'A great feeling of relief and closure': World War II veteran meets with sister of crewmate who died
By SCOTT WUERZ | Belleville News-Democrat | Published: April 10, 2014
For 69 years, Shiloh resident Victor Morris dreaded facing the families of his crew mates who didn't survive when their B-29 bomber was shot down over Tokyo on May 24, 1945.
But he agreed to meet with Frances Corona, sister of Andrew Kierein who served as a gunner on the plane called "Danny-Mite." And on Wednesday, they sat at the dining room table of his home and passed around photos, newspaper clippings and beautifully handwritten letters that Corona has kept since the 1940s.
She even produced a Christmas card Morris sent the Kierein family in 1945. He'd forgotten he'd sent it.
"It was easier than I thought it would be," Morris said of talking about the horror of being shot down and taken prisoner. "I'm glad we were able to do it. I've carried around terrible guilt for so long. So I have a great feeling of relief and closure."
Corona, who inherited the task of researching everything there is to be found about her brother's service, his death and what happened to his body from her parents, said she mostly wanted to know from Morris what Kierein's life was like in the days before he died.
"What did you do in your spare time? Did you gamble?" Corona asked of life on the base on Saipan where the Danny-Mite was stationed at the time it was shot down.
Morris laughed as he reached out and put his hand on Corona's shoulder.
"Oh no," Morris said. "We played a few card games, I suppose. But we weren't gamblers. I didn't even drink."
But Morris assured Corona her brother was among friends and that they shared great times together in between harrowing flights even though Kierein was an enlisted man and Morris was an officer.
"There are no ranks in combat," Morris said. "We were all the same and we were like brothers."
Morris told Corona the crew of Danny-Mite mostly liked to pass the time between missions by going over to the camp where Navy Sea Bees stayed. Their name comes from the initials for their job -- construction battalion -- and what they did was build runways for the bombers, huts for their crews and anything else on the newly-captured pacific islands that needed to be built.
"The Sea Bees had the best of everything," Morris said. "They had steaks and they had an ice cream machine. I got a bottle of whiskey in my rations every month and some beer. We'd give them that and take them for rides on test flights in exchange for ice cream and steak."
A month before they were shot down, Morris said the Danny-Mite crew was given vacation time. They were sent to Oahu, Hawaii where they lounged on the beaches as a welcome break from braving flak over the Japanese mainland.
Morris remembered that the beaches of Hawaii seemed much more pleasant that the coral ones of Saipan. There, he recalled cutting his feet badly while running from Japanese fighters on a strafing mission.
A letter Corona showed Morris was penned by her brother on April 9, 1945, about a month and a half before he was killed in action.
"Went to Tokyo on April 7 and it was my roughest mission," Kierein wrote. "We got a few flak holes in our ship. Oh, yes, I shot down my first Jap fighter that day. It sure seemed funny to see him dive to the ground. I shot the whole right side of his wing off. He will never give us any more trouble."
Kierein said later in the three-page letter that he was close enough to completing his required 25 missions that he was anticipating coming home soon. And he admitted that he was afraid.
"I don't have too much to complain about except that I have had all of this war that I want," Kierein penned. "I have had the hell scared out of me more than once. We are getting plenty of glory but we have to earn it. I have never been so religious in my whole life."
He added "P.S.: Hope to see you in August. That is if everything goes well."
The Danny-Mite was hit in the wing by flak on its last mission. One of the engines caught on fire, then another. When the electrical system gave out, the plane's commander, Everett Zweifel, of Center, Texas, gave the order to bail out.
Morris said, he, the commander and the co-pilot bailed out the hatch over the landing gear. Separated by a raging fire in the tunnel over the bomb bay from the crew members in the back, Morris had no way to know if they got out.
Danny-Mite's left wing sheered off as the plane went into a spin and began to tumble to earth. He always thought it was the jar of the wing tearing off that flung him from the plane. But a letter Zweifel wrote to Kierein's family on Dec. 28, 1945 told a version of the story that Morris had never heard before.
Zweifel said he believed that a kamakazee crashed into Danny-Mite after it was already on fire which caused the wing to tear off and the bomber to go into a spin. He wrote that he thought the impact must have knocked the crew members who hadn't yet got out off their feet and the force of the spin prevented them from getting out.
Morris said he saw kamikazees attack other planes. But if one attacked Danny-Mite, he never saw it. He said he would be suprised a Japanese pilot would waste his life to attack a plane as beat up as his B-29 that was certain to go down anyway.
When he was captured by the Japanese, Zweifel said he was taken to the wreckage of Danny-Mite. There he said he saw no signs of any of the crew members with the aircraft.
Zweifel, like Morris, spent the last six months of World War II in a Japanese prison camp. Seven crew members died in the crash and Corona has been unable to learn for certain what happened to their bodies.
"There are some things I don't think we'll ever know," Morris said.
What Morris was sure of is that he was glad he finally agreed to meet with Corona who had tried to contact him repeatedly over the years.
"I always wondered what happened to those guys and I wanted to talk to their families," Morris said. "I just couldn't bring myself to it."
Corona told Morris he should put the guilt of surviving when his crewmates didn't aside.
"They're looking down on us right now from a better place than where we are," Corona told Morris. "There was nothing you could do to change things. It was God's will."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.