The spring of 1943 was an especially joyous and, at the same time, difficult, season in the life of Fiske Hanley II. A new graduate of Texas Tech’s engineering program, young Mr. Hanley had every right to be excited about his future. Ready to pursue a career centered on his passions, he celebrated his accomplishment with family and friends.
Within twelve hours of his graduation ceremony, however, life took Fiske in a direction he never imagined. A decision he had made just six months prior would now come to bear. At a time when young men were being swept into the service of the nation as quickly as they were old enough to serve, Hanley had been given a reprieve during his years in college. Knowing that graduation, and inevitable military service, was just around the corner, Fiske visited a local recruiter and signed up to serve as an aviation engineer in the new Army Air Corps upon his graduation.
In a flash of efficiency, the Army was ready when Fiske received his diploma. Hours after graduation, he, along with hundreds of other young men, was aboard a train headed for Boca Raton, FL. “Club Boca”, a name affectionately given to Boca Raton Army Airfield, would be his home for the next three months. There, Fiske learned what it meant to be in service to the United States.
Basic training behind him, newly minted 2d Lt Hanley spent the next several months training in the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The single most expensive weapons project undertaken by the United States during WWII, the bomber was intended to bring about the end of the war. Young flyers like 2d Lt Hanley were asked to discover and correct imperfections in the largest aircraft in the Air Corp fleet.
Initial aircraft training behind Hanley, he and his crew of 11 were dispatched to the war. Assigned to a base on the tiny island of Tinian, a part of the larger Northern Mariana Islands group, the crew was given an aircraft and several short “training” missions. These included bombing runs which ended in successfully sinking a few Japanese enemy ships.
Another training mission sent Hanley’s bombing group over the still occupied island of Iwo Jima. There, they discovered that high-level bombing runs were extremely difficult. The newly discovered jet stream (high-level winds that speed around the Earth at upwards of 150 MPH), had a great impact on their ability to properly sight their bombing runs. It seems the high altitude flying capabilities the new B-29 afforded them also destroyed the accuracy of the state-of-the-art aircraft.
A change in tactics was needed. General Curtis LeMay, head of all strategic air operations against the Japanese homeland, assigned Lt Hanley’s group to directly attack the city of Tokyo. Lower level bomb runs allowed for larger payloads and had greater accuracy. Their success in these massive attacks turned the tide in the war on the Pacific.
It was on a secondary follow-up mission that Lt Hanley’s life changed forever. His group was asked to lay mines in a channel between two Japanese islands. The mission would require flying at night at an extremely low level. 5,000 feet in altitude is not a comfortable place to fly in a war. Exposure to anti-aircraft fire and single-engine fighters were constant concerns.
Ultimately, it was a flak burst that got them. The night sky lit up with white-hot explosions. Shrapnel ripped through their airplane. All four engines caught fire. The bomb bay was engulfed in flames as well. Smoke filled the cockpit and the flight’s commander issued an order to bail out. Lt Hanley opened the escape hatch and, following the co-pilot, he jumped into the unknown. A few harrowing seconds later, Hanley found his ripcord and deployed his chute.
In the dim moonlight, he found himself drifting toward a field of rice paddies. Immediately after dropping into the muck, he was surrounded by angry farmers. Taking out their frustration with the enemy Americans, he and the others who landed nearby were beaten by the crowds. Were it not for a local police intervening in the melee, Lt Hanley might have died at the hands of the farmer-warriors. Many who landed in the fields that night did not survive.
Hanley was taken under guard to the local village mayor’s office where he was initially interrogated. There, the initial shock of his surroundings behind him, Fiske discovered that he had actually suffered severe wounds during the attack. It seems the flak attacked had damaged more than the aircraft that night. The bursts had ripped over 30 holes open along his back and legs. Bleeding, and on the brink of dying, Hanley was given basic first aid and thrown in a prison cell.
Two agonizing days later Lt Hanley found himself in a tiny prison cell in Tokyo. Beaten daily, his life on the line at every turn, Fiske lived in constant fear of his captors. A 5’ X 9’ cell was his home. Food rations were a meager rice ball and a few ounces of dirty water.
Yet, every day, the American bombing runs came closer and closer. There was hope that the war was nearing an end. The tide had turned and, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Emperor agreed to an unconditional surrender. Lt Hanley’s beatings ceased and regular rations were immediately returned. August 29, 1945, was liberation day for him and his fellow prisoners.
A lifetime later, Fiske Hanley stands before a group of starry-eyed Civil Air Patrol cadets recounting this harrowing story as if it were yesterday. Proudly wearing the uniform of his youth, he wryly smiles when they kneel to pose for a photo. Cadets representing several Texas Wing, Group VI squadrons gathered recently at the Azle, TX Veterans of Foreign Wars post to meet the American hero.
The Civil Air Patrol is known for providing opportunities like this to cadets on a regular basis. Its focus on aerospace education is sure to include a healthy mix of history. To be in the audience of a true American hero is a wonderful bonus.
Civil Air Patrol, the longtime all-volunteer U.S. Air Force auxiliary, is the newest member of the Air Force’s Total Force. In this role, CAP operates a fleet of 560 aircraft, performs about 90 percent of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and is credited by the AFRCC with saving an average of 80 lives annually. CAP’s 60,000 members also perform homeland security, disaster relief and drug interdiction missions at the request of federal, state and local agencies. In addition, CAP plays a leading role in aerospace/STEM education, and its members serve as mentors to over 25,000 young people participating in CAP’s Cadet Programs. Visit www.GoCivilAirPatrol.com or www.CAP.news for more information.