This is a story of two young men, both in their early twenties. This story took place over sixty seven years ago. The two young men, who if they had met under different circumstances probably would have become friends. But with World War II raging around the globe, they were enemies, one of the young men was from the United States, the other, from Japan.
With their nations locked in a bitter struggle, the two young men answered the call of their country to serve in the armed forces. Both men found themselves serving in their country's air corps.
July 1944 found the United States forces closing in on the Japanese homeland. The young Japanese man became a pilot, flying the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane, which could be equipped with a bomb. He found himself stationed on an airfield on the island of Iwo Jima.
The young American airman was trained to service the engines on his country's new fearsome weapon, the B-29 Superfortress. The B-29 was built to carry bombing missions to the Japanese homeland. The island of Saipan had just a week before been invaded by the U.S. Marines and before all the Japanese defenders had been subdued, American troops, including the young American had been landed to start building the infrastructure and airfields for the B-29s to begin the bombing campaign that would ultimately end the war.
Even though the island of Saipan was being turned into an American fortress, the Japanese were not going to give it up without a fight. The fight was carried on by the Japanese pilots that flew bombing and strafing runs from airfields at Iwo Jima and Formosa.
The American forces landed more and more troops and supplies, including radars and anti aircraft guns to provide protection to the ever expanding air bases on Saipan and the next door island of Tinian.
The Americans worked around the clock, including the young airman while the Marines were still fighting to subdue all the remaining Japanese Army troops on Saipan. Gunfire and explosions off in the distance told of the ongoing deadly struggle. Long days of labor began to carve the runways, revetments and buildings for the soon to arrive B-29 bombers.
The construction machinery, the bulldozers, the graders, the dump and cement trucks ran 24 hours a day, when there was a shift change, the oncoming operator would run up alongside the truck or grader and jump aboard, then the off going operator would jump off to get some food and rest, the vehicle never ceased working. When the runways and roads were completed, the construction vehicles, which had run for weeks with little to no maintenance were just driven off to an area where they were junked, totally worn out and used up.
With all the activity going on, there was always a watch on the skies, Japanese air raids were an almost daily occurrence, sometime several raids took place in a day. Despite the radar, which was very primitive by today's standards, Japanese bombers were often able to sneak up on Saipan by flying just above the waves and popping up just as they reached the island to carry out their raid, a hit and run before the anti aircraft guns could lock on them, or American fighter planes could launch.
One such day, the young Japanese pilot was briefed on his next bombing run. It was a run down from Iwo Jima, to drop his one bomb from his Zero and the strafe any target of opportunity he found before returning back to his base. He felt very uneasy, on his last mission, his plane had been hit by anti aircraft fire and only his skill and lots of luck brought his plane home, so badly damaged it never took to the skies again. As he sat in the cockpit of his new plane awaiting takeoff, he began to sweat and his hands shook, he feared the American guns.
On Saipan, the young American airman was working on getting his engine repair shop set up. He had dug himself a foxhole next to his tent where he would jump into during air raids, but his foxhole was on the other side of the base. Because of the intense work schedule, no foxholes were constructed near his shop.
The Japanese air raid had taken off and had been in flight for some hours as they approached Saipan, skirting just above the wave tops. As the island came into view, looking like the shape of a giant cake on the horizon, the Japanese pilot began to ready himself to pop up from the ocean surface, gain some altitude, find a target and drop his bomb. His hands began to shake even more.
As some of the planes popped up to begin the raid, the American anti aircraft guns started to open up. Black bursts of flak from the guns began to dot the sky as they targeted the attacking planes. The Japanese pilot started his climb.
The American airman heard the guns open up and the air raid siren begin its wail, he dropped his tools, grabbed his helmet and looked out the door of the shop at the sky to see what was going on. Because there was no air raid shelter or even a foxhole nearby, he decided to stay at his shop for the time being. Other men ran wildly all over, seeking shelter, some were cut down by bullets from other attacking Japanese plane's machine guns.
The Japanese pilot gained some altitude and saw a building he thought would be a good place to drop his bomb. As he started to climb higher, the flak around his plane became intense, and he dropped his plane lower to throw off the gunner's aim as he headed for the building.
The American airman saw the Japanese plane heading towards his shop, he began to look around for some safer place, he stepped out and froze for a minute.
The Japanese pilot, terrified by the flak bursts closing around his plane, pressed the button that released his bomb. The plane leaped a little higher in the air after losing the 250 kilo weight of the bomb. He turned on his wing and headed back out to sea, relieved that he had completed his mission and headed back towards his base.
The American airman saw the bomb drop from the Zero and head right towards him. He flopped flat on the ground, trying to make himself as flat as possible, clenching his helmet tightly on his head as he waited for the blast he knew was coming.
He felt the bomb hit, the ground shook, but only a little bit, there was no explosion. He lifted his head, peaked out from under his helmet and saw the bomb stuck in the ground just feet from him, unexploded. He leaped to his feet and ran away to a place of better safety.
After the raid was over and the "All Clear" was sounded, the bomb disposal team went to work to remove any unexploded bombs or anti aircraft shells to make the area safe. The American airman asked why the bomb that landed near him did not explode. The bomb disposal man told him that the bomb was dropped too low and the little arming propeller on the bomb's nose didn't have enough time to spin to arm the bomb. The Japanese pilot dropped his bomb too early and too low so it didn't explode.
The young airman's life had been spared by the Japanese pilot's error. He survived the war despite many more air raids until the U.S. Marines captured Iwo Jima in February 1945. Then living on Saipan became much safer.
After the war was over, the young airman came home and went to college on the GI Bill. Some years later, he met a wonderful young lady and they married. They began a family, but he never told anyone of the close calls he had, or some of the other horrors of war he had seen while serving on Saipan.
Today is Veterans Day, the day to pause and remember all our brave men and women, from all generations that stepped up to protect our country's freedom when the nation called. If you see a vet walking around, wearing a military cap or a jacket, stop and say thanks. They, at one time put their lives and dreams on hold, and took up arms to preserve our nation.
So, how did the Japanese pilot save my life? The young American airman was my dad, Corporal Mel Dahl, U.S. Army Air Corps. He served from 1942 to 1946 and only just recently told me this story. If the Japanese pilot had dropped his bomb just a little higher, I wouldn't be here today.
Here's to honor all my family members that have served or are serving in the military today:
Pte. Oscar Wallace Measom, English Army Machine Gun Corps, WWI (my grandfather)
Cpl. Mel Dahl, U.S. Army Air Corps, WWII (my dad)
LT Brian Bedford, U.S. Navy, Afghanistan 2007 - 2008 (my son-in-law)
MK1 Ryan Dahl, U.S. Coast Guard 2000 - present (my son)
CWO3 Paul Dahl, U.S. Coast Guard (retired) 1981 - 2011