73 Years Ago Today: Memories of my cousin, Jimmy Gates

By: Chuck Stanley

Hickam Field barracks burning. The American flag is ripped and tattered, but still flying. That same flag flew over the White House on 14 Aug. 1945 when the Empire of Japan accepted surrender terms.

Hickam Field barracks burning. The American flag is ripped and tattered, but still flying. That same flag flew over the White House on 14 Aug. 1945 when the Empire of Japan accepted surrender terms.

I remember where I was and what I was doing shortly after one o’clock in the afternoon on December 7, 1941. My dad called me in to where he and a couple of his friends were sitting by the huge Stromberg Carlson 350R console radio, its front doors swung open. They were leaning forward, hanging onto every word coming out of the polished walnut cabinet. The breathless announcer was talking so fast he sometimes stumbled over his words. The usual calm and soothing baritone of a professional radio news reporter was replaced by an almost panicked staccato, an octave higher than his voice would have sounded normally. One phrase has stayed stuck in my mind’s ear all these years, “They stabbed our boys in the back!”

At first I thought they were talking about Japanese soldiers bayoneting our soldiers and sailors in the back, as I had seen them do in the newsreels of the massacre of Nanking. Even as a kid, I knew war was on the horizon. Six weeks earlier, a Nazi U-boat had sunk the destroyer USS Reuben James as it escorted a convoy of cargo ships carrying food and supplies to England.

Everyone thought that when war did come, it would come from Europe. No one but a few farsighted tacticians like General Billy Mitchell were looking west, and even predicting that an attack would come by air. Mitchell was Court Martialed for his outspoken military and political heresy. When Americans were killed in what was to be the first military engagement of WW-2 with the sinking of the Reuben James, President Roosevelt held back committing troops and sailors to combat despite the provocation. Hitler was counting on that kind of restraint, or he would not have been so bold as to sink an American warship. He knew the US was not prepared to fight a war, since American troop levels had been drawn down to very low numbers, and much of the equipment was either obsolete or obsolescent. The country was recovering from the Great Depression, and needed time to re-arm.

Admiral Yamamoto took Roosevelt’s options away from him that Sunday morning. Hitler was said to be furious with his Japanese allies.

Which brings us to the story of my cousin Jimmy.

Jimmy Gates was from Cleveland, Mississippi. He grew up hunting squirrels and other game to help put food on the family table during the Depression. He was a crack shot. After he got out of high school, the economy was still reeling from the Great Depression, and opportunities were few in the Mississippi delta cotton fields. Seeing the peacetime military as a way to escape the hot farm fields, He joined the Army Air Corps as a Private. He liked airplanes, and figured it would be a lot better branch of the service for him than being an infantryman. For Jimmy, flying beat walking any day. The Air Corps liked Jimmy too. He was a superb marksman, and had unusually good eyesight, traits which seem to run in our family (when I was his age, my eyesight was 20/13). They made Jimmy a bombardier and nose gunner in a B-17 bomber. It was a good choice, because his ability to put bombs on target was uncanny, at a time when the average bomb fell a quarter mile off the intended target.

Burning barracks and hangars at Hickam Field 7 Dec. 1941

Burning barracks and hangars at Hickam Field 7 Dec. 1941

Jimmy was playing pool in the Day Room that Sunday morning. He heard airplanes flying at combat power settings and bullets hitting things outside. He ran to the window and saw planes with the “red meatball” markings wheeling overhead and diving on Hickam Field.

Hickam Field flight line 12-7-1041

Hickam Field flight line 7 Dec. 1941

He dove out the open window, because he knew buildings would be a target. After all, he was trained as a bombardier, and knew exactly what bomb aimers would be targeting.

He tumbled out the window into the flower bed and took off running. He had only gotten a few steps when a bomb came through the roof , exploding in the room he had just vacated. The blast knocked him down, but he wanted to get as far from the buildings and flight line as he could. Those would be the targets, and he was in no mood to be a target that day. He was a 24 year old Sergeant at the time, and wanted to have a 25th birthday. He knew his next birthday might be his last, if he did manage to live that long.

He got a chance to fight back soon enough. As the runways and ruined hangars were repaired, new B-17 bombers were arriving from the mainland US. After a few more weeks of training, Jimmy Gates went to war.

He lost friends that December morning. Some never made it out of that flower bed next to the Day Room. It was payback time.

The August 7, 1942 New York Times reported that Air Corps Sergeant James F. Gates of Cleveland, Mississippi was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in the Solomon Islands area. It would not be his last medal, or his last Silver Star.  After it was created in 1958, he was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal.

When his eye was not glued to the eyepiece of his top-secret Norden bombsight, he was handling the machine guns in the nose, looking for enemy aircraft.

He sank several Japanese warships, one of them by putting a bomb down the smokestack. Apparently one of his crew-mates had bet him he couldn’t do it. If whoever it was that bet he could not put a bomb down the ship’s smokestack had ever gone squirrel hunting with him and his .22 rifle, that bet would never have been made.

Jim was given sole credit for five Japanese warships and one Zero. It was most unusual for a bombardier shoot down a fighter plane. There were more which were not independently confirmed.

He told of one mission where they were shot up badly by antiaircraft fire. The crew voted on whether to bail out or stay with the crippled plane. He elected to stay. When he jumped down from the plane, shredded ribbons of his parachute started falling out a hole in the chute pack. There was a piece of antiaircraft shell the size of his hand in the middle of what was left of his parachute.

When B-29s arrived on the scene in the Pacific, he was assigned to a B-29 squadron. He flew right up until the end of the war, including some of the last raids on Japan.

In the early 1950s he came to visit at our house. I had about a million questions, but some he would not, or could not, answer. I asked him if he had been one of the crews selected to train for the atomic bomb. He changed the subject. I remember him suddenly wanting to talk about the outstanding performance of the P-38 in dives and climbs, compared to the Zero. I found out later he had been assigned to the 509th Composite Group.  My suspicions had been true.

Jimmy survived WW-2, but stayed in the Air Force. He was one of those aviators for whom flying was a way of life. Because of his outstanding skill, bravery and intelligence, he went to officer candidate school, and was now an officer.

Jimmy went on to fly during the Korean war.  At various times he was assigned to B-47 and then B-52 bombers when his squadron got them. He was a three war veteran, staying on through the Vietnam war.

Jimmy retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major. He eventually became the victim of Alzheimer’s Disease, living his last years in a nursing facility in Springfield, MO.

Headstone Photo by Mike Kinsley Find A Grave contributor

Headstone Photo by Mike Kinsley
Find A Grave contributor

He is buried in the Missouri Veterans Cemetery at Springfield.

I prefer to remember the young man who took his brother Billy and me to the Saturday afternoon matinee, and who loved to go squirrel hunting. He made a joke of diving out that open window into the flower bed that sunny Sunday morning, but I know now something I didn’t realize then.

There was a hell of a lot of pain in those memories.

Seventy-three years ago this morning

About Chuck Stanley

Dr. Charlton (Chuck) Stanley is a board certified forensic psychologist, with interests in aviation psychology, peace officer selection and training, ethics and communication skills.
This entry was posted in American History, Heroism, History, Japan, United States, US Army, USAF, War, World History, World War II and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to 73 Years Ago Today: Memories of my cousin, Jimmy Gates

  1. mespo727272 says:

    Great story, Chuck. Feel honored to have read it.

  2. Always so cool a gentlemen, with life experiences, family and friends that is wonderful to see n hear about

  3. rafflaw says:

    A true hero Chuck!

  4. buckaroo says:

    We the depression scions shall soon leave the stage to a new group of Americans – I trust they shall love this country as we did with all its ills. I. also, wish we still had a Kate Smith.

  5. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing about Mr. Gates before. Chuck and I even speculated he could have known my grandfather who ran a ground cargo team that serviced the 509th and Tinian was a small place. But that’s the thing about great stories about great men. They get better every time. A fitting tribute I’m glad you chose to share here, Chuck.

  6. Anonymously Yours says:

    Excellent article, as Mespo said, I as well am honored to have read it.

    I picked up this link from military.com it’s the tale of a survivor of Pearl. You might find something interesting as well: http://m.military.com/daily-news/2014/12/05/92-year-old-world-war-ii-vet-recalls-surviving-pearl-harbor.html?comp=700001075741&rank=4

  7. Anonymously Yours says:


    When are you going to get tired of the personal attacks at RIL? You’re braver than I’d be. But the again this name is banned from RIL….oh well.

    Gene, check your inbox….

  8. Hey AY,

    I was a bit perplexed yesterday, when I took Anonymous, to be you ( when such person claimed to now opine that Wilson was justified)

    Sorry for the mix up

  9. Elaine M. says:


    Thanks for this wonderful post! Personal stories such as this help to enrich our history.

  10. Anonymously Yours says:

    No problem ldl…. That’s not a worry at all….

  11. Gene,
    The 509th Composite Group consisted of only 15 B-29 bombers, designated “Silverplate.” The Silverplate bombers were B-29 Superfortresses specially modified to carry the atomic bombs. They also had four cargo planes, which is why they were designated a “Composite” group instead of a “Bombardment” group. While there were backup crews, the whole operation was surprisingly small. Especially considering that during the height of operations the first half of 1945, when North Field at Tinian was the busiest airfield on the planet. Four runways in constant operation. Saipan was also busy, with it’s field just across the strait from Tinian. One has to marvel there were not more accidents than there were. A mid-air collision can ruin your day for sure.

    Because of the secrecy of the mission, the 509th personnel had to stay together, and discipline was strict. I am sure they would have crossed paths.

    From what I have been able to learn, Jim was awarded at least three Silver Star medals. I don’t have a complete list of his medals and awards. Interestingly, he was recorded giving an interview for the EAA “Timeless Voices of Aviation.” The interview was up for a short time, then gone. I will leave it to the reader’s imagination what was up with that. Here is what has replaced the interview on the EAA Timeless Voices of Aviation web site:

    Gates, James
    B-17 bombardier/gunner with the 14th BS, 11th BG during WWII; stationed at Hickam Field, Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor; flew patrols off the Soloman Islands – sank 5 Japanese surface vessels and shot down 1 Japanese Zero; assigned to B-29s in the 26th BS, 509th BG in March 1943; on one of the first crews to be qualified to drop the atomic bomb.

  12. Mike Spindell says:

    Beautiful post Chuck and Jimmy was indeed a hero. the shock of Pearl Harbor has waned through the years and many people forget that it was a moment of desperation for the U.S. that in many ways dwarfed 9/11. Most of our Pacific Fleet lay in ruin. In Europe Great Britain was under siege and yet within four years this country rallied`to lay waste to our enemies. We were an America that could overcome fear back then and face the world with courage. A major reason for that was our President FDR who bolstered our courage rather than playing on our fears as Bush and Cheney did after 9/11.

  13. I miss the clarity of purpose. . Of yesteryear; and the many nobels it generated

  14. randyjet says:

    An outstanding history for us all to know. thanks! He must have been in on the Battle of Midway too. It is amazing that the US Navy went from its greatest defeat in history, to its greatest victory in six short months.

  15. I agree, Mike. At first, it was not clear at all that we and our allies were going to be able to win the war. England was on the brink, depending on supply lines that were under constant U-boat attack. We needed England as much as they needed us. It was the world’s biggest aircraft carrier, so to speak. We were counting on using bases in England. At the same time, Hitler was working on an atomic bomb. The Horten brothers were working on the design of a very long range flying wing bomber that looked remarkably like the B-2. Recent tests on a replica mockup show it would have been almost impossible to detect from more than fifteen minutes out with the radars of the day.

    When the Kamikaze attacks appeared during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, it became apparent the Japanese military was willing to sacrifice every man, woman and child before surrendering. But, we did prevail. One difference was that the leaders of this country–at least most of them–were willing to send their own children into harm’s way, and some even went themselves if they weren’t too old.

    As General Nathan Bedford Forrest was alleged to have said during the American Civil War, what matters is in battle tactics is, “Get there firstest with the mostest.” Thanks to men like Jim, we did.

    • randyjet says:

      Actually Hitler never started work on an A-bomb. Read the Alsos Project for the details of the search for evidence of the German A-bomb project. The Brits arrested and put in a house prison all the available German physicists they could get their hands on, and put microphones all over to record their conversations. We found out from them that Germany never considered starting the project because of the long time lead it would take to produce a bomb.

  16. Randy,
    Make that “Wanted” to make a bomb. Any chance of any kind of fissile material weapon ever succeeding ended for good when their entire supply of deuterium ended up at the bottom of a Norwegian fjord. Even more fortunate for the Allies was the fact the scientists he needed most were Jewish, and in his racism, he did not want to use any “Jewish science” in developing the weapon. The leading physicists and chemists got out of Europe in time to make a difference on this side of the Atlantic.

  17. It is further a good thing the Horton flying wing never got past the experimental proof of concept stage. By that time, the Allied advance on Berlin was going too fast and they ran out of time.

  18. There is also some speculation that the man Hitler put in charge of their bomb effort, Werner Heisenberg, was sandbagging.

    • randyjet says:

      The Brits found out through the microphones at the prisoners residence, that Heisenberg was not sandbagging at all. He just told Hitler it would take about ten years to make an A-bomb which was quite true given Germany’s resources at the time. The Manhatten project used over 10% of the total US electric capacity in wartime. If you throw in the delivery systems,, the B-29, then it goes up to over 20%. Germany simply could not spare that kind of power production and carry on producing for the rest of the war effort.

      Of course, it becomes impossible if you assign your top scientists to disprove the basis of the bomb because Einstein was Jewish. So Hitler’s ideology did him in as well.

  19. Gene,

    That story would be awesome too!

    If even remotely possible.

  20. Mike Spindell says:

    Chuck and Randy,

    Since you mention the “Flying Wing” and are both knowledgeable about aircraft a briefly digressing question. As a young boy I can remember seeing an “American” version of the Flying Wing many times on TV to illustrate aircraft progress. It was shaped like a boomerang and had about 8 rear mounted propellers. Looked cool, but after awhile I never heard of it again. Are either of you familiar with its history?

    • randyjet says:

      Just off the top of my head, the plane was developed by Jack Northrup just after WWII. It originally had props, but since it was the dawn of the jet age, it was retrofitted with jet engines which improved its performance. Unfortunately, the design had some stability problems which did not allow it to be stalled and recovered safely. This is the plane which killed the test pilot, and that is how Edwards AFB got its name after it had been known as Muroc AFB. I think its designation was the YS-11 and I believe it had six engines.

      • Mike Spindell says:

        Thanks. The stability issue answers my question as to why it never “took off” as a prototype. It did look cool and futuristic though.

        • randyjet says:

          The reason the B-2 is possible now is that thanks to modern computers, the stability problems have been resolved. As a final parting gift to Northrup, the USAF allowed him to view the top secret B-2 before he died to see that his idea was vindicated. I thought that was quite nice and it is not too often the military gives that kind of consideration to people. They deserve great credit for that.

  21. Mike,
    The propeller version was the XB-35, also designated the YB-35. It was designed and built by Jack Northrop. When jet engines became available, he changed the powerplants to jets and that version was the YB-49. The airplane had serious stability problems that would not be solved for another half century until computer assisted controls made the F-117 and B-2 possible. Test pilot Glenn Edwards was killed in the crash of a prototype YB-49. Edwards Air Force Base is named in his honor.

    The program was cancelled in 1951, and all existing models in existence, as well as partly built airplanes were chopped up. The Air Force claimed they were simply too dangerous to fly. Northrop thought it was due to his refusal to kiss Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington’s ass. There were definitely politics involved. Unfortunately, none were saved for static display in museums.

    In 1980, the designers of the B-2 got permission to take Jack Northrop to a specially classified area of the company he founded. Wheelchair bound, he was ushered into a room to see a mockup model of the B-2. He said, “Now, I know why God has kept me alive for the past 25 years.”

    He died ten months later. The B-2 finally flew ten years later.

    • Mike Spindell says:

      “The Air Force claimed they were simply too dangerous to fly. Northrop thought it was due to his refusal to kiss Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington’s ass. There were definitely politics involved. Unfortunately, none were saved for static display in museums.”

      The plot thickens and yes even someone as flying ignorant as me can see the similarity with the B2 design.

  22. Randy/laser,

    I’d never heard the “power consumption” angle (which would make perfect sense), but I’ve read of more than one physicist (including some who knew Heisenberg) say that after reviewing the progress Germany had made after the fact that they thought Werner wasn’t giving the Reich his A game. However, the materials issue Chuck pointed to with the destruction of the Norsk Hydro heavy water facility by the Norwegian resistance and Allied bombers was a crippling roadblock. You need a substance to act as a moderator (slowing neutrons released in the refinement process) for a fission bomb to work. Both heavy water and graphite would work, but the Germans went forward with heavy water because at that point in their program the Norsk Hydro plant (and indeed Norway itself) was under Nazi control and heavy water easily obtained. By the time the plant was destroyed, Germany’s manufacturing infrastructure had taken so much damage from Allied bombing that their ability to domestically produce either was effectively zero. In the end, I think the Reich’s failure to make the bomb was (as so many things are) not a case of simple or single cause, but a confluence of multiple cascading smaller failures.

  23. Regarding the energy consumption issue. It was no accident the plant was located at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There were lots of isolated places around the country where such a facility could be located and be secure from enemy attack and/or spying. Oak Ridge had something unique that no other place had. TVA hydroelectric power. The TVA dams were built in the 1930s as part of Roosevelt’s efforts to bring the country out of the Great Depression, and to supply electricity to the southern Appalachian mountain people. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory could suck up enormous amounts of cheap electricity without disrupting more urbanized areas.

  24. Wow,. Had a friend at Oakridge and nevrr knew that

  25. For another inspirational story of personal courage and leadership on December 7, 1941, consider the story of Chief Warrant Officer Edwin J. Hill on the Nevada that day. Another Chief Warrant Officer, now retired, takes up the story; Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station tells his story.

  26. Chuck,

    Once again you well the emotions inside me that yearns to know of noble men. Who s sense of duty and honor was instinctive.

    Wonderful piece about true heroes that we nedd so much more of today

    And, I’ll say again,

    I miss the clarity of purpose known heretofore


  27. Pingback: 07 December—the Pearl Harbor Attack 75th Anniversary and Jimmy Gates | Travel for Aircraft

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