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Honoring Local Veterans

Posted by Community Volunteers on March 5, 2011 at 10:42 AM

Niel Eskildsen, 86, (left) and Henry Chodacki, 91, met during World War II while serving with the same flight crew on a B-29. The two have remained good friends since and both now live in the Twin Lakes Area. / Bulletin Photo by Kevin Pieper

 

 Local Veterans Neil Eskildsen, Henry Chodacki served in B-29s

 

Bombs that fell from Jack's Hack and eight other B-29 bombers on Aug. 14, 1945, onto Japanese naval arsenals at Hikari are believed to have broken the back of the Japanese Navy and placed an exclamation mark after Victory In Japan Day, Aug. 15.

 

Niel Eskildsen, 86, of Bull Shoals and Henry Chodacki, 91, of Mountain Home put their lives on the line for each other, their country and fellow crew members on Jack's Hack, the bomber that flew 20 combat missions during World War II against targets mostly on mainland Japan.

 

Jack's Hack, named in honor of its late pilot, 1st Lt. Jack Volkert, was based on Tinian in the Mariana Islands and flew against Japan from May 11 to Aug. 15, 1945.

 

Eskildsen and Chodacki learned early in their tours what was likely to be in store for them and the 20th Army Corps' 58th Bomb Wing they served. They had trained through most of 1944 for work on the B-17 at Clovis (N. M.) Army Airfield and had experienced the loss of one entire 16-man crew during a B-17 training flight crash in the days before the arrival of the first B-29 Superfortresses there.

 

Training for combat with the B-29 soon began.

 

"We were to receive 30 training missions before leaving for overseas," Chodacki, Jack's Hack flight engineer, said. "But we finished with 24. One was a two-engine landing, four were four-engine landings and the rest were three engine landings.

 

"Most problems were fire related," he said.

 

Chodacki said the B-29 could have stayed on Boeing drawing boards awhile longer before the first of the heavyweights rolled out of plants in Renton, Wash. Because of the plane's 140,000-pound load capacity and flight range it was proven in the air during training or combat.

 

"This guy was the best engineer in the air," said Eskildsen, during an interview with Chodacki at the Eskildsen home. "He saved our lives over and over again, starting with our first mission."

 

Ominous beginning

 

When general performance of the B-29 wasn't at play, sabotage was at least once a concern.

 

En route from Borinquen, Puerto Rico to Chakulia, India, flying a new B-29 the Volkert crew had named the Rankless Wreck, the watchful Chodacki found two fuel transfer problems in-flight and a third after an emergency landing in Ghana, Africa. At the base in Puerto Rico a fill cap was suspiciously missing from a wing tank, and air turbulence over the wing vacuumed fuel out of the 2,900-gallon tank. The grave maintenance error set the engineer and other crew members looking for other problems with the plane, Chodacki said.

 

The engineer found a valve between the plane's center tanks had been turned to the "off" position isolating 630 gallons of fuel from the plane's center tank fuel column. Turning it on again did nothing to cause fuel to flow from the tank to another tank below it. With the flight long past the point of returning, Chodacki then found an expanse of fuel hose stored on the plane for use as a "relief" tube for airmen who could not leave positions to urinate. B-29s missions of 20 hours were not uncommon.

 

The tube provided immeasurable relief during that mission. It was precisely the length needed to siphon fuel from the upper tank to lower one, Chodacki said.

 

Navigator Frank Doherty was at work "frantically" during the flight to assure the plane's course was "on the money" navigating "by the stars" for the landing strip in Ghana shown on a flight manual.

 

"Thank God. Thank God for Frank Doherty," Chodacki said. "We landed on the money with less than 50 gallons of fuel. If that siphon tube had been two inches shorter . . ."

 

Topped-off, that B-29 carried 9,548 gallons of fuel.

 

Later en route to India an engine in the B-29 lost power for no apparent reason.

 

At Chakulia, Chodacki discovered a shop towel had been dropped into a fuel tank that served the engine.

 

"The open fill port on the wing was unusual. The valve between the tanks was a coincidence. The towel spelled sabotage," Chodacki said. The series of performance problems was reported, and a subsequent investigation ended with the arrest of one at Borinquen. The motive was not disclosed.

 

Such was the work of the B-29 flight engineer.

 

It had not been a pleasant beginning for the crew.

 

Volkert crew delivers

 

Volkert and crew delivered the Rankless Wreck to a crew from the 40th Bomb Wing that had been waiting for it at Chakulia. The Rankless Wreck name came from the crew members who all held the lowest rank allowable for work at each position.

 

The crew enjoyed a few days at Chakulia with all the celebrity that belonged to "just another crew without a plane" until Dec. 18, 1944 — the day tail-gunner Eskildsen, on the Volkert crew's first mission over war territory, was knocked out by smoke from an electrical fire inside the tail-gunner's compartment.

 

Eskildsen said he remembers only smoke pouring from the electric motor in the Dynamomenter. That's the contraption that powers the rotation of the compartment enabling the gunner to direct gunfire across a wide area off the tail of the plane, he said. It had short-circuited and begun emitting a thick smoke rich with toxic vapor from melted insulation and metal.

 

"I was able to call 'fire' on the intercom one time, and then the lights went out," Eskildsen said.

 

Chodacki said that one word set the crew in motion, led by Bob "Moose" Johnson, fire control chief, toward the tail-gunner's compartment, fighting first through the pressurized radar compartment doors and then to Eskildsen who was unconscious in the gunner's compartment and still seated on the gunner's seat.

 

The tail-gunner's seat, with Eskildsen's dead weight on it, held shut the only entry and exit port to the compartment. The only way to rescue Eskildsen was to somehow get him off the gunner's seat.

 

The brawny Moose Johnson by "brute strength" braced against ribs of the plane's fuselage and pushed the door open mere inches, enough to enable gunner Will Stefanko to squeeze his arm through the opening and push Eskildsen off the gunner's seat.

 

Payback

 

Weeks later Eskildsen, nicknamed Junior because he was the crew's youngest member, returned the life-saving favor.

 

On a supply-turned-bombing run over Formosa, bomb bay doors came open and would not close. An attempt to close the doors manually revealed that a cable harness at the center of the manual closure device was detached from the bomb bay doors. A crash landing was inevitable if the doors were not closed.

 

Turbulence from the plane then cruising about 200 miles per hour made the cable unstable. Eskildsen and Moose Johnson were the players for the circus act that would require a combination of strength and length: Johnson, tethered at the waist, held Eskildsen at the ankles — both without cumbersome parachutes —enabling Junior to slide down the cleated bomb bay door and fasten the cable by hand.

 

"Before we went down, I told Bob, 'If you start to lose me, let me go. Better to lose one than the crew,'" Eskildsen said. "If that happened I didn't want him to have a guilty conscience."

 

After the India-to-China missions, the Volkert crew received orders to Tinian and the B-29 Jack's Hack that would drop some of the most lethal bombs to fall on Japanese cities and military positions short of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

 

Jack's Hack

 

Bulletin Photo by Kevin Pieper

 

The Volkert crew flew to targets in and around the cities of Osaka, Omuka, Kure, Okayama/Tokyo, Chiba, Sendai, Namazu, Fukui, Takarazaka, Aomori, Hachioji, Marcus Islands and Fukuyama.

 

On the day before V-J Day, Jack's Hack and eight other B-29s from the 468th Squadron attacked a naval arsenal at Hikari setting ablaze a volume of Japanese ordnance that would end Japan's capability to continue war with the U.S. at sea.

 

That attack earned each member of the Jack's Hack crew the president's Distinguished Flying Cross.

 

Eskildsen and Chodacki recalled the G-forces against the plane caused by the up-draft from the arsenal fire.

 

"We couldn't move," Eskildsen said. "I thought the plane was breaking up."

 

Beloved pilot

 

Jack's Hack nose art was completely tame by comparison to paintings on the noses of other B-29s that were often risqué depictions of women in striking poses and graphic language.

 

"Jack was a deeply religious man and wouldn't allow it," Eskildsen said.

 

The tail-gunner said he first met Volkert when the pilot was a lieutenant and the gunner was private first class. Eskildsen had earned a pilot's license before joining the Army Air Corps and was assigned with Volkert to fly co-pilot to destinations in Kansas and Florida shuttling parts and supplies of all kinds for the staging of training and war.

 

The men once brought a crippled a B-17 to a crash landing at Clovis and had become close friends before and after the event. With war in the Pacific heating up, B-17 and B-29 crews were assembled hurriedly at Clovis.

 

Lt. Volkert put in a request to the Clovis base commander to have Eskildsen on his crew.

 

The base commander summoned Eskildsen to his office just to eyeball the man Volkert had requested, Eskildsen said.

 

"I don't get this kind of requests, so I thought I should see for myself what's special about you," Eskildsen recalled the commander said.

 

"Nothing that I know of, sir," the private replied.

 

The transaction was nearly sealed when Eskildsen remembered that he had not been flight certified since breaking a kneecap in gunnery school a year earlier. He told the commander, which prompted the commander to place a telephone call to the base surgeon to examine Eskildsen for flight certification.

 

"I am sending a Pfc. Eskildsen down there for flight exam and I would definitely like to see him pass it," the commander suggested firmly.

 

At the surgeon's office a blood pressure test indicated very low blood pressure in the private.

 

"My blood pressure has always been low like that," Eskildsen said.

 

"Well, go down the hall and a drink a Coke and when I holler for you, you run back down here to me as fast as you can," the doctor said.

 

Eskildsen followed orders.

 

The private's blood pressure and pulse were perfect.

 

"You're in good shape. You passed," the doctor said.

 

History resurrected

 

A reconstruction of Jack's Hack is one of seven B-29 Superfortresses that exist indoors from 3,965 built for the war.

 

The real Jack's Hack was stored in bases in California and Texas before it was scrapped in 1953.

 

Jack's Hack was recreated from a few B-29s stored at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 1973 after the New England Air Museum adopted a project to restore and display some of the planes. The effort survived a tornado in 1979 that destroyed the hangar and 25 planes being used to recreate a smaller number of display planes.

 

The project was resurrected in 1993 with help from USAF (Ret.) Lt. Col. Donald Lundberg and the 58th Bomb Wing Association. A recreation of Jack's Hack is nearly complete.

 

The goal of the 58th Bomb Wing Association and the New England Air Museum is the creation of a museum exhibit that depicts 58th Bomb Wing's entire World War II history.

 

From March 2nd, 2011 Baxter Bulletin Report Written by FRANK WALLIS Bulletin Staff Writer fwallis@baxterbulletin.com

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1 Comment

Reply Pilot license
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Pilot license