Two former WWII POWs meet in Sebring
The last time they saw each other was 68 years ago. At ages 22 and 23, they had just been liberated from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where they’d been placed for 15 weeks after being shot down over Tokyo.
On Wednesday, Tom Peel, 90, came from Spokane, Wash., to see his crewmate, Don Ryan, 91, who lives in Sebring.
“He contacted me a couple of years ago, and recently got a hold of me again,” said Peel, who still has a knuckle-popping grip. He was visiting a son in Miami; they drove here to meet Ryan, who still gets around with the aid of a motorized chair.
Ryan, a grape farmer from Mattawan, Mich. had enlisted in November 1942. After training in Big Springs, Texas, Gulfport, Miss., and Seattle, he met Peel, of Chicago, who was to become a radio operator.
After their passage to Brazil, then the African Gulf Coast, they arrived in India, where they flew gas and bombs to China over “The Hump” – the Himalayan Mountains.
After 13 months and 16 missions from India, as Ryan wrote in his 10-page memoir, Ryan and Peel’s B-29 crew moved to Tinian, a companion island to Saipan, which had been captured by the U.S. in July 1944 Battle of Tinian.
Even loaded with a full crew and 20,000 pounds of bombs, B-29s could range 3,250 miles. Since it was just 1,459 miles from the Japanese capital, Tinian was transformed into the busiest airbase of the war. Allies could strike the Japanese core: industrial cities, steel mills, shipping centers, and aircraft, electronics and ball bearing manufacturers.
“Thirty days later, we had our first mission, which was to Tokyo,” Ryan wrote. In a B-29 Superfortress new enough the crew still hadn’t personalized it with a name or a painted emblem on the nose, they were to strike the Imperial Palace.
“We took off about 7 p.m. It took seven hours to get there, so it was 1 a.m. when we were over the target,” Ryan wrote. Even before their bombs were dropped, search lights found their B-29. So did anti-aircraft shells and fighter planes like Zeroes and Tojos.
“Number one and three engines were on fire, and we got them out, but the pilot had been hit,” Ryan wrote. The co-pilot could have flown to Iwo Jima on the remaining two engines, so neither Ryan nor Peel knows why the evacuation order was given.
Radioman Peel went out the side of the plane; tail gunner Ryan jumped out the back. The pilot was dead; the engineer in their nine or 10-man craft also may have gotten hit, so seven got out. Perhaps six became POWs.
“We never really agreed on what happened,” Peel said. Separated in the air, they parachuted into different parts of the city. Peel busted an ankle when he landed, and he had been advised not to get caught with a weapon.
“So the first thing I did was to throw away my gun,” Peel said. He was discovered by a child, “screaming like hell. And then the gendarmes came.”
“Right after I bailed out, I almost got hit by a fighter plane,” Ryan wrote. The parachute swung him like a doll and he came down on a bamboo fence. “I heard screaming in the house so I dumped my chute and my Mae West,” a floatable life preserver, “and ran down the road quite a distance.”
He buried his wallet in elephant grass and lay down. The next morning, maybe he would find a river and follow it to the sea. “I woke up at daylight and there were six or seven little girls circling around me,” Ryan wrote. “I raised up, and there was a Jap with a rifle aimed at me. I surrendered with raised hands.”
Ryan was led to what may been a school and blindfolded for the rest of the day, wrists bound behind his back and pulled to his neck. An English-speaking Japanese interrogator played Russian-roulette with Ryan’s head.
The blindfold came off, but the situation only got worse: Ryan was placed in a truck. He could see feet that might have belonged to the left gunner and the senior gunner, but one died during the drive to a POW camp. The survivors, told they were being held for murder, were placed into an 8x10x8 foot cell.
“That’s exactly what it was,” Peel said after looking at a drawing in Ryan’s memoir. “It looked like a horse stall. Prisoners had enough room lie down sideways, but if one turned over, they all had to. No talking, the prisoners were told. Peel violated that order once and was told to kneel on the points of his kneecaps, his feet folded under.
“There were 17 of us,” Ryan said. Both he and Peel weighed between 160 and 175 pounds when they were captured. Over the next 3.5 months, they were fed three balls of rice per day, along with a sip of water. Each weighed about 112 pounds when released.
“We had to beg to get toilet paper,” Ryan said. “I had to lie over the toilet at night. I was getting eaten up by fleas.”
“Every time there was a bombing, the guards would run outside. We would get up to a window near the center of the ceiling to see what kind of planes were going over,” Ryan wrote. “The third month, it got very hot, so we took our flight suits off. There was no ventilation, so we were down to our shorts. There was more room, as we had all lost so much weight.”
But in July – maybe it was August – the guards left. The 17 POWs were given one pail of water to wash their undershorts and to bathe the boils from the fleabites.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay lifted off from Tinian Island, carrying “Little Boy,” which the B-29 would drop over Hiroshima. From their prison cell, Ryan felt the heat of the blast, which had unleashed the equivalent of 12,500 tons of TNT.
Three days later, the Japanese still hadn’t surrendered, so President Harry Truman deployed the B-29 Bock’s Car and “Fat Man” over Nagasaki. Truman was criticized for the inhumane bombing of civilians, but Ryan and Peel felt the bombs saved their lives. If the Allies had needed to invade the Japanese mainland, POWs would have been killed, Peel predicted. “They wouldn’t have put up with us. It was in their plan to kill us.”
On Aug. 15, they were released from their prison cell. “We stood outside in the morning, and that was the first time since captivity I had seen daylight. The sun was coming up over the mountain, and it was beautiful.”
Then, however, they were blindfolded and taken to a salty beach, where they bathed. Afterwards, told to sit Japanese style, they thought they would be executed.
Instead, they were transported to Omori prison camp, where they ate beans. “We ate too much and ended up on our elbows and knees to get rid of the gas,” Ryan wrote.
Finally, Navy pilots began dropping cigarettes and food on the camp, and around Sept. 1, they were moved to the U.S.S. Benevolence, a hospital ship. After a few days in Hawaii, they were shipped to the Presidio.
Ryan mustered out of the Army Air Corps on June 6, 1946; Peel stayed in and became a chief master sergeant in the Air Force.