CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Charles Firtion was born in 1922 in North Bergen, New Jersey. Prior to his service, Firtion worked as a scientific instrument maker at Keuffel and Esser in Hoboken, where he became adept in constructing specialized gun sights, a skill that earned him three draft deferments. Firtion yearned to fly, however; and, in 1943, at the age of twenty-one, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was sent to North Carolina for basic training.
On completion of his pre-flight tests, Firtion and his fellow candidates were informed that the Army’s air arm had too many people who wanted to be pilots, and not enough airplanes to accommodate them all. He was given the choice of attending aircraft gunnery school or infantry training. After selecting and completing gunnery school, Firtion was sent to Florida, New Mexico, and Nebraska, where navigators, bombardiers, pilots, and gunners from different training schools were assembled into eleven-man combat crews.
Firtion stated that during his gunnery training, films of aircraft were used to simulate enemy fighters, with primitive computers used to pinpoint them in the gunsights. Originally trained as a ball turret gunner on a B-17, he ended up serving as a crewman on a B-29. Firtion explained that the B-29 was a much bigger aircraft than the B-17, formerly the heaviest American bomber. The B-29 carried a much larger bomb load, had a longer operational range, and featured a pressurized interior as well, making high level flying easier.
After completing stateside training as a cohesive combat unit, Firtion’s crew was assigned to the 398th Bomb Squadron, 504th Bomb Group of the 20th Air Force, then in the Pacific Theater of the war. The crew left for overseas duty on Christmas Eve, 1944, passing over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco at midnight on their way to Hawaii. There they had a brief stopover for combat orientation, and then moved on to Tinian, in the Marianas Islands, a captured Japanese island chain where Navy construction battalions were building air strips mainly for use in bombing the Japanese homeland that were 8,500 feet long by 300 feet wide.
Firtion recalled that, on one of his first days on Tinian, he was standing in line for rations. In addition to food, each soldier received two cans of beer and one can of Coca Cola, which were eagerly anticipated. While he and his comrades were waiting, Japanese planes flew over and strafed the area, forcing them to dive for cover. Firtion began to chuckle as he said, “we landed in the latrine ditch, so we smelled for weeks!”
The B-29 had left, right, and center gunners for defensive fire control in all directions. Since the plane cabin was pressurized, there was no need for the usual additional heavy clothing needed for a B-17 crew, but wearing a flying suit, survival jacket, life vest, and oxygen mask was mandatory while serving on a B-29 in a combat area. After several training missions, the crew’s first combat assignment was to bomb Truk Island. Firtion and his fellow gunners shot at anything moving in the sky that day, occasionally even their own B-29s by mistake, because it was the first time they were in combat, and they were nervous and did not know what to expect. Firtion commented that a crew needed a good navigator to avoid certain danger zones and get a plane safely back to base; he recalled that, during one mission, eight planes ran out of fuel and their crews had to “ditch” into the ocean.
Firtion’s crew went through three aircraft during their tour of duty on Tinian. The first plane lasted for twenty-two missions. The second plane, which only lasted for one mission, diminished Firtion’s affinity for flying considerably. At an altitude of 25,000 feet while on a firebombing mission over Tokyo, the pilot decided to descend to around 6,500 feet. Once the B-29 was flying low, it was caught in a thermal updraft, caused by air rising and falling in relatively small localized areas. The plane caught on fire and immediately turned upside down with the crew hanging by their safety straps, and a bomb stuck in a bay door! The dangling crewmen managed to kick the bomb out, after which the badly damaged plane returned to a normal position and managed to make it back to the runway at Tinian. Firtion went on to say that most of Tokyo was firebombed to destruction, except for the Emperor’s Palace and surrounding moat, and that, in his opinion, the war would have eventually been ended by continuing the firebombing missions without the use of the atomic bomb.
Firtion showed the interviewer records of missions that had lasted up to eighteen hours. A mission was usually scheduled once a week, and a complete tour for a crew would be 35 missions. His crew completed 33 before the war ended. During his service, Firtion was wounded twice, once in the stomach and once in the wrist. Perhaps surprisingly, no one else in his crew was injured during their time together. In many of the missions, Firtion’s was the lead plane, assigned to drop the first bomb, which would then signal other planes to do the same. He recalled that, on one mission, his plane’s radar malfunctioned, and another plane replaced it in the lead. That plane was soon shot down by enemy fire; so, if their radar had worked properly, that could have been his aircraft!
Firtion mentioned that Mount Fujiyama served as a reference point for the American bombers. On one mission over Yokohama, enemy searchlights illuminated his plane for the anti-aircraft guns firing from below. Firtion threw chaff -metal scraps — out of the B-29 as a radar countermeasure. During his 33 missions, he was credited with shooting down two Japanese “Zero” fighter planes. When asked about his feelings regarding air vs. ground duty, Firtion responded that there was nowhere to hide while in the air and under attack; the airmen were left totally exposed.
Firtion spoke of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender treaty signed on the Battleship USS Missouri. His plane, one of 500 fully loaded with bombs, flew overhead for protection, should the ship be attacked. Following the surrender, he was sent back to the United States and subsequently discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey. After his service, Firtion attended and graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a degree in Engineering. He then worked as a municipal engineer in Secaucus, New Jersey, before starting his own construction business, which built schools, housing, bridges and roads. At the time of his interview, Firtion was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, and he had attended one Wichita, Kansas, reunion of the 504th Bomb Group.
Charles V. Firtion passed away on November 4, 2018.