Jack Birtwistle (1922-2014)

This article about John Wynn Birtwhistle (aka Jack) was shared with us by L. Alan Birtwhistle, author of Thirtyone Generations of the Birtwhistle Family: A Family History (2006) who we’ve been collaborating with on stitching together a family tree of the different branches of the Birtwistle and other spellings diaspora (see more here). It was written by his cousin John Michael Birtwhistle:

John Wynn Birtwistle (aka Jack) and his wife Ida Mae (aka Robie, née Robins)

Jack was 19 years old and attending New Jersey State Teachers College at Montclair, New Jersey when he received his draft papers some 6 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Rather than accepting automatic conscription into the army Jack wanted to choose a military option and duly enlisted on 30 June 1942 with the Air Corps at Atlantic City.

After completing basic training, he was ordered to active duty on 30 January 1943.

Specialised training followed at the PanAm Navigation School at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, the Radar School at Boca Raton, and final intense Transition training focussed on B-29 Superfortress bombers at Maxwell Field, Alabama.

Jack graduated as a Second Lieutenant in August 1944 and was awarded his “wings” as a navigator. Navigators were technically competent to fly but had the additional skills for their specific role and held the rank of Captain. Following his graduation Jack was transferred to Air Transport Command Pacific Division, West Coast Wing, 1505th AAF Base unit at Mather Field, Sacramento, where he was assigned to 30th Bombardment Squadron (a division of the 19th Bombardment Group) flying B-29 Superfortress bombers.

In August 1944, after intense fighting across the Pacific, US forces captured the strategic Mariana Islands which provided another important stepping-stone towards mainland Japan. In September 1944 Jack was transferred out to Harmon Field, Guam where new airstrips were hastily completed. After two year’s USAAF service Jack was about to embark on the most dangerous period of his life.

Harmon Field, Guam, was operational from December 1944 to July 1945. During those seven months Jack flew a total of 35 missions to Japan in B-29 Superfortress bombers. The distance from Guam to Tokyo is 1450 miles with a flying time of approximately 6 hours over an area of the Pacific Ocean notoriously prone to violent weather.

Having been inside a B-29 at the Air Museum in Palm Springs, I am aware of the unbelievably arduous conditions experienced by the crew of 10 in the cramped metallic interior during those long flights. Bombing raids were conducted at night which involved departure at around 5.30pm with several hundred bombers and an escort of P-51 fighter planes. During early raids, the bombers maintained an altitude of 31,000 feet to discharge the bombs over the target, but due to inaccuracy the discharge altitude was lowered to 7-10,000 in February 1945. This involved increased work for the navigators operating the Loran guidance system and was also significantly more dangerous. On average at least 10% of aircraft were lost during each raid. The human casualties and damage caused to the Japanese by these continuous raids was enormous, but Japan still refused to surrender.

On the night of 9-10 March 1945 Jack was involved in one of the most significant actions of the Second World War – the firebombing of Tokyo codenamed Operation Meetinghouse – designed to weaken Japanese resistance and avoid further loss of life to the US army forces.

I was privileged to have had several conversations with Jack in his later years when he revealed his experiences and the emotions he felt at the time.

Out of the 334 B-29 bombers leaving Harmon Field at 5.30 on the evening of 9 March, only 279 reached the target and 27 were shot down by A6M Zero fighters. For over an hour, hundreds of M47 incendiary bombs were released over central Tokyo, each bomb carrying multiple cylinders filled with napalm.

From his position Jack had a clear view of the devastation as hundred of bombs caused a massive conflagration which lit up the entire sky. He was in no doubt about the strategic importance of the mission but he did tell me that as he watched the carnage unfold below “I prayed that not too many civilians had lost their lives.”

After the war it was revealed that approximately 100,000 Japanese died in Tokyo on that night during the single most destructive bombing raid in history. By comparison, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima killed 66 thousand and 39 thousand at Nagasaki in August 1945. They finally brought about the Japanese surrender a month later.

Jack also recalled another occasion when returning to base from a bombing mission on 12th April 1945, news came over the radio that President Roosevelt had died.

Jack’s tour of duty in the Pacific ended in August 1945 when he returned to serve as Personnel Affairs Officer firstly at Greensboro, North Carolina from November ’45 to July ’46, followed by similar duty at Mather USAAF base at Sacramento until November ‘46.

During his service in the Pacific, Jack was awarded the following medals for acts of bravery during active operations in 1945: Air Medal in May, 1st Oak Leaf Cluster in June, 2nd Oak Leaf Cluster in July, and finally the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross, the nation’s highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement, on 2 July 1945.

On 9 December 1946 Jack left active duties and was appointed to the Officers Reserve Corps. In 1950 he volunteered to fly for the Air-Sea Rescue Division in Panama before his honourable discharge in 1952 with the rank of Major.

Jack married Ida Mae (Robie) Robins in June 1951 and moved his parents and brother out to join him in California. After gaining his teaching certification at UC Berkeley he spent the rest of his working life as a History teacher firstly in Anderson and finally Stockton, California until his retirement in 1979.

He then turned all his efforts to exploring family history which took him to Halifax, UK and into our lives.

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