The Forgotten Tragic Loss of American Airmen at Hiroshima

Tom Cartwright, standing 3rd from Left, Only Survivor of Lonesome Lady Crew Which Was in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

B-24 Liberator "Lonesome Lady" Nose Art

On This Date in History:  By the end of July 1945, the allies pretty much had secured air superiority over the Empire of Japan.   The Japanese, however, showed no signs of giving up any time soon so the Americans continued to bomb targets on the Japanese mainland.  On the morning of July 28, 1945 several small groups of B-24 Liberators took off to fly their mission.  The target was the Japanese Battleship Haruna, one of the few battleships remaining in the once mighty Japanese Navy.  The group of planes that included the “Lonesome Lady” was short one plane so it only had 5 B-24s in its flight.  Now, the Haruna was anchored in the Kure Harbor Naval Base, which was heavily armed with anti-aircraft defenses.  The Haruna and other vessels at the base also were naturally heavily armed.  Members of the US Army Air Corps generally had a rule of thumb: “never fly over a battleship.”  However, Lonesome Lady pilot Lt. T.C. Cartwright knew that orders always trumped rules of thumb.

The Lonesome Lady Turned Back Over Land Instead of Safety of Sea

After the Lonesome Lady dropped its bombs,  Cartwright noticed that one of its companion planes, the Taloa. was shot down.  One of those killed in the crash of the Taloa was Lt. Robert C. Johnston, whose family learned of his fate in 2009.  Shortly after the Taloa fell from the sky, another B-24 went down, though it was able to make its way toward a US held island near Okinawa.   The Lonesome Lady took a hit and Cartwright thought that he could make it back to the ocean but he soon realized that the damage was to allow for that strategy.  The plane became so uncontrollable that it deviated from its heading toward the sea back toward the land on its own.  With an engine in flames and the hydraulics lost, the plane was completely out of control.  Cartwright ordered the crew to bail out and, to the best of his knowledge, Cartwright was the last to leave the doomed bomber.

Youthful Lonesome Lady Pilot Tom Cartwright

All of the crew came to earth safely but in a very wide area.  Each one was alone and each one was eventually captured and taken to a military installation for detention.  On this date in 1945, the crew of the Lonesome Lady found themselves housed in a military detention center.  They later found out that the detention center was on a military base in Hiroshima, Japan.   While the base was one of many in Hiroshima, none were intended to be military detention centers and so they had no experienced interrogators.  It is quite interesting that Cartwright said that, at that point in the war, air crews were briefed to tell the Japanese the correct answers to anything that they asked.  Apparently, US military officials felt that whatever the captured crews told their captors, the Japanese already knew the information so there was no sense it risking torture or undue harrassment.  So, Cartwright said that he answered all of the questions put before him truthfully.  Nevertheless, the Japanese thought he was lying so they sent him to the Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo for further questioning.  Normally, such a trip may result in terrific torture and pain for the unfortunate POW who was sent to such an interrogation facility.  It was not uncommon for prisoners to be beheaded.   For Cartwright, the moved proved to be a lifesaver.

Durden W. Looper

On the morning of August 6, 1945 the US B-29 Bomber called the Enola Gay dropped, “Little Boy”,  the first atomic bomb used in warfare on Hiroshima, Japan.  The target was the Aioi Bridge crossing the Ota River.  About a half mile from the target was the crew of the Lonesome Lady along with the survivors of two other flight crews that had been shot down.  One of those flight crews is suspected to  have included three men from the Taloa.    Amazingly, the solid brick walls somewhat withstood the force of the initial blast.  Nevertheless, only 3 of the prisoners are known to have survived the initial blast.  Included in the list of dead was Lonesome Lady crewman Lt. Durden W.  Looper.    US Navy pilot Normand Brissette and Lonesome Lady gunner Ralph Neal managed to get to a cesspool, where they remained nose deep in the muck until the flames died down.  When they emerged from their ghastly position, they were quickly recaptured by their guards.  That alone indicates the loyalty and fanaticism of the Japanese soldiers.  The city was totally destroyed by a nuclear weapons and they were still keeping an eye on a couple of US flyers who had hidden in a cesspool.

"Little Boy" Detonated 1870 Ft Above Aioi Bridge in Hiroshima

But, their hiding place could not escape their captors or the lasting effects of the atomic bomb.  With oozing sores and constant vomiting, the two men both died a terrible and slow death.  The third American prisoner who survived was not as lucky.  He was made a scapegoat for the destruction of the city.  No one knows for certain whom the flyer was but an eyewitness is said to have described him as “the handsomest boy I ever saw.”  He was tied to what was left of the Aioi Bridge with a sign hanging from him that read, “Beat This American Soldier Before You Pass.”  Lonesome Lady pilot Tom Cartwright survived the war.  Cartwright said that 50 POW’s were beheaded after the Japanese surrender but he was spared.  On August 28, a month after he was shot down, the POW camp where Cartwright was being housed was liberated by US Marines.  Of the 3000 Japanese Americans who were stranded in Hiroshima at the beginning of the war, about 1000 survived the atomic bomb and returned to the United States.

Andersonville Plaque Commemorating Flight Crews Killed Inadvertantly at Hiroshima

War often has unintended consequences.  The crew of the Lonesome Lady was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Quite often, such stories are filled with “what ifs.”  What if the Cartwright had been able to control the plane just a little longer?  What if the plane went out of control toward the ocean instead of turning around back toward land?  Why did the Japanese spare the life of the pilot of the Lonesome Lady but subject a crewman to beating and torture while tied to the Aioi Bridge?  If any of these instances were altered, the story might have turned out differently.  But, alternative history is fantasy and it is what it is.   While the story of the tragic loss of the crew of the USS Indianapolis, which secretly delivered the bomb to Tinian Island is well known, the story of the Lonesome Lady is not.  There is however, a commemorative plaque at a memorial located at the infamous site of the Civil War Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

Weather Bottom Line:  A cold front will ease through the first part of the day and clouds will give way to some sunshine and afternoon heating may produce an errant afternoon shower behind the front.  We will have a short drying trend and also a short lived slight reduction in the heat.  Today we’ll most likely get to near 90 and Friday afternoon will be in the upper 80’s after a morning start in the low 70’s. Neither of those numbers are cool on their own but in relation to lows in the mid 70’s and highs in the low to mid 90’s, its an improvement. It won’t last though because the front comes back as a warm front bringing a chance of rain and t’storms with it on Saturday and then the higher heat and humidity after that along with the threat of scattered afternoon t’storms through at least mid week.


19 Responses

  1. Tragic story. To get so close to the end of the war only to be shot down over enemy territory. Then to have most of the surviving crew killed in a “friendly fire” nuclear explosion either directly or indirectly. Very sad indeed.

  2. You asked for a new one…couldn’t find a nice one. I suspect that there are numerous untold tragic tales of war. After all, war itself is a tragic event.

  3. I’ve always felt sorry for the soldiers killed near the very end of a conflict most of all. To be so close to the end then to die. All of the soldiers who died in the Battle of New Orleans when the war was actually over comes to my mind. Of course, it couldn’t be helped due to the slow communication of that day but it’s still sad and senseless death. But, that’s the stuff that war is made of, unfortunately!

  4. The Battle of New Orleans (actually near Lake Bourne) no doubt came to mind from your deep study of these here pages!

  5. I’m not really sure how this is any more tragic than any of the other lives lost that day.

  6. No more tragic than the massive loss of civilian life.

  7. I never said that it was not.

  8. Good, Its great that both sides loose lives. Feel sorry for the Japanese though at the hand of USA’a mass murder!!!

  9. War is an ugly and dirty business. Nevertheless, your characterization though is incorrect and cannot be substantiated. But, I appreciate the addition to the discussion.

  10. Sad to see the youthful ignorance of Ryan and Pete. Clearly they have no conception of World War Two or the atrocities the Germans and Japanese commited with wild abandon.
    My father was a child in Berlin during WWII and my my mothers cousin was aboard the Lonesome Lady and killed by the Hiroshima bomb, so I know first hand of whence I speak.
    My parents never regretted and always praised the brave response of America (so hard to find today in Ryan and Pete’s world) in executing the War.
    America did not vanquish Germany from the Earth and the Japanese got to keep their emperor. No other Country would have shown this kindness to such ruthless enenies.
    I thank you for remembering the crew of the Lonesome Lady (and the other crews with them).
    I’m sorry to see it fall on the deaf ears and blind eyes of Ryan and Pete, but maybe other wiser, better informed persons will understand the importance of the sacrafice.

  11. I appreciate the kind words. It is rather distressing some of the views of the youth today. However, I find with my students that often they say things trying to sound as if they “already get it” when in fact, they are still learning and those views are not always set in stone. I have confidence that, in the future, they will understand. I always figure each semester if I can reach just one kid and help him to be more than he thought or provide him some insight that may open his mind in the future, then I’ve been a success. I had hoped that my writing of the Lonesome Lady would have such an affect. I am honored and humbled by your comments and am grateful for them as they may add something more that was beyond my ability.

  12. Robert Johnston was my Uncle.

  13. Are you the Harry Johnston who used to do the weather on TV in greenville, ms and also victoria, tx?

  14. NO. I live in the Los Angeles area. My mother left MO when I was 3. I am looking for more info on this subject. It destroyed my family. There is more to the story regarding my family.

  15. Please contact me

  16. My Uncle was described as the most handsome man you will ever see. his picture proves this to be true.

  17. I don’t understand that all of the articles I have read on Durden Looper and looked up, it doesn’t mention his wife and child. His wife lives in Colorado Springs and his daughter who was about one year old when her Father left for the South Pacific lives in Arizona. Joicie

  18. the bombs were karma

  19. The pilot and last surviving member of the Lonesome Lady, Tom Cartwright, passed away this year. I’ve never known a better role model, and doubt I ever could. If you would like to share information about the Americans on this mission then please post your contact information here.

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