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Feature Article on WWII. Topic: WAR
Written by Rich Wallace in August, 1995

SIDNEY AIRMEN PLAYED ROLE IN DECISIVE BOMBING OF JAPAN

The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That subject, now being revisited by the print and television media, has stirred considerable debate and emotion. A recent television special on ABC in particular has drawn fire for its attempt to create a feeling of guilt among Americans today for the decision of President Truman to use the weapon. Before the historical revisionists have their day, the voices of our fighting men need to be heard. They remember. As the dramatic events of the war in the Pacific were coming to a close, three Sidney men were first hand witnesses to those events that are now being recast by others. One was a casualty and two survived. This is their story.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt decided that the funding and development of a powerful new weapon should be given top priority. The idea for the weapon was first conceived by Albert Einstein and communicated to President Roosevelt in 1939. Cast in a cloak of complete secrecy, the "Manhattan Project" involved the efforts of over 100,000 men and women at various locations in the country and ultimately cost two billion dollars. Amazingly, over the next four years, the secrecy of the project was maintained. Enrico Fermi and other top European scientists, forced from their countries because of the war in Europe, were critical to the eventual success of the program.

Although now well known because of the subsequent events that occurred there, Los Alamos, New Mexico was hardly a dot on the map when preliminary testing of various facets of the atomic bomb began. Most of the people stationed there had no idea of the significance or end result of their work. That included young second Lt. James Brecount.

Brecount was assigned to the test site by Special Order dated June 11, 1945. He had enlisted directly after high school as an aviation cadet. After eighteen months as a cadet and considerable training, Brecount was offered an opportunity to become an officer. He quickly accepted, and found himself headed for New Mexico. He became a bombardier on a B-29, and he was going to war!

At the right, Second Lt. James Brecount is shown here as a young serviceman before reporting to Los Alamos, N.M., where he took part in observation flights following detonation of atomic bombs.

 


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On the other side of the world, Harry Placke and Warren "Gene" Long were neck-deep in the war. After finishing high school in 1941, Placke enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, also as an aviation cadet. Placke's expertise flying the B-17 landed him a job as an instructor for over a year. Itching to get into combat, Placke got his break when candidates were sought to fly the new B-29. He was accepted into the program, and became an airplane commander, or pilot of a B-29. Gene Long did not enter the service until 1943, but he quickly completed training, and was at Saipan as the bombardier on a B-29 by December, 1944.

By early 1945 Placke was at Tinian Island in the Pacific. Both Long and Placke participated in numerous bombing missions over Japan until the end of the war. Lt. Long survived several near disasters, including the crash landing of his plane on a return run from Tokyo on February 25th. Back in New Mexico, Jim Brecount was waiting for his opportunity.

As the level of activity increased at Kirtland Air Force Base and Los Alamos, all the men knew something was up. The word was put out that a new weapon would be tested. The B-29 crews would be needed for "observation flights" after the testing. Brecount later recalled: "Of course, we knew nothing about the nature of the weapon or its radiation characteristics. That information was classified top secret."

The first detonation of an atomic weapon, known as the Trinity blast, occurred on July 16, 1945. The observation flights began immediately. Lt. Brecount's logs show a total of nine flights over the days that followed. The flights were uneventful, or so the men thought. Brecount and the rest of his crew would remain there until the end of the war, disappointed they had missed out on the action, but glad they would be going home alive.

At the same time Lt. Brecount was in the air observing the testing of this strange new weapon, Lt. Placke was at Tinian Island. Now, however, something was different. A new group of B-29 bombers, called the 509th Composite Group, had arrived. "We knew something was up," Placke recalls. "They were engaged in special training. However, none of us had any idea about the atomic bomb."

Col. Paul Tibbets, the air commander of the Enola Gay, recalls those hectic days leading up to August 6th. "Our men were the subject of taunts and jibes. We had our own quarters, and seemed to be living a bit high, thanks to the priorities that brought speedy response to our every requisition. It was an understandable case of jealousy."

As Brecount, Placke and Long along with millions of others committed to the war effort continued to do their jobs, decision time approached in Washington. As President Truman contemplated his decision, Pentagon planners were hard at work on Operation Downfall, the code name for the final plans to invade Japan. The first phase of the operation alone called for an amphibious operation utilizing over 1.5 million men, including the entire Marine Corps. General Douglas MacArthur estimated there would be one million U.S. casualties by the fall of 1946. The President approved plans for the invasion on July 24th.

The rest of the story is well known. The real question remains: was dropping the bomb the correct decision? Even after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took a unilateral decision by Emperor Hirohito to overrule a deadlocked War Cabinet and end the fighting. Secret documents discovered after the war disclose that U.S. military planners had seriously underestimated the strength of Japan's remaining air force - virtually all of which was being hidden and saved to defend the homeland from invasion. Rather than facing an estimated 300 kamikaze planes, the U. S. Navy would have been confronted with over 12,000 suicide missions.

Tibbets, now residing in central Ohio, believes firmly in the wisdom of Truman's decision. "To me, it meant putting an end to the fighting and the consequent loss of lives. In fact, I viewed my mission as one to save lives rather than take them." U.S. fighting men agreed. Harry Placke remembers that "Truman really had no choice. He saw what had happened on Okinawa with the kamikazes. We all wanted the war to end. Truman had a weapon that would end the war, and he had the courage to use it." Gene Long concurs. He laments the fact that "those who now criticize Truman's decision were not even born then. Many of them would not have been alive had the invasion of Japan with its attendant loss of life proceeded."

However, even the right decisions have unfortunate consequences. Having escaped the risks of combat, Jim Brecount moved to Sidney after the war. The effects of radiation exposure eventually got the best of him. He died later after experiencing years of failing health. The government never acknowledged his claims for service-connected disability.

Combat veterans Harry Placke and Gene Long returned to Sidney unharmed after the war. Lady Luck was with Placke again in Korea where he commanded a B-29, flying 30 missions, again escaping unharmed. All eleven crew members of Long's B-29 are still living. Such are the ironies of war. Placke and Long still reside in Sidney.

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Warren "Gene" Long of Sidney holds a painting of a B-29 bomber he served on during World War II.

 

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