Veterans Stories: Local veteran saw the mushroom cloud: Dan Oldewage, a witness to history

Dan Oldewage, 1943

As told to Michael H Pazeian.

First of two parts.

Editors Note: Dan Oldewage is known to veterans in the Seal Beach Los Alamitos area as he has been invited to share his experiences with students at various high schools in the area and frequently, Oldewage was recognized as an “honored guest” during the “Wheels Wings, and Rotors” at the Joint Forces Base in Los Alamitos.

Now a resident of Orange County, I was part of the graduating class of Tucson High School in 1943. At an assembly, in high school, the then Army Air Corps. soon to become the US Air Force, put on a program about becoming an aviation cadet in the Air Force. Pilot, Navigator, and Bombardier all sounded great. On September 4, at eighteen years and two weeks of age, I reported to Shepard Field, a base just outside of Wichita Falls, Texas, for basic training. I learned to march, make my bed properly, say “yes sir” to everybody, clean latrines, do K.P. All that neat stuff that nobody wants to do, but it’s all part of discipline training. In October, I shipped out by troop train to Southwest Missouri State Teachers College, Springfield, Missouri, for a four-month accelerated college program which did include 10 hours of flying lessons in light planes. This was a cushy assignment. The courses were grueling, but our living conditions were great. We were housed in the gymnasium, all the cooking was done by local ladies, and the local citizenry treated us like family.

In February of 1944, we went by troop train back to Texas, this time to San Antonio. There was a large cadet center there. We would receive additional training, schooling, testing to see where we would be best qualified. By now the Army Air Corps had lots of pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. They needed gunners. We learned about and practiced with all the different guns on our bombers, 30 and 50 caliber machine guns primarily. I was chosen to go to Armament school in Denver. We learned about bombs and arming them. The bomb fuse and propeller are attached with a safety wire. Once on the plane in the bomb rack, each bomb’s safety wire is attached to the rack. The bomb arms itself as it drops, and it takes time for the propeller to spins off. The plane is clear and remains safe.

Next was additional training and crew assignment in Tonopah, Nevada. I got a 3-day pass, hitched a ride with the local sheriff and went to see my parents in Redondo Beach, California. I used packs of cigarettes to get rides because cigarettes were hard to get for most people, but easy to get on the base. On highway 395 I held up the packs of Lucky Strikes, a middle age couple picked me up and took me all the way to Pasadena. I was assigned to a B-24 crew. We flew together every day. We got to know each other and the B-24.

We went to a town along the coast of California (possibly San Diego) and picked up a new B-24. It smelled like a new car. We did a few shakedown flights then headed to Sacramento’s Mather Field. Then we flew across the ocean to New Guinea, stopping at many islands to refuel. We finally arrived at Nadzab, New Guinea. Immediately they took our new B-24 and we got a much older B-24. We became part of the 65th Squadron of the 43rd Bomb Group. Lots of laying around and being bit by mosquitoes. We do not fly any missions from there. In late November of 1944 the Squadron moved to the Philippines. We flew two missions out of Clark Field which was above Manila. The group attacked shipping along the Asiatic coast; struck industries, airfields, and installations in China and Formosa; and supported ground forces on Luzon. Once we took off, I went down to the nose turret. It gets really cold as we climb to altitude. We all put on lots of clothes before we went on oxygen at 10 to 12 thousand feet. In the nose, I had the best view. I was always looking for enemy aircraft.

After the battle of Okinawa (May 18 – June 22, 1945), they moved our squadron, about 30 planes, to Le Shima an island just north of Okinawa with a large air field. In the move, the pilots and navigators flew the planes. The rest of the squadron and all the gear went on LSTs. One of the guys appropriated a 5-gallon container of brandy. Many got very drunk. On our second day out, we were hit by a typhoon. The brandy helped but heavy seas hit us for two days. Everyone got sick. Everyone stayed on the deck and held on.

The convoy finally got to Naha on Okinawa. All the ships were in the harbor when a baka (American name for it – meant idiot) bomb came in. These were human guided rocket propelled plane/bomb.

It was a suicide attack, a kamikaze. Everyone on all the ships were looking at it and wondering where it would go. Finally, it just crashed into the sea – many thought the pilot did that on purpose. Two days later the LST took us to Ie Shima. We flew eight bombing missions against Kyushu, the southern island of Japan. We usually flew above 12,000 ft on oxygen, high enough so we didn’t really see the specifics of our target. We knew our targets had military importance. After the bomb run the plane came down in altitude, so we could remove the heavy clothing and relax. Once back at the base, we always were debriefed. We usually got three to four days off before the next mission.

On Aug. 9, 1945, we flew our mission in the early morning. Our bombing run was like the others before, uneventful. We turned our B-24 to return to our base at Ie Shima. Ahead of us and off to the left was a high cloud, a strange mushroom shaped cloud. None of us had seen anything like it before. It was white and smoky. We estimated it to be at least 40,000 feet high. All of us on the plane though it was a weird weather phenomenon.

When we got back to the base during debriefing we all reported what we saw. No one at the base recognized what we described. It was a mystery. Hours later the base received President Truman’s public statement: “Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British ‘Grand Slam,’ which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.” What we saw was the Nagasaki Bomb. The enlisted men were shipped to Okinawa a few days later. We waited around for days. Another typhoon hit the island. I lost all my clothes and had to be issued new. Then I was assigned to the Naval Air Facility Atsugi. Specifically, to a doctor—I was his gofer, clerk/typist, and ambulance driver. The were many alcohol-related accident with Americans service personnel. Good food, clean clothes, showers, it was great duty. In January 1946 I received an honorable discharge at San Pedro, CA. I decided to stay on “inactive reserve” to keep my Staff Sargent ranking should I ever be recalled. In August 1950 I would continue my military experience. That is the next story.