My Uncle Edd, Captain, USAAF 

             

Richard Franklin Bishop

  

© Copyright 2015 by Richard Franklin  Bishop      


Newspaper photo of Uncle Edd.


It was hot in late June of 1946. There in Kalamazoo County we were making Hay as fast as we could to beat the bad Weather conditions that we knew were coming. We had just brought a wagon-load of Hay in from the field and I, not quite 16 yet, was preparing to use our 1929 Buick “Six” to pull on the Hay rope raising forkfuls of Hay to empty the wagon. My Father, Elmer J. Bishop, was just climbing up onto the Hay load to “set” the Hay fork when my Mother called from the house saying that there was a long-distance telephone call for one “ELMER BISHOP.” He climbed down and went into the house to take the call. That’s when he learned that on Monday, 24 June 1946, his Brother, James E. Bishop, Captain, USAAF, my Uncle, had died in the line of duty in a tragic accident. He was 46 years old.

I never really knew him. But I had often heard that James E. Bishop was no ordinary man. I had heard my Father, who was two years older, say with great pride, innumerable times, as he finished a sentence: “and he’s a Captain in the U. S. Army Air Forces.” He would usually add, to be precise: “He’s a REGULAR Officer.” He further explained that his Brother preferred to be called Edd (with two d’s) rather than James or Jim.

His military duty had been squeezed into the 2 decades between the two World Wars. First off, he was commissioned in 1927 in the U. S. Army Air Corps as an Officer in the career field of Armaments. He, because of his long service of 19 years, was one the most experienced Armaments men in the entire U.S. Army Air Forces. Such men would be called to work on the most difficult cases where arming an Aircraft with explosive devices was giving them technical trouble of one kind or another. Reputations are built that way. And that’s why, at the end of his career, he was assigned to OPERATION CROSSROADS - - the 1946 Atom Bomb tests in the Marshall Islands - - specifically Bikini Atoll - - and he was sent to Kwajalein Atoll to supervise the loading of an Plutonium Bomb into a B-29, Superfortress.

The Newspapers later said his home town was Kalamazoo, Michigan. That’s because he had lived there for 20 years; had graduated from Central High School, married and raised four children in Kalamazoo before the divorce from his Wife. He married again in 1929. His new Wife’s name was Doris. They would have celebrated their 17th Wedding Anniversary in late 1946.

What kind of person was Captain Bishop and what kind of life had he lived while in the Military ? Writing from the WW II battle-grounds in France, he sent a couple of letters to my Father which are interesting as well as revealing:

Capt. James E. Bishop, O516754
81st Airdrome Sqdn, APO 141 % P.M. N.Y.C.
France - Nov 5th, 1944

Hello Old Top (meaning my Father, Elmer J. Bishop):

You will, no doubt, be very much surprised if and when you get this.

Not knowing your present address, I am sending this to my Daughter (living in Kalamazoo where my Father also lived) to forward on to you. I thought you might be interested to know what some of the country you fought over in the last War looks like today.

I guess the French people, in general, are very much as you knew them. They are very friendly and helpful, and were probably more glad to see us (in 1944) than they were in the last War - - (recently) having had to put up with German rule for four years.

I am not much of a descriptive writer so (I) don’t know if I can describe things so as to bring it back to your memory as it is at present or different from when you knew it.

As to the looks of the country I guess I have travelled over or been stationed in most of the places you were in. There are lots of reminders of the last War around Verdun; old trenches and demolished forts; and also around St. Mihiel. I have been quite close up to Metz which is still held by the Germans. We have been shelled and bombed and pestered by a new innovation since the last War, namely the buzz bomb. That is a killer-diller although not very effective except on large cities, it is not at all comfortable to have them buzzing around, and the shells from those big railway guns sound like freight trains going overhead. They make quite a bang when they go off, too, I can assure you. I have had the doubtful pleasure of watching them explode.

I had the opportunity of visiting the famed Maginot Line. It is quite a fortification, and was not dismantled by the Germans. About 240 miles of fortification and tunnels from 90 to 120 feet below the surface.

While I am in an Air Corps unit which normally would not get so close to the front, we follow the Aviation Engineers in and hold down a (flying) strip until a regular outfit moves up to take over. We get close to the front often enough to keep life from being dull.

Hope this War ends soon so I can get back and pay you a visit.

As ever, Edd.

Here’s another revealing letter, dated 54 days later:

Capt. James E. Bishop, O516754
81st Airdrome Sqdn, APO 141 % P.M. N.Y.C.
Dec., 29th 1944

Hello old grey beard:

So they won’t let you fight in this young man’s War. You should be young and spritely like me, it says here - - just as my bones start to creak. All jokes aside, this is a fast moving War, and we have jumped all over France since we landed. This last German push proves that today you have it and tomorrow the enemy has it.

Hitler almost messed up our xmas since his push caused us to have to make a long cold move on xmas eve. I was working on D. S. with a night-fighter Sqdn when my regular outfit got a move order to service a group of day fighters. The Adjutant came along and picked me up in a jeep, and we made a trip to Metz; close to the outfit’s new place. It was colder than billy-bedamned with snow on the ground.

The sudden rush of events made us a day late with our xmas dinner, but it was a good one just the same. Plenty of well cooked turkey, cranberry sauce, and dressing with gravy. I sure laid in a good supply of it. We get Chicken quite often, but it must be amphibious Chicken, it is all wings and hull, no landing gear visible. We can’t complain about the chow, all told, we have been eating good even if some of it is done more or less “on the run.”

I sent my Daughters each a picture I had made in England; you can see if I look decrepit yet. I don’t feel old anyway, just War weary. I have spent 5 ˝ years out of the last 7 ˝ years in foreign service so I could stand some of the good old U. S. A. for a while.

I would like for this War to get over so I could get back, and pay everyone a visit before I get a long grey beard. I am not out for any Medals in this War, but to get back all in one piece. Most any place we go Jerry comes along some times to strafe, and bomb to remind us that the War is still on. Man, a guy can sure find a hole quick when bullets start fanning the seat of his pants !

I guess you know something about this French mud. It is frozen now, but it is ass-deep to a tall Giraffe when it is not frozen, but that doesn’t stop you from imitating a mole when a Jerry plane shows up with mayhem in mind. He will need a buddy to help see me if I hear him coming. About the only time they can sneak through is at night, and you don’t know if he is turning a bomb loose at you or not until you hear it coming. I can assure you that I am not last to hit the dirt by a long ways. I am not a bit proud; I’ll dive right into the dirt with the common people. Those bombs will make you get in a hole that a self-respecting rat wouldn’t go in.

I sure was interested in and enjoyed your letter about all the people we know. I am glad all yours, and our other Brother’s families are doing well.

Talking about shooting a hole in the buggy, I guess the Lord looks out for fools and drunkards. It is a wonder we ever stayed alive long enough to grow up; some of the crazy stunts we used to think up would have killed anybody with sense. Such as walking across the top of Duffin’s silo on a 2” X 4” just laid across before the roof was put on.

Well, I am going to have to close out this letter, and make a (Report of) Survey on a Pistol a guy lost, and write up fire regulations for the outfit. I am Fire Marshall along with (Reports of ) Survey Officer and Armament Officer.

I sure did enjoy the letter. Write again soon.

As ever,

Jim or Edd

Well now, from his words, he sounded like a regular guy to me. His Commanding Officer felt the same and wrote a letter of condolence to the Widow; he said his men thought highly of him:

. . . . Although my acquaintance with your husband began only a few months ago, his key position in the group gave me an opportunity to know and appreciate him as a real soldier and a skilled technician and what is more important, a real man among men, a man well liked by all that knew him and particularly admired by those who worked for him. The strongest tribute that may be given to any man, I believe, is that from his fellow soldiers, and for the past three days I have been accepting, on your behalf, glowing tributes of your husband from men who have voluntarily offered their praise to the memory of the man they respected so highly.”

As one member of your husband’s crew stated, ‘Capt. Bishop was a superior officer, quiet and unassuming, but thoroughly efficient and dependable. He stood for all the qualities of an officer and gentleman; it was a real pleasure to work for him and share our responsibilities and pleasures with him.’ That is an example of the high esteem in which your husband was held by those who knew him best.”

So what was this OPERATION CROSSROADS all about ? And what made it so important that all participants had to strain extraordinarily to make it work, perfectly ? It was a Joint-Service test where the U. S. Navy was testing their vulnerability to survive an Atomic War. The tests were being conducted to see how much damage a plutonium-imploding device (the Media always called it an Atom Bomb) could make to a group of 95 target ships (captured Japanese warships and obsolete U. S. vessels) that were simulating a Naval force.

The first test of OPERATION CROSSROADS was named Able. The bomb was to be dropped from a B-29 Superfortress named Dave's Dream of the 509th Bombardment Group on July 1, 1946, and detonated 520 feet (158 m) above the target fleet anchored near Bikini Atoll. It would be as deadly as the Fat Man Nagasaki Bomb with a yield of 23 kilotons of TNT. The aircraft would be flown by Major Woodrow P. Swancutt, of Wisconsin Rapids, WI., from a base in Kwajalein Atoll. The second test, Baker, was to be a blast conducted later, 90 feet underwater. A third deep water test, Charlie, planned for 1947, was canceled primarily because of the United States Navy's inability to decontaminate the target ships after the Baker test (details from Wikipedia).

The tragic accident that cost Captain Bishop his life occurred at 05:20 hours on the morning of Monday, the 24th of June, 1946, seven days before the actual drop of the live Able Plutonium Bomb. He was performing his duty at the loading area where a dummy practice bomb had just been placed in the B-29, Daves’s Dream, the aircraft that was scheduled to be used to drop the live Bomb on Monday, 1 July 1946. As the responsible Officer in charge of the loading of the practice bomb, Captain Bishop found it necessary to work directly under the aircraft. In the course of his work, and while engrossed in making his part of the operation function perfectly, he inadvertently walked into one of the spinning propellers.

His Commanding Officer said in a letter of condolence to the Widow: “First Aid was given immediately by the crew members; an ambulance and Doctor arrived immediately and he was taken to the Naval hospital here on the island. Despite every effort of our medical staff, he passed away shortly after 09:00 hours.” He continued: “ In accordance with existing regulations, your husband was buried yesterday (28 June 1946) in the military cemetery on Carlos Islet (Ennylabegan I), a small island about eight miles across the lagoon from Kwajalein.”

Captain Bishop died in a “tragic accident.” No one else was involved. Yes, he was solely in charge of his own destiny at that moment. Were his thoughts somewhere else ? Was he distracted for an instant ? Whatever the causes, the massive injuries he suffered were fatal.

To be philosophic about it, I have concluded that no matter how famous you are or how important were your accomplishments while living (as judged by your peers), at the moment of death all are equal . . . . and represent the sad loss of a valuable human being from this Planet. If it’s a death from disease or accident, and not from natural causes, then it’s called “tragic” and we give the victim full empathy. There is one variation to this response; if such death comes to a young person, then we say with extra sympathy: Oh my, how sad; they had their whole life before them

In conclusion, let me say that Captain James Edd Bishop (even though his Widow received a letter of condolence from the President of the United States of America, himself) was definitely not a hero in the classic sense of the word. He was just one of millions of support personnel in all our Wars who was there, ready when called, and doing his duty to the end. Whether the end was happy or bitter depended upon the circumstances.

He had already said in France (in harm’s way in that massive European conflict): “I am not out for any Medals in this War, but to get back all in one piece.” He didn’t make it. Fate steps in and decides. Having lived through all the European battles, he knew the odds, and as a professional soldier, he accepted new risks in the Pacific Theatre and pressed on, anyway.

It Could Have Happened This Way

The B-29, “ Dave’s Dream”, piloted by Major Woodrow P. Swancutt had been pre-flighted and started. All seemed ready for the approximately 400 mile flight from Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands, to Bikini Atoll to simulate the dropping of a Plutonium bomb for OPERATION CROSSROADS. Captain Bishop, the ARMAMENTS Officer, and his crew had loaded the practice bomb with great care and had practically needed a shoehorn to fit the bomb into the limited space that the B-29 “special modifications” allowed. So far, at 05:00 hours local time, the B-29 Crew was on time in the pitched blackness for the scheduled run and were taxiing over the ramp traveling to the take-off position. The sky was just beginning to show some faint glow of the approaching dawn.

The Flight Engineer said “Oh, oh, Hold on, the indicator shows that the Bomb-Bay doors are unsecured.” That was a “Safety-of-Flight” item on the check-list and if true, would have “scratched” the mission if not otherwise solved.

At 05:10 hours, the Pilot said, as he braked to a stop on the ramp within sight of Flight Operations with the engines running: “Get ARMAMENTS out here to check the Doors from the outside. If they are tight then the indicator is wrong and maybe we can ignore it.” Captain Bishop, who had been standing-by in Flight Operations with a couple of his Team members to see that the Mission was safely on it’s way, heard the radio call and immediately headed for the aircraft in the artificially produced half-light. The aircraft was just far enough away so that the lights around Flight Operations didn’t illuminate the underside of the aircraft very well.

Walzing around (crabbing around is a better description) under a giant airplane with the big propellers spinning in pre-dawn conditions was hazardous. This would be a hair-raiser even in broad daylight. Captain Bishop had once said: “. . . . .I guess the Lord looks out for fools and drunkards. It is a wonder we ever stayed alive long enough to grow up; some of the crazy stunts we used to think up would have killed anybody with sense. Such as walking across the top of Duffin’s silo on a 2” X 4” just laid across before the roof was put on.” So, since childhood, he had been “up” for such circus stunts - - as the adrenalin started pumping for this one. Checking with his powerful flashlight beginning from aft to forward, he evidently found the doors to be secure and probably, through the Ground Crew earphones and microphone plugged into the B-29, gave the Pilot the “green-light” to ignore the indicator and go; saving the mission.

The forward end of the Bomb Bay doors terminate only a short distance behind the Propellers. After his examination, he was now far forward as he pulled off the communications Intercom head-phones. The Intercom gear is stored in the front wheelwell compartment on the right-hand side. Switching off his bright Flashlight and whirling about to start getting clear of the aircraft, he had only a very narrow corridor of egress to avoid the Propellers as he ducked under and went forward to the wheelwell. Suddenly, without the earphones, he had been enveloped by the deafening noise of the four engines and he was peering about (also suddenly, without the additional light of the bright flashlight); in these marginal circumstances, that was a grave error. Usually, spinning propellers give off a shimmering glinz of light that is unmistakable. The low idling RPM’s of the motors, the steady brisk breeze of the Props which he had steeled himself against and now totally ignored, and the instantaneously returned half-darkness (without the shimmering) did not re-clue him as to the presence of (or exact location of the arc of) the hazardous spinning propellers. The inboard Propeller tips are not much more than four feet from the fuselage. As his eyes were adjusting to the returned darkness, he thought that he was either far enough forward (or far enough back) so that that safe egress was assured and walked laterally (sideways) right into one of the inboard Propellers.

We’ll never know just why he never went back out aft of the Bomb Bay doors using his hand and touching the aircraft as a guide – except to say that that direction involved a lot of stooping and crawling like a crab to travel back and then turning 90 degrees and away. Besides, he had already been there and would not likely repeat the ducking and diving that he had endured before.

It was 05:20 hours local and Sunrise would not come to Kwajalein Atoll until 06:52 hours.

The Show Must Go On

The Newspapers said: “On the morning of 24 June 1946, the B-29 Aircraft “Dave’s Dream”, Piloted by Major Woodrow P. Swancutt, of Wisconsin Rapids, WI., flying from a base in Kwajalein to practice the dropping of an Atomic Bomb on Bikini Atoll, left exactly one minute late on it’s mission.”

In my mind’s eye, I can see my Father, Elmer Jewell Bishop, standing over the lonely grave in the military cemetery on Carlos Islet “a small island about eight miles across the lagoon from Kwajalein” murmuring: “My Brother . . . .”; pausing, groping for something adequate to say and then continuing on in the easy words of their childhood banter:



Rest in peace, Old Top.”


EPILOGUE

The pain of the loss of a loved one is indescribable. Here is a letter from the Widow, Doris Bishop, to my parents, Elmer and Laura Bishop:

Mrs. J. E. Bishop

Norfolk 8, Va

Oct. 10, 1946

Dear Elmer & Laura:

I just got home three weeks ago from Florida, where I was visiting my sister. Have just recovered from a bad cold, so am not feeling too well, and have not made any attempt to get a job yet, but since my nerves are so bad, think I should wait a while.

Jim’s clothes came last week, and it almost killed me to look at them. I can hardly believe when I look at them, that he is really gone. It has been almost four months now, and I don’t feel any better yet, and I wonder if I ever will.

While looking in Jimmie's things, I ran across a picture of him and you, Elmer, in your bathing suits. You both looked very young in it.

I would like to see you folks again, but don’t know if I wil1 ever get up there. I've done a lot of traveling the past years, and will have to settle down here, I guess. I am with my Mother and Father.

My 17th wedding anniversary was the other day. It is hard to believe we were married that long but of course, we were separated by the war for three years. In a way, it seems like I had been with Jim all my life, as I met him at 18, and was with him ever since. He sure was a wonderful guy, at least, he was to me, and most people seemed to have a very good opinion of him. He had a lot of friends.

I received letters from all the Army big shots in his behalf, and also one from President Truman. None of those things can bring him back to me, and I would rather have him than all the honors they could pile on him. We both thought our best years were ahead, because we had had such a struggle until the war came along, and then we were separated, so naturally,we looked forward to a peaceful life together for a few years, but I guess: Man proposes and God disposes, as the saying goes.

It seems strange that all of your children are grown up. I guess because we didn’t have any children time seemed to stand still. I lost one years ago, and never was able to have any after that. It would be nice to have something of him left, but such is life.

Well, you folks write if you feel like it.

Love, Doris.


APPENDIX

NOTE #1: This story has been compiled from private letters, Newspaper clippings, and Wikipedia. Not one word has been obtained from OFFICIAL sources that could have been called Classified Information.

NOTE # 2: Regarding the quoted passages from the letter of his Commanding Officer to Captain Bishop’s Widow, Mrs. Doris M. Bishop, Norfolk 8, VA, the following note was addressed to Elmer J. Bishop in her handwriting: “Dear Elmer: If you want to make any copies of this (letter) for anyone else, it is your privilege. Signed, Doris.”

NOTE #3: The speculation about the exact circumstances of the accident is mine. I was not privy to any formal accident reports of the U.S. Government. There could be a dozen other speculative reasons for the Mission delay but perhaps only four or five affecting ARMAMENTS. And the scenario I picked is one where the solution could be implemented so quickly as to keep the Mission delay minimal and (as it turned out) almost “on time.”

NOTE #4: Some may say: “Why didn’t you let sleeping dogs lie ? All I can say in my defense is that I’m fulfilling the mission of the Preservation Foundation, Inc., in recording a story that otherwise would be lost to posterity. I’d say it’s been lying “Doggo” long enough - - since 1946; that means, sadly, it’s already been forgotten for almost 70 years !

NOTE: #5: I cogitated over this story for a long, long time (years, actually) - - wondering just what “angle” to give the event. I had wanted to give Uncle Edd an upstanding send-off (instead of him having just been left behind by our Society at the far ends of the Earth). Then it hit me -- it’s a very moving story; so tell it as objectively as you can but with pathos . . . a mournful sadness. At the very least, he and Doris deserved that much. And the ex-Wife together with two Daughters and two Sons were also deserving. I really hope I have succeeded in letting him leave this Earth with a belated but worthy eulogy.


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