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June 8, 2012

Exclusive to Stu Shaner by Richard B. Fry
Continued from last week

Our runway ran northeast to southwest. It was slightly downhill to the southwest and at the end of the runway the land dropped away into a sort of valley, which departing planes sometimes used to gain altitude. Whenever possible we took heavily loaded planes,- like the B-24’s of the 508th, which often were at their load limit (or above!) – off that way. We were taking the ‘20s off to the Southwest that night, and #728- headed to the Mariana—took the runway and, under full power, started its long roll. And then disappeared off the end of our runway. Shortly thereafter, we had a call requesting an emergency return to the field. Back came #728 – with a damaged under-carriage! Then we had a telephone call—from our Air-to Ground guys—saying that a departing aircraft had taken out the telephone poles holding the lines to our Homing Station!
Fast forward now to Jan. 1, 1946. I’m out of the Army Air Corps, back in college to complete a degree in Journalism, and have just covered the San Jose State-Utah State Raisin Bowl football game in Fresno as Sports Editor of the Spartan Daily, the SJS student newspaper. (Which, incidentally, SJS won, 20-0). Looking to celebrate a bit, I attend a post-game event and see a young fellow in uniform, with a 20th Air Force patch. Out of curiosity, I wander over and say hello and start to tell my B-29 in China story. The guy grabs me by the lapels of my jacket and says, “I WAS ON THAT PLANE!” And proceeds to tell me how people who hear the story don’t believe it. “Wish I had you around to back me up,” he said. Somehow, I never learned his name. (Great reporter, eh!)

Fast forward, again! It’s now 2004, I’m 81 years old and am reading the CBIVA (China-
Burma=India Veterans Association) Sound-Off magazine, where old vets recounted their World War II experiences in the CBI theater. “Why not write my “B-29 story” and see if anyone can add to it,” I think-60 years late! My letter appeared in the 2004 Sound-Off’s Fall edition, and by mid December I’d heard from Roger Sandstedt, Gunner on a ’29 in the 58th Bomb Wing who’d been in Luliang when his outfit was moving from India to Tinian. Sandstedt, of St. Louis, gave me the address of Charles O. “Chuck” Trabold, in Syracuse, N.Y., who he tells me was the Top Control Gunner on #728, and says Trabold has the best memory of any of the guys from that crew. So that’s how I come to get this great photo of B-29 #728 and its crew – after their final mission over Japan from the island of Tinian shortly before the end of World War II. And here’s the kicker! See the painting on the nose of the plane? Well, the camels are for the number of Hump runs#728 made shuttling back and forth from Chengdu to get gas and bombs for their missions. The bombs, of course, are records of their missions. And the telephone poles? “Chuck” Trabold painted those on his old plane after the crew’s final mission- over Japan- to recall, forever, the night #728 almost bought the ranch in Luliang, China- April 28, 1945! Now, Dan (Beebe) and George (Wangelin) – up there somewhere—here’s your “Local Angle”. The pilot who somehow, some way, kept old #728 flyin’ after that dust-up with eight telephone poles at Luliang, was 1st Lt. Thomas F. Randle, Jr., of Chico, California. Yep, a neighbor. And it took me almost 70 years to learn his story.

(Here’s an account of #728’s exciting takeoff from our base at Luliang, as reported in Super-Fort magazine by Gunner Sandstedt after a post-war interview with Pilot Randle (and edited by me, to save space.) Lt. Randle’s crew aborted a late afternoon takeoff when a propeller blade was damaged by a rock. (As I mentioned, the runway at Luliang was dirt, and the surface was continually being replaced due to the wind blasts caused by departing aircraft.) It took Randle’s crew several hours to hammer and file the damaged prop, so their second takeoff attempt was made after dark. At 300 feet, the bomb bay doors flipped open (for some unexplained reason-the B-29 dropped almost to the ground, mowing down eight telephone poles. Randle fought for control, saw a valley, banked around (a 7,000 Hill) and finally got the big bomber back to the ground-intact, except for a ripped under carriage!)

Stu’s Notes: That was quite a story of a young Chico Hero, 1st Lt. Thomas Randle Jr. I sure would like to hear from some of his people. Thank you, Dick Fry up there in Washington State, for such a great story. It was nice to see Oroville City Council member, Thil Wilcox out on the Green Bridge on Memorial Day. The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway was just observed, this was a big turning point in the Pacific Theater, part of WWII. The Japanese Navy from then on was far from the overwhelming Navy force they were at Pearl Harbor. Had we lost at Midway the War could have gone on a lot longer. The bravery of our Navy men in that battle was unbelievable, both those in the air and those fighting the fires on their ships.