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A veteran remembers the summer of ’45

Last Thursday was the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 1945.  This article appeared in July 2019.

“We’d see the searchlights ahead coming up from the ground,” Robert Strugats said on a recent visit to the Reporter’s newsroom. “We’d fly right into them.”

He was remembering the summer he was 20 and a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Force, alone in the nose of a B-29, located below and ahead of the pilot’s cockpit — “the best seat in the house,” he said with a touch of gallows humor — on bombing runs over Japan.

Fifteen times that July and August, 74 summers ago, Mr. Strugats flew missions from an American base in Guam. Some of the runs took 12 to 15 hours round trip, where he’d be alone in the Plexiglas bubble of the bombardier’s station, looking through a Norden bombsight for targets. The Norden was also a navigational tool, he said, “But if I had a dollar for every time it didn’t work, I’d be rich.”

Mr. Strugats had stopped by recently before going to the Air Power Museum in Farmingdale to be interviewed by a Japanese film crew, along with another B-29 veteran Stanley Pollack of Wading River, who was a side gunner and mechanic.

Journalist Satohiro Miyoshi, a correspondent with the RSK Sanyo Broadcasting Corporation, explained, through interpreter Yuriko Yamaki, a freelance reporter based in Manhattan, that he and his crew were producing a documentary on the final bombing campaign of the war in the Pacific.

The documentary is slated to premier in Japan on August 14, one day before the 74th anniversary of Emperor Hirohito’s radio address to his nation that Japan was surrendering to the allied forces.

Ending a war

The documentary will focus on a particular place, Mr. Miyoshi said, the city of Okayama in western Japan. On the night of June 29, 1945, according to U.S. government records, B-29s dropped nearly 100,000 bombs on the city. About 70 percent of Okayama was burned to the ground and 1,800 people were killed.

The documentary will use archival footage, Japanese survivors and the recollections of Mr. Strugats and Mr. Pollack.

Mr. Strugats was happy to speak about his service, but he wasn’t on the mission over Okayama, he said.

The B-29 was built as a long-range bomber that could fly at altitudes up to 30,000 feet, but on Mr. Strugats’ missions, the bomber went over Japan at about 7,000 feet.

In the summer of 1945, the United States was putting enormous pressure on Japan to bring the war to a conclusion. In August, B-29s inaugurated the nuclear age, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mr. Strugats spoke to the Reporter about the night flights, with searchlights illuminating the sky, anti-aircraft fire coming up and Japanese fighters scrambling to attack, as a live-or-die exercise, night after night.

“We were hit at times,” the vet remembered. “But we made it back.”

“Back” was the airfield at Guam, where the first thing each crewman received on disembarking in the hangar was a shot of whiskey. Good whiskey? he was asked.

“No. Four Roses or some cheap [expletive],” he smiled, but it did the trick, he added.

Recollections from long ago

There was no whiskey at the hangar of the Air Power Museum  last week, but there were memories.

As the crew set up to begin filming, Mr. Strugats and his wife Mollie produced gifts they were donating to the museum, which showcases aircraft and artifacts from World War II.

Mollie and Robert Strugats at the Air Power Museum.

There was a flight jacket, and articles to be used if an airman had to ditch into the ocean, including a mirror to attract rescue aircraft, a small fishing kit, and rations for a day or two. Also included was a large, evil-looking pocketknife. He was asked what the knife was for.

“To fight off sharks?” Mr. Strugats asked with a smile.

A boy from Brooklyn
He was underage when he enlisted in 1942. Raised in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, he grew up poor, remembering how his grandmother had to provide food for the family to survive.

A bright boy, he skipped grades and graduated early from high school and took some courses at Brooklyn College. He also played trumpet in small, pickup bands, something he continued during the service.

With a draft on, he said he and “my friends decided we didn’t want to be killed” so enlisted and chose the Army Air Force, the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force.

Robert Strugats as a young officer in the U.S. Army Air Force.

He served four years and was discharged in 1946, but was recalled to active duty in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War. Between 1946 and 1950 he returned to school, passed the New York State Bar exam and became an associate with a New York City law firm, specializing in trial practice.

Before the interview with the documentary crew, Jeff Clyman, president and executive director of the museum, said Mr. Strugats and Mr. Pollack are “living national treasures.” He noted that history can contain many ironies, including one that 75 years ago, “Germany and Japan were our worst enemies, and now they’re the closest of allies.”

In a briefing room of the hangar, Mr. Miyoshi and Ms. Yamaki questioned the vets as the camera rolled. Asked his reaction to Pearl Harbor, Mr. Strugats said. “One word — sorrow.”

Mr. Pollack said: “My reaction was to go and fight.”

Ms. Yamaki asked Mr. Strugats how his family reacted when he enlisted. “No family would say, with open arms, ‘Here’s my son, take him,’” Mr. Strugats said.

Responding to another question, Mr. Pollack said the “atmosphere” in a B-29 “was not comfortable.”

“But we felt safe,” Mr. Strugats said. “We were all friends. We were all working together.”

Asked if he could foresee a future without war, Mr. Strugats said, “No. That will never happen. There’s always conflicts between nations. Look at history.”

Ms. Yamaki brought up the horrific civilian casualties Japan endured that summer of 1945, and asked for comment. Mr. Strugats said without hesitation, “I hate killing people.”

He paused for a moment and then repeated, “I hate killing people.”