Sunday, February 16, 2014

A day of fire and death from the sky lives on in memory

Stan Abele was on display on the hangar deck of the Midway, the retired aircraft carrier that is now a museum in San Diego. As he often does, Commander Abele stood and answered questions beside a plane like the one he flew onto the carrier Bunker Hill during World War II.

"Unconditional Surrender," the sculpture in San Diego
harbor. The Midway is in the background.
The name “Bunker Hill” won’t ring a bell with most people today beyond its association with the Revolutionary War monument in Charlestown, near Boston. But to the dwindling number of people of the World War II generation, the name might still recall a tragedy.

Abele was there when the tragedy happened and told the story to anyone who paused to speak with him last Saturday during a tour of the Midway. From the ship’s flight deck, you can look out upon the city’s harbor and down upon the statue of the kissing sailor and nurse, a representation of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous Life magazine photograph in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945.

Abele’s story is one many of his fellow pilots did not live to tell. I will share it with you as he shared it with me, but there is much more to Stan Abele than one old war story, even one this dramatic.

Abele, a retired 91-year-old naval fighter pilot, served in three wars – a win, a tie and a loss, as he can now say with a chuckle. He is quick to describe the third one, the loss – Vietnam – as a dumb war misdirected by armchair bureaucrats. He is especially critical of Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, and tells a personal story to show how brainless U.S. tactics could be.

Retired Commander Stan Abele
One job Abele did during the Vietnam War was to estimate how many bombs it would take to destroy a target. One day U.S. reconnaissance detected a new wooden bridge across a river on an enemy supply route. How many bombs would it take to destroy the bridge? Well, Abele thought, just one if it scored a direct hit. He called for 15, and the fighter-bombers destroyed the bridge.

But the North Vietnamese had lots of trees, and the next day the bridge reappeared in reconnaissance reports. The fighter-bombers destroyed it again.

The North Vietnamese chopped down more trees and rebuilt the bridge. They also moved a surface-to-air missile site near the bridge. When the planes came to destroy it, the enemy shot one down. “We lost a pilot,” Abele said, shaking his head. “It was a stupid war, stupid war.”

If any event in American history foretold the evil of the 9/11 attacks, it was the Japanese kamikaze missions of World War II. Like other Pacific veterans I have interviewed over the years, my late father Charlie Pride, who fought with the First Cavalry, often spoke of the Japanese determination to die for Emperor Hirohito. They used suicidal tactics in battle and even persuaded women who lived with them on occupied islands to kill themselves and their children rather than risk capture by Americans.

The kamikaze attacks ignited fires and explosions aboard the Bunker Hill
The kamikaze missions epitomized this desperate, suicidal war-making, and Stan Abele survived nearly the worst of them.

On the morning of May 11, 1945, the Bunker Hill was supporting the invasion of Okinawa. Abele had just left the ready room and was on deck climbing into his F4U Corsair fighter plane, with wings up before takeoff, when the first kamikaze struck.

The pilot, Seiz┼Ź Yasunori, let loose his 550-pound bomb, but it crashed through the deck and out the side of the Bunker Hill without exploding. Yasunori’s plane hit Abele’s raised wing and skidded into the planes behind him in the flight line. The planes were loaded with fuel and ammunition, and the explosions and fire killed all the pilots.

Thirty seconds later, a second kamikaze, piloted by 22-year-old Kiyoshi Ogawa, streaked out of the clouds as Abele climbed out of his damaged plane. Ogawa’s bomb penetrated the deck and exploded in the ready room that Abele had just left, killing all 30 pilots gathered there. Ogawa’s plane crashed through the deck near Abele but did not explode and did not penetrate the top of the hangar deck below.

The attack caused massive fires and casualties. As he told his story, Abele paged through a notebook of mostly black and white photos. Some showed fire and destruction, one a clutch of bodies of Americans who were trapped in the fires. He still seemed amazed that he had escaped death twice in a couple of minutes. Beyond luck, he could offer no explanation for it.

The human toll was 389 dead crew members, including 43 whose bodies were never found, and 264 wounded. Many crewmen were either blown overboard or forced to jump to escape the fires. That is how Abele survived. He lost a shoe in his 60-foot leap and spent the afternoon in the water before being rescued.

He was aboard the Bunker Hill in time to see the bodies awaiting burial and the ruined aircraft being pushed overboard. The next day more than 300 men were buried at sea. The ship made it back to the States for repairs. 

Kiyoshi Ogawa
The story has a postscript that Abele did not mention. Robert Schock, a Navy salvage diver, found Ogawa’s body in the cockpit of his Zero and retrieved photos, a letter and his nametag from his flight jacket. In 2001, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Schock’s grandson gave these mementos to Ogawa’s family.

Ogawa’s letter to his family read in part: “A man dies sooner or later. I am very proud to have lived a meaningful life. This is an honorable way to die.”

On the Midway nearly seven decades later, Stan Abele tells the story of May 11, 1945, in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. Many of the people who stroll past him on the hangar deck are of Japanese descent. Even in these new times, his story retains its shock and its power, countering Ogawa’s youthful delusions about what constitutes honor.

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