Local Pilot Made the Call that Ended World War II
On Aug. 6, 1945, ships loaded with American soldiers were steaming toward the islands of Japan in advance of an expected bloody invasion. Lt. James Jackson Hume Jr. — a future Carthage resident — was readying a vintage rifle he’d just been issued. His unit would be part of a diversionary force assaulting seaside cliffs while the main attack hit elsewhere.
None of them expected to survive. New weapons were exchanged for old.
Overhead, Charles “Chuck” Lunney was bound for Honshu, the main island of the empire, piloting his B-29 Superfortress. The mission: weather reconnaissance. Check out two targets and pick the best one. Behind him, he assumed, would be the usual pack of 500 or so bombers making the raid.
But not this mission. Instead, there was only one plane, the Enola Gay.
“I looked out and saw a sunny day, a blue sky — and that’s what they wanted,” Lunney said Wednesday in his Quail Haven home, remembering that day 67 years ago. “Beautiful day. I radioed back that the target would be Hiroshima.”
It took eight hours for Lunney to fly from Guam to the Japanese islands, another eight to go back.
By the time he landed, the war essentially was over.
‘I Didn’t Know’
B-29 bombers had been designed and built to make long trips, and were the only pressurized combat aircraft. When Lunney got to New Mexico for B-29 training, there were no planes to fly. Some production glitch held them up.
“I met my crew there,” he said. “We didn’t know each other before. I don’t know why the Army picked me for a B-29 pilot. Why I was trained for that I’ll never know. They don’t tell you in the military. They don’t tell you anything.”
Eventually, with B-29 training complete, Lunney flew his brand-new bomber across the Pacific and into the war. By August 1945, he’d flown his 35-mission quota. He was waiting to go home when he got orders for this run.
The usual drill following 16-hour missions called for bomber crews to be checked out after landing.
“When you get back, and you turn it over to the ground crew, our whole crew goes into this ready room where the medics are waiting to see us, check everybody out, see if anybody’s wounded, psycho,” he said. “If you checked out OK they gave you a glass of whiskey to settle you. Well, I walked in and here is this big guy.”
Lunney was looking at Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay — “Old Iron Pants” himself — cigar clenched in his mouth, whiskey in hand. The general gave his pilot a firm handshake.
“I want to congratulate you,” LeMay growled. “You just helped us drop the first (expletive) atomic bomb.”
“What the hell is an atomic bomb?” Lunney asked, mystified.
The utterly profane LeMay didn’t know. “But we just dropped the first one!” he crowed.
By the time Lunney had flown eight hours back from Hiroshima, the entire world had heard about the atomic bomb. Not he. Lunney had no idea of his historic mission until landing on Guam that afternoon.
“I didn’t know. I was in the airplane,” he said. “It was the biggest secret of the entire war. Their plane flew out of Tinian; we were from Guam — two different take-offs.”
Circling the Cloud
Four days later, LeMay sent Lunney off again, but this time to trail the bomber rather than lead it. His job was to circle the mushroom cloud rising over Nagasaki following the blast.
“They said, ‘We want you to go around it and take photographs,’ and that there would be brass on board,” he said. “High-ranking officers. We go around the mushroom right after they dropped it.”
It’s a sight he’ll never forget.
“Just amazing,” he said. “We were at 20,000 feet and the top of it was above us. We could see under the smoke … we could look under and it was nothing but flat. Gone. Nothing there, only a few steel pier things sticking up out of the ground. That one bomb killed over 250,000 people. Instantly! They were clustered, in a city.”
Those two bombs ended the war.
“That’s when the Japanese knew they couldn’t compete,” he said. “They said OK; we give up.”
Lunney had one final mission: fly over the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay during the ceremony as Gen. Douglas MacArthur received the unconditional surrender of the empire of Japan.
“I came back from that and LeMay was in the room again,” he said. “We had a drink, and he said, ‘Take that airplane and go home tomorrow.’ So I came home. I had to stop for refueling. I was supposed to stay overnight at Hawaii.”
Under and Out
The guys on the plane didn’t want to stay overnight. They wanted to get home.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to get some sleep!’” But Lunney only napped and left early. “We took off at midnight.”
Approaching the coast of California at about 6 in the morning, one guy came up on the flight deck to ask where they were.
“Over the ocean you lose track of everything, see,” Lunney said. “California was just ahead of us; we were going to go right over San Francisco. He says, ‘Could you fly this plane under the Golden Gate Bridge?’ I said, ‘No! If I do, I’ll be court-martialed!’”
“The war’s over,” his fellow airman said.
“I’ll grant you that. How big is the bridge?”
The man reported that the whole squadron could fly under it in formation. The span is more than a quarter-mile wide and 500 feet above the water.
Lunney figured he would reach it in about an hour. It would be daylight.
“We flew under it,” he said. “You can put it in the paper. They can’t do anything to me now.”
He came home to his wife, Letitia (“Tish”), whom he had married the day he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After retiring in 1982, they built a home in Whispering Pines, but recently moved to Quail Haven.
At 94 Lunney stays active. He renewed his love of oil painting, co-founding the Artists League of the Sandhills with Mike DeAndrea. Over his years in Moore County, he’s served on the boards of the English-Speaking Union, the Sandhills Theater Company, and the Country Club of Whispering Pines.
He still paints.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by email at jfchappell @gmail.com.
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