WWII bomber crew saluted in annual Namhae ceremony
One week before the end of World War II, two U.S. bombers took off from Okinawa at night to scour the waters off Japanese-held Korea in search of any enemy ships they might pounce on in the darkness.
Within hours, sometime after 3:20 a.m., they spotted a 200-foot vessel. Bomber 780 scored a direct hit and left it dead in the water. It was Aug. 7, 1945.
The bombers were B-24 Liberators of the 868th Bomber Squadron. Bomber 780 returned at 8:54 a.m. But Bomber 131 — Lady Luck II — was nowhere in sight.
Its fate eventually would become the subject of annual U.S.-South Korean memorial services in South Korea, including one last week.
“The cause and location of disappearance is not known,” according to wartime squadron records of the mission provided to Stars and Stripes by the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
American ships and planes searched the southern coast of Korea but the efforts yielded “nil reports and nil sightings,” according to the squadron records.
After a month, the squadron adjutant recommended the crew members be listed as missing in action. The report was headed: “Abandonment of Search.”
After the war ended and U.S. forces moved onto Korea, they learned what had happened to the missing aircraft and crew.
The bomber had crashed into Mangwoon Mountain, which rises 2,600 feet above Namhae Island. The entire crew was killed.
Kim Duk-hyun was among several island residents who watched Japanese loot the bodies, leaving them unburied, Kim told Stripes in a 1995 interview.
Kim later sneaked back and buried the crewmembers. When U.S. troops came to the island, he led them to the graves.
He eventually erected a granite monument to the crew and has held an annual memorial service for them every year since 1945.
On Wednesday, the U.S. military joined Kim, now 92, and others inside Namhae’s local Rotary Club headquarters for the 61st consecutive service.
Wartime records give the crew’s jobs and hometowns:
Staff Sgt. Thomas G. Burnworth, gunner, Confluence, Pa.; Staff Sgt. Walter R. Hoover, gunner, Salisbury, N.C.; 2nd Lt. Ronald L. Johnson, bombardier, Red Wing, Minn.; 1st Lt. Edward B. Mills Jr., pilot, Carbondale, Pa.; Staff Sgt. James E. Murray, engineer, Ann Arbor, Mich.; 2nd Lt. Joseph M. Orenbuch, navigator, Boston; Staff Sgt. Henry C. Ruppert, radar operator, New York; Staff Sgt. John F. Regnault Jr., radio operator, Philadelphia; 2nd Lt. Nicholas M. Simonich, co-pilot, Chicopee, Mass.; Sgt. Warren E. Tittsworth, assistant engineer, Tampa, Fla.; and Sgt. Steven T. Wales, gunner, Sacramento, Calif.
“The recovery of these valiant airmen could well have been lost had it not been for the selfless efforts and humanity of Mr. Kim Duk-hyun and his fellow neighbors,” Army Lt. Col. Roger R. Dansereau said in remarks at Wednesday’s service. Dansereau commands the Army’s storage facility in Busan.
The Japanese found out what Kim had done and tortured him, Dansereau noted.
“But he persevered” and helped repatriate the remains when the Americans arrived, “bringing closure to family members who might otherwise never have known the fate of their loved ones.”