Vet who spent 35 combat missions in a B-29 visits last one flying

MUKILTEO —The 93-year-old ducked under the silver plane’s nose, climbed up a short ladder into the flight deck and stepped back into a world war — his war — when he was in his early 20s dropping bombs on Japanese targets.

The B-29’s cramped interior felt familiar, “like I haven’t been away,” Harry Spencer said.

The Everett native spent his war in the B-29’s front seat as bombardier on 35 combat missions. He was on the heavy bomber’s first foray into combat and its first raid on Japan. His war was at times exhilarating, tedious, terrifying and tragic.

“Scared? If you weren’t, you weren’t normal,” said Spencer, who now lives in Marysville.

He came to Paine Field on Saturday to visit the last flying B-29, which is on a national tour, and show his four sons where he fought the war.

The plane, called Fifi, is maintained by the Commemorative Air Force, which has restored and operates more than 150 vintage aircraft. It is open to the public at the Historic Flight Foundation in Mukilteo through July 6.

Spencer’s parents owned a small grocery store in Everett, and he grew up just south of Paine Field, which became a U.S. Army air base in the late 1930s. He joined the Washington National Guard before graduating from Everett High School in 1938, but his enlistment ended before the U.S. entered World War II after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941.

A few months later, Spencer enlisted in the Army, hoping to become a pilot. He went through various aviation training in California and Texas, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to serve as a bombardier of the U.S. Army Air Force’s new heavy bomber, the Boeing B-29.

The plane bristled with machine guns to ward of enemy fighters, which earned it the moniker Superfortress.

It was the most sophisticated bomber of its day, and it could fly higher, faster and farther with more bombs than any other bomber at the time, said Daniel Haulman, a military aviation historian.

The B-29 was a critical weapon in the Allies’ war against Japan, but it suffered technical problems when first introduced in 1943, he said. “They had a lot of problems with the engines,” specifically engine fires.

“That didn’t prevent the B-29 from being used increasingly against Japan,” Haulman said.

In late 1943, the 22-year-old Spencer was assigned to a B-29 with the 792nd Bombardment Squadron, and told to meet his crew and plane at an airbase near Salinas, Kansas. He arrived at the base to see emergency vehicles rushing about and black smoke rising from the end of the runway. A B-29 had crashed and burned during landing.

“The only thing you could tell of a plane was the big tail,” he said. “I wanted to get back in the taxi and get back to Everett.”

Instead, he and his crew flew across the Atlantic, North Africa and India en route to their forward operating base in Chengdu, China.

On June 5, 1944, Spencer’s plane, a B-29 called Pepper, joined nearly 100 others in the B-29’s first combat mission. The target was Japanese military sites in Bangkok, Thailand.

Ten days later, Spencer took part in the first B-29 raid against Japan itself, dropping bombs on the city of Yawata.

American bomber strategy against Japan and Germany focused on dropping bombs from high altitude on specific targets, a tactic called precision bombing.

But “the technology at the time didn’t allow for much precision,” said Haulman, the historian.

Over Japan, B-29s often flew above 30,000 feet, so high that they ran into the jet stream, fast moving and previously unknown air currents.

The strong winds and technologically limited bomb sights meant planes often missed their targets.

Occasionally, the bombs didn’t even make it out of the plane.

On one early raid, Spencer hit the bomb release switch, but two of the massive bombs were stuck.

“They were swinging back and forth, attached on one side,” he said.

With the bomb bay doors open and flying thousands of feet up in the air, he crawled out on a catwalk and began trying to kick the bombs loose.

“I didn’t know if the damn thing was going to go off in my face, but I was supposed to be the expert. I got the bombs out,” he said. “Previously, I thought that it was going to be an easy war. I changed my mind after that.”

The B-29s had to contend with technical problems, enemy fighters and antiaircraft and weather. And in China, Spencer’s unit had to fly in its own supplies from India, which meant crossing the Himalayas — the tallest mountain range on Earth. Allied flyers called it flying the Hump.

After some missions, “half the barracks would be empty,” Spencer said. “It would give you a pretty hopeless feeling; you’d think, God, I could be next.”

He did more praying during those years then he did the rest of his life, he said.

In spring 1945, his squadron was transferred to Tinian Island, a small Pacific outcrop that became a major American airbase for raids on Japan.

By that time, the U.S. had changed tactics for its air campaign against Japan, abandoning precision bombing for firebombing. B-29s began dropping incendiary bombs at much lower altitudes — 6,000 to 8,000 feet — at night. The resulting firestorms devastated Japanese cities and the country’s ability to wage war.

In late May, he flew a night mission over Tokyo.

“It looked like the whole city was ablaze — the fires, the ack ack, planes going down — ours and theirs. It was just like flying into hell. But you were so busy, you didn’t have time to be scared,” he said.

The fires created powerful updrafts that would toss the B-29s around.

Firebombing was a fearsome tactic that severely weakened Japan, but also killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

“Japan’s leaders realized the trend was toward their cities’ destruction,” a consideration that helped end the war, Haulman said.

Even during the war, Spencer didn’t like the idea of bombing industrial cities, which meant killing civilians.

But “I felt we were right in the war. Japan started it,” he said. “War is never fun. I lost a lot of good friends.”

Spencer flew his 35th — and final — mission in July 1945. Japan surrendered the next month.

He returned to Everett after the war, finished college and went into community banking. He met and married his wife, Dorothy, and raised four sons — Dennis, Steve, Tim and Mike. They all graduated from Everett High School and still live in the area, along with Spencer’s 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

His boys heard his war stories countless times growing up, Tim Spencer said.

Stepping inside Fifi, the B-29 at Paine Field, brought those stories to life.

“When you’re a kid, you’re like, yeah, Dad, I’ve heard that before. But to sit in the bombardier’s seat in the nose, look out of that glass bubble and think what it must have been like to be shot at,” he said and shook his head. “For my dad, that was the hinge point of his life.”

Spencer didn’t hesitate to sign up during World War II, but he wouldn’t want his grandkids or great-grandkids to have to go to war, he said.

“I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experiences, but I wouldn’t take a million to do them again.”

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

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