Pat Barcas photo
Aurora’s Paul Linden stands in front of his Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as several keepsake photographs of his time spent in the Pacific Theater.
By Pat Barcas
Paul Linden of Aurora closes his eyes and cocks his head, remembering back nearly 70 years. You get the feeling his mind is taking a trip back in time, remembering small details and the exact time they happened. Clearly, the time he spent in the 1940s made an impression on him, but this time period doesn’t define him. As a member of the greatest generation, he defines this time period.
He leads an extraordinary existence, but he doesn’t think so. At age 87, he spends his time making furniture and wooden trinkets in his basement woodworking shop for his grandchildren. He repairs and restores antique glass lamps. And he gives tours on Saturdays at the Air Classics Museum of Aviation in Sugar Grove, as well as speaking to local schools and veterans groups.
Linden flew 39 missions during World War II as a radar operator on a B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber. He served in the United States Army Air Force (this was before the Air Force was a standalone group) in the 73rd bomb wing from 1942 to 1945, operating out of the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands. On his last bombing mission to Japan, his B-29 lost two engines on takeoff and had to make an emergency landing on the island of Iwo Jima, which was under American control at that time.
Here he tells his story.
Linden enlisted in the service at age 19. His strategy was to pick the Army Air Force before he was drafted and the military chose his path for him. He trained in Texas, Chicago, Florida, Kansas, and California as a radar operator and navigator before flying to the South Pacific to fly in the legendary Superfortress.
The B-29 was a brand new plane that was just being developed and delivered to the military from Boeing. Linden remembers first seeing them flying over the airbase in Kansas.
“We didn’t know this plane was being built, so it was a big shocker to see six new ones coming into the airfield. It took your breath away, it was all shiny metal, it looked beautiful. The plane was huge,” he said.
A successor to the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-29 was state of the art at the time. It had a pressurized cabin, remote controlled gun turrets, and a ceiling of 40,000 feet flying at 350 mph.
“It was comfortable in there, you could wear a T-shirt if you wanted to,” said Linden.
From Kansas he went to Mather Field in Sacramento, where his crew got their own B-29. They named her “Miss Behavin’” and had her nose painted with a pretty lady.
“It cost us $25 and a bottle of booze. The guy did a nice job,” said Linden with a chuckle.
After three days at Mather Field, the crew took off with only a westerly compass heading over the Pacific Ocean. One hour into the flight, they were allowed to open their secret packet that contained exactly where they were going: the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands.
“My reaction was, ‘where the hell are the Mariana Islands?’ We didn’t know where that was, but we found out,” he said.
They stopped in Hawaii, then made their way to Saipan. They were told they would fly 25 missions.
“Of course that went out the window right away,” said Linden. They eventually flew 39 missions, including strategic bombing missions over the Mitsubishi engine plant in Japan, 11 night firebombing missions over Tokyo, one weather reconnaissance mission, and two 16-hour search and rescue missions over the open ocean.
Before they dropped napalm bombs in the firebombing missions, the crew would throw out leaflets telling people to get out of the cities.
“They didn’t listen. And besides, they had nowhere to go,” he said.
Linden said it was estimated that between 50,000 to 75,000 people were killed after each firebombing mission.
“I saw 17 square miles of Tokyo on fire. It was unbelievable. There was fire as far as you could see,” said Linden.
He said these images weighed on his conscience even after the war, but he was just doing his job.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult for me to say that we killed so many Japanese people in our bombings. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do it, but I didn’t have a choice. We just did our jobs,” he said. “For a long time, I held back about talking about the war, until I figured out, this is what I should do. People want to hear about it.”
During the last six missions he flew, American P-51 Mustang fighter planes escorted their bomber.
“The enemy fighters didn’t get close to us on those missions,” said Linden.
On previous missions, however, their plane was shot up by enemy fighters and anti-aircraft artillery. Four crewmembers, including Linden, received Purple Hearts for being wounded in the plane by flak.
“They just filled the bullet holes in the plane with an aluminum patch, and then sent us on our next mission,” he said.
Other planes weren’t so lucky, being rammed by kamikaze pilots, they were lost in the ocean forever after attempting to ditch.
The thing that Linden remembers most is landing at Iwo Jima, partly because it was his last mission and they landed safe, and partly because of the legendary status of the island.
“The decision to take Iwo Jima was very controversial, but it worked out. It was used as a refueling stop for the bombers. In July of 1945, 864 B-29s landed at Iwo,” he said.
After his mission was complete, he shipped off to the United States, eventually arriving in Chicago by train. He married his girlfriend, Jane Roe, on September 15, 1945, two weeks after arriving home.
They were set up on a blind date before the war. Linden got to take her out because he had a car, a 1939 Pontiac. Linden and Jane were married 64 years before she passed away two years ago.
“I’m happy I had the chance to do what I did, to participate in what Tom Brokaw calls ‘The Greatest Generation’ and do what was asked of me. When the war was over, I had a chance to sit back and think. It was an experience you’re never going to forget,” said Linden. “It made a lot of veterans have better lives, and for some it made their lives worse. That’s war, you take the consequences. It was a trying time for this country, and I just joined the millions of others in serving.”
Pat Barcas’ e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.