John P. Gunning Sr. served as the commander of a B-29 Superfortress, not to be confused with the B-17 Flying Fortress.
A bigger, more modern successor to the B-17 bomber, the B-29 had a much greater range and could carry a much heavier bomb load, which proved ideal for the air offensive against Japan in World War II.
That’s not to belittle the B-17, a workhorse that earned its stripes in Europe, where targets were closer and refueling more accessible. But for the long stretches over the Pacific Ocean, the Superfortress’ range of 1,200 to 1,400 miles one way and then all the way back without refueling was a necessity if bombs were to be dropped on the Japanese homeland.
The Japanese, though, were no pushovers. From land, they took careful aim with their anti-aircraft guns and sometimes succeeded in knocking out engines on the Superfortresses, forcing pilots and their 10 fellow crew members to make watery landings.
“Some of the ditchings were successful, but others were not. The plane would break apart, and result in the loss of the crew,” says Gunning, whose Superfortress often came under fire but was never forced to take a dip in the Pacific.
For those who survived the crashes, there was another challenge: getting picked up.
“I had a friend who floated around in the water for 24 hours before he was rescued. He had been terrified because he didn’t know how to swim, and his Mae West only half-inflated,” Gunning recalls, referring to the life vests whose curvy shape prompted them to be nicknamed after the actress. “Needless to say, we had a number of drinks together when he got back. He showed up at my hut with a jug.”
A 1940 graduate of Buffalo’s Burgard Vocational High School, Gunning had not sought to pilot such a massive aircraft as the Superfortress. He had gone to work at Curtiss-Wright’s aircraft plant on Vulcan Street following high school and helped build P-40 fighter planes.
A month after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces in hope of jumping into the cockpit of a P-40 and taking on the enemy. Instead, he ended up in a Superfortress because of an urgent need for that type of pilot.
“A lot of Superfortresses were getting shot down,” he says. “That changed in the later part of the war, with the Battle of Iwo Jima. That island was a halfway point between Japan and our base at Saipan. Iwo Jima could then be used as an emergency landing zone.”
Gunning said his crew continued dropping incendiary bombs on various cities right up until the fighting ended in August 1945, after the two atomic bombs dropped by B-29s led to Japan’s surrender Sept. 2. At one point after the war, his curiosity got the best of him, and he flew over Nagasaki, which, after Hiroshima, was the second A-bomb target.
“It looked like a city that had undergone a maximum effort of incendiary bombing. It was just burned out. Everything was flat. There was nothing there,” Gunning remembers. “Then, when we passed a pretty good-size hill facing the city, the vegetation was all brown, but on the other side, it was green.”
A member of the 499th Bomb Group, 878th Squadron, 73rd Wing of the 20th Air Force, Gunning temporarily earned a record for being airborne the longest on a mission, 17 hours and 30 minutes, flying to Japan and back from Saipan.
“That was on Aug. 31, 1945, just after the war. We were dropping supplies at POW camps on the Japanese mainland to assist American, British and Australian war prisoners,” Gunning says. “I was originally supposed to drop supplies in the Hiroshima District, but it was socked in with clouds. So I opted to go to the secondary location, which was down Shikoku, and I could see the prisoners in the compound running around and waving at us.
“The supplies were all different – medical, food, clothing, you name it.”
Gunning said he took the massive plane down to an altitude of a mere 200 feet and cruised at 160 mph when dropping the supplies by parachute from the two bomb bays to make sure they were delivered undamaged.
The excitement and gratitude of the prisoners of war below, he says, could be felt inside the plane.
A month after returning to civilian life in January 1946, he joined the Buffalo Fire Department, where he worked for decades before retiring in 1977. He and his wife, Mary Lawley Gunning, who died in December after 68 years of marriage, raised a family of four sons.
Of his military service, Gunning says, “I think about it, and I think how lucky I was. I had a guardian angel. I think about the guys who didn’t make it.”