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WWII's 'Last Mission' started, ended on Guam

A B-29 in flight over Northwest Field, Guam. Records indicate this particular bomber was assigned to the 315th Bomb Wing, 501st Bomb Group.  (Photo courtesy of the 315th Bombardment Wing circa 1945)

A B-29 in flight over Northwest Field, Guam. Records indicate this particular bomber was assigned to the 315th Bomb Wing, 501st Bomb Group. (Photo courtesy of the 315th Bombardment Wing circa 1945)

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- -- Guam's history is one of bloodshed and celebration, hardship and prosperity. It's also one of significant events that would later alter the course of history.

Sixty-five years ago, on August 14, 1945, Northwest Field saw the launch of 143 B-29 Superfortress aircraft assigned to the 315th Bombardment Wing for what would become the last combat mission of World War II.

The mission would be the longest continuous mission ever attempted by the Twentieth Air Force, logging more than 17 hours of flight and covering a distance of 3,760 miles to destroy the largest remaining oil reserves in Japan at Akita.

At a time when most servicemembers and Americans were hoping for a swift end to the war, an air raid seemed unavoidable.

"There was little doubt on the part of the 20th Air Force commanders, B-29 bomber crews, or even ordinary Americans that the bombing of the Japanese homeland was an inevitable part of the war," said Dr. Andreas Fischer, 36th Wing historian. "Few on the Allied side doubted it was necessary."

The Japanese situation during this period of time was desperate. The major cities were devastated by atomic or conventional attack while the casualties numbered in the millions. Millions more were refugees, the Japanese fleet of naval vessels was lost and merchant shipping could not leave home waters without braving submarine or mine attacks.

Clearly the time to surrender had come. Incredibly, many in the military urged the Showa Emperor Hirohita to fight on, preferring death to capitulation. The idea the Emperor would support surrender was inconceivable to many in both the Japanese Army and Navy.

Twenty minutes after midnight, the bombers from Guam reached their target of processed crude oil from the fields around Akita and released their payload. The after-mission damage assessment on all structures averaged 86 percent with no part of the refinery complex untouched.

During their approach to the target, Japanese radars picked up the 315th BW B-29s as they neared Tokyo and the city went into a blackout. This occurred as a number of militarists attempted to kidnap the Emperor and prevent him from recording a speech announcing Japan's unconditional surrender. Their plans were foiled and some attribute this to the blackout and utter darkness after the 315th BW aircraft were pinged on the Japanese radar.

Jim Smith, a member of the crew and writer of the post war narrative "The Last Mission," was a proponent of the theory that the 315th BW's mission thwarted the Japanese militarists' plans.

After the blackout in Tokyo, "the B-29s continued north to Akita, but it seems that the blackout happened precisely at the moment when a number of militarists bent on keeping the war going were about to kidnap the emperor and put a stop to the effort of recording a surrender speech," Smith said. "With flashlights and candles, soldiers searched all night for the recordings, but were unsuccessful, and the speech aired on Aug. 15, 1945 as planned."

Whether or not the theory is accurate will surely be debated for years. However, it is undeniable the 315th BW crew members from Northwest Field played a vital part in the Second World War.

"The crews of the 315th BW were on their way back to Guam when the bulletin [announcing Japan's surrender] was repeated over and over," said Fischer. "They yelled, for they knew that they would not have to test their luck over Japan again."