Paul Dietzel holds a photo of ‘Banana Boat,” the B-29 he piloted in bombing missions over Japan in World War II. (Photo by Bill Feig, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
By George Morris
Much of the memorabilia that Paul Dietzel kept at his Baton Rouge home involved a legendary sports career — All-America football player, national championship at LSU, connections to such coaching legends as Paul Brown, Bear Bryant, Earl Blaik and Sid Gillman.
Among the plaques, posters and game balls, however, was a photo of the B-29 bomber he flew over Japan in World War II, years before the lesser combat of football made him famous.
There is no question, Dietzel said, as to which experience was the more important.
“Those two and a half, three years, that was the greatest part of my life,” Dietzel said. “I owe it so much.”
Dietzel was a high school student in Mansfield, Ohio, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. After enrolling at Duke University on a football scholarship, Dietzel enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Beginning in Biloxi, Mississippi, Dietzel bounced around the country learning to fly the nation’s most advanced aircraft. His high school sweetheart, Anne Wilson, visited him occasionally, including when he received his pilot’s wings on Aug. 4, 1944, in Seymour, Ind.
“My pay boomed up to almost $200 a month,” Dietzel said.
Seven weeks after Anne pinned Dietzel’s wings on his uniform, he put a ring on her finger. They were married in the Smyrna Army Air Base chapel in Tennessee, where he was training on the B-24 Liberator bomber.
Though warned there was no place for dependents to live around military bases, Anne stayed with her husband until he was shipped overseas.
“When we’d go to a new town where I was stationed, we’d just go out and start walking up and down the street,” he said. “We’d knock on the door and say, ‘Do you happen to have a room that you can rent to us for several months?’ That’s how we found a place to stay. The people were so nice. It was just an entirely different world at that time.”
In Clovis, N.M., Dietzel trained to fly the B-29 Superfortress, which replaced the B-24 as America’s largest bomber. The B-29 was 33 feet longer, 10 feet higher and had a 31-foot longer wingspan than its predecessor. Dietzel remembers the first time he saw one.
“I couldn’t believe it. You mean to tell me we’re going to fly this thing?” he said. “It’s so sleek. It’s a beautiful airplane.”
Unlike older bombers, the B-29 had a pressurized cabin, which could be heated so the crew didn’t have to fight the brutal cold of high altitude as well as the enemy.
“It’s like moving from a Model T to a Rolls Royce,” Dietzel said.
The Dietzels’ car, a 1936 Ford they nicknamed “Old Betsy,” was far closer to the former than the latter, but it was built well enough that it maybe prevented him from becoming a casualty before ever entering combat.
Dietzel carpooled with two other Air Corps men from Portales, 20 miles away. They would have to arrive on base as early as 4 a.m. The hour and the arrow-straight road made for a boring drive.
“I’m kinda dozing a little bit, and all of a sudden I see these headlights right in my face,” Dietzel said. “I swerved that car. That other guy was asleep, too, because he swerved his car, and bang! We sideswiped, hit a real blow on both cars.”
The other car kept going, but Dietzel stopped to look at the damage. There were no dents, only some paint from the other car.
“If we did that with our cars today, we’d have totaled it,” he said.
Dietzel was sent to Tinian in the northern Mariana Islands. His first mission was to bomb Tokyo. Earlier in the war, bombing attempts from altitudes around 20,000 feet had been unsuccessful because high winds blew the falling bombs out to sea. So, Gen. Curtis LeMay decided to send bombers lower than 10,000 feet and to use incendiary bombs. There were several such raids, and they were devastating.
“Tokyo is made of bamboo houses,” Dietzel said. “You talk about burning. I think more people were killed in those first two raids — we came back in two nights later and did the same thing — more people were killed by those fire raids than were ever killed by the atomic bombs. I think they destroyed over half of Tokyo, and that’s a huge city. It was a terrible thing.”
Crewmen could actually feel the heat from the conflagration below, a thermal effect that caused the massive bombers to bounce through the air.
“You wondered if you were going to make it out of there,” he said.
“It was a terrible situation, and it made you feel so strange that you are causing so much damage to people and you’re killing so many people. … I think we felt sorry that we were killing so many people, but we were in a war. You aren’t going to win a war without killing people. War is war. War is hell.”
Returning from one mission, Dietzel had to refuel on Iwo Jima. The island had earlier served as an air base for Japanese fighter planes to attack American bombers. Though Marines had declared the island secured, there was still resistance, as Dietzel discovered in a message from the flight tower.
“They said, ‘B-29 that just landed: Clear the runway at the next intersection. They’re still fighting at the other end of the runway,'” he said. “We turned off, and that was the first time I had ever heard this ‘ping, ping’ when those (bullets) bounce off the hull of the airplane. I just always loved the Marines after that. Those rascals saved my life and a lot of other people’s lives.”
Perhaps the most dangerous mission was to mine the waters around the heavily defended Yawata naval base on the strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Kyushu. An earlier attempt to attack Yawata had been a disaster, and veterans of that mission were part of Dietzel’s unit.
“We went in to get our briefing,” he said. “A hush fell over the audience. They had told us so much about Yawata that we were almost as scared as they were.”
The searchlights were so numerous and antiaircraft fire around Yawata was so intense that Dietzel ignored warnings to keep his speed down so the wind wouldn’t rip the parachutes off the mines when they dropped from the airplane. The parachutes held, and Dietzel turned his B-29, nicknamed “Banana Boat,” over Kyushu. It was only later, when he asked his navigator, that Dietzel discovered that he was flying below the height of the island’s mountains.
“We had to be going right down a valley,” he said. “If we’d hit one of those mountains no one would have ever heard of us again. That was a scary time. When we got back, I said, ‘Thank you, Lord. I’m almost sure I’m going to make it, now, get back to Anne.'”
It wouldn’t be his only harrowing moment, though there was one they could laugh about later.
By the time Dietzel arrived at Tinian, Japan had begun using suicide planes called kamikazes to ram American ships and aircraft, detonating a bomb at the front of the airplane. Some of the kamikazes were rocket-powered, and U.S. airmen gave them the nickname “Ball of Fire” for the glow they emitted.
The Banana Boat crew was relaxing as it exited Japanese airspace and headed back toward Tinian one day when the top turret gunner, Joe Roos, announced over the intercom: “Ball of Fire! Nine o’clock level!”
Dietzel looked and, sure enough, a bright, orange glow shone through the cloud cover.
“I was so scared my knees were shaking, and I couldn’t stop it,” Dietzel said. “I held the throat mike and said, ‘Don’t shoot till he gets in close,’ and I released it real quick so they couldn’t hear the trembling in my voice.”
The crew glued its eyes on the glow until the clouds broke. It was the sun. Roos, of course, quickly became the target of teasing for the rest of the trip. When they landed, he approached Dietzel.
“He said, ‘I just want to tell you, lieutenant, if you hadn’t been so calm, I would have bailed out,'” Dietzel said. “I said, ‘Joe, calm? I was the scaredest guy on the airplane. My knees were shaking, and my voice was trembling. You didn’t know it, but I held my breath when I said, ‘Don’t shoot till he gets in close.’ Everybody was scared. Anybody that says they’re not scared is stupid or nuts.”
Dietzel’s crew was sent back to the U.S. to receive training to be squadron leaders, which gave him time to slip back to Ohio and surprise Anne with a visit. They went to California for training, and before it was over came news that America had attacked Japan twice with a new weapon, the atomic bomb, which was dropped by bombers that took off from Tinian.
That jogged a memory. Dietzel had been based at the northernmost of four parallel airstrips. While he was there, crews put up chain-link fences to the adjacent strip and stationed military police to keep anyone not assigned there from entering.
“They’ve got two or three airplanes, but there are no turrets on them,” he said. “We said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s a photo recon group.’ The first airplane there was the ‘Enola Gay.'”
The Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, and another B-29, nicknamed “Bockscar,” dropped a second such bomb on Nagasaki three days later.
Japan soon surrendered, allowing Dietzel to begin a life that sports fans know well. Dietzel died on Sept. 24, 2013. He was 89 years old.