By: Chuck Stanley
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.
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.
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.
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