There is no bigger thrill, Raymond Plank says, than watching a squadron of American bombers going in on a bomb run.
“The flight ahead of you is flying over the antiaircraft fire of the Japanese. This antiaircraft fire is bursting everywhere around you,” he said. “So if you are, say, the second squadron to go over the target, you’re watching the first squadron get the s — shot out of them.”
At the Ucross Foundation’s Fourth of July celebrations, he has just to watch the fireworks streak, boom and thunder in the air and he’s right back in World War II.
Plank’s war is bookended by two defining moments: The first when he listened to President Roosevelt’s “Infamy Speech,” when he knew he would be going to war. The second as he watched the smoke rise from Nagasaki, when he knew he would be coming home.
Plank grew up on an 80-acre farm outside of Minneapolis, Minn. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps before America had even joined the fight, when he was a freshman at Yale University. He’d always wanted to fly and his parents couldn’t afford lessons and pay Yale’s $900 tuition. He enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, sponsored by the government to prepare young men for military service and increase the number of civilian pilots, as he waited for the Army to call him to activity duty.
On Dec. 7, 1941, just after hearing about Pearl Harbor, he and some friends hopped on a train to Washington, D.C. They knew Roosevelt would address Congress and that Congress would declare war. They wanted to see history in the making.
Too many people had the same idea, though. They stood outside the next day in the cold and knew they wouldn’t get in. Plank snapped some photos of Roosevelt as he drove to Congress, but he and his friends listened to the speech on a radio.
He was called for active duty in 1943 and earned his wings in May 1944. For a short while, he was an instructor, deciding whether border-line cadets should be busted out or given their wings. But he didn’t join the military to teach, “I joined to kill the enemy.”
In November 1944, he arrived in New Guinea with the 64th squadron, 43rd Bomb Group, Fifth Air Force. Of his 40 combat missions over the next eight months, his squadron took hits on 19. Three of Plank’s bombers were so badly damaged they never flew again. On one flight in particular, flak injured three of Plank’s crew.
“The nose gunner had a large piece of flak pass through his foot. It was sticking out the top of his boot,” Plank said.
“The bombardier pulled him back and laid him down on the flight deck and, my god, he’s screaming and bleeding to death. We put a tourniquet around it and tightened it up and then Roy pulls the flak the rest of the way through. That scrunches the rest of his bones in his foot. Not too pleasant.”
The closer the 64th advanced toward Japan, the more vigorously the Japanese defended their homeland. Plank flew to Leyte, where he caught his first glimpse of Kamikazes crashing into the ships in the water; to Corregidor Island, site of the Bataan Death March; to Formosa, now called Taiwan, where he would face some his most dangerous missions. He saw Americans jump out of planes, only to be purposely shot in their parachutes.
“Europe was presumably bound by the terms of the Geneva Conference and they had rules for how they could fight a war,” Plank said. “Well, hell, in Japan they understood that ... dead pilots didn’t come around and fly again and blow up their people. In war, you have to eliminate enough of your enemy so they don’t want to continue to fight.”
Plank understood it too. It’s why he went to war.
American airmen had to unlearn what they had been taught in the states: In case of capture, give your name, rank and serial number.
After Corregidor, they met survivors of the Bataan Death March, some with arms so badly broken, they couldn’t lower them.
“And they said, ‘This is why, no matter what you’re told in training, you do not want to be taken prisoner.’ You didn’t have to look at them very much to know that that was not for you. You either had to fight your way out or shoot your way out or be killed,” Plank said.
“Since they particularly delighted in torturing officers, I flew with a baseball cap, no dog tags for identification ... We weren’t going to give them anything.”
The second bookend to Plank’s war came in August 1945.
Plank was by then stationed at Ie Shima, located off the northwest coast of Okinawa and one of the major points from which Americans bombed Japanese islands toward the end of the war. From this base, Plank twice bombed the Nagasaki.
On Aug. 6, all air combat missions were cancelled. Airmen figured out why when they heard what Little Boy did to Hiroshima.
On Aug. 9, air missions were cancelled again. Joe Sharpe, a friend from advanced training, flew a C-46 cargo plane from Okinawa to visit Plank on the down time. The two flew back to Okinawa for lunch and to kill some time. As they flew back, they got to thinking: The last time bomb crews were grounded, America dropped the most powerful destructive force in the history of mankind. Surely something else was coming. If they flew that direction, toward Japan, what might they see?
On the other hand, they reasoned, getting caught would mean a court marshal and dishonorable discharge, no doubt about it. Was it worth the risk?
“So we said, ‘What the hell! This is real history in the making. Let’s go,’” Plank said.
They flew at 10,000 feet, low enough to keep the B-29s above them, high enough so that curvature of the earth wouldn’t disrupt their view.
They flew for an hour or two, growing more and more nervous. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe they should turn back. And then, there it was, visible out the co-pilot’s window:
“And it was still rising. It hadn’t even blossomed out the top yet. It was the bomb for Nagasaki.
“We saw the thing building, then we saw the mushroom on the top.”
They were about 80 miles away, Plank figures. They watched for what seemed like forever, but probably wasn’t more than five minutes.
“We had a lot of things going on inside us. Here we are, watching a God——, blow-’em-away bomb.”
With that power, that weapon, it was just a matter of time. They knew the war was over.