WWII veteran was a pilot in a bomber over Japan
By JOHN BAYS | Lodi News-Sentinel, Calif. | Published: May 25, 2019
LODI, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Even at 101 years old, Elmo "Alex" Alexander can still remember his journey from humble beginnings as the son of a farmer in Kansas to a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying 13 bombing missions over Japan in World War II.
"I'm one of the few people they call the 'flyboys,'" said Alexander in his room at Brookdale Senior Living in Lodi. "It meant that we were pioneering the aviation world."
After graduating from high school near Parker, Kan. in 1937, Alexander attended several community colleges before earning his credential to teach industrial arts from Kansas State Teacher's College in Pittsburg, Kan.
While he was still earning his teaching credential, Alexander also enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program – a flight training program sponsored by the U.S. government.
After graduating from the CPTP in 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps – now known as the Air Force – in August 1941, just a few month before Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor.
After training on smaller aircraft throughout California, Alexander would eventually learn to pilot a B-29 bomber.
"We carried 10 tons of 4,500-pound bombs, and we carried 6,500 gallons of gasoline," Alexander said.
Alexander and his crew of 10 men trained in their B-29 – named the "20th Century Limited" – at Almagordo, N.M., for three or four months.
"We used to joke that 'Almagordo' meant 'Oh, my God, no,'" Alexander said with a chuckle.
After completing their training, Alexander and the crew of the 20th Century Limited shipped out to Saipan, an island in the Pacific Ocean. From there, he said, they flew 13 bombing runs over Japan.
During one such bombing run, they were directly underneath another B-29 when the man in the top dome of the 20th Century Limited told Alexander that the plane above them was about to drop its payload. Alexander was able to maneuver their plane out of the way just in time.
"If we'd been under there and they dropped those bombs, I wouldn't be here," Alexander said.
The bombing runs were long, Alexander said, requiring him and his crew to be in the air for up to 15 hours at a time.
The men needed food as much as their plane needed fuel during those long flights, so the aircraft was outfitted with two lockers containing their provisions: One in the front and one in the back.
"It looked very much like a footlocker. You could plug it in and warm up your food," Alexander said. "My copilot, he was the fattest of both of us, so he would make sandwiches for us."
Alexander's plane was hit with shrapnel only once in all of his 13 bombing missions, he said. They were never directly attacked by Japanese aircraft.
"They never bothered to come up, they knew they'd be mutilated," Alexander said. "We had 11 .50-caliber guns that those guys could train on anyone."
After returning to the United States in August 1945, Alexander eventually received an honorable discharge from the military but remained in the Army Air Corps Reserve for 20 years.
Although he was never called back to active duty, he never forgot the time he spent as air commander of the 20th Century Limited.
"That was a real good ship," Alexander said.
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