Ken Beaton: Bombs away
During the summer of 1941, Locke Lesch was a 19-year-old University of Colorado student vacationing along the coast of California with his older sister and friends. One of the female friends was a sister-in-law of the CEO of a major aircraft manufacturer in Southern California.
The group was invited to the CEO’s beach house for dinner. Locke was seated with the CEO on his right and an Air Force reserve officer, Lt. Col. James Doolittle on his left. The dinner conversation began with the possibility of Japan attacking America. Doolittle said, “When Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, we must respond immediately to Japan’s attack!”
Someone asked the colonel, “We don’t have any land bases for our B-17s to bomb Japan. How can we attack Japan?”
Immediately Doolittle responded, “We have an excellent medium bomber, the B-25. I believe it is possible to strip down and modify 16 to 24 B-25s with extra fuel tanks. The bombers will take off from one of our aircraft carriers off the coast of Japan. We’ll shock the Japanese civilian population with incendiary bombs causing panic!”
“Jimmy, what about landing the B-25s after their bomb run?”
“China’s leader, Gen. Chang Chi Sheck, has several million Chinese laborers. They could build several airfields in a matter of days near the Chinese coast for our B-25s to land. Every B-25 crew member will have the back of their leather flight jacket embroidered in Chinese, “Take this American ally to Gen. Chang Chi Sheck’s Army.”
On April 18, 1942, Locke realized nine months earlier he had witnessed the future.
Locke told me after Japan’s surrender in 1945, a Royal Navy Officer came up with the idea of medium bombers being launched from a carrier flight deck. What rock was he under in 1942?
During the war, B-17s taking off and passing through thick clouds to assemble in box formation was their most dangerous maneuver. A pilot’s worst fear was flying into another “flying fortress” in the clouds, resulting in a huge fireball of high octane fuel and 8,000 pounds of bombs with 50-caliber rounds exploding. Two fortresses and 20 lives were vaporized.
Wearing his oxygen mask at 25,000 feet, Locke reflected when he crossed the North Atlantic on the luxury liner, Queen Elizabeth. She had been converted into a troop carrier. The bunks were stacked five high. None of the GIs were invited to the captain’s table for dinner. However, the Queen Elizabeth crossed the Atlantic in five days as opposed to a Liberty ship taking 14.
The final three of his 30 missions were bombing Berlin in March and April 1945. At 25,000 feet with the temperature minus 35 degrees below zero in an unpressurized B-17, Locke felt guilty. He kept thinking about our ground troops stuck in a foxhole 24/7, fighting during the worst winter in 30 years, trench foot and Nazi troops. When Locke returned from a mission, he could shower, sleep in a warm bunk or spend a couple days of liberty in London holding a young English woman close while dancing and smelling her perfume.
V-E Day was May 8, 1945. Shortly after Germany’s unconditional surrender, the flight crew and their maintenance crew flew their B-17 to the U.S. They refueled in Iceland, Labrador, Canada and Maine before flying to Sioux Falls, SD. The Sioux Fall base trained air crews to fly B-29s. After training, the next step was to fly to Guam, Saipan or Titian and bomb Japan into surrendering.
Locke went to a movie with a friend on Aug. 14, 1945. After the movie, everyone outside the theater was excited and celebrating. Japan had unconditionally surrendered. His discharge was handled rapidly by Army standards.
Clark Gable, the movie star, lost his wife in a plane crash on Jan. 16, 1942. At 41 years, Clark enlisted in the USAAF on Aug. 12, 1942, and entered Officer Candidate School on October 28, 1942. He was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group and flew five combat missions as a waist gunner. He wanted to gain insight for his part in the movie, “Combat America.” The Army Brass grounded Clark and assigned him to sell war bonds for the duration.
The Marine’s island hoping campaign was costly at 24,511 young lives. The Eighth Air Force had more than 26,000 KIA.
Locke will be 97 years young next month. Thank you for your service.