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From the Vault of Art Shay: "Hot Air" - Japan 1945

By Staff in News on Mar 16, 2011 4:00PM

When you're making history, sometimes you have no idea you're doing it. Thus it was that on the hot morning of July 10,1945, I navigated a B-24 modified for 20 passengers, into Gatow Airfield in Germany. The passengers were American and English diplomats coming in to set up the Potsdam Conference - the one that would offer the Japanese a chance to surrender like "good little yellow enemies" (as our passengers saw it). The Japanese would decline the offer, their pride costing them 200,000 deaths and two A-Bombed cities: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Six days after the death of Nagasaki, on August 21, they would belatedly accept our now-unrefusable offer.

Per my Gatow mission, the Nazis hadn't recovered enough from our bombing of their towers and runways to have rebuilt it in the four weeks since they had surrendered. Thus we had to land on grass without a wind-sock.They didn't even have an American in the tower. Just Russians. We were to be the very first postwar American plane to land at Gatow. In my broken Yiddish-German I spoke to the Russian running the tower. He told us to look on the grass for two Russian soldiers who would be carrying red flags as a clue for us which way the wind was blowing. This scampering duo (looking like UW Madison cheerleaders) arrayed themselves as at either side of an invisible goalpost- and guided us down on the grass between the chewed-up runways, like Meigs Field the night Mayor Daley would get pissed off at negotiations and send in his clowns with back-hoes.

Suddenly my calendar filled when some friends at the Pentagon pulled me back to Guam where a good celestial navigator was needed to navigate 56 members of General MacArthur's occupying team to take over Tokyo. A couple of weeks after we A-Bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the circumstances of my 23-year-old life as a combat navigator in Europe and my patriotic (if adventurous) desire to bring our wounded home, found me stupidly navigating a DC-4 load of 60 people - the entire MacArthur Occupation corps - on a low level flight about as high as the Hancock Building over those first two radioactive bomb sites before we landed at Tokyo's Atsugi Airport to start buying up bargain kimonos for our ladies. It was a time when Japanese commuter trains would stop when they saw an American jeep, descend from their rails and, along with the wreckage movers and sorters, bow to us conquerors as we crossed the tracks at one bombed-out intersection after the next.

Radioactivity was just a word to us young flyboy hotshots. We weren't even warned against flying through it. "It" being science-affliction.

At this precise moment you Chicagoistos are all joining me in picking up some new, incomprehensible - but more deadly - airborne Japanese radioactivity. Dead, alive or in between, years from now you will all eventually know the story of how it happened to wonderful, uninvolved you. Who needed it? Certainly not your innocent children with their vulnerable bone marrow.

Here's how it happened to me, the reminiscence of a lucky old survivor who brought it on himself. You/we now are merely victims. Like victims of global warming so few of us believe applies to our busy lives.