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Opinion: The story of Bob Meyer and Joe Tucker, unsung heroes of World War II

Steve Mitchell, Tim Meyer and Don Tucker

Aug. 15 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Japan finally surrendered after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9. A war-weary America made the pilot of the B-29 that attacked Hiroshima, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., the war’s last hero.

Although Tibbets became famous, most of the other heroes of World War II did not.  They never had their names on the front page of newspapers or magazines, and today they are only remembered by their children or grandchildren.

This is the story of two of those unrecognized heroes, Joe Tucker and Bob Meyer. They are representative of the almost one million soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who saw combat during World War II. When Joe was only 21 and Bob only 23, they flew dangerous missions over Japan and the Pacific, and repeatedly escaped death because of their bravery, resilience, and at times, random luck. 

Joe Tucker's B-29 THUNDERHEAD, in 1945.

Bob Meyer was almost a part of history himself in the waning days of the war when he escaped death one final time. On August 8th, less than a week before the end of the war, Bob was going to fly in the twelfth seat of his old friend Jim Shumate’s B-29, THUNDER BIRD. Since Bob was going to be squadron navigator, his friend, Nick Poulos, one of Shumate’s crew, gave Bob his lucky charm. At the last minute, Major Bob Anthony bumped Meyer so Anthony could lead the mission from Shumate’s plane. In the confusion, Meyer forgot to give the good luck charm back to Nick before he took off. 

On its 19th mission, THUNDER BIRD was the last B-29 shot down over Japan in World War II. There is a photo showing it crashing toward earth after being hit in an engine by flak. All but two crew members died. Staff Sgt. Serafino Morone from New York was captured, tortured and killed, while Master Sgt. Lester “Cliff” Morris from New Jersey was taken prisoner and survived. In a cruel twist of fate, Bob learned of the probable fate of the Shumate crew when he was assigned to interrogate Morris after he was repatriated as a POW in the fall. 

Bob always hoped Nick had somehow lived. When he went to the last 29th Bomb Group reunion in 2008, 63 years after that flight, Bob finally found out Nick had been killed; he had not been recovered or taken prisoner. 

Captain James Lloyd Shumate, 27, of Chickasha, Oklahoma and 1st Lt. Nicholas Poulos, 22, of New York City, were born on St. Patrick’s Day five years apart; neither had the “luck of the Irish.” Instead, it was Captain Bob Meyer who would escape dying because he was just plain lucky.

They never knew each other, but Joe and Bob are inextricably linked because they both flew on the raid that killed even more people in one day than the atomic bomb, the fire-bombing of Tokyo six months before Hiroshima.

Their joint story begins at 5:35 in the evening of March 9, 1945, when the first of 290 new B-29 Superfortress bombers took off from Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands to begin the seven and a half hour flight to Tokyo. That first plane was part of an air armada that killed 100,000 people in one night, 30,000 more than died at Hiroshima the day of the attack.     

Staff Sgt. Joe Tucker

Joe Tucker’s 73rd Bombardment Wing supplied 169 of the 290 B-29’s flying from Saipan. It took almost three hours for all of the planes to take off. At the same time, 56 planes from Bob Meyer’s 29th Bomb Group were taking off from Guam, 135 miles to the south.  

Harold Joseph “Joe” Tucker was a skinny kid from Jackson, Michigan. In January 1943, Joe came home from class at Jackson Junior College to find his draft notice in the mail.  After being assigned to the Army Air Force as a teletype operator, Joe was transferred to Las Vegas in early July 1944 for gunnery training on the new strategic bomber, the B-29.

He would become one of two waist gunners in the middle of the bomber; both controlled turrets armed with four .50-caliber machine guns. His plane was named THUNDERHEAD and it was piloted by Captain Ted Morgan of Fort Worth, Texas.       

Design of the B-29 started in 1938 and it flew for the first time in late September 1942. The cost of design and production of 4,000 planes between 1943 and 1946 was $3 billion ($43 billion today); it was the most expensive weapons program of World War II.

The huge four-engine plane with a crew of 11 had a maximum speed of 357 mph and a cruising speed of 220. An important feature was its range; it could fly 3,250 miles without refueling. With the capture of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Northern Marianas in August 1944, the U.S. finally had the bases and the planes to fly non-stop to Japan and return.

Shumates B29 Upside Down With Bomb Bay Doors Open

The B-29’s landed on Saipan October 12, 1944, and after bombing Japanese strongholds on Pacific islands, they finally flew their first raid over Japan on November 24th when they attacked Tokyo. Joe Tucker was on that mission.

Joe was smart, patriotic, and a great gunner. His dad was a “doughboy” during World War I who got gassed in the trenches of France in 1918. Harold W. Tucker was stationed in Brooklyn, New York, after the war when he met and married an orphan whose Italian immigrant parents had never been married. They moved back to his hometown of Jackson where he got a job at the state prison. Joe was the oldest of three boys they raised.

While Joe was growing up in Jackson, Robert George “Bob” Meyer was growing up on the county “poor farm” in Nicollet County, Minnesota, where his father was the farm superintendent. Bob was born September 5, 1921, one of seven children. 

2nd Lt. R. Meyer

The day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Bob drove to Minneapolis to enlist in the Marines; he had just turned 20. Because everyone was eager to go, the enlistment offices were mobbed. He went to the Marines first, but they told him they wanted men, not boys. So in January 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. 

On April 10, he was called up and he left for training in Santa Ana, California. It was quite a trip across the country for the quiet, self-described “country bumpkin” who had never left Minnesota before. As a Cadet in the air corps he was making $75 a month, three times more than the enlisted man’s pay of $21 a month.

Bob made it all the way to his last solo flight before he washed out of the pilots program, so he went back to qualify as bombardier, and then a navigator. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant on Jan. 23, 1943. He was 21.   

For a kid who never traveled before the war, the next two years took him from California to Virginia, Washington, D.C., Florida, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, New Mexico, Kansas and Cuba, first as a bombardier on submarine patrol and finally as squadron navigator to Guam. 

Bob’s plane took off from Guam in the early evening of March 9th on a flight entirely across water to Tokyo. Since navigation was done by simple dead reckoning, many planes were lost over the vast expanse of the Pacific. Our other hero, Joe Tucker, knew how dangerous flying over the ocean could be. On an earlier mission, his plane was shot up and he passed out. 

Eventually, the equatorial sun of the Western Pacific awakened him abruptly. Joe was disoriented, but quickly realized he was on the water, in a one-man life raft, alone. After a few minutes he began to put the pieces together. He was a substitute gunner on a B-24 Liberator with a strange crew.  Their plane was hit over the target and was limping back to Saipan. When they couldn’t make it, they ditched in the early evening and Joe lost consciousness; he would never know how he got into the life raft. The rest of the B-24 crew was lost, but he had his raft, his flight jacket and uniform, and his Model 1911 .45 pistol. And he was alive.

For two days and nights, Joe was scared and hungry floating alone in the Pacific. He was wary of enemy submarines as he “fished” with his .45 and had his first, and last, sushi. He saved one round in case he was picked up by the Japanese. 

By the third day, he thought he would die. Suddenly, he saw a periscope about a hundred yards away, and a sub surfaced and a hatch opened. If this was Japanese, did he want to be taken prisoner? And then the denim clad US sailor yelled: “Stay put. We’ll be right there.” 

When Major General Curtis LeMay took charge of the 20th Air Force, he changed strategy from high altitude daylight precision bombing to low level 3,000-10,000 feet attacks at night. Then they used napalm bombs to incinerate the largely wooden structures in most Japanese cities.

These new raids were dangerous; the B-29’s had to fly through black clouds of flak instead of high above them. Joe said that when he heard about the low altitude missions he thought he had just received his death sentence. LeMay’s nickname was “Old Blood-and-Guts” and in his book Flyboys, author James Bradley quotes Tucker:  “We thought, oh boy, Old Blood-and-Guts — his guts and our blood.”

Iwo Jima is half way between Saipan and Tokyo. It was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific and it is best known as the island where the iconic picture of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi was taken. Both Joe and Bob almost died there.

Joe was a temporary replacement when his plane made an emergency landing on Iwo Jima during the invasion. His B-29 belly landed, skidded sideways on the airstrip and came to rest on the side of the runway where American Marines were in a firefight with Japanese soldiers.

Joe jumped out of the burning plane and ran towards two Marines who were waving him on from an explosion crater. In an incredible coincidence, the Marines were both from Jackson, and even more incredibly, Joe knew one of them from school. Joe was evacuated off the island, but one of those Marines died the next day.

Bob almost died there too. After a rescue mission, Bob’s plane barely made it back to Iwo Jima. After landing, the plane ran out of gas taxing back to its parking space. Just a couple of more minutes and they would have crashed into the ocean.    

LeMay and Brigadier General Tom Power briefed all the crews for two weeks on “Operation Meetinghouse,” the March 9-10 mission. Power led the raid because LeMay knew about the atomic bomb and couldn’t risk being captured. 

As Bob’s plane approached Japan they ran into a snow storm, and the jet stream winds blew them 40-60 miles east of their target. The Saipan based planes had been fire-bombing Tokyo for hours as Meyer’s plane neared the city.  When they came across their target it was burning fiercely. They guessed that another B-29 must have hit an oil or gas depot because the smoke and fire were billowing up at least 150 feet into the sky. Flying into the flames approaching their target, they were low enough to distinctly see men, women, and children running frantically, trying to get away from the fires, then being engulfed in flames and burning to death. There was a horrible brightness in their plane as they dropped their incendiary bombs over an area one block wide and three blocks long. The scene was horrific.

On the way back they could see Tokyo burning 150 miles away as they tried to deal with the dreadful smell of burning flesh inside their B-29.  At first, they tried to get rid of the smell by putting on oxygen masks. When that didn’t work, they climbed to very high altitudes, but, nothing could get rid of the unbearable odor.

Unlike many veterans, Joe often talked about the war. His son Don says that his father’s stories sprinkled his youth. Joe told his son that Catholic crewmen, like him, were greeted by priests after every mission, asking whether they wanted to confess what they had done. Is it possible to measure how that must have influenced those young men?

Among many combat decorations, Joe earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC’s) and is credited with 14 “kills”, making him a double ace. The DFC is awarded for "heroism or extraordinary achievement …in an aerial flight,” and is second only to the Medal of Honor. 

Bob was the opposite of Joe; he never liked to talk about what happened. But like Joe, he was also highly decorated. He and his unit were given two Presidential Unit Citations “for extraordinary heroism in action.”

A half century after the war, when Bob Meyer was in his 70’s, he told his son “the night terrors are finally over.” In his final act of heroism, Bob fought untreated PTSD and survivor’s guilt for almost his whole life.     

After the war, General Curtis LeMay became Chief of Staff of the US Air Force and General Thomas Power became Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).  LeMay once said about March 10, “if we lose the war we will be tried as war criminals; and if we win we will be heroes.” Power said: “True there is no room for emotion in war … but the destruction I witnessed that night over Tokyo was so overwhelming that it left a tremendous and lasting impression on me.”

Captain Bob Meyer came back and married Doris, a “Rosie the Riveter” in Seattle during the war and then a nurse-cadet caring for the wounded. They raised four kids in Southern Minnesota where Bob worked for AT&T for 38 years before retiring. After the war, he joined the Air Force reserves and rose to Lt. Colonel before retiring in 1980. After his heroic youth, this extraordinary man proceeded to lead an ordinary life, until he died at 93. Bob would rarely talk about the war, but he would re-live the terror of it for 50 years in his dreams. 

Staff Sergeant Joe Tucker returned to Jackson to work as a draftsman at Commonwealth Associates. In 1949, he married Barbara and adopted her son Don; together they had another son David. Ironically, Don shares Bob Meyer’s birthday, Sept. 5. After the war, Joe was commissioned an officer in the Michigan National Guard where he enjoyed the same camaraderie with fellow veterans that he enjoyed when he was on active duty. He retired in 1978 as a Colonel.

In the early 2000s, Joe and his wife took a reunion cruise with fellow B-29 veterans to Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Tokyo. The young, brave, warriors — by then old, retired, tourists --- returned to the terrifying sights of their youth and visited beautiful, peaceful, places where they almost died. 

Joe and Bob were only 21 and 23 when they were World War II heroes, awe-inspiring examples of all the combat veterans of America’s Greatest Generation.

Steve Mitchell is a former U.S. history teacher and is now president of Mitchell Research & Communications of East Lansing. Don Tucker is a retired Detroit attorney living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina. Tim Meyer is the former Chancellor of Oakland Community College and lives in Bloomfield Township. Tucker’s and Meyer’s fathers will always be their heroes. Mitchell is friends with Meyer and Tucker.