My name is Clarence Pressgrove and I’m 90 years old, a disabled veteran and an ex-POW of the Japanese. I was drafted in 1943.
On March 9, 1945, we were to bomb an aircraft factory, but as the bombardier said bombs away, the light came on. Something was wrong. He said, “Press” —that was my nickname — “go in the bomb bay and see what’s going on.” I saw two live bombs back there. If there was turbulence, we’d all be blown up, so he sent me to disarm them — at 17,000 feet, saving 11 men and the plane.
I received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this action almost six decades later, in 2003.
On March 27, 1945, our B-29, which we called The Peacemaker, flew out of Tinian. Our briefing officer told us we’d been picked to fly a special mission for the Navy: flying at 7,000 feet, dropping mines to cut off supplies from China to Japan.
We would be sitting ducks. He said if we were shot down he didn’t know what our destiny would be.
We took off toward our target. As we got over the Shimonoseki Straits, we released the mines and they sank down into the water.
We made our turning point to return to our base. A flak boat directly below turned its search lights on us. One shot with a large shell hit our No. 3 engine. It knocked all the pilots’ instruments and blew a large hole in between the radio room and radar room.
Our engineer turned on the fire extinguishers. We thought the fire was out and figured we’d land in the water where the Navy Dumbos would rescue us.
But because it was a windy night, the fire started up and headed for our wings — where we carried 5,400 gallons of fuel. The pilot rang the bell and said to bail out.
The front crew members went out the front wheel wells and the back crew members went out the bomb bay. None of us had ever bailed out before. We were all scared to death, as we were flying at 100 miles per hour. When we pulled the rip cords, they almost jerked our heads off.
I hit the ground running so I wouldn’t break my legs. I drew my chute in and hid it in a bush. Then I found a bush for me to hide in. This was after midnight on March 28, 1945.
The civilians knew we’d been shot down, so they were beating the brush, looking for our crew. When it came dawn, they were yelling and still beating the bushes.
When they got close to me, I got up and held up my hands, and the leader beckoned me to come toward him. Something told me to watch out.
As I approached, he swung his bamboo club at my head. But I’d been a track star in high school and took off running. I ran through the rice paddies — it’s just like trying to run in water. About 40 civilians chased me. One threw a brick that hit me in the head. I fell down.
Another civilian stood over me with a sickle raised to cut my head off.
Thank God the Japanese military got there to rescue me, or I wouldn’t be here today.
I was the first one caught. The military handcuffed and blindfolded me, then put me in a stake truck. The civilians yelled at me, running alongside the truck, ramming clubs between the slats to hit me in the ribs.
The soldiers drove around, rounding up the 11-man crew. We were taken to this building where officers interrogated us. They took our dog tags and asked where we came from. We said Tinian. They likely knew we were coming from Tinian — they were just checking if we were lying to them, I guess.
They asked us where our homes were. I said St. Charles, Ill., so they called me ‘the Gangster’ because Al Capone was also from Illinois.
A nurse came in with a big darning needle to sew up my head with nothing to deaden the pain.
Air raid sirens sounded. B-29s flew over. The guards took us out to the air raid shelter where they kicked us and hit us. After the all-clear sounded, they took us back in the building. In a short time, a bus came, and the guards put handcuffs on us and blindfolds and put us on it. The bus chugged along about a half-hour and stopped. We were each put in a horse stall.
The next day the guard took each of us upstairs separately, where officers would ask us questions — what missions we flew. If they didn’t like our answers, they would have the guards hit us with their shielded swords or kick us in the back, anything to try and hurt us.
The next day, the bus came returned and the guards put us on it, handcuffed and blindfolded. We rode along for about 30 or 45 minutes before we were put on a train with the guards. If we tried to sleep, they would hit us on the heads with their swords.
We were fed a small loaf of bread, similar to what we eat at our restaurants. I prayed to God that no B-29s would come over, because they might blow the train up. We were traveling toward Yokohama and Tokyo.
After about a day and a half, we were put on a truck again, and after about a half hour, we suddenly stopped. The guards took me and my co-pilot off. I thought, “This is it. We’re going to be killed.”
But we had arrived at Kempeitai. I was put in a 6-foot-3-inch solitary confinement crib I crawled into like a dog. It had a straw mat. Me being 6 foot 2 inches, I didn’t have much room to move around.
We were fed a small ball of white rice and water each meal. The guards walked up and down for 24 hours. There wasn’t any way to escape.
Whenever there was an air raid, the guards took us out to the air raid shelter. Boy, would we pay for it — they would beat the hell out of us.
We could hear the news because the guards turned up the radio. I could hear them talk about the B-29s bombing. (I had learned a little Japanese, including the word for B-29, from a guard.)
I could hear them say Iwo Jima, Tokyo, Okinawa but it was unknown to me what was going on.
One day, the guards came in and handcuffed and blindfolded us. After all the beatings and torture, we thought they were going to kill us.
But they put us on a truck, and we were on our way — going to the big prison, Camp Omori.
When we arrived, the camp commander greeted us by saying we were prisoners of the Japanese and we would mind the guards or be punished. We would answer to him, he said.
We were put in this building where again we only had straw mats. Again, we were fed balls of rice and water.
Once, we heard the commander yelling, and the guards came in and lined us up. We saw a handcuffed American in front of us.
“See that soldier?” the commander said. “He stole a carrot.” A guard beat him with the stock of his gun. We knew the poor guy, who’d been at Omori longer than our crew, was going to die. Then the commander said we could expect the same if we didn’t follow orders.
We started to notice there were fewer guards, so we thought something must be going on.
All of a sudden, we heard B-29s overhead. They dropped big 55-gallon drums of soup and peaches and large boxes of candy bars and cigarettes by the carton.
Whatever guards were left didn’t bother us.
That was a nice quiet day, Aug. 29, 1945. I looked out the backdoor and here come the Marines, saying we’d been there long enough.
All 11 of us from The Peacemaker made it back to the States. I was discharged in March 1946.
After the war, I became a keynote speaker and went on to give presentations to B-29 groups and high schools.
*Mr. Pressgrove passed away Sept. 27, 2014. He was 91 years old. For more, visit www.clarencepressgrove.com.