The old man walked the length of the B-29 bomber on display at Tucson’s Pima Air and Space Museum. He sang a song as he walked beneath the open bomb bays, his voice hesitant and scratchy. But he knew the words, and he knew the melody. As he emerged from beneath the plane just before the nose wheel, he sang, “Gonna make a sentimental journey to renew old memories” … the chorus to “Sentimental Journey,” the Les Brown song made famous in early 1945 by Doris Day.
A glance at the name printed on the fuselage of the bomber above where the old man stood came as no surprise. It was he Sentimental Journey. And the man was Wenzel “Chum” Bohr, 91 years old and veteran of World War II. Bohr was the port scanner and gunner on the Sentimental Journey, one of a crew of 11 officers and airmen. He made 27 missions in the bomber from Guam and Iwo Jima in the closing months of the conflict with Japan.
I had the pleasure of having lunch with Chum and Dave Russell, a volunteer at the museum. Having learned of Chum’s talk, I had to stay and listen. Stories of vets always impress me as heroic, although most vets pooh-pooh the “hero stuff.” They’ll tell you they were just doing their job and trying to stay alive. That, in and of itself, makes them heroes, at least in my eyes.
Sitting comfortably beneath the wings of “his bomber,” Bohr related some of his war adventures. You judge how heroic they were.
Sentimental Journey was one of the late models produced by Boeing and flown late in the war. My mother’s brother flew in some of the earlier models rolling off the assembly line and ferried to the war zone, with only a minimum checkout.
The B-29 had its share of problems, resulting in the loss of a number of planes. Bohr confirmed that. “We had engine problems. All kinds of mechanical problems,” he says. “Mostly because of the new technologies we all had to learn.” The crew had trained on B-17s and B-24s and now had to be trained for this new, sophisticated airplane.
The B-29 was one of the first airplanes with a pressurized cabin, so it could be used for high-altitude bombing missions. However, Bohr explains, “From high altitude to the ground, weather patterns change, and it’s really hard to bomb accurately.”
As a result, General Curtis LeMay ordered the bombers to fly at lower altitudes so the incendiaries they were dropping had the maximum impact. “We set fires bigger than anything Europe had ever seen,” Bohr says.
But there were consequences. “We had destroyed most of Japan’s air power,” he explains. “They only had their kamikaze planes, and they weren’t using them to fight bombers.” Instead, the B-29s faced unrelenting anti-aircraft fire. “We were preparing to invade Japan, and they knew it. So they were building up anti-aircraft guns everywhere they could,” he adds.
One thing bombers try to avoid is being caught in searchlights. If a plane was lit-up, it would most likely be shot down. On one mission, Bohr tells of a sister ship being caught by searchlights and experiencing heavy ack-ack fire. He thought it would soon be shot out of the sky. Then the searchlight moved and focused on his plane. Anti-aircraft shells followed and began exploding around it. By war’s end, Sentimental Journey would have 90 patches from being holed by anti-aircraft shrapnel.
Now, you have to understand airmen and pilots. They can’t tell a story without using their hands to simulate their airplane. Bohr says, First Lieutenant L.E. Gilbert, commander of the Sentimental Journey, did a wing-over like a P-51 Mustang fighter. Picture two palms — thumbs together — forming wings. Gilbert first pulled it’s nose up and then banked sharply to the right. The plane slid toward the ground where the right wing was pointing. It was a quick way to maneuver away from searchlights and gunfire, but it wasn’t something bombers were supposed to be able to do very effectively. Bohr says, “Nobody told Gil he couldn’t do that.”
On another mission, Sentimental Journey dropped its bombs. When that happened, the suddenly lighter airplane gained altitude. That wasn’t uncommon, but this time the plane rose directly into the belly of a B-29 flying above.
“We could hear our rudder banging around in that plane’s bomb bay,” Bohr says. The pilot managed to extract his plane. Both remained flying, but Sentimental Journey was short 10 feet of its vertical stabilizer and rudder. “We got home okay,” he continues. “Our flight engineer worked the throttles and the pilot worked the ailerons to keep us flying straight and level.”
Back on Iwo Jima, the officer-of-the-day wanted to scrap the plane. “We were having nothing to do with that,” Bohr says. “We slept in the plane to save it. We knew there’d be a new officer-of-the-day in the morning.” They had Harry Temple, their crew chief, fly to Guam for replacement parts to make the repair, and Sentimental Journey kept on flying.
On September 2, 1945, the Army Air Corps organized a mass overflight of the USS Missouri, commemorating the end of the war. “Our planes were fully armed,” Bohr says, “just in case.” On that day, as he looked out the port blister window, Bohr watched the Japanese representatives sign papers of unconditional surrender for General Douglas McArthur.
On our journey into the past with Chum Bohr, we heard memories of Gil, Hurley, and Pops Carpenter — men who fought together are bound together by adversity, becoming a band of brothers for the remainder of their lives. We salute the heroes and thank them for their service.