Man who survived WWII bombing raids meets pilot who flew them

EVERETT — The two men came face to face and paused, unsure of what exactly to say. One saluted, the other waved. They shook hands and sat down beside each other.

Their paths had crossed some 70 years before in wartime Tokyo. Harry Spencer had seen the city through the crosshairs of the bombsight on a U.S. B-29 Superfortress. The other man, Ken Gunji, was a teenager at the time, watching the American warplanes overhead turn much of Tokyo to ash.

Gunji felt the heat of the firestorms created by American incendiary bombs that raged through the city’s predominantly wood buildings. The flames scarred his sister and burnt their home. He learned to live in wartime, when flesh and bone become national commodities as much as boots and bullets.

Spencer saw friends die as their bombers fell to the ground. He felt his bomber shake from anti-aircraft fire. And he wondered if he would make it back to Everett alive.

But the men didn’t meet to lay blame for what happened. They met to connect.

Gunji tracked down Spencer after reading a profile of the former B-29 bombardier last month in The Daily Herald.

“I saw so many B-29s bombing over Tokyo,” Gunji, 84, said. “One of them was yours.”

Spencer leaned in, listening to every word.

“I didn’t know if you’d hate me or not,” the 93-year-old said.

“No. There’s no bad feelings,” Gunji replied.

Crippling raids

In 1945, Kenneth Kazuyoshi Gunji was 15 and living in Tokyo with his parents and three siblings. Japan and America had been at war for more than three years.

That year, American forces switched bombing tactics, abandoning precision bombing for firebombing. B-29s dropped incendiary bombs from low altitudes, creating firestorms that swept through Japan’s industrial cities. The raids crippled the country’s war production and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

“March 10? Do you remember that bomb run? It was awful,” Gunji said.

That raid on Tokyo was the deadliest bombing mission of the war.

“The next day, one of my classmates didn’t show up. We knew what had happened,” he said.

He and his classmates weren’t meeting for grammar lessons. By that time, they had been sent to work in factories for the war effort, he said.

The next month, B-29s filled the sky over Tokyo again.

“I saw one after another B-29 coming” overhead, he said.

“One going slightly this way or slightly that way — that is OK,” Gunji said, waving his hands past his face. “But one was coming right at me, and then the bombs.”

Flames flashed around him and engulfed one of his sisters.

“My brother and I tried to extinguish the fire with buckets of water,” he said.

Her head and hands, which had shielded her face, were badly burned. But she survived.

Their home, though, burned to the ground, he said.

His family moved in with an aunt.

In addition to devastating Japan’s industry, American forces had all but cut off food coming into the island nation, which couldn’t feed its people without imports.

“You guys must’ve been about starving to death,” Spencer said tenderly.

Gunji nodded and looked down.

“The rice ration was so small, just this much,” he said, lifting his coffee mug. “No salt, no sugar, no meat.”

Right or wrong

In the skies above, Spencer lost count of his close calls — from enemy fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire, from engine problems, from near-misses with other American bombers.

As bombardier, the Everett native sat in the B-29’s glass-encased nose. He had a front-row seat for the war.

On one bomb run, anti-aircraft fire cracked the window in front of him. It didn’t break, though.

On another mission, his plane was flying through thick clouds, “flying in the soup,” he said. “Another (B-29) zoomed in ahead of us, and our pilot lost control. I thought we were dead.”

The pilot regained control, though.

On a raid against Japan, a “pursuit plane dove down and crashed into our lead plane. It blew all apart,” knocking out a second bomber and clipping three feet off the wing of his own bomber, Spencer said.

At times he wrestled with the morality of the war and his role as a bombardier, lining up targets below, he said.

“I thought we shouldn’t have dropped the atomic bomb,” because the American blockade would strangle Japan eventually, he told Gunji.

America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan — the first on Aug. 6, 1945, over Hiroshima, followed by a second on Aug. 9 over Nagasaki.

“My opinion, dropping the bomb was okay, because it was war,” Gunji said. “Dropping the bomb was okay, but the target was wrong — women and children.”

He compared it to Japan’s raid against the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack that brought America into the war.

“It was a military target,” not civilian, Gunji said, and added, “Whoever started the war made a big mistake.”

Even though his father had worked as a forester for Japan’s Imperial Household, his family didn’t support the war.

Aug. 15, 1945, was a hot, sunny day in Tokyo. Gunji and his family surrounded a radio in the back yard at his aunt’s home. They listened as Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies.

Relief flowed over the family; they had survived a war they had never wanted.

“Sooner or later, I would have had to join the army,” he said.

Life moves along

After the war, Gunji moved to Corpus Christie, Texas, in 1957, where he met his first wife. He has lived in the U.S. ever since, though he visits Japan nearly every year, he said.

He became a U.S. citizen in the 1960s, and started using Kenneth as a first name in place of Kazuyoshi.

He has two grown children, including a son who spent several decades as a U.S. Navy aviator, and seven grandkids.

Following college, he worked for a couple of years as a photojournalist for the city’s daily newspaper, before going to work for the Bank of Tokyo’s Houston branch in 1963.

His job took him to the Pacific Northwest for a few months, long enough to fall in love with the area. A couple of years before retiring, he transferred to the bank’s Seattle branch and moved to Everett, where he lives today.

After the war, Spencer returned home to Everett, finished school, got married, also went into banking and raised four boys — all of whom graduated from Everett High School just like their father.

The war is fading from living memory now.

Wednesday marked the 69th anniversary of the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The mission was flown by the crew of the Enola Gay, a B-29. The planes’ last surviving crew member, Theodore “Dutch” VanKirk, died July 28 in a retirement home in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

“To me, humans are all one,” Gunji said. “Your skin might be different — white, yellow, black — but inside, it is all the same.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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