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Families join WWII veterans at reunion of Fifth Bomb Group

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Sep. 21, 2013, at 3:20 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013, at 7:54 p.m.

Before World War II pilot Marion Unruh returned to duty in the South Pacific in the summer of 1943, he said goodbye one last time to his hometown of Pretty Prairie.

He flew his B-24 heavy bomber low along the town’s Main Street and rocked his wings.

About five months later, on Dec. 30, 1943, his plane was shot down near New Guinea, and he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. A colonel in the Army Air Corps’ Fifth Bombardment Group, Unruh was released shortly after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.

As the top ranking officer among the prisoners, Unruh was presented a Japanese flag and sword – the same sword used to behead American prisoners – by the prison’s commander.

Unruh’s story and many more were shared when about 100 people attended the Fifth Bomb Group’s four-day reunion that wrapped up Saturday night in Wichita:

A young navigator from Ohio promises he will become a priest if he makes it back from the war alive.

An 18-year-old Texan who lost his leg faces the struggles of war’s aftermath.

A gunner returning to Hickam Field after the early morning bombing of Pearl Harbor is fired upon by U.S. ships.

Ten of the 130 known living WWII veterans from the Fifth Bomb Group – which received two Presidential Unit Citations – attended this 20th reunion. They came from as far away as Florida and California.

So did 90 people who are family members or close friends of Fifth Bomb Group vets – living and dead. And that’s what makes this reunion unique.

Across the country, WWII reunions are increasingly ending as the war’s aging veterans die off. The Fifth Group’s ongoing reunions are an exception, in part because “we’re trying to pass the baton,” said Joanne Emerick, who was the lead host organizer for this year’s reunion and historian for the group.

The unit’s reunions started in 1983 and were held every other year until becoming annual events since 2005. A veteran always headed up the group’s reunion association until two years ago when Rich O’Brien, son of a Fifth vet, took over as president.

“As they aged, it became harder for the veterans to do it,” said Emerick, a former high school history teacher who lives in Hoxie in northwest Kansas and whose father was a medic with the Fifth.

But passing the baton has also meant seeing family members faithfully attend the reunions.

“We used to hear people say that when their dad died they wouldn’t come to the reunions anymore,” Emerick said. “That hasn’t happened. They kept coming because we’re family. We’re one big family.

“There will come a day when only family members are attending.”

They all bring stories, and there are reunions within reunions: Relatives of deceased vets who were friends during the war meet for the first time to piece together stories about their dads, grandfathers or great-uncles.

Emerick never heard much about the war from her father, Wendell Pfannenstiel, who died in 1974 when she was 22. Now, as she attends the reunions and connects with others in the unit, “I have hundreds of dads.”

“This is history we need to know – about all of them,” said Margaret Hoskins, a Navy commander who was here this week to learn more about her great-uncle, a pilot for the Fifth who was killed in the war. “It’s unfortunate we don’t capture these stories better.”

Here are some of those stories.

‘Pretty Prairie Special’

In late summer 1943, Marion Unruh was in the states on official Army business, flying his plane wherever he went. Before heading back to the war to hook up with the Fifth, he paid a brief visit to his family in Pretty Prairie.

Jesse Unruh was getting ready to start second grade when he, older brother Jack and their mother went to Wichita’s Municipal Airport – now site of McConnell Air Force Base – to see him off. Jesse and Jack went into the B-24 cockpit of the “Pretty Prairie Special” – the name their dad put on all his planes – for one last goodbye.

Marion Unruh flew west, then swooped down to give one last goodbye to Pretty Prairie. He came in low, about the height of the 150-foot-tall water tower, zoomed along Main Street and rocked his wings.

His family, of course, wasn’t there to see it.

“But we heard about it from everyone in town,” said Jesse Unruh, a retired veterinarian living in New Mexico who attended the reunion. “People still talk about it. From what I was told, he was damn low.”

Marion Unruh would soon take over command of the Fifth.

The unit had about 500 members when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Before the war’s end, their numbers swelled to more than 2,000, O’Brien said.

Thousands rotated through the Fifth. Flight crews were required to complete 40 to 50 missions and ground crews had to finish three-year tours before they could go home.

The unit lost about 600 men and 90 planes – not nearly the casualty rate of those who flew in the European theater where there was far more anti-aircraft fire.

But the Fifth’s crews faced many dangers. Rarely did their long-range bombers – first the more nimble B-17s and then the B-24s – have fighter cover as they flew missions up to 16 to 18 hours to bomb enemy airfields and oil refineries while island-hopping across the Pacific. An array of .50 caliber machine guns served as the plane’s only protection against enemy fighters

Tricky tropical weather played hardball with the planes. Without sophisticated radar, navigators sometimes simply lost their way.

The ocean was also unforgiving. The B-24s were designed for longer range and to carry heavier loads than the B-17s. But unlike the B-17s, the B-24s sank immediately in water because a design change put the plane’s body below the wings.

Prisoner of war

Unruh and his crew were shot down near the Japanese-held New Ireland Island. As the “Pretty Prairie Special” sank, two of the 11-man crew were lost immediately, according to Unruh’s family and research compiled by Emerick.

With the help of island natives using canoes, the surviving crew members made it to shore and were taken to a hut. Japanese soon surrounded it and opened fire. Unruh and one of his crew members escaped.

They were swimming in the ocean one night when Unruh lost sight of the other crew member. He never found him.

Natives again rescued Unruh and tried to conceal him from the Japanese. But about 16 days after his plane went down, he was captured and taken to a remote prison camp in western Japan.

It would be November 1944 – 11 months after Unruh was shot down – before the State Department could confirm to his family that he was still alive and a POW.

Jesse Unruh has heard the stories of his father’s days in that camp. Firing squads aiming their rifles at him, squeezing the trigger – click!

“The Japanese soldiers laughed,” he said.

Some in his dad’s crew were executed; others died of diseases. Marion Unruh spent several months in solitary confinement, but he was his crew’s lone survivor.

The Japanese surrendered Aug. 14, 1945, and made it official Sept. 2. It wasn’t until late October that Col. Unruh arrived at the Hutchinson train station.

“I remember it was a chilly, rainy day,” Jesse Unruh said. “I can still see him tapping on the window as the train pulled up.

“At that point in my life – I was in the fourth grade – seeing him was the best thing that had happened to me.”

The muscular, 6-foot-1 father that he remembered stepped off the train weighing less than 130 pounds.

Marion Unruh was called back to active duty in January 1947 and the family was soon being moved all over the country again. In the spring of 1949, he and his wife, Yozelle, divorced.

“What kept him alive was his dreams,” Jesse Unruh said of his father’s thoughts of a happy, peaceful post-war world.

“I’m sure he thought life would be utopia after the war, but it wasn’t.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is prominent in today’s discussions about emotional wounds sustained by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

“No one knew about it then,” Unruh said. “They kicked your ass out, and you were supposed to be normal. You come back from war different.

“But Dad was trying to get his life back together.”

In late 1953, Marion and Yozelle remarried. He retired from the Air Force in 1959 with a chest full of medals – including a Silver Star, Purple Heart and multiple Flying Crosses and Air Medals – and they moved back to Pretty Prairie.

Innovative with aircraft in many ways – Unruh helped redesign the B-24’s nose – he also built three bi-planes. All named “Pretty Prairie Special,” of course.

He was flying one of those at the family’s farm late in the afternoon on Easter Sunday 1968. The plane stalled and crashed, killing Unruh a mile from where he was born.

Marion Unruh was 58 when he died. Those who served with him came from across the country to attend his funeral.

The Japanese flag and sword are at Jack Unruh’s home in Dallas.

Father Joe

Joe Beckman had been working at a machine shop since graduating from high school in Hamilton, Ohio, and was struggling with questions about becoming a Catholic priest.

The war had been going on for about a year. Beckman was about to turn 21, so he would be drafted.

“I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

An official in the Catholic church told him to “make a decision and get off the fence.”

“My decision was that I’m going to the service and, if I come back alive, I’ll go to the seminary,” Beckman said.

He washed out as a pilot. But he became a navigator with the Fifth and survived 44 missions with a pilot who was still only 20 when their tour ended.

“I wouldn’t want to fly with a 20-year-old kid today in anything,” said Beckman, known as Father Joe at the reunion.

Two of his brothers went into the service at the same time. Their mother went to Mass every day and sometimes three times on Sunday.

After the war, he kept his word and became a priest. Starting in 1971 until he retired in 2010, he traveled to 100 countries – he made 13 trips to Haiti – to write about poverty.

It was his war experience of seeing the poverty of the natives in Guadalcanal and the Philippines that took him on that journey.

“Many of us live in the super lap of luxury,” said Beckman, 91, who lives in Cincinnati. “We can afford to help others.”

Visit from Eleanor

At the age of 85, Owen Carr did a tandem parachute jump. He has gone on hikes up to 20 kilometers. When he was teaching English in Japan, he had to climb three flights of stairs to reach the classroom.

He also has only one leg.

On Aug. 26, 1943, 18-year-old Carr was serving in the Fifth as a waist gunner on “The Cisco Kid” and flying on a mission over the Solomon Islands. A 20-millimeter round fired from a Japanese Zero cannon exploded between Carr and another gunner.

The explosion shattered Carr’s leg and severed the spine of the other man, who later died on the way to a hospital in New Zealand.

By the next day, the doctor at the Guadalcanal hospital told Carr that gangrene had set in and was advancing at two inches per hour.

“I told the doctor, ‘I think we’d better go to work on this thing,’” Carr said.

“The next thing I knew he was cutting on me and the anesthetic hadn’t taken effect yet. I felt that, sat up on that gurney and … ‘Arrrgh!’”

A few weeks later, Eleanor Roosevelt and an entourage of generals visited him and other patients at the hospital.

“She started telling me about how she knew a man with one leg who could dance and do all these things,” said Carr, who grew up in Dallas and now lives in Florida. “I guess she was trying to make me feel better.”

Despite the war injury, he wasn’t granted full disability by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs until 13 years ago. And he had to hire an attorney to make that happen, he said.

“They acted like they were doing me a favor,” said Carr, 89.

His leg had to be cut off so high that he was left without a stump. A prosthesis was “too awkward with all those straps and harnesses,” he said. “I didn’t have a stump to put in the cup. They were worthless.”

By the time more advanced models came along, Carr didn’t want to try them.

“I managed,” he said.

Very well, actually, said Pat Carr, his wife.

“It hasn’t slowed him down until recently,” she said. “He used to be able to outrun me.”

With a degree in foreign trade from the University of Southern California, he and his wife have lived and worked in 26 countries. But failing eyesight, loss of muscle strength, and the wear and tear of walking with crutches for so many years is starting to hold him back.

He’s the last of his 10-man crew still living. He has attended several reunions, but this one may be his last.

“It’s harder to fly now,” he said.

Trash-can stew

George Crippen, a top turret gunner and flight engineer for a B-17 crew with the Fifth, was stationed at Hickam Field in Hawaii, right across the fence from Pearl Harbor.

His pilot had a girlfriend on Hawaii’s big island of Hilo. On Dec. 5, 1941 – a Friday – he asked Crippen and some other crew members whether they wanted to go with him when he flew over to see her.

“Hilo was a good place for Army guys to find girls,” Crippen said. “You could have a good time there, so we went.”

On Sunday, about 7 or 8 a.m., they returned to Hilo’s grass airstrip to fly back to Hickam when a soldier in the radio shack rushed out and told them to wait.

After much confusion, they learned that Pearl Harbor had just been attacked. The crew was told to push their plane back in the trees and wait until dark to fly back.

“At dusk we took off,” Crippen recalled. “As we approached Hickam, the radio tower told us to fly straight in and not circle around, which is what you’re taught in flight school.

“But our pilot said, ‘No, we’re going to circle around like we’re supposed to do.’”

That circling took them directly over Pearl Harbor, where edgy sailors aboard the ships that hadn’t been sunk were ready to take aim at anything flying overhead.

“They opened fire,” Crippen said. “Fortunately, the war had just started so they weren’t very good shots yet. We took some hits in the tail but landed.”

Once on ground, they found that the Japanese fighters had blown up Hickam’s mess hall and killed most of the cooks. No food was available.

Some soldiers were sent to Honolulu to scrounge all the fresh food they could find. It was brought back and cooked late Monday afternoon as a stew in some clean trash cans that were found in storage.

“Some of the best food I’ve had in my life,” said Crippen, 93, who lives with his wife in Orange City, Fla.

Passing it on

Keeping the stories alive has become the job of Emerick, the lead organizer of this year’s reunion, who decided it was time the Fifth vets see the Air Capital.

Her involvement began in the early 1990s with a search to find the five medics who served with her father. She found two who were still living, although one died before she could meet him.

At the time, Emerick was just trying to put together enough information to put in a pamphlet that she could pass on to her son, nephews and nieces. But her efforts quickly expanded and her passion helped keep the fire burning for the reunions.

Her passion for history led her to write a book about her dad’s squadron in the Fifth – “Courage Before Every Danger, Honor Before All Men.”

“Joanne is the reason all this is happening,” Jesse Unruh, son of the former Fifth commander, said of the reunions.

O’Brien, the reunion association’s president from Arnold, Mo., checks and re-checks information by researching planes, serial numbers, crews lost and water landings. His wife, Barbara, does genealogical research.

“We’re trying to reunite crews and family members,” Emerick said. “Sometimes we’re giving closure to the families of men who are missing or were killed. We still have a lot of work to do.”

O’Brien estimated there could be several hundred veterans from the Fifth who aren’t part of the reunions.

“Some don’t know about us, and some, I guess, don’t want to stay connected,” he said, “but we’ll keep trying.”

Hoskins, the Navy commander who will retire from the service in February, will get her turn next year to host the reunion. While a site hasn’t been picked, she’s determined to find a way to record the remaining veterans’ stories so those in the service now can hear them.

“They need to know the sacrifices that have been made,” Hoskins said.

She noted that the 18-hour flights that Fifth vets talk about are unheard of now. A second crew is on board for long flights, so they can share the flying time, she said.

“And now they have autopilot,” Hoskins said. “They were flying with a stick all the time back then. We need to pass on those stories. It’s part of our military’s history, our country’s history.”

Crippen, the former flight engineer and gunner, appreciates the efforts.

“We shouldn’t forget,” he said, “but you have to want to hear it.

“For me, I just like seeing the guys.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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