Lt. Col. Vernon Garner (U.S. Air Force, retired), 88, grew up on a Southern Maryland tobacco farm where “if I had a nickel in my pocket, I was happy.” He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, training and working as an instructor for three years before being sent to the island of Tinian. His first combat flight brought the reality of his decision home when he flew a night mission over Tokyo, Japan, and thermal heat from previously-dropped bombs shot his plane 6,000 feet up into the air in a matter of seconds. “Hold on,” he told his crew, while he tried to steady his nerves. “You don’t panic as a crew member,” Vernon recalled. “Particularly as pilot, you have to appear to remain calm and let the crew know that you have control of your faculties and control of the airplane.”
Interview: Asbury Solomons, Solomons, Md. January 31, 2012
I was born and raised on a tobacco farm just one quarter of a mile from where we are sitting here today at Asbury. After school I went to work in Washington, D.C., for the FBI and joined the Air Corps in November 1942. This place looks a lot different now. My gosh, yes. There were not very many homes, no gas stations, the couple of gas pumps were at the grocery stores around here. Yeah, it was rural country down here then. My grandfather owned 300 acres here and we had horses and cows and pigs and turkeys and chickens, things like that. I grew up working hard on the farm. When I got out of high school at age 17, I said goodbye to Mom and Dad with their blessings and went to work in Baltimore and then Washington before I joined the Army Air Corps it was called then. Farm life was a rough life; we had to work hard all year long and selling tobacco crops was just enough money to pay the bills we’d run up during the year. If I had a nickel in my pocket I was happy. My grandfather, my parents and my uncle and his family ran the farm, so it was the three families that made their living off the farm here.
I joined the Air Corps in 1942 and through training, it was actually 1945 before I got to combat. A fellow from Kansas who was working in Washington with me, his name was Frank Wally, he wanted to go into the Air Force, he wanted to fly airplanes. He kept talking to me. “Let’s go, let’s go.” Finally I said, “OK. Let’s go join up.” Well we had to get our parents’ signature because we were under 21. He was an only child. His Daddy was dead and his Mother wouldn’t sign for him! So he was unable to go, but my parents signed for me so I went in, yeah.
People were joining up all over and people were being drafted; we had the draft at that time, too. But if you were drafted, you were going to go into the army or navy. But I don’t recall joining up so much to be patriotic as to go along with Frank Wally. I knew what an airplane was, but I’d never been around an airplane, ya know. I was 18. Prior to the war you needed a college education to fly airplanes. Well, they didn’t have enough college grads to do that so they lowered the bar and if you could pass the physical and written examination – and I recall you had to get a score of 70 to qualify to get into training, and I remember I got a score of 70.5.
After training and [learning how to fly both] B-17s and B-29s, I ended up in the island of Tinian, which is part of the Mariana Islands. There is Guam and Iwo Jima and I ended up on Tinian. The B-29s had just been built and primarily for these long missions to Japan. The B-17s and B-24s and other bombers couldn’t make it up there, but the B29 could. So we had B29s in Tinian and Guam for our missions over Japan and that started in late 1944.
I was the pilot. The standard crew for a B29 was 11 – that’s the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radar, that’s five and and then radio operator, engineer and four gunners. So that’s five officers and six enlisted.
The war was almost over, but I flew 10 missions, 10 combat missions and a couple of missions dropping supplies in POW camps after the war was over. We could pretty well get it close to where it needed to be. Interestingly I met a fellow here in Calvert County after the war that was a POW there at that time. We were talking and I said, “Well, I probably dropped some supplies for you then.” He said, “Oh, you were the man that dropped all those beans!” It was all stuff that was non-perishable. Probably canned vegetables, some bread, dessert, nuts, candy, cigarettes. We didn’t know what the conditions were like in there, and of course, if you read Unbroken, you got a very good idea what it was like. The Geneva Convention after World War I had some rules of conduct for POWs which the Germans were good about – except the way they treated the Jews, of course. But the Japanese had a total disregard for the Geneva Convention rules.
The war became real for me on my first mission. It was a night mission over Tokyo and other planes had gone before us and the city was burning pretty bad and the thermal heat was coming up. I think we were 25,000 feet up and the thermal heat forced us straight up and it was black from the smoke and all, and it was a terrifying moment for me. My knees turned to jelly and I scrunched down into my flight suit. Yes, then I realized it was for real. The thermal heat just took that big airplane up about 6,000 feet. In a matter of seconds. Fortunately, the airplane remained stable; it didn’t flip over, and as we continued to fly forward we got out of this thermal effect.
I just told the crew to hang on. You don’t panic as a crew member, particularly as pilot you have to appear to remain calm and let the crew know that you have control of your faculties and control of the airplane. We had been trained well to do this. You don’t train for that type of thing, exactly, but you are trained to maintain control of your airplane, control of your crew, control of your emotions.
Our goal, our overall general purpose was to subdue the Japanese into surrender. We were gaining back the islands, the Philippines. The navy and army, marines were moving further to the homeland but the Japanese were tenacious. They didn’t even know how to spell the word surrender. It was just pound them and pound them night and day. B-29s were over Japan at night and day – 200 at a time. We had about a thousand B-29s altogether.
Most of the B-29s carried 500-lb. bombs and we could carry and drop about 20 of those. By the time we got loaded up, we had about doubled the weight of the plane, so you had to learn how to adjust for that. A direct hit would only take out about a third of a building like this. We did blanket bombing we called it, and hoped it did some damage down there. Eventually, we started dropping incendiary bombs, little bombs, thousands of them and they would scatter and they would hit and start fires and these were more effective than the explosion bombs because in Japan a lot of the factory work was done in homes, wooden building not like Germany where they were concrete and masonry.
Of course we thought about the civilians, but we were hoping and praying and wishing that they would surrender and save their lives and our lives. But they started it at Pearl Harbor, so we had to keep it going. We were told to put it out of our minds, that we were doing a job, a nasty job, a job that we didn’t like to do, but a job that we were called to do, sworn to do.
And there was always enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft guns around. They were called the flack and enemy aircraft and of course they were always a threat, but not as bad as it was over in Europe – over in Europe, the Germans, they just saturated the sky with the flack and fighters all over. Japan wasn’t quite as bad.
We got some holes in the airplane, but never had an injury. And I never lost a plane. Besides the fighters and the flack, the other problem was getting back home; 16 or 18 hours is a lot of strain on those engines and we frequently, I say frequently, lost an engine. I made two emergency landings, out of those 10 missions I made two emergency landings at Iwo Jima on the way back. On one of them I had an engine out and another one I was low on fuel. I could’ve never made it back to Tinian but fortunately the U.S. Marines and Army and Navy had captured Iwo Jima and built a runway there and then we could also get B-51s there for escort. Prior to them taking Iwo Jima, we didn’t have an escort like over Europe.
On the base, we lived in tin huts and it was open on the side and one night we had a typhoon come through there and rain was flying in and a few of us went out there and bent the tin roof down to keep the rain from coming in and blowing in on our bunks and so the next day the commander called us in and gave us a lecture about destroying government property. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time but in retrospect I guess it was dumb. The sides were wooden, the roof was a corrugated tin – at the time there used to be a lot of the corrugated tin roofs. There were probably at least 20 men to a hut and then we had the bunks – lower and upper bunks and they were adequate. They were certainly better than the army troops on the ground and in tents. We did have a shower outside, like an open shower, salt water.
On those Pacific islands, the Japanese had built fortifications in between World War I. We sort of gave them those islands so they could grow rice to feed the people. Well, they did that, but they also built fortifications on them so when the U.S. forces came they just bombed the dickens out of them. So the islands were kind of beat up. They’re not how people picture them.
I was pretty much a loner, even home on the farm and when I left home, I was pretty much of a loner. I did have one buddy, a guy named Bob Brady, and he was a co-pilot over there. When I graduated from flying school, I stayed on there for six months as an instructor and Bob Brady was one of my first students. We went on a navigation training trip and I could tell right away he knew what he was doing and I fell asleep. He did the navigations for about two hours and came back and woke me up on landing and of course he never left me forget that! We ended up eventually in the same outfit in combat on Tinian. I was sleepy! I can sleep good in an airplane or in a car.
Today, technology is so much more advanced. A pilot for instance in an airplane now has all types of instrumentation up there that helps them and one guy now can do what it took 11 guys to do, and of course dropping bombs and the effectiveness of them is so much better. I don’t think it’s easier, overall. Now as far as flying over a target, now we have airplanes called stealth airplanes and they can’t get in and out almost without being detected, so in that sense it may be a little easier, but it’s still war. There’s still a chance at getting shot at. There’s still a chance of being killed or wounded.
I got there in May of ’45 and the war was over in August of ’45 so I was just there flying combat about four months. Our squadron lost, I think, three crews during that time and there were 20 crews in that squadron. Two were shot down and one we never knew what happened to them.
The first mission is the toughest one on you mentally and psychologically, but as you gain experience and fly more missions, it becomes pretty much routine and you realize there is always a chance that you aren’t coming back and out in the Pacific – it is very hot out there maybe 110 degrees and that’s tough on the reciprocating engine. Jets are not so bad; the heat doesn’t bother them as much. But just the take-off, for instance, is a traumatic experience for the plane and always a chance that if you lose an engine on take-off chances are you are going to go in and crash. We saw quite a few do that. I’d say three or four that lost an engine on take-off and just crashed. You would always think it’s not going to happen to me; it’s not going to happen to me.
I had just been married before I went over there and, of course, you think about your new wife, home. You write letters every day. And my wife, she wasn’t worried about me. My mother was; my mother was worried but I would tell my mother by the time you get my letters, and the near misses and things, it’s already over and I’m OK.
I was 21 when I got married. I met her here in Solomons when I was a teenager. She was from Baltimore, but she had relatives down here and she would come down visiting in the summer time. She was purdy! I met her on a straw ride. You got a wagon or truck and put a bunch of straw in it and kids go for a ride in it. She had a date with another guy, a good friend of mine, and I crawled up through the straw and I started poking her. He didn’t know I was doing that. My brother was going with her cousin, and I really got to know her from going with my brother. She worked for an aircraft company in Baltimore as a draftsperson while I was in training. She went to school at Johns Hopkins University and learned how to do it.
She told me she didn’t worry. She sent me a Bible verse; she was a Sunday school teacher, Joshua 1:9 “Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” I still have that in my billfold written in her handwriting. I had her picture in my billfold, too. Pretty much every guy had a picture of his girlfriend. If they didn’t they had a picture of Betty Grable!