A tribute to 444th BG Veteran Dean Weber
Written by his son, Dave Weber.
Those of you who have read or heard about Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation” know that Tom attempts to honor the people who fought and won World War II. Pointing out that World War II veterans are now passing away at the rate of over 1,000/day, he felt it important to remember and honor the people who sacrificed so much, since time (and questionable history education) has resulted in younger generations forgetting or failing to appreciate what these people did – which literally was to save the world!
I agree with Tom Brokaw. This short paper is my attempt to honor one of the people who helped win the war – my dad Dean Weber, who happily is alive and well at 78 years old, living in Wilmington, North Carolina. During a visit this year, I forced my dad (I’m bigger than him) to sit down and tell me about his World War II experiences. He wasn’t a combat soldier or a hero – just one of a multitude of men and women who did what needed to be done. Here’s his story:
Dad was a 19 year old student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1942 and was a member of the Army Reserves. He was activated on December 12, 1942 – barely a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The war in the Pacific had been going badly. Following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had successfully invaded much of southeast Asia, taking control of Burma, Singapore, the Philippines, much of China and many other countries. On the day dad entered the service, U. S. Marine, Army, and Navy forces were struggling to hold the vital island of Guadalcanal and its pivotal airfield. The outcome of the war was very much in doubt.
Dad was sent to basic training in Texas and hung around afterward to take a battery of placement tests. He did well on the cryptography (codes) test, and was sent to cryptography school at Pawling, NY.
He successfully completed the 6-8 week course and after waiting a while was finally assigned to the newly formed 444th Bomb Group – an Army Air Force B-29 Bomber unit. The unit was formally activated on March 1, 1943. Dad would not fly but was part of the large contingent of ground support people who would make it possible for the airmen in the Bomb Group to do their jobs.
The B-29 Superfortress bomber was a brand new airplane and in 1943 was just coming off the assembly line at the Boeing Company. It was specifically designed as a very long range bomber with the capability of attacking Japanese forces in the Pacific, where long distance bombing was the only option in most cases.
Dad was sent for more training to Great Bend, Kansas where many of the B-29 units were getting organized and where the new B-29’s were being checked out by the flight crews as they were flown in from the factory. There were many mechanical and technical problems with this new airplane which had to be worked out through a lengthy process of trouble-shooting. The plane was not really ready for combat, but the need for it was too great and the planes were modified “on the fly”.
Finally, Dad’s overseas orders came through. His unit was headed to India! He left the U. S. at Charleston, South Carolina on a cargo ship with many other service men. Explosives were the main other cargo on the ship, which made for a nervous trip. The ship made a safe crossing of the Atlantic Ocean as part of a huge convoy escorted by many destroyers. Dad remembers seeing the Rock of Gibraltar as they entered the Mediterranean Sea and also recalls the volcanic glow from Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. The ship reached land for the first time at Oran, Tunisia and everyone was given 3 days leave. They continued on to Bombay, India where they disembarked from the ship and were loaded on a train for the 3-4 day trip to Calcutta. From there, it was a 200 mile truck ride to their base at Charra, India. It was spring of 1944. Charra was a newly built air base and was a hot, dusty, dirty, awful place by everyone’s testimony.
Dad was finally put to work as a cryptographer - coding and decoding messages at the 444th Bomb Group headquarters. Most of the messages were from Calcutta. There were several cryptographers working at Charra. They used a coding/decoding machine and the process was fairly simple – typing the message into the machine and getting the results out. The cryptographers worked 8 hour shifts and the flow of messages was virtually continuous. They hand-delivered decoded messages to the intended recipient. Dad was promoted from private to staff sergeant while at Charra. It was hot as hell in Charra. The men spent the time trying to stay cool but did play some football and softball. Some entertainers from the U.S. came over to entertain the troops and dad remembers seeing Lily Ponds, Andre Kastelanitz and his Orchestra, and Eddie Bracken.
The B-29’s were flown in to Charra and other bases in India, still having mechanical problems and being modified continually to solve them. On June 5, 1944, bombers from dad’s unit flew the first B-29 bombing mission of the war. Nine aircraft bombed Japanese forces in Bangkok, Siam – now known as Thailand. Ten days later on June 15, eleven planes from the 444TH Group participated in a night bombing mission to Yawata, Japan. This was the first bombing of mainland Japan since the famous Doolittle Raid. The B-29’s were now doing the job they had been built to do – long range bombing of Japan and the far-flung Japanese armed forces.
Dad’s Group was moved to another air base at Dudkhundi, India – equally hot and dirty as Charra. Part of the 444th Bomb Group was soon sent to fly out of China while the rest continued from Dudkhundi. Dad volunteered to go to China but did not get selected. In March of 1945, the 444th completed operations in India and shipped out for the South Pacific. U. S. ground forces, at very great cost in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, had taken key islands from the Japanese – including Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Tinian. Air fields were constructed on all three islands – primarily for the use of B-29’s for bombing of Japan. These bases were much closer to the Japanese mainland than those in India or China.
While on Tinian, in addition to his cryptography duties, dad also was assigned to both play records and make announcements over the camp’s loudspeaker system. I picture him as being a combination of Radar O’Reilly from M.A.S.H. and Robin Williams from Good Morning Vietnam. Dad claims to not remember making any humorous announcements, phony reports, or practical jokes during this stint as a broadcaster. Those of you who know him now undoubtedly join me in finding this hard to believe! He also found time to play saxophone in the army band, the “War Department Peasants” while on Tinian.
The 444th Bomb Group, along with many others, extensively bombed Japanese military installations and cities in an attempt to put an end to the war, which by now was clearly unwinnable by Japan. The B-29’s destroyed almost all the major cities on Japan by fire-bombing and their ability to wage war was all but gone, but the Japanese still refused to surrender. In order to avoid the necessity of an invasion of mainland Japan, which would certainly cost hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese lives, the decision was made to use the newly developed Atomic Bomb. On August 6, 1945 the B-29 “Enola Gay” departed from Tinian and dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. The Enola Gay was not from dad’s bomb group but he was on Tinian when it took off.
When Japan still refused to surrender, a second Atomic Bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later – August 9. There was still no announcement of surrender from Japan, and conventional B-29 bombing of Japanese cities continued. Thirty-seven aircraft from dad’s group flew their last mission of the war on August 14, 1945 – bombing Hikari, Japan. Shortly thereafter Japan unconditionally surrendered, with surrender documents being signed on September 2, 1945 on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Dad remembers a big celebration on Tinian when the end of the war was announced – no surprise there. Three days after the war ended, dad took his first and only flight in a B-29. He and others were offered the opportunity to fly over Tokyo, which he did.
Civilization would be very different now had not the allies joined together to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan in the 1940’s. It’s easy for people today to assume that an allied victory was inevitable – it wasn’t. Our lives might be very different now had the Marines not held the airfield at Guadalcanal, had the Battle of Midway been lost, had the British not broken the German codes, or had Hitler not refused to send up immediate reinforcements on D-Day. It was a close thing. Thanks to the millions of people who fought in World War II or supported those who did, we live the lives we do in 2001. Come to think of it, my dad is a hero – he helped save the world!
- Dave Weber
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