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RIP, 2nd Lt Wallace F. Kaufman, Navigator

Wallace F. Kaufman was sort of a friend of mine. Let me explain.

I’ve seen that little snippet of footage of the bomber wing exploding before, but it was always fleeting, in a montage, and grainy. It was often commented upon as an example of friendly fire, a defamation of the other airmen in the squadron. Cleaned up like this, you can clearly see that it was hit from below by AA fire. But some people’s desire to find the ignoble in everyone but themselves trumps everything. They wish Catch 22 was true, so it must be. The Internet is full of these armchair historians today, Memorial Day, reminding us what bad people we were to drop atomic weapons on the Japanese. I wonder what Wallace F. Kaufman would say about that.

My father was a crewman in a B-24J Liberator. He hung below his, named Les Miserables, in a little plastic ball, like a hamster. There were ten or eleven crewmen on board during a mission. The very last one to survive anything would be the ball gunner. Once you climb down into it, they close the hatch behind you, swivel it, then lower it, and you can’t get back out without reversing the operation. My father was tall for his time, and they always put the short guy in the ball, so that makes me wonder if some short straw was chosen by, or for, my father. More likely no one else wanted to do it, and he said sure with his Irish chuckle and thought the view would be nice.

That video, right there, is the view.

My father told me a little about his tours of duty in a B-24 before he died. He didn’t talk about it at all when I was younger. I didn’t realize the significance of it to him until he had one foot in the grave. I looked up all the names he told me, as best as I could remember them, and then of course he was gone, and I couldn’t ask again.  

That plane in the video is B-24M-15-CO “Brief”, serial number 44-42058. The plane was in the 7th Air Force, 494th Bombardment Group, in the 867th Squadron. The were flying from Angaur to bomb Koror in the Palau island group.

My father flew in B-24-J-175-CO “Les Miserables” Serial number 44-40666. The plane was in the 7th Air Force, 494th Bombardment Group, in the 866th Squadron. Dad told me that he flew from Angaur, and bombed Koror, and Kwajalein, and the Phillipines, and a bunch of other places.

These two bomber groups flew together, and my father may very well have known some or all the men on that plane in the video. Their squadron records are online, and their missions are nearly identical. For all I know my father is in that video somewhere off on the horizon, though I cannot make out any markings on the planes that are from his squadron. They had two vertical stripes on the tail, and the 867th had those checkerboard squares.

Who was Wallace F. Kaufman? He was the navigator in that plane you see, sheared in half in front of your eyes, fluttering into the sea. Among the eleven men on that plane, he was the only one that survived the crash.

It’s almost inconceivable that anyone could survive that. My dad told me that it was just as likely as not you would end up dead because you ran out of gas, or the weather was bad, or the flying bulldozer that a B-24J resembles wouldn’t cooperate all of a sudden. That view of his in the ball was all empty ocean and sharks. The Japanese were just the last in a string of bad luck you might find.

Dad didn’t die in a crash, but the Les Miserables crashed into the ocean in bad weather shortly after the war was over, filled with American fliers [Update:That’s mistaken. They were from Great Britain, apparently] that had been in an internment camp for much of  the war. All aboard were lost.

So it’s a sort of miracle that a friend, Wallace F. Kaufman, survived that explosion and crash. Of course he wasn’t my friend, but he very well might have been my father’s friend, and that’s close enough for me.

We know Wallace F. Kaufman survived that crash. After the war, an interesting man named Pat Scannon went to Japan, and found and interviewed a Japanese soldier that had been on Koror that day, who told him that he had immediately captured Wallace F. Kaufman.

Along with three other airmen and ten missionaries, they beheaded Wallace F. Kaufman with a sword.

Tag: Memorial Day

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