The 60,000-pound hull sank through the skies, hanging in the crumbling grip of its damaged wings. In its cockpit, a pilot fought with its rattling wheel.
The chaotic winds of the pacific surged into it in bursts, shifting the plane sideways. One can reckon ‘fate’ enjoys a new meaning while in the cockpit of a doomed B-17. He’d resolved to ease it into the roiling waters below with as much caution as its frame would allow. His life was not the only one at stake; there were nine crewmen whose lives rested in his hands.
As the water loomed closer and closer, he looked behind him to check-in with his crew, only to find a new surprise: they’d already parachuted out of the plane.
The backstory is unconventional
I recently discovered the journals, and extensive military records of my late paternal grandfather, Robert Kernan. His wasn’t a rags-to-riches story. If anything, it was the opposite and that is what makes it so admirable. His story was rife with danger, and our entire family lineage was nearly wiped out.
My grandfather grew up in prestige. His father was a renowned ear, nose, and throat surgeon. He operated on dignitaries, including President Franklin D Roosevelt, whose wheelchair is still in the attic at the family home. They lived on a large estate in the western countryside of New York. His stellar academic performance landed him at Harvard in 1934. He attended medical school at Columbia in 1939.
In 1941, Germany was riding high after two strong years in the war; their preemptive strikes and rapid militarization gave them significant early momentum. He’d been greatly troubled by the rise of the Nazi Party. Rather than continue his medical training, exempt from the draft, with the assurance of a comfortable life as a doctor, he left to participate in the deadliest war in human history.
Going to battle caused family problems
His decision wasn’t met with great enthusiasm by his family, particularly because he was keen on being an active participant, riding the bleeding edge of the conflict. He joined the Air Force and was commissioned as a pilot.
His performance during flight assessments was excellent. He was assigned to one of the military’s most critical assets, the B-17 Bomber, which were long-range planes. They were stacked to the brim with bombs and anti-aircraft guns. It was a far cry from his Ivy League roots.
This was one of his planes, “Blitz Buggy”: family records.
Forgive the quality, took a picture of it with my phone.
The name seems to work. Blitz sounds aggressive. The plane certainly looks buggy. He was a member of the 19th Bomb Group in the South Pacific. From there, he participated in 50 bombing raids. He had many wild stories.
Bombing raids were much more dangerous than they were in subsequent wars. They took fire constantly. B-17’s often fell from the sky, screaming towards the ground with its crew trapped inside. If the attack wasn’t from ground-to-air gunfire, it was enemy fighters, which were agile, and eager to punch holes through invaders. He described gritting his teeth as flak explosions went off around them:
actual mission, taken by a crew member. This gun could aim down and up to challenge stealthy fighters.
These bombers rarely went on easy missions. The fact that my grandfather went on so many missions and survived is a miracle in and of itself. But it wasn’t without close calls. Many planes were also prone to problems, as production was so fast that manufacturers didn’t have time to properly inspect and test every plane.
His plane was downed twice, once from a storm, another from mortar damage. There were no casualties. In both instances, everyone escaped unharmed.
Like any good pilot, he was deeply committed to the safety of his crew and subscribed to the idea that the captain should be the last to leave the ship. It was a principle he backed up through his actions.
In the example from the introduction, he crash-landed the B-17 in water, leaving the plane floating sideways with broken wings. He floated in the ocean for two days before a nearby battleship came and found him.
He spoke with gratitude and painful regret of one incident. He’d been ruled ineligible for a mission, due to jaundice, and was forced to sit out on a bombing raid. It was the mission his crew never returned from.
It later became clear the war wouldn’t be ending anytime soon. After the terrible losses at Iwo Jima and the pending demand to invade Japan, the plan to drop the nuke was accelerated.
The US Military intentionally selected decorated pilots, who had all the right boxes checked: reputation, experience, and test scores. After all, it defies logic to pair an atomic bomb with mediocre pilots. My grandfather received the call. But it wasn’t to fly. The pilots had already been selected. They asked him if he would be a reserve pilot. In the event that a pilot got sick or backed out, he would be the man.
He accepted and surely met the criteria. He had deep combat experience, was beloved by his crew, and scored high on all his flight evaluations.
On a personal note, as I went through our family records, doing research for this article, I couldn’t help but feel proud as I reviewed all of his flight assessments:
More than a dozen evaluations, all with glowing comments and near-perfect scores. Accounting for my bias as his grandson, it was clear he was a fantastic pilot. It seems objectively true that, if you were assigned to be a gunner or crewman on a plane, you’d be happy to have him in the cockpit.
It was a great honor that they’d even offered him a reserve position for the Enola Gay. But it wasn’t misplaced. He later went and did training in Texas on the B-29 that would be used to drop the bomb. While gone, a new pilot took over his B-17. He continued exchanging letters with his new crew ensuring they were safe.
My grandfather didn’t get the call to drop the bomb. But I know he’d have gone, without hesitation. He certainly wouldn’t have been motivated by glory, or securing a place in history. He lived a humble life until his last day. He never bragged about his academic background or wealthy upbringing. We didn’t even know about his reserve status until decades later, when he mentioned it passingly to my father.
He’d have taken the mission for the same reason he joined the war in the first place: his sense of duty. Following the war, he went on to have a successful, albeit traditional, career in the Air Force, rising to the rank of Colonel and serving 25 years.
He would go on to command an airforce base, where my own father grew up, and there are many more stories, but that is for another time.
The Kernan saga could have been quite different. I’m grateful he didn’t get the call. I’m fiercely proud of the family’s legacy. But I know the bomb was a controversial decision, with heavy implications. And it affected all involved — in ways that many didn’t expect.