target area. I was flying tail gunner instead of blister gunner because they needed tail gunner’s station was to pop the tiny square door and throw yourself out backward. I was sitting there with my hand close to the trigger for the window and my other hand on the gun. The plane was rocking us around. My head swung to the right and I saw a Japanese fighter plane right on our tail. I didn’t even have time to fire when he peeled off and escaped so I didn’t get a short at him. That was the closest I ever got to the enemy. I could see the pilot, he was that close. They didn’t have pressurized cabins like us and he had on a helmet and goggles and stuff like that.Flying air-sea rescue missionsWe escaped that but I some some tragic stuff. On some flights, our plane would be assigned to air-sea rescue duty and we wouldn’t carry bombs, only rescue equipment. On one flight, we received a message to watch for a fighter pilot. He and his plane had both been hit and he was going to bail out. Sure enough, we spotted him parachute out and drift down. One of our Navy submarines was in the water and they were supposed to pick the pilot up out of the water while we circled above. A twin engine Jap plane – we call it a Betty – showed up. It had six guns mounted and a turret gun. Our radioman tried to drop a smoke bomb where the pilot went down but the pressure in our plane blew the thing back inside. The sub wouldn’t approach the pilot with the Betty coming in ready to attack. We swung around and fired on the Betty. As soon as he saw us, he fled the scene. We dropped another smoke bomb and the sub surfaced and began searching. We never did know what happened to the pilot.The worst thingAbandoning a friend in combat was the worst thing I had to do in the war. We were on a bombing run when one of our planes got hit, probably with flak, knocking out and blowing up one of its engines. When going into a target, you have to go in at full bore and pick up all the speed you can. The pilot in the injured plane couldn’t keep up and began to drop back. We could see fighter planes rising up to pick him off so I opened up with my machine guns to try to drive them off. “Who’s firing?” Our pilot asked. I answered, “This is Combs, left gun.” He said, “Well, quit that. You’re not doing them any good. We may need the ammunition later.” So I quit firing. I can still see that plane as it dropped back and the fighters just swarmed all over it, circling like buzzards. They knocked the plane down and we saw some chutes open, but not all of them, so I don’t know whom or if any actually survived. It’s terrible just go off and leave your friends and not be able to do anything for them.Twenty-one missions over Japan We flew 21 missions bombing Japan. Usually we were bombing shipyards and other heavy industries. Yokohama was a big industrial area so we would bomb that a lot. We dropped a variety of bombs, sometimes they were 1,000 pounders and other times we let them have it with cluster bombs or firebombs that would spread apart and cover a wide area. I don’t think a bullet ever hit us since we pretty well kept enemy fighter planes away from us. But, flak was another matter. One of our turret gunners almost got it when a piece of flak hit the turret a few inches from the little bubble he was sitting in, just barely missing his head. Our plane had a huge tail and it wound up with lots of holes in it. Flak would come up no matter where we were. The Japanese had some pretty sophisticated equipment on the ground – maybe they got it from the Germans – and they could put a searchlight on our plane and synchronize it with their flak guns. We were really scared of those lights. I was flying tail gunner one night on one wing and started to slide down. I was getting pretty nervous. Nobody said anything, so I asked, “Is anybody up there?” I didn’t get an answer so I prepared to pop open the window ad parachute out. About that time the plane kind of levelled out, slid over a bit and revved the engines back up again. The pilot called out, “Is something the matter with you back there, Combs?” I said, “Yes sir, I didn’t think anybody was here but me.” He said, “Well we wanted to get out of that spotlight We didn’t want it zeroed in on us so we dropped down ad got out of there as fast as we could.” It was close to the time for the atomic bomb attack and our whole island was under tight security. Saipan was only ten miles from where we were and we knew that something was up. No one told us anything about the bombing until the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly thereafter, our government wanted to get the word out to Japan that we were going into an all out effort to win the war o they ordered up all the aircraft and ships they could find from the Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Devastation at Hiroshima Our planes all got up about the same time and we were soon flying in a whole armada of airplanes. The air was just full of planes and the Navy had their war ships in the water. We were just showing what we had and what they would have to put up with. The people of Japan got messages from our military commanders telling them how futile further resistance would be. In the meantime we flew over Hiroshima to see what it was like. It was something awful. We saw total devastation. The war ended soon after that. I was discharged as a staff sergeant and wound up working on my Pappy’ farm back in the states. I’ve had quite a few jobs over the years, as diverse as being a Protestant minister to riding shotgun on an armored truck. Then, in 1972, I found myself in a war zone again. I’d taken a civilian job with the Army Aviation Command in 1967, designing packaging and shipping containers for parts for our military forces I Vietnam.In Vietnam as a civilian in 1942 In 1972, I volunteered to go to Vietnam to help coordinate and bring back retrograde aircraft to be repaired and refurbished for further service back in Nam. The cultural shock I was in for, seeing the difference in attitudes in our civilian and military personnel that came about between WWII and Vietnam, was heart-breaking.Rampant crime The saddest thing I saw was that drugs were everywhere. The troops had it available to them at any time and place. It was that prevalent and nobody seemed to care much about it. Also, the black market in military equipment was rampant. If there were a market for it in Nam, shipments of equipment we needed would disappear as soon as it was unloaded. It was pretty obvious that some of our people were willing to let our materials go to the black market as long as they got a cut out of the deal. The French and Catholic influence was great. We had young Vietnamese women in our office that could peak and write three languages: Vietnamese, English, and another one. They appeared to be of a pure race, educated by the Catholic Church, were very intelligent and their families usually ran the stores and local businesses On the other hand, another group had migrated in and did a lot of the hard work. They were mostly Buddhists, didn’t care much for the Americans, wore red robes or black pajamas and had many prostitutes in that group. The prostitutes operated both in the hotels and on the street. They were everywhere and their little brothers would come up and proposition you for their sister, aunt, mother or whoever. It was a kind of culture you didn’t want to raise your family in.Who cares? I spent two brief tours in Nam, always on military bases, as it was dangerous to leave them. Besides the graft and black market and drugs, the big differences between Nam and WWII was that in WWII you had to stick with the rules or you got into big trouble. In Nam I aw and heard the attitude of “Who cares?” by some of our people. The government didn’t and their attitude was noticeable in them and Vietnamese civilians. The Vietnamese officials working with us were terrified as the war wound down and they aw that we were preparing to abandon them in the Viet Cong. Their chances were very bad and they said that they would be killed after we left. Maybe they were, I don’t now. We had people disappearing from our offices left ad right. One morning, I went to our office and none of the young women showed up for work. We sent people to find them, but they’d disappeared. Some speculated they went to join the Viet Cong but I don’t think so. I think they wanted to escape and wet to Thailand or the Philippines or some pace like that. Not wanting to fight the system any longer, I resigned my position about 6 months before the end of the war and headed home. Again.Note from Ernie Frazier – Frank is tall and unassuming, a humble, gentle man who came from a strong Christian background. After his military service, he worked for some time as a minister but found he wasn’t cut out for it. He was a stockholder and worked in his family’s automotive supply business until it was sold. He and his wife, Emily, are retired and live in Rogers, Arkansas.