MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- With all four engines at full power, a B-29 Superfortress, nicknamed ‘Goin’ Jessie,’ quickly approached the end of a Tinian Island runway during World War II; the aircraft, however, still wasn’t in the air.
At the last moment, the bomber lifted off the ground just enough to stay airborne, taking out two runway lights as it slowly gained altitude.
“Because of the high heat of the engines, we had to fly low to get the temperatures down,” said Charles Chauncey, Goin’ Jessie’s pilot. “We probably made it 45 or 50 miles out to sea before we could start our climb.”
Before this mission, Chauncey and his crew were informed there was an order to remove 55 gallons of oil from each engine to allow for a larger bombload. A ground crew chief said since the aircraft would need that oil, he decided not to remove it. This meant the aircraft was heavier than usual.
Not long after departure, the crew, which included John Fleming, the aircraft commander, began to experience problems with the aircraft that would majorly impact their ability to complete the mission.
“We got about two hours away from Tinian and swallowed a valve on one of the engines,” said Chauncey. “We cut the power back on it, and John and I decided we would just keep going on the mission.”
The engine was still putting out a small amount of power, and they continued on until the oil pressure started to decrease. At that point, it needed to be shut off and the feathered, which is when the propellers are rotated to reduce air resistance.
“About an hour from Nagoya, the crew chief called up and said he was shutting the engine down,” said Chauncey. “John and I talked and decided that we both would go if the crew wanted to. If there was one man who did not want to go, we would scrub the mission. I started calling all the positions and they all said, ‘Let’s go.’ That’s a hero to me.”
Even though they lost that engine, Chauncey and his crew completed the mission. They were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a decoration that recognizes heroism or extraordinary achievement during aerial flight.
Chauncey’s journey to become a decorated veteran began in 1943, when he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces while studying to become an aeronautical engineer. During his training, he flew several different types of aircraft, three of which were manufactured in Wichita, Kansas.
“When I went in, I didn’t want to be in the smaller aircraft,” said Chauncey. “I wanted the biggest they had, and that’s what I asked for all the way along. I went through B-17 [Flying Fortress] training and thought I was heading to England, but they took the top 10 percent of our class and put us in the B-29, so I got my wish after all.”
During his time as a military pilot, Chauncey completed 35 missions, most of which were incendiary bombings, but also included a few where they dropped naval mines into waterways to block Japan’s shipping.
“Our crew dropped 2 million tons of bombs in July [of 1945], and of course the atomic bomb group came and dropped the two atomic bombs on the sixth and ninth of August, so actually our two million tons of bombs didn’t really amount to much then,” Chauncey said.
The missions completed by men like Chauncey during the war didn’t come without risk. Every mission was a close call, he said. The bombers’ engines had a lot of issues, and the crew never knew when something could go wrong. In addition to the aircraft problems, there were also other things to worry about.
“The islands where we were based were 1,500 miles from Japan, so these were roughly 15 hour missions, and most of them were over the water,” said Chauncey. “We had no place to land except back home. We were doing those 3,000 mile missions with no place to ditch except in the sea. I think I was more scared of ditching than I was of the Japanese air force.”
More recently, Chauncey had the opportunity to pray with the crew of ‘Doc,’ another B-29, and watch it take flight for the first time in 60 years from McConnell AFB. He had helped work on Doc when it was first brought back to Wichita in pieces in 2000.
“It was great to see her fly, I was thrilled to be out there and be amongst the workers,” said Chauncey. “I know they’re very proud, and they ought to be.”
Chauncey and his crew were some of the lucky ones. They were able to complete all 35 of their missions without ever taking a hit and got to go back home to their families.