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Our place in history

A Kershaw County WWII veteran remembers friends and foes

Posted: October 26, 2012 5:04 p.m.
Updated: October 29, 2012 5:00 a.m.
Photo courtesy of Donald Lang/

A U.S. Air Force officer instructs a trio of Japanese pilots, including Admiral Minoru Genda (center, in front of the other two pilots), one of the architects of the Pearl Harbor invasion, in this photograph taken by Lang after the war.

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A resident of Lake Wateree since 1983 and a former member of the Kershaw County Planning and Zoning Commission, Donald Lang knows the local landscape well. He was involved in the placement of the original signage on the lake to help orientate boaters, and was also instrumental in the development of the Wateree Recreational Area installed by Shaw Air Force Base.

Lang’s understanding of navigation and land use however, does not come solely from his experience on the water. His perspective is one which has developed after spending thousands of hours in the skies.

At 88 years of age Lang, a retired Air Force pilot, has logged more than 20,000 flight hours. In his early career he served in World War II as a P-47N Thunderbolt fighter pilot stationed at an airfield just west of Okinawa.

“We were on the little island of Ie Shima. It was the closest island to the Japan mainland acquired by United States forces. The island itself was five miles long and about a mile and half wide, and there were three airstrips that were put there by the CBs (Construction Battalions),” Lang said.

Lang was a member of the First Fighter Squadron, led by Commander Robert Worley. Lang’s group flew escort missions to prevent Japanese fighters from shooting down B-29s. At that time they were part of the Army Air Corps, as it wasn’t until 1947 that the Air Force would become a separate branch of the armed forces.

Lang flew many sorties out of Ie Shima, but there is one particular flight he remembers well. It was a flight which took place during a pivotal point in history. The following is an excerpt from the squadron flight report compiled by Assistant Intelligence Officer Alfred Ganna:

Taking off from Birch Strip, 22 planes of the 1st Fighter Squadron formed up and immediately set out on course to rendezvous with a wing of B-29’s …. Weather was excellent as far as Southern Kyushu where a solid undercast was encountered, tops about 9,000 ft. The formation flew over this, flight altitude 18,000. As the Squadron approached the rendezvous point the B-29’s were called in from 5 o’clock and rendezvous effected with perfection. Arriving at the initial point (33º 12” N- 130º 30” E), our altitude 20,000 ft. The combined formation flew up a valley to the target. Anti-aircraft fire was encountered the whole route up the valley. It was of heavy caliber, moderate intensity and accurate to altitude. Anti-aircraft (AA) fire was especially noticeable from the towns of Saga and Kurume. The target city of Yawata was a solid barrage of AA fire but as the fire was directed at the bomber formation at 19,000 ft we were untouched at 20,000 to 22,000.

Observations from the flight also noted the presence of three large freighters of at least 5,000 tons seen at anchor in Nagasaki Harbor.

Lang was one of 18 men that took part in the flight. It was a mission carried out on August 8, 1945 -- two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima.

A few weeks prior to that, on July 26, the Potsdam Declaration was issued by the Allied powers calling for “unconditional surrender” of Japan and threatened that failure to surrender would be met by “complete destruction” of the military and the “utter devastation of the Japanese home land.” The declaration -- an unequivocal ultimatum, was followed by 10 days of Japanese silence.

According to squadron accounts, views from the skies of southern Japan even after the first atomic bomb on August 6 did not indicate signs of surrender. It wouldn’t be until after a subsequent declaration of war on Japan by the Soviets, and a second bomb being dropped on Nagasaki three days later that the Japanese began the process of yielding to Allied powers.

Declassified records supplied by Lang also show that the U.S. at the time had an alternative plan in place to conduct an actual invasion of Japan, but the estimated American casualties for such an invasion was the major deciding factor for the use of the atomic bomb. “Operation Downfall” thus never materialized, and the bombs were dropped. Surrender then followed.

“The surrender took place about a week after the bombs were dropped,” Lang said. “The surrender team came to the island of Ie Shima on their way to meet MacArthur. The team was met by a transport that took them to the Philippines. This occurred before the formal surrender on the battleship USS Missouri.”

Relations after the war

After the close of the war, Japan was occupied by the Allied Powers. Due to communist developments in the region, the U.S. implemented a “reverse course” foreign policy toward Japan and began to embolden efforts to strengthen not only Japan’s economy, but Japanese-American relations as well.

Largely under the leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, post-war Japan began to take shape. A period of transition occurred when President Harry S Truman relieved MacArthur of his command, but the policy of strengthening Japan-U.S. relations continued.

During this timeframe (1951), Lang was en route to Korea but was diverted.

“At that time it was very sensitive politically both for the Japanese and the US, but I was assigned to the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) which was under the operational control of the US Embassy,” he said.

Lang recalled friendly exchanges between the pilots of both nations. Ironically, one of the Japanese pilots that he trained had actually planned the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“One of the students that I had and flew with was an admiral then, and was the planner of the Pearl Harbor attack … that was Minoru Genda. He was chief of supply, but he was a pilot and was a good pilot. I trained him on the F-86 (the Japanese version) which was made there in Japan as it materialized. I guess part of the reason that I was assigned to that Japanese Air Force was that I had instructed airplanes that were going to be the original cadre of the force,” Lang said.

Defense aircraft were being developed under contract with Japanese manufacturing companies at the time for the JASDF, but the collaboration also resulted in the production of planes that would be used by the U.S. in the Korean conflict.

“We started with the T-6 Texan -- that was an advanced trainer in the U.S. Air Force and that was their primary trainer. In their jet program, there was the Lockheed T-33 that was made under contract with Kawasaki. The F-86 (Mitsubishi) was the top fighter aircraft in the Korean War and the Japanese were also making that under contract.”

In hindsight

During the period that Lang was with the First Fighter Squadron on Ie Shima, tensions were high between the two countries. Lang recalls a well-known and highly respected war correspondent losing his life to sniper fire on that little island in the Pacific. Ernie Pyle was not only one of the most prominent war correspondents of WWII, he was a household name. Lang is reminded of Pyle each time he visits Columbia’s Fort Jackson Army base. The media center at the base is named in Pyle’s honor.

Looking back, Lang also acknowledged that his fate would have been very different had he participated in a planned invasion of Japan.

“I would not be here today had the invasion occurred,” he said, adding that he likely would not have survived.

After an esteemed military career including service in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Lang commanded the 4414th Combat Crew Training Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base. The squadron trained 222 pilots in the supersonic F-101 Voodoo fighter aircraft. Lang retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1970.

Lang transitioned well to civilian life, working a number of years for Patrick Petroleum (a New York Stock Exchange firm), later becoming vice president of marketing at the company. In 1983, Lang and his wife decided to make their vacation home in Kershaw County their permanent residence.

Lang now enjoys the quiet life at Lake Wateree, and maintains his passion for the skies by taking the occasional flight out of Camden’s Woodward Airport on his private plane. He also continues to serve on the Kershaw County Airport Commission. A widower, Lang gives his children credit for taking good care of him at his age, and seems genuinely proud of each of their accomplishments.

 

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