“Never Give Up!” The Odyssey of Hap Halloran

World War II B-29January 27, 1945.  Seven hours out of Saipan, the B-29s of the 499th Bomb Group make a right turn and begin opening their bomb bay doors, heading east for the Nakajima Aircraft Factory on the west edge of Tokyo.  Toryu and Tojo fighters rise to meet them.  On the B-29 Superfortress “V Square 27,” dubbed “Rover Boys Express” from a cartoon of the time, a sudden deafening explosion blows out a large section of the nose, filling the plane with fire and smoke.  Shrapnel ricochets throughout the front section, where two of the eleven Rover Boys are bleeding profusely.  The tail gunner is dead in his seat, cut in half by enemy fire.  The winter wind howling through the depressurized plane plunges the temperature from a comfortable 60 degrees to minus 58.  With no instrumentation, no radio, and three engines out, two on fire, the crew evaluates the situation without panic.  Sucking oxygen to survive at high altitude and preparing to bail out, they discover that the nose wheel is jammed, blocking the escape hatch.  All controls lost, the plane gently loses altitude in a slow right turn.

In the front section, navigator Ray “Hap” Halloran and five others manage to bail out through the partially open bomb bay.  After long moments retrieving his parachute, he and aircraft commander Edward G. “Snuffy” Smith are last to go.  Hap had never jumped before and suggests Snuffy go first.  “Hap, get out!” yells Snuffy, “This baby’s going to explode!”  Squeezing between the bombs, Hap notices three men waving to him at the far end of tunnel leading to the back section.  “They were sort of holding hands,” he recalls.  Years later he learned that they had chosen to ride the plane to the ground where its bombs blew it to pieces.

Since enemy pilots were known to shoot flyers suspended from parachutes, Hap falls free for some 24,000 feet before opening his.  As he floats the last 3,000 feet in an eerie silence, three Japanese fighters suddenly appear, making close passes at him, the prop wash blowing him violently about.  He raises his arms, hoping it will be seen as a friendly gesture.  Then something extraordinary occurs.  The pilot of the third fighter pulls in close, throttles back, and salutes him as the planes depart.

Captivity

Hap hit the ground hard in a small lot between homes and low buildings, his face and hands frozen from the descent.  A mob of a few hundred civilians who had watched him drop converged to where his chute had dragged him against a wall.  Kicking and dragging him, they beat him with wooden and metal poles and stoned him with large rocks.  Bleeding heavily and expecting to die, he survived only because six military men with bayoneted rifles arrived.  They tied his feet to his hands behind his back, beat him with rifle butts in the face, head, and body, and threw him onto a truck.  When the truck stopped he was kicked onto the ground, untied, and moved into a building where he was interrogated and again severely beaten.  Retied and thrown back on the truck, he was taken to a place where civilians stoned him and forced him to bow in all directions.  He was then delivered to Kempei Tai, a Secret Service torture prison in central Tokyo.

“The Kempei Tai were the most brutal people in world,” says Hap, who is now 85 and living in Menlo Park.  “They made the Nazi SS look like kindergarteners.”  He was dragged in the dark across the snow to an interrogation room and roped to a metal chair.  Surrounded by men with fixed bayonets and told to sign a document written in Japanese, he made the mistake of asking them to explain the contents.  He was hit from all sides with rifle butts, knocking him and the chair forward and backward onto the cement floor.  With a handgun held to his temple, he labored with hands still frozen to sign a paper acknowledging that he had indiscriminately bombed the city of Tokyo and killed many civilians.  He was later told that this waived his Geneva rights as a prisoner of war, making him a federal prisoner guilty of murder who would stand trial for his life.

His face battered and bloody, his khaki flying suit torn and red-black with blood drying to crust, he was put in a four-by-six-foot cage with two Japanese conscientious objectors.  A hole in one corner served as a toilet.  Unable to get his mouth open, he couldn’t eat for the first seven days.  He was then moved to a horse stall in a cold, dark stable and put in an eight-by-ten cage with his head to the door so that guards could punch it with their rifle butts as they passed by.  There he spent the winter with only a thin, dirty blanket for cover.  Food was a small ball of rice infested with a multitude of dead and live bugs, rolled across the floor in the perpetual dark so that he could hear but not see it.  His clothing, body, hair, and beard were soon infested with bedbugs, fleas, and lice, causing open sores that stuck to his clothing, pulling the scabs off when he moved while trying to sleep.  Periodically he was dragged by the feet up the hill to the interrogation room.  Interrogations were brutal; wrong answers meant another round of rifle butts.

For relief, Hap prayed constantly in the dark and cold, often crying when the guards weren’t looking.  The suffocating loneliness led him at first to focus on his family—on standing at the bottom of the stairs when his mother came down about six in the morning to fix breakfast.  “I saw the roses on the wall paper,” he says, “saw my mother go by but we couldn’t speak—and my father.  But it was too much for me; I never thought about them again.  I started to pick out neutral people, like a fellow in sixth grade who was a little goofy—George Mahlsing.  I started to think of George; I wondered, ‘what’s he doing now?’  But after awhile you don’t do that any more; you learn to live within yourself.”

Born February 4, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Raymond Francis Halloran was the second of five boys.  He grew up in the Great Depression, his soft-spoken Irish father working 65 to 80 hours a week in the freight yards with rarely a day off.  Daniel Halloran took two vacations in his life, to Sandusky, Ohio and New York City.  “He was a great father, adds Hap, “I just wish I could have spent more time with him.  My mother had to run the family, doing all the washing, ironing, cooking, and what finances there were.  I can always picture her washing by hand on a scrub board until we finally got a washing machine.  We had two bedrooms for a family of seven and I slept in the attic with my brother.  But we had enough love to go around.  We were poor but never knew it.  On the day of Pearl Harbor, my father got out maps and explained the significance of what had happened.  I didn’t even know where Japan was.  I loved making model airplanes growing up; and I volunteered for the air force a short time later.  With a few driving lessons from my brother, I drove up to Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, probably one of my most dangerous missions.”  Having always loved math and computation, Hap became a navigator, testing in the top ten percent. 

In the frozen dark at Kempei Tai, fear was constant and intense.  Hap always expected to be killed.  A large percentage of the B-29 prisoners never made it home.  Most of those not killed immediately by civilians were shot on the rifle range or beheaded.  Hap remembers a 19-year-old gunner in a nearby cell who kept saying “Okay Mom, I’ll be right down for breakfast.”  He was taken out for breaking the no-noise rule and was never seen again.  How many B-29 prisoners survived?  Hap estimates 10 to 20 percent at best.  In Osaka, 49 of 51 were killed. 

A little after midnight on March 10, 1945, 357 B-29s dropped fire bombs on Tokyo.  Antiaircraft fire shook Hap’s cage; nearly everything around it was burned or destroyed.  With his hands and feet cuffed together in the heat and smoke of the firestorm, Hap assumed he would burn to death that night.  One hundred thousand people died.  Bodies were stacked four high in the streets, with thousands floating down the Sumida river into Tokyo Bay.  Shortly afterward, one of the more sympathetic guards told him that “regrettably” he would be “killed today.”  Hap never knew why it didn’t happen. 

After 67 days at Kempei Tai, Hap was taken to the Ueno Zoo and put on display in a tiger cage, tied naked to the front bars, his filthy, emaciated body covered with boils and running sores.  Two days later he was moved to the Omori prisoner of war facility on the southwest edge of Tokyo.  Since the prison was not identified as a POW compound, it was subject to bombings and strafings.  The 32 B-29 prisoners, including Hap and four of his former crew, were separated from the 500 others and given far worse treatment.  Crammed into one end of a barracks, each had a two-by-six-foot space on a floor reeking with feces and vomit.  Malnutrition, beriberi, amoebic dysentery, and yellow jaundice were rife.  Fish heads out of the garbage at camp headquarters were considered delicacies.  Some sucked on rocks pretending they were gum balls.

Working under guard in the burned out neighborhood, Hap’s job was to scoop human excrement from the village huts and carry it back in a bucket to trenches the prisoners had been forced to dig for planting crops.  The smallest acts of kindness encountered on the way seemed life-sustaining.  The local citizens, living in ruins or large boxes, were on rations and near starving themselves; yet a young lady shared half her sweet potato with Hap and a co-worker.  An elderly woman gave them seven beans though she would be severely beaten if seen by the guards.  Another very old woman gave them a small piece of soap, a torn, dirty rag, and some hot water, the first soap and hot water since capture.  “We took off our clothes,” says Hap, “for what felt like a luxurious bath.”  And there were a few decent guards who would give them an extra blanket during their shift, hand them the rice balls rather than roll them on the floor, or fill the extended tin cup rather than pour boiling water on the hand that held it.

Reconciliation

On August 29, 1945, three weeks after the atomic bombs ended the war, the marines landed and liberated the Omori prisoners.  After two weeks on a hospital ship and five days at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco, Hap was flown to Nashville where he took a train to Cincinnati for a brief meeting with his mother, father, and youngest brother in Union Terminal.  Hap still has the telegram they had received seven months earlier informing them that he was missing in action.  A hundred pounds lighter than when he last saw them, he limped up the ramp and hugged his father for the first time in his life.  After less than an hour, he boarded another train to a government hospital in West Virginia where he remained for many months.

Adjustment to normal life came slowly.  The 24,000-foot fall before opening his chute brought nightmares of falling through space, crying out and trying to grab hold of something.  Or he would leap out of bed screaming, hiding in closets or breaking windows in an effort to escape the rifle butts.  As a result of being handcuffed during the fire bombing, he still can’t sleep with his arms under the covers.  The nightmares continued for the next 40 years.  It was hard on his wife and three adopted children, who often had to hold him down.

In the late 1970s, Hap started thinking about returning to Japan as a possible means of closure, of understanding and reconciliation.  At Omori prison, he had exchanged addresses with Kaneyuki Kobayashi, one of the “good” guards.  In 1953 Hap had assisted him in coming to the University of Illinois to study English.  Kaneyuki visited Hap’s mother in Cincinnati and was present at Hap’s wedding that same year.  He had hated his job at Omori.  A religious student who wanted to practice English, he had talked to Hap and snuck him pieces of chocolate.  Thoughts of Kaneyuki and the acts of kindness by people in the bombed out area around Omori helped Hap’s decision to make the trip.  

In 1984, after much preparation and assistance from U.S. ambassador Mike Mansfield, Hap, now 62 years old, finally returned to Japan.  Kaneyuki and his wife Mitsue met him at the airport and took him to dinner at the Palace Hotel.  From his room there, Hap could see the area, adjacent to the Palace grounds, where Kempei Tai had been.  Through Mansfield, he was able to meet Saburo Sakai, the leading World War II flying ace.  During mutual visits in future years, they golfed together and Hap spoke at air shows where Sakai performed.  Sakai sent his daughter to Trinity College in Texas and Hap became her mentor.

Because Japanese pilots had kept highly detailed logs, Sakai was able to locate Isamu Kashiide, the pilot who had shot down Hap’s plane.  On his second visit in 1985, Hap and Sakai met Kashiide at the Akasaka Prince Hotel.  Knowing that each had simply done his wartime job, Hap and Kashiide compared maps and photos, discussed family life since the war, and embraced.  They exchanged letters every two or three months until Kashiide died in 2003; Hap now corresponds with his son. 

Hap returned to Japan many times, revisiting the prison sites and the zoo, speaking by invitation to groups in museums, temples, and peace parks, dedicating memorials, and touring with Japanese historians.  He made many friends, a large number of whom have visited his home.  The nightmares soon became infrequent.  On four occasions he talked to the students at Omori Primary School, located near the site of the old camp.  He had passed by it each day when put to work in the surrounding area, though there were few children then.  And in 2000, 55 years after the event, he went to the site where his plane had crashed.  Talking with those who had witnessed the event, he learned that the three waving crewmen had never bailed out and that the impact had killed 40 people.  The Japanese had kept extensive records, including plane numbers and who was in them.  Hap has spent much time talking to witnesses of downed planes, gathering information for the families of men who never returned. 

In 1989, Hap flew on a Continental DC-10 from Tokyo back to Saipan, reversing the flight path of the Rover Boys Express 44 years before.  The pilot requested permission to circle the island at low altitude.  “Permission granted,” the tower responded, “and welcome back, Hap!”  They landed on same runway from which Hap’s B-29 had taken off.   “Mission complete,” said Hap.  apHNBC’s “Today” covered the event.

Pilot logs and much hard work by Japanese historians enabled Hap to locate the fighter pilot who had saluted him as he hung helplessly from his chute.  His name was Hideichi Kaiho, now a well-known aviation artist.  When Hap visited him in 2000, he was confined to bed, propped up by his son for the meeting.  On a second visit in 2002, Kaiho presented Hap with a painting of the Rover Boys’ B-29 along with a sketch of Hap hanging from his chute and the fighter rising toward him.  At one point Hap asked, “Kaiho-san, why did you not shoot me?”  “Because,” said Kaiho, “we too have dignity.”  Planning to see him again in 2004, Hap was on a side trip to Tinian when he received a call from Kaiho’s son.  “My father has been ordered to the hospital by his doctor,” he said, “but he’s going to stay home until you get here.”  But on his way to see him Hap got a second call saying that Kaiho had died.

Hap was the only Westerner at the funeral, which was held in a huge room filled with flowers.  He was welcomed by eight Japanese flyers, Kaiho’s contemporaries.  Not many were left.  The son asked Hap if he would like to see Kaiho one last time.  “My father thought very highly of you,” he said.  “I know he would appreciate it, and I would.”  He opened the end of the casket, revealing Kaiho’s head.  Hap stood over him, his head bowed—two old soldiers.  Kneeling beside the casket, he said a little prayer and silently thanked Kaiho for that moment of mercy in the freezing skies over Tokyo almost 60 years before.  Then, rising to leave, he returned the salute.

Hap is now the last of the eleven Rover Boys.  And of the B-29 group in Omori prison, only three of the 32 remain.  Hap knows of no one else who has gone back and met their captors or the pilots who shot them down.  He often visits the graves and memorial sites of his fellow crewmen, including his best friend, bombardier Bobby Grace.  Burned into memory is the image of Bobby, bleeding profusely, trying to work his way to a bailout position.  “He stopped and embraced me as he went past,” recounts Hap with a catch in his throat, “and he said, ‘I’ll see you on the ground, Hap.’  Not a day goes by that I don’t see that image.  There’s an MIA memorial in Honolulu with Bobby’s name inscribed on it.  When I stood there looking up at it, I said ‘You were right, Bobby.’”

In 1958 Hap joined Consolidated Freightways, where he remained for 44 years, becoming Executive Vice President and a member of the board.  His wife Donna died in 1991.  In 2001, he was inducted into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame in Midland, Texas.  That years of suffering and healing left him an uncommonly considerate and self-effacing man was evident from the first moment one met him.  Until his death in 2011, he continued to talk to groups about his experiences, often to school children, and was featured numerous times on national television here and in Japan.  His message: “With God’s help, adversity makes you a stronger person.  Forget about animosity; enjoy life!  Put something into life for your fellow man.  I was never a hero.  I did what I signed up to do and I think I did a damn good job.  I’m not a hero, but I am a survivor.  But I’ll tell you this: I didn’t do it alone.  Without prayer and God’s help I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”  When told that he seemed in great shape considering what he went through, he explained that his hearing was bad from beatings to the head.  “I’m in terrible shape,” he said, “I fake it a lot.  But I consider myself very fortunate.  The tough days enable one to have a greater appreciation of the better times.  You take nothing for granted.  I appreciate the simple things in life.” 

“You can do things you never dreamed you could do,” he told a group of school children.  “The power is within you physically and mentally.  You have powers you don’t know.  Never give up.”

[This appeared in Gentry magazine, August 2007] 

Comments

  1. Marlin Hutton says:

    Excellent, powerfully written story. It captures what war really is, and the effect is has on those who went through the worst of it. And it shows that decency exists in those we fight, and the healing that can come when we revisit them.

    Marlin Hutton

  2. Reid Isaksen says:

    I agree completely with Marlin Hutton’s comments.

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