Friday, July 22, 2016

Ron Cary: What the Camera Captured

Editor's Note: Ron Cary's discovery of some of his father's photos from World War II came up in casual conversation and we thought others might be interested in the story. As a special to Niagara's Watercooler, we'd like to thank Ron for taking the time.

The way I remember it, it was 1956, and I was a ten year old kid living in Syracuse, New York.  Having grown up with that relatively new invention, the television, like most boys of my age during the mid-nineteen fifties, I was heavily into watching the westerns (cowboys and Indians), sci-fi (space movies), horror (monster movies), and especially "war" movies that the three TV channels would show every Saturday afternoon.  World War II had seen Hollywood produce many movies about the adventures of "heroic" Americans in our Armed Forces.  These dramas continued to be popular well into the 1950's, and Saturday TV showed all the old ones made during the war years.

I, like, many ten year old, red-blooded American boys, dreamed of being that hero who conducted a secret mission behind enemy lines or led his men in a seemingly hopeless charge up some nameless hill.  But most of all, I dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, using my superior training and uncanny skills to vanquish all who would challenge me in the sky. I knew my planes like other kids knew cars.  Fighters, bombers, transports, land-based, carrier-based, I could identify them all, and someday I hoped to actually be flying one myself.

In the days before the internet let you buy just about anything online, the back pages of most comic books had for sale all kinds of things a young boy might want.  In my case, it was from a company who would sell you 4x6 black and white photos of airplanes, both older and new models. My meager allowance was soon being saved to purchase and collect these photos, organize them, and store them in albums or boxes to look at and let my imagination soar, even if I couldn't.  I knew my planes, and so it was no wonder that this knowledge was to have a major impact on what was to unfold.  

My dad was in the Second World War.  Notice, I didn't say he "fought" in the Second World War. As far as I know, Dad's very poor eyesight prevented him from ever being in a combat situation.  Instead, he was designated as a company medical records clerk. Dad's "weapon of choice" was a typewriter.  1945 saw my father assigned to that same job on the island of Tinian. By the time he got there, Tinian was already being used to launch the new B-29's on their bombing runs over Japan.  The war was nearing its end and Japan's Air Force was for all practical purposes non-existent.  Dad later told me that on many days there wasn't much to do but to go down to the runway, sit in the tropical sun, and watch the huge bombers take off, land, refuel, restock, and take off again.  

On that day in 1956, I was alone in the basement of our house wondering what was in that old cardboard box I'd found shoved way back under the stairs.  What I found resulted in the first time I'd ever spoken with my dad about what he did during the war.  Two faded color photos of two planes were tucked into the back pages of a scrapbook that Dad had started while stationed on Tinian.  Both photos had a printing date of 1947 on the back because, as Dad told it, he'd just never gotten around to taking the film out of the camera until almost two years after he got home.

Watching the B-29's in the hot sun eventually became pretty routine and then boring until one day he and his sunning buddies realized the mechanics were taking all the gun turrets and armament off of one particular bomber.  Technically with no Air Force and very little air defense system left in Japan, such weaponry was not needed, but why go to all that trouble?  There was no special security at what was then called North Field, so Dad grabbed his camera, walked up to a couple of planes, including the one with the stripped armament, and nonchalantly snapped a couple of pictures.  Even after the film was developed two years later, Dad said he never really took a close look at those two bomber photos.  But this ten year old kid knew his planes and their histories and immediately knew what Dad had clicked a photo of.  

The first photo was of a normal B-29 with no name on her side.  But the second photo, the one with the stripped armament (hint:  meant to help lighten the plane for its next mission), had its name clearly visible.  Dad had, by pure chance, taken a photo of perhaps one of the most famous planes in history - a plane whose mission would change the course of the war and warfare itself.

My Dad passed away at 90, but before he left us, he sat down with me one day and went through, page by page, his wartime scrapbook, which he had painstakingly reorganized and relabeled.  The scrapbook and the two B-29 photos are now mine.  That famous plane has now been fully restored and may be found in its new home at the National Aeronautics and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.  Someday I hope to visit her and, of course, Dad's two photos will be in my pocket.

Ron Cary is a retired music teacher from North Tonawanda. He currently serves as Niagara County Deputy Historian.