The year is 1945 and U.S. firebombing of the Japanese mainland has reached fever pitch.
Massive Boeing B-29 “superfortress” planes equipped with onboard computer systems would take off from airstrips on the Mariana Islands and travel more than 2,000 kilometers to locations such as Tokyo and Osaka, dumping incendiary bombs indiscriminately in an attempt to force Japan into surrender without the need for a ground campaign.
Likely unaware of its significance, many of the U.S. bombers flying over western Japan made passes near the holy summit of Mount Omine in Nara Prefecture, which for centuries has stood as a spiritual powerhouse for Shugendo Buddhism and is the epicenter of myriad pilgrimage routes known collectively as the Kumano Kodo. Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, these routes have served for more than 1,300 years as a training ground for mountain ascetics who are known for their cultivation of strict spiritual training, tests of courage and mystical powers.
On June 1, an engine of a B-29 piloted by Lt. Franklin Crowe, 29, of Maryland, was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Osaka. In an apparent attempt to lighten the bomber’s load while retreating south toward the mountains of Yoshino, the crew of 11 desperately dropped some bombs, striking several civilian structures related to forestry. However, shedding this weight was not enough to give the plane the altitude it needed to make it over the ranges to the Pacific Ocean. At about 10:15 a.m., the plane slammed into the side of Sanjoga-dake, the main peak of the Mount Omine ridgeline.
Torrential rain fell on the smoldering crash site and the location was so remote that it took well into the next day for Japanese ground forces to arrive at the scene, finding six mangled bodies in the wreckage and another pinned under one of the bomber’s engines that would remain there for years. The horror witnessed is something these men likely never forgot.
I have been living under the shadow of Mount Omine in a small river valley village called Kawakami since last year. Had I been here on June 1, 1945, I would have been able to see this crash from my backyard.
I first lived in Kawakami as an assistant language teacher with the JET Programme from 2012 to 2014. I made a number of friends and developed a love for this village and the greater Yoshino area that rivals that of my own hometown in the United States. I returned to Kawakami in 2019 after working for several years as a reporter in New York, moving back with the intention of staying connected to the world and contributing to this region in new ways as a journalist.
Kawakami is a part of the greater region of Yoshino, and families in the village have for centuries relied on forestry to support their livelihoods. Today, the region is struggling with rural depopulation and, in 2018, the national government forecast that Kawakami would record the largest population decline in the country between 2018 and 2045.
This region by and large avoided much of the action seen in other parts of the country during World War II. Indeed, the B-29 crash was by all accounts the only activity to impact the area, and yet little is known about it even today. The existence of this crash feels forgotten unless one is actively digging for it. I had lived in Kawakami for years without knowing that the crash had ever happened, and even these days I frequently meet people who were born here and yet are still unaware.
Kawakami native Kiyotaka Kobayashi, 62, first told me of the crash last year. Kobayashi served as a member of Self-Defense Forces and had been unaware of the incident until mid-adulthood. Around 30 years ago, while on a rescue mission to find someone lost in the mountains of Kawakami, he and his team stumbled upon fragments of the aircraft in a riverbed.
“The plane crashed alone deep in these mountains, so far away from America,” Kobayashi says. “Seeing these parts of the plane made me feel sad, prompting me to reflect upon the war.”
For many, details of the crash remain shrouded in mystery. For those aware of it, there doesn’t appear to be much known of the chain of events that followed the crash and what became of the airmen who managed to bail out of the bomber as it headed toward the ridgeline, including one who was captured and held prisoner in Kawakami.
I decided to dig up as much of what took place as I could the hard way, filing information requests through the U.S. National Archives over the course of many months to retrieve hundreds of pages of decades-old typewritten investigation files.
Digging up history
On June 1, 2007, the rusted hulk of the last remaining 1,210-kilogram engine of the plane was wrenched from the crash site, where it had sat buried in mud for 62 years. A harness was secured around its frame and it was lifted into the air for the first time since taking off from Saipan, the raid over Osaka, and its subsequent crash into Mount Omine. The Japan that the engine hovered over on that day in 1945 was a Japan that has since undergone major transformations over the past 75 years. The shadow of the engine hovered over a new nation.
The engine was set down in a parking lot in the village of Tenkawa, to the west of Mount Omine, where a Buddhist monk prayed for the souls of the airmen.
Since then, the engine has been on display in Tenkawa Village Museum, where it sits as an object of curiosity among other exhibits on local history. Information included in the exhibit is sparse.
With few locals aware of the existence of the engine in this museum and with it presented more as an oddity among other exhibits than as an object to prompt a deeper inquiry into history, the engine has, paradoxically, become buried once again — though this time in plain sight.
The remains of six men found in the aircraft’s wreckage by the salvage team were removed and buried together in a shallow grave by a nearby waterfall when they were discovered in 1945.
Four U.S. airmen had managed to parachute from the aircraft before it crashed into the mountain.
Two were found and detained near the crash site. These men were Lt. Harrison Wittee, 28, and Sgt. Lawrence Beecroft, 28, both of whom appeared to be well. The men were fed white rice and taken to the military police headquarters at Osaka Castle.
The remaining men who had managed to escape the crippled bomber were Sgt. Alvin Hart, 28, and Sgt. Russel Strong, 23. Apparently separated in the descent, the airmen hid in the dark cedar forests blanketing the area, sleeping in the wilderness behind enemy lines.
Both men were probably aware that it was only a matter of time before they were captured. If they knew just how close Japan was to surrender, they might have been able to hold out until the war’s end on Aug. 15. Alas, this was not the case.
Hart was captured on June 3 near Kawakami, while Strong was captured near Tenkawa three days later.
Hart was spotted by a local forester and gave himself up without a struggle. Investigation reports state that burns on Hart’s face and arms were treated by a local doctor. He stayed the night at a local inn and, the following day, was driven in a cab to the military police headquarters at Osaka Castle.
I wonder from time to time what thoughts were racing through Hart’s mind during that night spent in his temporary prison in Kawakami, more than 10,000 kilometers from his equally remote hometown of Tahoka in Lynn County, Texas. This was likely a slice of the world he never thought he’d see before his own eyes.
The villagers of Kawakami likely regarded the U.S. airman with an equal amount of curiosity. Hart was as much of a cultural ambassador from a strange land at the time as he was one of the enemy.
While in custody, Hart’s magnetic compass fell into the possession of the director of Kawakami’s Civil Defense Unit. Thirty years after the war ended, an attempt was made to return the compass to the United States, with the Civil Defense Unit director saying the compass was given to him by Hart in gratitude for his good treatment in Kawakami.
Although Japan’s surrender was a little more than two months away, none of the four airmen who survived the crash would live to see the end of the war. They all spent their last days in the hands of the military police at Osaka Castle.
One of their captors handed Strong a drink of black tea laced with deadly potassium cyanide and told him it was medicine that would alleviate his diarrhea.
Wittee and Beecroft were among 15 U.S. airmen who were blindfolded, driven to a dirt hole and shot in the forehead with American .45 caliber pistols immediately following the radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender on Aug. 15.
The exact circumstances of Hart’s death remain unknown, but his heavily decomposed remains were eventually discovered in a grave on the outskirts of Osaka Castle and identified by his wedding band, inscribed with his and his wife’s initials and their wedding date.
These extrajudicial killings in Osaka were not unique. According to the findings of the Tokyo Tribunal, Allied troops detained by Japanese forces had a 27 percent chance of dying in captivity. If captured by German or Italian forces, this number was just 4 percent.
By 1945, Japan’s resources and patience were exhausted. During the war, more than 50 Japanese cities suffered significant damage and the victims of these indiscriminate bombings were often women, children and older people, as most adult men were away fighting in the war.
In the eyes of a Japanese top brass without a functioning legal framework to keep powers in check, all the evidence needed to warrant an execution was there. After all, these airmen were not hovering over Japan’s cities writing love messages in the air with smoke — they were incinerating civilians and attempting to destroy the country’s leadership and military infrastructure systematically.
Many of these generals and their subordinates would later be held accountable for ignoring international war conventions in trials after the war, but not everyone received a punishment that matched their actions. Japanese soldiers who were involved in the execution of the survivors of the Mount Omine B-29 crash received sentences ranging from two years to life in prison, many of which were later commuted to lesser sentences.
These days, I find it hard to drive through Kawakami without pausing to think of that crippled B-29 flying overhead.
I sometimes think of how Hart must have felt as he sat in the back of that taxi, driving to Osaka Castle and what would ultimately be his death. I wonder if he was allowed to travel without being blindfolded and was able to look out the window at this foreign place on the other side of the world.
With the peace we have now, it’s hard to believe that there was once a time when prisoners of war could face such violence in Japan. It’s equally difficult to fathom that there was a time where anyone would even dream of dropping bombs on this culturally vibrant nation. Contextualizing this reality, however, allows for greater insight.
“It’s important to preserve history,” Kobayashi says. “The bond that the United States and Japan created is strong, but to fully appreciate it, one has to be aware of how things used to be.”