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Conversation: Engineered to Last

By Michael Dolan
9/10/2015 • World War II Magazine

FISKE HANLEY WAS a guest of honor at last year’s Hollywood premiere of the film Unbroken, about airman Louis Zamperini’s ordeal as a POW. Former B-29 flight engineer Hanley, 95, knows in detail what Zamperini endured. He also was shot down, taken prisoner, and tormented—a story he tells in his 1997 memoir, Accused American War Criminal.

You took to flying early.
I was born in Texas in 1920. I was five when Dad gave me an 1890 silver dollar that became my lucky charm. He’d bring me to the airfield outside Wichita Falls. Once, a Ford Tri-Motor pilot said he’d take up passengers for a penny a pound. Dad anted half a dollar and I made my first airplane flight.

You pursued aviation in college.
I studied aviation engineering at North Texas Agricultural College and Texas Tech University. I became an aviation cadet to stay in school until spring 1943. I got my lieutenant’s bars in February 1944. The air force assigned us to B-29s, but didn’t have B-29s yet; we trained in B-24s and B-17s and simulators. In December 1944 my 504th Bombardment Group crew moved to Herington, Kansas, where we finally got airtime in a B-29.

That was a very new plane.
Oh, the B-29 was still quite experimental. Those Curtiss-Wright engines would catch fire. And if you didn’t watch carefully, you could use more fuel than you thought, and you’d run dry. We lost an awful lot of planes that way.

Upon flying to Hawaii you learned things you wished you hadn’t.

A college friend on a general’s staff told me about operations Olympic and Coronet—the invasion of the Japanese home islands—right down to the November 1, 1945, start date. I didn’t want to know that. I’d be flying over Japan, and had been trained that if taken prisoner I was to answer interrogation questions honestly. But off we flew to Tinian. In the combat zone there was no dress code. I went with suntans—khaki shirt and trousers with a watch pocket where I kept my lucky silver dollar. Our first combat flight was to Iwo Jima to hit the airfield. Unfortunately, our bombs landed on the beach. We left craters Marines were able to shelter in, so the Marines loved us.

 Late March 1945 saw your crew take on a very significant mission.
My crew got orders to mine the Shimonoseki Straits. It seemed like such a cinch our tail gunner stayed home. But the Japanese had learned the Allies would be invading Okinawa. There were searchlights, tracers, flak. It was terrible and chaotic. Our engines caught fire. The navigator and the gunner were killed; the copilot said the commander and the bombardier were dead. The only way out was through the nose wheel well, but to reach the hatch, that nose wheel had to be down. That required electricity and hydraulics, and our systems were shot. All of a sudden the nose wheel dropped. As the two of us were jumping, a song was in my head: “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” I landed on Honshū in a rice paddy—couldn’t see anyone from my plane—and people were on me with bamboo spears and what all. A policeman pushed them back and took me away on a fire truck.

Were you okay?

I had bad shrapnel wounds to my rear end, which I didn’t realize until I got to the mayor’s office and bled all over his divan. Medics put a needle into my chest and bandaged my wounds. To do this they undressed me, but they didn’t find my silver dollar. Kempeitai officers arrived and took me outside. I saw my copilot and tried to talk with him, but the Kempeis beat us. Next the Kempeis sat me by a charcoal grill with irons set on the coals. I thought, “This doesn’t look good.” I answered every question. The Kempeis never did reach for those irons.

The Kempeitai moved you to Tokyo.

They crammed eight airmen and three Japanese into a 5-by-9-foot cell. We couldn’t bathe or wash; we used a honey bucket. Our overseer was a corporal, Yoshio Kubayashi. We called him “Shorty.” He would punch us and beat us with clubs made of bamboo slats called kendo clubs. For two months, they interrogated me daily, asking how it would affect the American population if everyone in Japan was willing to die in a wall of corpses. I would say, “I don’t know, all I read is the funny papers.” But they never asked about Operation Olympic.

What a desperate situation.
My silver dollar seemed to be a piece of hope. When we were by ourselves I would take it out and we’d hold it.

Not many men have had college reunions in the midst of a POW camp.

One day new prisoners came in. This fellow sits opposite me. “You’re from Texas,” he says. “You’re Fiske Hanley!” It was Bill Grounds. We’d been in ROTC at North Texas Agricultural College.

The Japanese considered all captive B-29 crewmembers special prisoners.

They wanted me to sign something admitting to war crimes. I refused, so they gave me the treatment—knocking me around, sticking me with bayonets, hitting me with kendo clubs and gun butts. That would happen if POWs tried to talk with one another, too.

August 14, 1945, was a big date.

The emperor said Japan would surrender. The guards took us through Tokyo to Omori Island POW camp, and told us to bathe in Tokyo Bay. You should have seen these human skeletons—I weighed 70 pounds—happy as the devil, splashing around. Then the Kempeitai turned us over to Camp Omori prison.

Conditions improved.

I’ll say. Each of us had his own 2-by-6-foot sleeping spot, with clean blankets. We got full rations and then some, and brand-new uniforms the Japanese had captured. We were tickled to death. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. All day Marine and navy planes dropped food supplies. A torpedo bomber opened its bomb bay and dropped a huge load of Mounds candy bars—right into a cesspool, an awful disaster! On August 28, a Marine fighter dropped a note reading, “Tomorrow you will be liberated.” At midafternoon six Higgins boats landed carrying Marines armed to the teeth.
I was still badly wounded, and wound up in a hospital on Okinawa.

Was your family aware of what had happened to you?

One of the Texas newspapers let my family know I was all right, but only after getting to San Francisco in October was I able to put a call through. My mother answered, and I spoke with Dad. The next day the Red Cross said I was being expedited home because my father was dying of cancer. Dad died two weeks after I got to the house. I can think of no happier occasion, even getting married, than being with my family again.

Your back pay went to good use.

I bought a beautiful Ford convertible, off-white, tan leather upholstery, $1,400. Bill Grounds and his wife knew several American Airlines stewardesses. I was a big hit with them. I married the prettiest one, Betty Baker, in ’47.

Aviation became your career.
I took a job at Convair for $1.25 an hour, and gradually moved up to flying B-36 bombers. Then I became an executive in engineering. I was in my office one day when this Asian fellow, Bill Hagase, came in. He worked for General Dynamics, which had acquired Convair. I asked how he got into aviation. “I was a kamikaze,” he said. I told him about myself, and he explained that when he was 16, waiting to fly and die, the war ended. During the occupation he worked for an American colonel who sent him to Texas Christian University. He married a Texas girl and went to work at General Dynamics. Once in a while Bill and I do a presentation where we talk about our individual wartime experiences and our friendship.

How were you able to process that wartime experience?
As I was recovering from being a special prisoner, I couldn’t sleep. I got out my college typewriter and typed out what happened. I’d take two or three pages a day to the stewardesses, who edited them. Kept at it, and that was that. Never did talk with anyone about it. After I retired from General Dynamics in 1989, I wrote my 504th Bomb Group’s history. Betty died in 1992. In ’97 I wrote my book, Accused American War Criminal.

What was it like to watch Unbroken?
My wife Peggy and I attended the premiere. Louie Zamperini had just died; I sat in his seat. The flak and torture scenes bothered me. I saw it again in Texas. Now when I’m going to speak with a group about the film, I say, “Okay, you watch it. I’ll be happy to talk with you afterward, but I’m not going to watch that again.”

Originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of World War II magazine. 

One Response to Conversation: Engineered to Last

  1. me says:

    v. interesting, but why exactly did the japs want Zamperini to confess whatever more than the others?

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