During World War II, I was a 26-year-old Major in the Twentieth Air Force (20th Bomber Command), 468th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Force. I was a B-17 and B-29 flight instructor, a veteran of 17 prior bombing missions, and Commander of the 793rd B-29 Superfortress Squadron flying out of the U.S. Army Air Force base at Kharagpur, India. And I was the pilot of B-29 No. 42-24704, the Postville Express.
On January 11, 1945, there were 47 B-29s operating out of the Kharagpur base in Northeast India. We took off on our missions in four-plane formations to bomb the Japanese-occupied dry docks at the Naval bases around Singapore Island 1,900 miles away.
These missions were the longest B-29 Superfortress flights ever flown, a 3,800-mile round trip. Each plane could only carry four 1,000- pound bombs to save fuel consumption and make the extended mission possible.
At the halfway mark of the flight, the squadron was on course and schedule when things took a turn for the worse. The weather reporters back at the home base in India had forecast the weather wrong along the flight path. Halfway down the east coast of Malaya, the B-29s encountered unexpected icing conditions and dangerous updrafts and downdrafts that decimated many of the B-29s. Because of the unforeseen weather, only 25 of the 47 B-29s in the squadron made bombing runs on their designated targets in Singapore.
The B-29 No. 42-24691 with Captain Johnson at the controls flew into some extreme turbulence. The four 1,000-pound bombs broke loose from the bomb rack shackles during a violent uplift and fell into the South China Sea. Having lost his bombs, Captain Johnson aborted the mission and returned to base.
Captain Bores, the pilot of B-29 No. 24487, fought a downdraft that took his bomber and crew from 25,000 feet to 15,000 feet. Minutes later, in an updraft, they shot back up to 18,000 feet, and then the turbulent winds pushed the B-29 back up to 25,000 feet. This strong turbulence caused severe damage to the flight instrument panel, making the plane even more challenging to control in the adverse weather. The violent change in direction ripped the radar operator’s seat from the floor and threw him against the wall, and the plane’s life raft popped open inside the plane. During another violent updraft, the four 1,000-pound bombs snapped out of the bomb rack shackles, broke through the bomb bay doors, and fell into the open waters below. Left with no weapons and a crippled ship, Captain Bores, like many other captains, aborted the mission and turned back for the home base in India 1,000 miles away.
The severe turbulence pushed the Postville Express from 25,000 feet up to 32,000 feet in just seconds, and the cold, wet weather coated the wings with ice. However, we could still fly and leveled off to 25,000 feet again. We continued unscathed toward our target 800 miles away.
Because of weather damage, three of the four B-29s in my formation needed to abort the mission and return to the base at Kharagpur, India. Determined to complete the mission, I continued, even though we were now alone without all the machine gun firepower of a full four-plane formation to defend against the Japanese fighters we would encounter. We were the only plane to reach our designated target, King George VI Graving Dock.
We were flying at 23,000 feet over the Strait of Johor, a water body between the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore Island. The shining sun was in stark contrast to the severe weather encountered earlier on our flight along the Peninsula’s east coast. Across the glimmering Strait in the early morning hours of January 11, 1945, I could see Singapore Island coming into view.
As I turned the Postville Express toward Singapore, our target lay just ahead. We flew over the Admiralty IX Floating Dock at the expansive Sembawang British Naval Base of Singapore. This British base fell into Japanese possession when they occupied Malaya in 1942. The Japanese now used it as a repair shop and refueling station for the Japanese Navy’s fleet of battleships, heavy cruisers, and destroyers.
The dock looked minuscule from 23,000 feet above, and the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao in dry dock there looked like a child’s toy. Nearby, damaged in battle and dry-docked for repairs, lay the heavy cruiser Myoko, one of their lead ships. Its top deck was erupting in flames from its anti-aircraft batteries aimed straight at the Postville Express. Neither of these warships below, however, was our target. Our mission was to bomb the King George VI Graving Dock that serviced the most significant ships afloat and was vital to the Japanese naval war effort. We were finishing the job after sections of the dock survived an earlier bombing raid on November 5, 1944.
As we neared the target area, I banked the Postville Express and steadied her for the bombing run. We flew through heavy anti-aircraft flak bursting all around us, but the Postville Express flew on, miraculously unscathed.
The plane interphone communication system came alive to complete the bombing mission.
“Navigator to pilot: The heading is two-one-zero.”
“Pilot to navigator: Roger.”
Just as the flak subsided, all hell broke loose.
“Top gunner to crew: Six bogies at three o’clock low.”
All our heavy machine guns were firing at Jap fighters coming from every direction. Several thousand feet below, I could see 25 more Jap fighters headed upward toward us.
While the gunners were busy with the fighters, 1st Lieutenant William F. Duffy and I concentrated on the bombing run. Duffy was the bombardier who sat below me in the bombardier seat in the front window bubble.
“Pilot to bombardier: Has the ice on the bomb bay window melted yet? Can you see the target through the bombsight?”
Duffy focused all his attention on the window, hoping the ice would either melt or blow off as we approached the target. It was not happening.
“Bombardier to pilot: Negative. Can’t see a thing.”
“Pilot to bombardier: When you can see the target through the bombsight, advise. Otherwise, it will be a radar drop.”
As Duffy pulled back the bomb bay lever, he said, “Roger. Bomb bay doors open.”
“Pilot to radar: Prepare for radar drop.”
1st Lieutenant Martin J. Govednik, the radar operator, concentrated on his radar scope. It revealed the outline of Singapore Island and King George VI Graving Dry Dock in the northeast corner.
“Radar to pilot: Roger. Three degrees right.”
“Pilot to radar: Roger.”
I was now flying the B-29 under the radar operator’s guidance as we zeroed in on the target.
“Radar to pilot: One degree right. One minute to drop.”
“Pilot to radar: Roger.”
Duffy placed his hand on the bomb release lever as he waited for word from Govednik.
“Radar to bombardier: Five seconds to drop.”
Duffy timed the five seconds and then released the bomb load. “Bombardier to pilot: Bombs away.”
I held the ship on course for another 60 seconds to give the automatic camera time to record the four 1,000-pound bomb hits.
As the bombs left the bomb bay, three Zeros came at us head-on, rolling over onto their backs and firing their machine guns. Just before ramming us, they split and dove underneath us.
Tech Sergeant Ralph C. Lindley, the right gunner, drew a bead on the lead fighter. Squeezing off a quick burst, he observed a puff of smoke emerge from the plane and shouted, “I got one!”
Staff Sergeant Rouhier E. Spratt, the rear gunner, shouted, “Good shooting! It’s a flamer. It’s going down into the Strait.”
Top gunner Staff Sergeant John A. MacDonald yelled, “Here comes another one at ten o’clock high!”
Left gunner Tech Sergeant Harold A. Gillett said, “Yeah, I see him!”
As the Jap fighter drifted back toward eight o’clock, not more than 50 yards from our plane, Gillett riddled it with .50 caliber bullets.
Now Zeros and Oscars filled the sky. The Jap fighters raced to be in position ahead of us and above us. Then they turned back around and dove straight toward our plane with machine guns blazing. When the fighters almost reached us, they released aerial phosphorus bombs in front of us with long chains dangling and spiraling outward to entangle our spinning propellers. My stomach tightened as the speeding fighters swarmed around us with these flaming weapons. All I could think about were the thousands of gallons of gasoline in the wing tanks.
Enemy fighters streaked past the cockpit windows on both sides. My co-pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Robinson Billings, and I ducked. Both of us waited for the explosion, but none came. The fighter plane pilots misjudged the 700 miles per hour combined speed of the airplanes and missed us.
The tail gunner, Staff Sergeant Spratt, watched the flaming phosphorus spewing in all directions as the aerial bombs that just missed us were exploding behind the plane. With his bird’s-eye view from the tail gunner’s seat, Spratt, through the phosphorus bomb bursts, watched our bombs detonating around the dry dock below.
“Tail gunner to pilot: We hit the target. Bull’s-eye!” Spratt reported with enthusiasm.
“Pilot to tail gunner: Thank you for that excellent report, Spratt.”
The celebratory distraction was only momentary as Staff Sergeant MacDonald, the top gunner, shouted, “Six o’clock and coming fast!”
Spratt fired at the swooping Oscar as it flew by. The fighter was so close Spratt said he could see the staring face of the Japanese pilot.
The alerts came hot and heavy over the interphone.
Duffy yelled, “Bandits, twelve o’clock!”
“Two o’clock high! Watch out!” shouted MacDonald.
Lindley cried out in an irritated, intense voice, “Missed him. He’s coming round again! I’ll get the bastard!”
With all the gunfire and phosphorus bombs exploding around us, the Postville Express did not appear damaged anywhere where it hurt. All systems still worked fine, and the gunners were registering an incredible number of hits with their pair of .50 caliber Browning M2 machine guns on each turret. Spratt blew several Oscars out of the sky, and MacDonald, Gillett, and Lindley also scored some hits. The fighters, still not deterred, kept coming.
I turned to Billings in the co-pilot’s seat and said, “They said Jap fighter strength would be weak in this area. Where in hell are these guys coming from?”
“You’re right,” Billings replied. “They gave us the wrong dope at the briefing. We knew there would be some, but not this many.”
Duffy, sitting in the front window dome of the plane, was the only one to observe an odd-looking, different-colored grey fighter coming straight at us out of the sun. Duffy was firing his two .50 caliber machine guns at a standard silver Zero at eleven o’clock when the tinted grey Zero at one o’clock high caught his attention. Duffy spun around and trained his guns on the grey fighter, now 900 yards away and closing fast. As soon as the Zero was in the crosshairs of his sights, Duffy fired. The grey Zero never swerved. It came right at us with guns blazing and did significant damage to the Postville Express as it soared by a scant 50 feet above us.
The warning klaxon started blasting, signaling the pressurized cabin had ripped open. Dust flew throughout the plane as piercing cold air came rushing in.
I grabbed my oxygen mask and held it over my face. I yelled over the interphone, “Oxygen masks on! Everyone! Oxygen masks on now!”
I did not know what happened, but whatever it was, I knew it was severe. Hearing a low moan, I turned to my right and saw that a Jap fighter had shot my co-pilot, Billings. He was conscious and able to hold his mask on, but I could see blood oozing out of his flight suit around his left knee. He would need a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, and fast.
I pulled my oxygen mask down and shouted across to him, “Are you alright?”
Billings was in a daze but nodded and shouted back, “Okay, but I hope I don’t lose this leg. It’s a damn good one!”
I glanced to my right at the plexiglass dome and saw a bullet hole right over Billings’ head. I could feel my feet sending me a strange message. There was no pressure on the rudder pedals. They were loose, which meant damaged and useless rudder cables.
I yelled over to my co-pilot, “Billings! Try your controls!”
Billings reached out with his undamaged leg to check if his rudder pedals worked.
“No good! They’re out!” he yelled back and put his oxygen mask back on.
He slumped back in his co-pilot seat and appeared to be going into shock.
“Pilot to engineer: Billings has a wounded leg. Take care of him the best you can. He needs a tourniquet.”
I turned on autopilot, which we nicknamed George, to put the plane into a steep dive and gain more airspeed so we could outrace the fighters. After reaching 15,000 feet, I adjusted the autopilot control to bring the aircraft back to level. As we were leveling off, 1st Lieutenant Ernest C. “Cliff” Saltzman, the flight engineer, came on the interphone.
“Engineer to pilot: Look at number two engine. I think we are losing it.”
I twisted in my seat to inspect the engine. It was vibrating but otherwise appeared to be undamaged.
“Pilot to engineer: Feather number two, and calculate how far we can fly on three engines.”
“Engineer to pilot: Roger.”
“Bombardier to pilot: My guns are out. They will not fire.”
“Right gunner to pilot: Mine won’t fire either.”
“Top gunner to crew: The guns are out. Repeat, the guns are out.”
I realized they damaged the Central Fire Control System, which meant all the machine gun turrets were useless except for the tail gunner turret that operated on a separate system. The lone gray Nip did his job.
“Top gunner to pilot: Guns will track, but don’t fire.”
Tech Sergeant Gillett broke in, “What are we supposed to do? Spit at them?”
“Pilot to gunners: Track them anyway. Maybe it will deter some of them.”
Three Zeros from twelve o’clock high came at us in a towline attack with guns blazing. All three fighters hit their target, riddling the plane with hundreds of bullets.
Sitting there in the plexiglass nose, I felt helpless staring at the Zeros coming right at me with machine guns blaring. I felt like I was sitting in a goldfish bowl. It looked like everything was going to hell, and fast.
Saltzman, the flight engineer, was busy working on Billings’ leg to stop the bleeding. Tech Sergeant Michael A. Kundrat, the radio operator, tossed Saltzman a first aid kit. Saltzman tied a tourniquet around Billings’ upper leg, applied some sulfa powder to the wound, and packed it.
Jumping back into his seat, Saltzman calculated how far the plane could fly on three engines. After doing a few computations, he called, “Engineer to pilot: We can get to within 300 miles of Calcutta and ditch in the Indian Ocean.”
“Pilot to engineer: Roger.”
Noticing the sky in front of the plane seemed empty, I asked the crew to look around.
“Pilot to crew: What about the fighters? Do you see any?”
Several of the crew replied, “Negative.”
Just as I relaxed a bit, I heard, “Right gunner to pilot: Number three engine is on fire.”
“Pilot to engineer: Look at number three. Tell me how bad the fire is.”
Saltzman looked out his window and responded, “Engineer to pilot: It looks bad. I think we should shut it down.”
I replied, “Shut number three down and feather.”
“Engineer to pilot: Roger.”
“Pilot to engineer: Close the cowl flaps, and use fire extinguisher number one.”
“Engineer to pilot: Roger.”
Because I knew flying on only two engines would increase fuel consumption, I added. “Also, calculate how far we can go on two engines.”
“Engineer to pilot: Roger. Fire’s out on number three.”
“Pilot to engineer: Roger.”
Then I spotted two B-29s flying about a mile ahead of us, one with a feathered number two engine and the other with the bomb bay doors hanging open. I prayed we could catch up with them because we needed their machine guns for defense if there were any more fighter attacks. But with only two engines, I knew there was no way the Postville Express could do it.
Saltzman came on the interphone. “Engineer to pilot: I figure we can go about 500 miles, but it looks like we will have to ditch in the ocean.”
“Pilot to engineer: Roger.”
Hearing this, Captain Carl A. Hansman, the navigator, plotted a course and said, “Navigator to pilot: Five hundred miles will put us in a safe zone. Use heading zero one five.”
“Pilot to navigator: Roger.”
Glancing out his window, Saltzman was horrified to see flames streaming from the number three engine and shouted, “Engineer to pilot: Number three’s on fire again.”
“Pilot to engineer: Use the other fire extinguisher.”
“Engineer to pilot: Roger.” Saltzman pulled the lever controlling the number two fire extinguisher system and said, “That’s the last fire extinguisher.”
Using the last fire extinguisher appeared to have snuffed out the fire. But only seconds later, Saltzman shouted, “Engineer to pilot: Number three is on fire again!”
There were 2,800 gallons of gasoline in the flaming right-wing. It would be a miracle if it did not blow. I now knew we would not make it back to our home base 2,000 miles away at Kharagpur, India.
I thought it could happen to others but never to me. I was the lead bomber pilot on the first B-29 Superfortress bombing raid on the Japanese home islands and survived many subsequent bombing missions against those same islands. While bombing those islands, I witnessed the first reported kamikaze fighter attacks against B-29s that sent two B-29s and 22 crew members to earth. All were members of my squadron, and I would never see them again. Death was no stranger, but it had never come this close before.
I spoke into the interphone. “Pilot to crew: Prepare to bail out. Open emergency exit doors.”
I shouted to Billings, “Colonel, can you get to the escape hatch?”
“I can make it,” Billings yelled back and pulled himself up on his undamaged leg.
As I flipped the nose wheel switch, Billings turned to Saltzman and shouted, “Saltzman, open the escape hatch!”
Remembering our briefing instructions, I said, “Pilot to crew: I’m turning to fly over land so we can bail out into the jungle rather than the sea. Left gunner, acknowledge when everyone in the rear is ready to jump.”
“Left gunner to pilot: Roger.”
“Right gunner to pilot: The fire is coming up through the top of the wing.”
“Left gunner to pilot: All crew members in the rear are ready to jump at the rear door.”
“Pilot to left gunner: We are over roads and villages. Can we wait a few minutes before bailing out?”
“Left gunner to pilot: I’ll go back to the right gunner’s blister and look.”
Gillett clicked off the interphone. In a few seconds, he came back on. “Left gunner to pilot: The fire is terrible. It is streaming past the tail. We should bail out NOW!”
I could not see the number three engine. I yelled into the interphone, “Be ready to go in case the wing blows off before I give the order to bail out.”
Then whoosh! The wing broke off with nothing more than a soft explosion, flipping the plane over onto its side. The crew started jumping.
Saltzman rolled off his seat behind Billings and jumped feet-first down through the open nose wheel escape hatch behind the pilots. Duffy crawled up from the bombardier’s seat past Billings and me, bounced back and forth in the tumbling plane, and then took a tumble head-first down the hatch. Hansman and Billings went down the opening one after the other as the plane careened.
When Saltzman jumped down through the escape hatch, the plane turned, and he emerged, not in the cold open air but in a wall of burning gasoline from the right-wing tanks. He covered his face with his hands. The burning fuel seared his face, leaving the imprint of his hands and scorching the rest of his face and ears. The backs of his hands, burnt to the bone, took the brunt of the burning fuel and made them difficult to move. When his flight suit pant legs flew up in the wind above his boot tops, the fire also seared his ankles. Jumping through the flames and tumbling through the air, he somehow pulled his ripcord.
A few minutes later, he crashed down through the top of a tree. His parachute formed a canopy over the top branches and its shroud enveloped him as he swung in his harness 80 feet in the air. After catching his breath and trying to ignore the intense pain, he reached up to grab a branch and swung over to a crotch in the tree. Releasing his chute harness and encircling the tree trunk with just his arms and legs to avoid using his burnt hands, Saltzman slid down the trunk of the tree. About 30 feet from the ground, he could feel his strength ebbing and lost his grip. In desperation, he interlocked his fingers to keep from falling. He felt a sharp pain on the back of his left hand as the fingers of his right hand gouged his burnt flesh. Losing his grasp, Saltzman slid down the trunk, slammed into the ground, and fell backward, banging his head on a tree stump. He laid half-conscious on the ground for several minutes before realizing his surroundings. When awake, he saw his right hand held a fistful of flesh from the back of his left hand.
Lying under the tree, he tried to compose himself. For the moment, his mind was still half blank. He remembered bailing out, but he could not piece together what happened after that. Winded and in pain, Saltzman sat under the tree for a few minutes. He then attempted to patch himself up with the first aid kit he took from his jungle pack. With his eyes almost swollen shut, he couldn’t see as he fumbled with the bandages for several minutes with no success. Saltzman could still see well enough to notice all the burnt flesh pulled away from the back of his hand. After deciding to give up on his hands, he stumbled to his feet to begin a hopeful search for his fellow crew members.
Hansman and I had landed just half a mile away, but nobody knew where anyone else was at that point. The gloom deepened as Saltzman trudged along, unable to see more than a few yards ahead. He thought about how the briefings failed to teach the pure reality of survival in the jungle. Few people have an accurate idea of what it is like to be in the Malayan rainforest.
Being alone and reeling in pain from his injuries left Saltzman horrified. He wondered where the rest of the crew landed and was still unaware that Hansman and I were nearby. He hoped the others survived and were not suffering in pain from burns like he was. As he looked at the thick jungle around him, he remembered the knife in his survival kit. Then reality surfaced. Though he carried an Army-issued knife capable of cutting through some tangled vegetation of the thick jungle, his hands were skinless with the burnt flesh pulled away to where he could see his bones and tendons and useless. He thought to himself, “What a predicament for me to be in.”
At that moment, Saltzman was not sure if he could endure his situation. But as he pushed ahead, hoping to find other survivors, he hoped that none of them were suffering from the amount of pain he was enduring. After taking a few steps, he stopped when he saw a giant snake a few feet away, hidden in the brush, coiled up awaiting its prey. Saltzman stepped back about six feet into the undergrowth. He stood and stared at the snake, wondering what would happen next. The snake’s head must have been two feet above the ground, its body as thick as a telephone pole. To Saltzman’s relief, as he watched the snake, it uncoiled itself like a spring and glided away into the darkness of the jungle. Saltzman was sure it was a python and estimated that it measured somewhere between 20 and 30 feet long. He looked around for a second or two and walked on. Every step caused his head to throb, making him feel nauseous. He had a confused mind, and he hoped he did not have a concussion or worse. On top of it all, he had no idea where he was going, but he kept moving on, hoping to find a member of his crew.
When Saltzman had jumped through the plane’s open hatch, Duffy had already released his seat belt to bail out. When the Postville Express lost her wing, she hurled Duffy sideways to the floor. He grabbed the bottom of the co-pilot’s seat with both hands, trying to steady himself in the gyrating B-29 now descending in the air. Duffy pulled himself back up and headed for the escape hatch. Crawling on his hands and knees, he caught a glimpse of me unfastening my seat belt and saw Saltzman jump through the open hatch. When Duffy reached the edge of the escape opening, the plane pitched sideways, throwing him against the wall. When the B-29 turned again, it released Duffy from the wall, and he crawled back to the escape hatch opening. He jumped just as the plane flipped over again, slamming him against the edge of the escape hatch. He felt a sharp pain on his left side when he hit the jagged edge. Then he dropped through the nose wheel hatch, out of the plane, and into the air.
After waiting a moment to clear the falling plane, Duffy pulled his ripcord. He was relieved to see his parachute stream out above him. When the chute snapped open, the sudden midair stop wrenched Duffy’s side and caused him to cry out with a loud “Damn!”
As Duffy floated to earth, he moved his arms and legs back and forth, checking to see if they still worked. He was glad everything was functioning. Duffy wanted to make sure he could run when his feet hit the ground because he did not know if the natives scurrying around below were friendly or not. As he came closer to landing, he could see one native holding a large bolo knife in his hand and starting to move in his direction.
After Duffy landed in a large clearing at the edge of the jungle, he gathered up his parachute while keeping a close eye on the group of natives and the young Malay running toward him with the big knife. Dropping the chute, Duffy pulled his .45 caliber pistol and pointed it at the young native who came to an abrupt halt 10 feet away. The young man pointed to the parachute lying on the ground, held out his hand palm up, and smiled. It dawned on Duffy that all the young man wanted was the parachute. Duffy tried to speak to him with no success. Putting his gun away, Duffy made a friendly gesture toward the parachute. The young man grabbed the chute and disappeared into the jungle.
Exhausted, Duffy sat on the ground in the shade of a large tree at the edge of the jungle to ponder his situation, gather himself, and rest a few minutes. He heard a startling noise that caused him to jump to his feet. He pulled out his .45 and grabbed his side with the other hand. Something was thrashing around in the jungle brush right behind him. When Duffy stepped back a few feet for a better look, it surprised him to see Lindley appear out of the trees.
Lindley staggered up to Duffy and then slumped down beneath the tree without uttering a word. He appeared to be in a daze. It was clear to Duffy that the flames from the plane had burned Lindley’s body when he bailed out.
“Lindley, thank God we found each other! Can you talk?” When Lindley did not answer, Duffy became concerned. “Don’t go to sleep. We cannot stay here. We need to keep moving.” But the exhausted and burnt Lindley had already dozed off.
Meanwhile, as Saltzman staggered through the jungle, he realized the thick growth was thinning out a bit. Something stopped him in his tracks. Did he hear some voices, or was it his imagination?
Ahead, he could see what appeared to be a clearing through the trees and vines. As he crept up to the opening, it relieved him to see Duffy and Lindley sitting under a tree at the edge of the clearing.
“Thank God!” Saltzman exclaimed. “I never thought I would see you bastards again.” As Saltzman sank to sit beside them, he asked, “Have you seen any of the other guys? Did they make it?”
“Boy! It’s good to see you, Saltzman!” Duffy replied. “We haven’t seen a soul. But maybe the others will show up soon. Let’s hope so. Lindley’s in no shape to travel, and I may have broken a rib. It hurts to breathe. You don’t look so good yourself. Your hands look terrible, Saltz!”
Saltzman looked down at his charred and shivering hands and said, “My ankles are bad, too. I am having a hard time walking. My entire body feels like it’s on fire.”
As they were talking, another Malay native emerged from the nearby jungle and was approaching them. He appeared to be even younger than the one who took Duffy’s chute. The boy pointed toward an animal trail, saying in his best English, “You come. Others that way.”
Saltzman and Duffy looked at each other, wondering what he meant by “others.”
Duffy imitated an airplane with his arms and said, “Airplane?” The boy nodded his head up and down and said, “Come.”
“What are we sitting here for?” Saltzman exclaimed. “Let’s go!” When Saltzman grabbed his jungle kit, his burnt hands gave him a jolt of sharp pain, causing him to drop the kit and cry out, “Damn, that hurt!” Then he hauled himself to his feet, still grimacing with pain.
Duffy reached over to shake the dozing Lindley. “Wake up! We need to leave this area. Can you get up okay? We will walk slow. Come on. You can do it.”
Lindley looked around at the others through his swollen eyes and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Then, with Duffy’s help, he rose to his feet. After Duffy grabbed Saltzman’s jungle kit, the three of them followed the native Malay boy into the jungle. The bedraggled Airmen followed him around 200 yards on a jungle trail when the boy stopped and pointed at something in the trees. Half hidden by the underbrush lay a parachute harness, a jungle escape pack, and a rubber life vest.
Duffy bent over to pull them out into the open. “They’re Hansman’s!” Saltzman exclaimed. “Look! His name is on them. The damn Japs got him. The bastards! They’ve captured him!”
After Duffy saw Hansman’s chute and Hansman was nowhere in sight, he started thinking the boy could lead them into a trap. He might lead them right to the Japs. Duffy turned around and placed his forefinger over his lips to signal everybody to be quiet. He turned back around to grab the young Malay, but the boy was gone. He had already melted into the jungle.
Out of sorts, the three American Airmen hesitated for a few minutes, looking at one another, now unsure of their next move.
Duffy glanced both ways along the trail and whispered, “I don’t like the looks of this, but we sure as hell can’t go back to the plane. Let’s stick with the trail.”
Saltzman agreed. “Yeah, we have to keep moving. Let’s hope we don’t bump into any Jap patrols along the way. Be ready to dive into the underbrush if we do.”
With that, the trio headed down a narrow animal trail, Duffy in the lead with Lindley and Saltzman following behind. After walking less than a mile, they came on another clearing that looked like it was once part of the jungle but had been cleared off to be a farm. The area was extensive, 150 yards across and about a quarter of a mile long, surrounded by tall jungle trees. There was nothing but thick, dead grass about four feet high in the cleared area.
As they looked around, the far side of the clearing drew their attention. No one could speak for a few moments. Everyone stood there in silence, gazing upon the burning fuselage of a plane.
“It’s our plane!” Saltzman exclaimed. “It’s the Postville Express! I wonder if everyone got out. It’s a mess.”
The three astonished men looked at their B-29’s main fuselage without wings, engines, or tail, burning with 20-foot flames and black smoke filling the air above the wreckage. About 30 curious Malay natives wearing mismatched clothes were standing in the area around the remains of the burning Postville Express. One native wore a bright yellow silk shirt. Another Malay wore a white suit, and some others wore mismatched, nondescript clothing. This curious group was the American Airmen’s first introduction to the new Malay native culture they would come to know so well.
Duffy said, “Yup, that’s her alright. The end of the road for the Postville Express.”
Lindley said, “I hope everybody made it” and then sat down and passed out.
As Saltzman looked around, he said, “Do you see those guys over there with rifles? It looks like there’s about half a dozen of them.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Duffy replied. “But they look ragtag. They sure don’t look like Japs.
“No, they don’t,” Saltzman answered. “They haven’t seen us yet. Maybe we should hightail it out of here before they do.”
“Too late. See that guy pointing over here?” Duffy said. “Anyway, we can’t leave now with Lindley the way he is.” Glancing down at Lindley lying on the ground, Duffy added, “What do you say we try to get the submachine gun out of the plane. We sure as hell could use it.”
Saltzman gave Duffy a doubtful look and said, “Hell no! You and me against all those guys with rifles? Are you crazy? Our .45s would be like pop guns against those rifles and whatever else they might have. We would never make it across the field.”
“Yeah, maybe. But I still think we are going to need that damn zip gun. You never know. Maybe those people are friendly,” Duffy replied.
“Maybe,” Saltzman answered. “But we may not live long enough to find out.”
“Okay,” Duffy said. “But what do you suggest we do now? Go back into the jungle? We have to do something fast.”
Undecided, they both pondered their next move as they looked back in the burning plane’s direction at the multitude of natives, all now staring back at them.
“Listen.” Saltzman pointed toward the jungle behind them. “I hear someone coming.”
Leaving Lindley hidden in the tall grass, Saltzman and Duffy ducked into the nearby dense brush. Crouched, with guns drawn, they peered through the thick growth. Two figures emerged from the jungle, not 50 feet away. Saltzman yelled, “Don’t shoot, Duff! It’s Hump and Hansman.”