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Superfort Crew’s Siberian Odyssey

By Michael Heberling and Jack Schaefer
1/24/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

A B-29 copilot’s sole combat mission began with a dangerous flight over ‘the Hump’ and ended with internment in the Soviet Union.

On November 14, 1944, a shiny new B-29 Superfortress arrived from the United States at XX Bomber Command in Kharagpur, India. The copilot on the 11-man rookie crew was a 22-year-old second lieutenant from Fenton, Michigan. John K.“Jack” Schaefer had been in officer and flight training since leaving the University of Michigan and enlisting in the Army Air Forces in March 1943. Now he was finally going to put his training to good use.

Upon his arrival, Schaefer was assigned to a veteran B-29 crew in the 794th Squadron of the 468th Bomb Group. The crew’s Superfortress, Ding Hao (no. 42-6358), had already flown eight combat missions and nine “Hump” missions over the Himalayas. (The Chinese phrase ding hao roughly means “everything is O.K.” Since the American servicemen spoke little or no Chinese, “ding hao” became a frequent greeting used with the locals. According to James Pattillo, who served in the 468th Bomb Group, “Both sides would give a thumbs-up, smile and say or yell:‘Ding hao! Ding hao! Ding hao!’And then everyone would laugh.”)

Five days after his arrival in India, Schaefer attended his first combat mission briefing. Ding Hao plus 61 other B-29s of XX Bomber Command were to depart from India the next day on a 1,200-mile dogleg route over the Hump to a forward staging base in Pengshan, China. The following morning the Superforts would fly the second leg of their mission to bomb a steel manufacturing plant at Omura, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

The 3,081-mile mission to Japan and back to China would take more than 14 hours. Due to the distance involved, there was a significant bombload/fuel tradeoff. The B-29 was designed to carry a bombload of 20,000 pounds, or 40 500-pound bombs (20 in each bomb bay). For the Omura mission, however, each plane would only have 7,000 pounds of bombs. In addition, three self-sealing fuel tanks were mounted in the forward bay to extend the B-29’s range. This added another 1,800 gallons to the bomber’s fuel load.

The mission briefing also addressed enemy defenses. The Americans could expect heavy anti-aircraft fire over the target area as well as attacks from Mitsubishi A6M5 Zeros, Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryus and other interceptors. The Ki-45, a cannon-armed, two-seat, twin-engine fighter, was an especially serious threat. During an earlier mission, Ki-45 pilots had shot down eight B-29s. On another raid, in August 1944, two B-29s went down after colliding with Ki-45s.

On the morning following the briefing, Ding Hao, with its crew of 11, left India for China, flying over the Himalayas several hundred miles southeast of Mount Everest. “Flying the Hump,” as it was called, was so hazardous that 10 hours’ flight time on that route counted as one combat mission. Crews painted a camel insignia on the nose of the plane for each round trip over the Hump.

Three factors contributed to the danger of the Himalayan ferry missions. First, many of the mountain peaks were higher than the B-29’s cruising altitude. Second, the weather was highly unpredictable. Visibility could deteriorate rapidly in heavy rain and cloud cover, and the crews also had to deal with winds exceeding 100 mph and dangerous downdrafts. The third factor was the unreliability of the airplane itself. The B-29 had been rushed into production before many of its engineering flaws could be corrected. In fact, crashes attributed to malfunctions claimed more lives than did Japanese air defenses.

“My first flight over the Hump didn’t seem really to be fearsome at first,”said Schaefer.“After all, I had flown high enough to clear even Mount Everest in many of my training flights. But when the crew informed me that there was usually a solid undercast of clouds, I started to worry. When they then pointed out that we had to save precious fuel by flying as low as possible, I definitely started to have misgivings. It turned out that this day was beautiful, with no undercast. We could see everything and fly past, but below, the highest peaks. The only thing that was a little unsettling was that we could see perhaps a half dozen gleaming piles of metal where other planes had crashed.”

For this reason, the India-to-China air corridor had another name besides the Hump: the“Aluminum Trail.”More than 700 bombers and transports were lost in noncombat missions over the Himalayas due to weather and equipment failures.

After a six-hour flight, Ding Hao landed at Pengshan, one of the four staging bases southwest of Chengtu. Phase I of the mission was complete. Phase II would begin early the next morning.

On November 21, 1944, 62 B-29s took off from the China staging bases for Omura, in what would be XX Bomber Command’s largest raid of the war. “The Ding Hao takeoff was uneventful,” Schaefer recalled. “However, when I looked out my window, I could see a large fireball to the right and behind our plane.”Aircraft no. 42-6362, of the 792nd Bomb Squadron, commanded by Captain H.C. Maisch, was unable to gain altitude after taking off, and headed for a grove of trees a half-mile beyond the south end of the runway. One of the propellers on the left side clipped a large tree, pulling the bomber into a steep left turn and sending it cartwheeling into the ground. The only survivor of the 11 crew members was the tail gunner, who was found 75 feet from the crash site.

The remaining 61 B-29s continued on to Omura. Over Japan they met determined opposition from fighters and from light bombers that dropped phosphorus explosives into the B-29 formations. Only 27 planes actually reached the primary target. Flying over Omura at 23,000 feet, they dropped 116 incendiary and 244 500-pound bombs. Another 13 aircraft managed to hit alternate targets, including Japanese-held Shanghai in China. B-29 gunners claimed 27 Japanese planes during the mission.

Eight of the B-29s did not make it back to China. Among the missing was Ding Hao. Two weeks after the mission, on December 7, the War Department sent a telegram to the crewmen’s families. Jack’s parents in Michigan were informed that he was missing in action, and that they would be promptly notified of any additional news as it became available.

It would be some time before the Schaefers learned the story behind their son’s disappearance. About 100 miles from Omura, six to eight Japanese fighters had attacked the B-29 formation. Ding Hao was hit by machine-gun fire from an enemy fighter approaching from below and to the side. “Being hit by enemy fire was nothing new for the rest of the crew,” said Schaefer.“They were on their ninth mission and this had happened before. It was new for me, but I was so busy doing my job that I didn’t realize we had been hit until the engineer shut down no. 3. He advised the pilot that no. 4 was doubtful as well. I had been on several training flights where we had lost an engine, so I was not all that concerned. The pilot conferred with the engineer and the navigator and made the decision that we would not have enough fuel to get back beyond enemy lines. After reviewing our options, we decided to head north to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union.” The flight from the coast of Japan to Vladivostok would take an hour and a half.

“Most of the crew felt that the Russians would help us repair the Ding Hao and then give us enough fuel to get us back to China,” recalled Schaefer. But instead of being treated as comrades in arms by the Soviets, the Ding Hao crew received a decidedly cold welcome.

As the bomber got closer to Vladivostok, four Yak-9 fighters intercepted it and fired tracer warning shots. The Soviet fighters forced Ding Hao to land on a small naval airfield south of Vladivostok. As they approached the runway, Schaefer was surprised to see another B-29 on the ramp below. The approach and landing was very difficult because the runway was so short, but heavy snow on the ground helped slow down the plane.

Soviet military vehicles quickly surrounded the bomber, and the crew was ordered out at gunpoint. Made more complicated by the language barrier, the exchange was hardly the treatment one would expect from allies. While the Americans and Soviets were allies in the war with Germany, the Soviet Union was officially a neutral nation in the Pacific conflict. As a result, the Soviets said they were obligated to intern both the American combatants and their aircraft until the end of the war. The Soviet position was understandable given that they already had their hands full in an all-out war with Germany in the West, and the last thing they wanted was a war with Japan in the East.

After a brief stay in Vladivostok, Ding Hao’s crew was transported by train 400 miles to the north, to Khabarovsk. There they met up with the crew of General H.H. Arnold Special (the other B-29 on the ramp at Vladivostok) and a B-25 crew from the Aleutians. Like Schaefer, two members of the B-25 crew were from Michigan; the pilot was from Flint and the copilot from Detroit.

On December 3, the 29 American servicemen from the three bomber crews departed by train on the Trans-Siberian Railroad for the central Asian city of Tashkent (in what is now Uzbekistan). The trip would take almost two weeks. On December 16, they joined 101 other U.S. Army Air Forces and Navy internees being held in a compound outside Tashkent called Yang-U1. This group included crews from two other B-29s that had diverted to the Soviet Union in July and August: Ramp Tramp and Cait Paomat II.

The Americans were held in what had been a nobleman’s estate before the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Tashkent internment camp was not much different from a POW camp. Internees were given one blanket each and had very little food—a small chunk of black bread and watery cabbage soup twice a day. It was the height of the Russian winter, and all suffered from the extreme cold.

Schaefer’s father received the following letter while his son was interned at Tashkent:

WAR DEPARTMENT
THE ADJUTANT GENERAL’S OFFICE
WASHINGTON 25 D.C.
Dear Mr. Schaefer:
A report has been received that the above captioned individual is safe and interned in a neutral country. The term “interned in a neutral country” is used to designate the status of a member of our armed forces who has been apprehended within the borders of a country not engaged in the war and has there been detained by authorities of that country.
You are urgently requested not to disclose this information to anyone outside your immediate family as public knowledge is not considered to be in the best interest of the country, and may hinder efforts toward the ultimate release of the internee.
It is hoped you will find comfort in the realization that your son is not in unfriendly hands and that he enjoys many advantages not available to those held in enemy territory as prisoners of war.
Sincerely yours,
Signed
ROBERT H. DUNLOP
Brigadier General
Acting Adjutant General

Joseph Stalin was in a quandary over how to handle the Tashkent internees. The United States was putting diplomatic pressure on the Soviets to release the American aircrews. But the Japanese might view that as a violation of the Soviets’ professed neutrality in the Pacific War. There was a potential solution: If the Americans “escaped” from the camp, the Soviets couldn’t be accused of supporting the U.S. war effort against Japan. To have all 130 American servicemen escape from deep inside the Soviet Union, however, would be quite a logistical feat.

According to Schaefer: “The escape was something we all really wanted badly. We had been cold and hungry for months and any kind of a rumor could get us talking about getting out. Unfortunately, the rumors were always just that until late January, when an emissary from the American Embassy in Moscow visited and told our senior officers that arrangements were completed for us to be spirited out of the camp and indeed out of the Soviet Union as well.”

After 45 days in the camp, Schaefer and the other 129 internees boarded a train late at night on January 25, 1945, for a three-day trip from Tashkent to Ashkhabad and then on to Kizil-Arvat. They were transferred to 12 Lend-Lease Studebaker trucks early on January 28, under strict orders to remain silent. The trucks then drove out of the Soviet Union and into Iran.

On January 30, the internees were placed under control of U.S. security personnel outside Tehran. They were sprayed with delousing powder and instructed to take a shower. Their clothing was destroyed, and they were each issued a plain Army enlisted man’s uniform, even though the group included both officers and Navy servicemen. U.S. embassy and OSS personnel debriefed them, telling the newly released servicemen that “officially they had never been in the Soviet Union,” and that they were not to discuss their internment with anyone. Due to the extreme secrecy of their escape, the 130 internees were simply referred to as “War Department Special Group No. 2.”

Shortly thereafter Schaefer’s father received another letter from the War Department:

7 February 1945
Dear Mr. Schaefer:
Reference is made to the previous letter from this office informing you that your son, Second Lieutenant John K. Schaefer, 0771810, was safe and interned in a neutral country. A further report has been received that he was returned to duty.
You are urgently requested not to publicize the fact that he was interned, for such publicity is not considered to be in the best interest of the country, and may jeopardize any chance of release of other Americans who may be interned.
You may, of course, inform his relatives and friends that he has returned to duty, but in so doing please make no mention of the fact that he was formerly interned. Your cooperation in this matter will be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely yours,
Signed
J.A. ULIO
Major General
The Adjutant General

All 130 released internees would be sent back to the United States and prohibited from participating further in combat. This was likely a stipulation of the release agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States. The trip home took more than a month. They first flew in five C-46s from Tehran to Egypt, and then, after an 11-day delay, from Egypt to Naples, Italy, where they boarded the Liberty ship Sullivan. The members of War Department Special Group No. 2 were the only passengers on the voyage. Sullivan steamed to Oran, Algeria, to link up with 35 other ships that would form a convoy. On February 16, the convoy headed for the Straits of Gibraltar. As it entered the Atlantic on the 17th, the convoy came under attack by German U-boats. The convoy commander ordered Sullivan to move from a trailing position to a more secure position in the center, and the rest of the trip proved uneventful.

Sullivan anchored off New York on March 5, but before the former internees could leave the ship the next day they were once again reminded that they could not discuss their experience in the Soviet Union. The following is taken from a restricted Army Air Forces document dated April 11, 1945:

TO: Whom It May Concern.
The following instructions from Commanding General, Army Air Forces, Washington, D.C., concerning 2d Lt. John K. Schaefer, 0-771810, are quoted for your information and guidance:
“The nature of subject officer’s last overseas assignment and record is highly secret. He will not be subjected to interrogation by military personnel nor will he be interviewed by public press or radio regarding his services or experiences nor will he be reassigned outside the continental limits of the United states.”
FOR THE COMMANDING OFFICER:
R.E.HERR, JR.
Captain, Air Corps
Assistant Adjutant

In keeping with the highly secret nature of his incarceration, Schaefer’s official personnel records did not reflect his odyssey in the Soviet Union. The records simply said “missing in action” for this time frame. On September 4, 1945, Schaefer was discharged from the Army Air Forces.

Epilogue: By an Act of Congress in 1988, the war status of “Siberian Internees” was changed to “Prisoner of War.” Four years later, on October 2, 1992, the Department of the Air Force awarded 2nd Lt. John K. Schaefer the Prisoner of War Medal.

 

 After his release from active duty, Jack Schaefer re-enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned a B.A. in business administration in 1947. He returned to Flint to join the family office supply business, which he operated for 34 years until his retirement. Michael Heberling served in the U.S. Air Force for 21 years, retiring in 1994 as a lieutenant colonel. He is currently the president of the Baker College Center for Graduate Studies in Flint. Further reading: B-29 Superfortress in Action, by Larry Davis, and Home From Siberia: The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II, by Otis Hays Jr.

Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.  

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