Portland man part of fabled B-29 bomber crew
At age 94, former Army Air Force navigator Jack Cramer still has a sharp mind and a keen sense of humor.
"The secret to becoming a war hero is living long enough," says Cramer, who will be honored on Veterans Day during the annual parade in the Hollywood District.
Cramer also is modest. He is a genuine hero, completing 35 unaborted missions by guiding his B-29 Superfortress from Tinan Island in the North Pacific to Japan and back — a 3,000-mile round trip, which is the equivalent of flying from Portland to Mexico and back for a bombing run.
The missions were dangerous. He and his 10 crewmates frequently encountered Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft fire. During one mission run, a thermal updraft from fires caused by previous bombers threw the B-29 up 2,000 feet and flipped it over. Only the heroic efforts of the pilot and co-pilot pulled the huge aircraft out of a steep dive at the last second.
"That was really scary. We all thought it was over," Cramer says.
Another time, the bomber was just 200 miles from the Japanese mainland when one of its four engines went out. Although protocols called for them to turn back, Cramer says the crew voted unanimously over the intercom to continue, because they were eager to complete 35 missions and qualify for home leave.
"The oldest one on the plane was probably 24. We were all young and dumb. We thought we were invincible. An adult wouldn't have done it," Cramer says.
With only three engines, the plane was slower than all the others in the formation and ended up going over the target city of Nagoya by itself. Although the plane was illuminated by seven searchlights, all the anti-aircraft fire missed, possibly because the guns were programmed to fire at specific sounds generated by planes and the failed engine threw them off. The plane almost ran out of fuel on the way home because the remaining engines were so overtaxed. Everyone in the crew was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which recognizes exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements for the mission.
"We should have all died then, but we didn't," Cramer says.
Navigator not first choice
Cramer had not planned on becoming an Air Force navigator. In fact, he hadn't planned on enlisting in the military at all. He was an 18-year-old at the University of Oregon when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the entire world changed.
Cramer continued his studies until the fall of 1942, and then enrolled in the Army Air Force cadet program. He received his orders and left on a troop train on Feb. 26, 1943, three days after his 20th birthday. His first stop was for basic training at a facility that was hastily erected on the county fairgrounds in Fresno, California.
After academic training in Ellensburg, Washington, Cramer returned to California, where he received preflight training in Santa Ana, primary flight training in King City, and basic flight training in Bakersfield. He washed out as a pilot by spinning a plane during a landing at Williams Field near Chandler, Arizona — in full view of a general who happened to be visiting.
Devastated at not being able to fulfill his dream of become a pilot, Cramer opted to become a navigator, with the responsibility of laying out the air routes to and from targets for bomber crews. That is the only crew member who cannot relax during the length of the mission. In the spring of 1944, Cramer received his navigator's wings and a commission as a 2nd lieutenant.
After training in the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers in Boca Raton, Florida, he was assigned to the 9th Bomb Group, which was flying the most advanced aircraft in the world at the time, the B-29 Superfortress, the first bomber with a pressurized cabin.
"The B-17s were terrible. They were just shells. It was colder than hell in them at altitude. I don't know how their crews did it. In the B-29, we wore shirt sleeves," Cramer says.
After training at Barista Field near Havana, Cuba, in January 1945, he was finally assigned with a crew to a bomber — which they named the "Goin' Jessie" — Southern slang for a fast car (or girl). A running jack rabbit was painted on the fuselage.
It wasn't long before they were ordered to the 313th Wing on Tinian Island, which had been seized from the Japanese and transformed into a massive airfield for raids over Japan. When Cramer and the rest of the crew first arrived, U.S. Marines were still subduing the last of the opposition. The first missions were mass formation bombings from high altitudes of 25,000 to 30,000 feet. But strong winds in the jet stream blew the bombs off course.
Stymied by the wind
"We discovered the jet stream. Some of the winds up there blew 200 miles an hour. The bomb sights couldn't compensate for them. Our first results weren't very good," Cramer says.
When Gen. Curtis LeMay took command of the 20th Air Force a short time later, he ordered individual planes in loose formation to bomb at night from 6,000 to 8,000 feet. It was a much more effective strategy — but also much more dangerous. Four of 30 bombers were lost over Kawasaki, a city between Tokyo and Yokohama, on one mission.
"One time, a kamikaze pilot took out the upper stabilizer on one of the B-29s. Without a rudder, the pilot was able to fly it back by shifting the power between the engines on both wings to change direction. I don't know how he did it," Cramer says.
When Cramer and his crew completed 35 unaborted missions, he was granted home leave on July 23, 1945. By then his family had moved from Eugene to Portland. When he arrived here by train on Aug. 6, they greeted him at the station with news that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
As it turned out, the bomb was dropped from a B-29 that took off from Tinian Island. Cramer knew something secret was underway in a restricted area at the airfield, but he had no idea what it was. After the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the war ended, before Jack left home. Instead of returning to his base, as he expected to do, he was honorably discharged.
He lost many souvenirs in the process.
"I turned in things like my (military-issued) watch when I went on leave. I assumed I was going to be getting another one."
After the 35 missions Cramer and his crew flew, the Goin' Jessie flew 17 more, including some where it was believed to have dropped relief supplies for American soldiers in Japanese prison camps. It is also credited with having dropped the 2 millionth ton of bombs on enemy targets during WWII.
On to law school
Cramer enrolled in the University of Oregon Law School in the winter of 1946, taking advantage of a special class for veterans. There were no women in the class, just men from different branches of the armed forces. He was able to graduate in just a little over two years because of the academic credits he earned in the Air Force.
After graduating, Cramer moved to Portland, passed the Oregon State Bar exam, joined a firm and practiced a wide range of law until his retirement in 1990.
"Back when I started, there weren't that many lawyers in Portland. We all knew each other. The pace was slower then. We'd all walk our paperwork down to the courthouse to be filed," Cramer says.
His roots run deep in Portland. His father, John Cramer Sr., was appointed as the first president of Portland State University in 1955. Cramer Hall is named after him. One of Jack Cramer's five children from his first marriage, Tom, is an acclaimed local artist. His other children live in San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Today, Cramer and his wife, Mary, live in downtown Portland. Their tastefully appointed apartment is decorated with many records of his wartime service, including a display of his medals, photographs of the "Goin' Jessie" and crew, scale models of B-29 bombers, and framed original front pages of The New York Times reporting the D-Day invasion, the end of the war in Europe, and allied advances in the Pacific Theater.
Once a week, Cramer has coffee with other WWII veterans and retired lawyers at a cafe near his apartment. They talk with subdued amazement about the sacrifices so many made then to stop oppressive regimes from taking over the world. One recent morning, they passed around a crude, hand-held aircraft range finder that one of them had found at a military surplus store many years ago. For those growing up in the digital world, it must seem inconceivable that such a simple plastic device meant the difference between freedom and totalitarianism.
"For those of us who made it through World War II, it was the most important thing that any of us ever did in our lives. We sort of can't believe that many people don't know that much about it today," Cramer says.