I consider my Grandpa to be a real American hero. For my whole life I have looked up to my Grandpa and for a good reason; he has lived a life that is commonly reserved for novels. Successful in life, my Grandpa Norby was married for 64 years, had eight children, 21 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. In business he was a top life insurance salesman 13 times. As an athlete, he was a starting pitcher for the Minnesota Gophers while in college, and a scratch golfer well into his 80’s. Moreover, my grandpa was proud to have served his country in the Pacific during World War Two. I’m very close to Grandpa and was honored to emcee his 60th-anniversary party in 2008.
From Bedtime Stories To War Stories
When I was younger, Grandpa would tell us grandchildren bedtime stories about his time in the war. He told stories of island hopping in the Pacific, using shark teeth for razor blades, almost running out of gas while flying over the Pacific Ocean, and many tales of the lighter side of the war. I have fond memories of these stories from my childhood.
As I grew older, Grandpa’s stories became a lot more real. He enlisted in the air force at the age of 17. By 18, he was the anti-aircraft gunner on a B-24 Bomber – one of the most dangerous positions you can hold in the entire war. His unit, stationed in the Pacific, spent time hopping between islands like Guam and Okinawa as the US military converged on Japan. He came under fire many times, lost many comrades along the way, and ultimately, he persevered.
I knew all of this for some time and learned quite a bit over the past 30 years, to the point that I thought I had heard it all. But the story he told me today beat them all by a longshot.
August 9, 1945. Three days after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the war was still going in the Pacific. That day, Grandpa was on a mission that consisted of 48 planes with orders to bomb the harbor in Nagasaki, which was a significant base for the Japanese navy. His plane was the lead plane in the formation– the first line of defense.
As they approached the harbor, anti-aircraft guns and Navy ships opened fire on his plane. Naturally, their focus was concentrated on the first plane in the formation, because even if they missed, they had a good chance of hitting the aircraft following behind. Grandpa was literally the target these guns were aiming for.
Fired On And Hit
Drawing fire from the Japanese Navy and other gun embattlements, their plane was hit several times. Fortunately for Grandpa, he was not among the injured. Unfortunately, the pilot took fire right in the buttocks, in a bloody mess. The co-pilot didn’t fare much better, and he ended up with flak embedded in his neck.
Quick to react, Grandpa left his position to check on the flight crew and didn’t like what he saw. He lifted the pilot from his seat and dressed the wound as best he could on the floor behind the cockpit. Next, his attention went to the co-pilot, who was picking at the wound in his neck. Grandpa told him to hold steady and NOT to take the shrapnel out of his neck. The co-pilot obliged, but also said that he was incapable of flying the plane. That left Grandpa, 19 years old with no formal flight training, to guide the plane back to Okinawa.
Fortunately, the co-pilot was coherent enough to give instructions, so as Grandpa sat in the pilot seat, he followed the first instructions of “turn right and get the hell out of here.”
Inland Japan was surprisingly pleasant at the time, with no guns shooting at the plane for a few minutes. But the trip wasn’t without incident. August 9th happens to be famous for another incident that occurred in Nagasaki.
An Unbelievable Sight
Looking forward, Grandpa saw something that few people in the world can claim that they saw. A giant mushroom cloud that looked like this:
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing and remarked to the co-pilot “Have you ever seen an atomic bomb?” to which he got a non-response. “Well, look ahead, and you’ll see one now.”
With no time to dwell on the sight in front of him, he turned again and headed toward Okinawa. By this time the co-pilot was not doing too well, and the color had left his face. It was up to Grandpa and the folks on the other side of the radio to get him in safely.
Miraculously, he was able to fly the plane back to the base with little more than a rough landing. I asked Grandpa how he knew what to do and he said, “For over 30 missions I would watch what the pilots did every moment I had. I knew what to do well enough.”
When he landed, medical staff and military personnel were waiting for him. The co-pilot survived, but grandpa still isn’t sure what happened to the pilot. Grandpa shared his story and observations with his superiors, including that he thought he saw an atomic bomb. “No way!” they said – they hadn’t heard anything about a second mission to drop the big one. They had no knowledge of what had happened, and communications had not yet caught up with them.
The next day, grandpa was told that he was right – the atom bomb had leveled Nagasaki.
Ironically, three days earlier, after the August 6th bombing, Grandpa was told that he was being sent on a rest and relaxation trip to Australia. Instead, he survived a major incident in world history.
The Last Mission
You would think that flying into the face of the atomic bomb would be his last mission, but it was not. Shortly after Japan’s surrender, Grandpa was sent on a mission to see whether the Japanese had indeed surrendered. Three planes flew from Okinawa up the Yangtze river, where many Japanese ships were stationed. They were told to fly above the range of the guns, and then gradually lower altitude to see if they would draw fire from the Japanese ships.
While the Japanese guns followed their every move, no fire came on the planes, so they retreated to the South China Sea on their way back to Okinawa. As they approached the sea, they hit turbulent weather and broke formation. Grandpa’s plane lost contact with the other two planes, and he’s not sure that they ever made it back to the base.
Putting Things Into Perspective
It’s difficult for most people under 40 to realize the fine line between life and death that the men of prior generations walked during their youth. One false move and many of us might not be here today. I hear these stories from my Grandpa and I feel equal parts inspired, scared, blessed and optimistic.
My Grandpa is a great man and I am just so happy to have him in my life. He was a real-life hero, and I will do my best to make sure your stories live on for many more generations. I love you Norby.
I only hope that someday I can be as much of an inspiration to future generations. It certainly won’t be through military means, but we can all aspire to leave our marks in many other ways.
Submitted for use by The Grandpa Project by Jeff Sauer, Minneapolis, Minnesota
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