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Texan recalls time 70 years ago as POW during WWII

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FORT WORTH, Texas >> A gold-framed black-and-white photo shows a smiling man in an Army Air Forces uniform, his cheeks still chubby with youth.

The picture was taken in 1944 when Fiske Hanley was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He had just graduated from a six-month training program for flight engineers at Yale University. He was 5 feet 10 and weighed 175 pounds.

In his comfortable apartment at Trinity Terrace recently, Hanley, 95, clutched another photo of himself, smiling among a jubilant group of raggedy-looking men.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports the photo was taken 1 1/2 years after the first. Hanley’s cheeks are sunken; he is 25 years old and weighs 96 pounds. He wears a dirty, bloodstained piece of cloth wrapped around his waist.

The contrast between the men’s condition and the smiles on their faces is explained by the date of the photo: Aug. 29, 1945.

They had just been liberated from Japanese prisoner of war camps.

A flight engineer on a B-29 Superfortress, Hanley was assigned to the 504th Bomb Group, which late in World War II flew fire-bombing missions over Japan.

On March 27, 1945, his plane was shot down. Eight crew members were killed when the plane crashed near the Shimonoseki Straits in Northern Kyushu.

“Our giant airplane was being tossed around like a cork in a stormy sea,” Hanley wrote in his book “Accused American War Criminal.”

“In the distance, I observed our airplane engulfed in flames and spiraling toward the ground,” he said of parachuting at the last minute. “It appeared as a fiery cross in the sky. While I was descending in the parachute, I saw the fiery plane hit the ground and explode in a sea of fire.”

Hanley and the plane’s co-pilot, Al Andrews, were the only survivors.

After landing in a rice paddy near the Japanese village of Ueki, Hanley said, angry farmers formed a big circle around him and “proceeded to start killing” him with bamboo spears, clubs and farm tools. He had already been hit by shrapnel when the plane was shot down.

“My shirt became soaked with blood,” he recalled.

The beatings were stopped by a Japanese policeman who shoved Hanley into the back of a truck and took him to Kempeitai headquarters in central Tokyo to be interrogated.

The Kempeitai were Japan’s version of the German Gestapo.

Hanley was labeled a “special prisoner” because he was assigned to a B-29, which firebombed civilian targets.

At the headquarters, he encountered Yasuo “Shorty” Kobayashi, 5 feet tall with big black boots and in charge of the American prisoners and their interrogations.

“I would kill him if I could get my hands on him, but he’s already dead,” Hanley muttered, pointing at Kobayashi’s photo.

Kobayashi oversaw the beatings and killings of prisoners who were led around the camp with a rope on their necks like dogs, Hanley said.

Prisoners were blindfolded and handcuffed unless they were locked in their 9-by-5-foot cells that housed up to eight people at times.

They weren’t allowed to bathe. Blankets were infested with fleas and lice. They weren’t allowed to exercise. They never saw the sun.

Fewer than half the Americans survived.

“I did not see daylight during my entire Kempeitai Headquarters captivity,” Hanley wrote.

“Special” POWs got half the rations of a regular POW.

“We were given three little rice balls a day for meals,” he said. “We had no medical attention. They beat us with gun butts.”

Another tool Japanese captors liked to use were bamboo clubs swung across the heads and bodies of prisoners as they were interrogated.

Hanley’s wounds were dressed only once: He was told he could “use one of the blankets to cover the offensive odor of my dirty and blood-saturated bandages.”

Medical personnel probed wounds with infected swabs.

The Army Air Forces sent a telegram to his father, Claude Hanley of Fort Worth, informing him that his son had been missing in action since March 27, 1945.

“War is a terrible business,” the telegram stated. “May God grant that it is soon over, and may he grant us the wisdom and the strength to build a better world and create a permanent peace so that the sacrifices which are being made shall not be made in vain.”

Back at the camp, all Hanley and fellow prisoners could think about was food.

“We discussed food almost all the time. Each of us talked about our favorite food and what we’d eat first when liberated,” he wrote.

On Aug. 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress named the Enola Gay dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 and wiping out 90 percent of the city.

Three days later, another U.S. atomic bomb fell, this time on the city of Nagasaki, killing about 40,000.

On Aug. 14, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender. But Hanley and other POWs didn’t know that or why they were suddenly being rushed out of their cells and put on army trucks.

Kobayashi found a seat next to Hanley.

“. He turned toward me, stretched his lips into his version of a smile, and asked as pleasantly capable, ‘How are you?'”

At POW Camp Omori on Tokyo Bay, the prisoners were unloaded from the trucks and walked to the edge of the water. They were stripped of their clothes. And then they did something they hadn’t done in a long time:

They washed their starving, infected and burned bodies with water.

“Many of the prisoners were crying in their joy,” Hanley wrote. “We were all laughing and splashing in the wonderful clean water.”

Andrews, the co-pilot who was shot down with Hanley, had arrived the day before and overheard the guards talking about whether they should machine-gun the whole lot of them or not.

They did not, and the war was over.

During the mid-afternoon of Aug. 29, U.S. Navy ships headed toward Camp Omori. Fighter planes circled overhead as men jumped up and down on the dock and cheered. Homemade flags made of old rags waved.

“We were wild with joy,” Hanley wrote.

During the recent interview at his apartment, Hanley asked, “Have you seen the movie ‘Unbroken?’ I lived that.”

Camp Omori also housed Olympian Louis Zamperini, a WWII hero at the center of “Unbroken,” a film by Angelina Jolie based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand.

Hillenbrand said Hanley was a “source for ‘Unbroken.'” He was invited to the movie’s Hollywood premiere at The Dolby Theatre on Dec. 15, 2014.

“I went to the grand opening in Hollywood. I saw it one more time and then I said ‘No more, this is too much,'” Hanley said.

In 1992, Hanley wrote a book, “History of the 504th Bomb Group.”

A few years later, he gathered up notes that he had typed not long after returning home from Japan and complied them into his memoir, which was published in 1997 by Texas Tech University.

This fall, Hanley plans to return to Kempeitai headquarters where he was imprisoned. He said he is one of four former POWs chosen by the U.S. State Department for the trip. He was told they are to spend a week in Tokyo, and each will be taken to see where they were imprisoned.

Hanley also said he was told he was going to receive an apology from Japanese leaders.

However, earlier this month, on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Japanese had apologized enough, noting that 80 percent of the country’s population was born after the war.

“We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” he said.

State Department representatives did not respond to requests for more information about the plans for Hanley’s trip.

Back home from the war, Hanley used his aeronautical engineering training and for 44 years worked at General Dynamics, now Lockheed, where military planes are designed and built.

It was at General Dynamics that he met Mitsuharu “Bill” Nagase.

As a teenager in Japan, Nagase trained to become a kamikaze — a suicide pilot — and at 16, was just four days from going on his mission when Japan surrendered, Hanley said.

An American colonel in the occupation forces took such a liking to young Nagase that he brought him back to the U.S. and sent him to Texas Christian University.

Hanley and Nagase weren’t friends for long before they realized that Hanley’s plane flew in the raid that killed Nagase’s parents.

“He was from Nagoya, and I burned down his house, and then I found out, not from him, that I killed his parents, and we are still friends.”

Hanley said he is now eagerly waiting to read Nagase’s book, and sharing his story.

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