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Long-time Camden resident part of historic WWII mission

Bill Major died Sunday at 92

Posted: July 22, 2014 6:14 p.m.
Updated: July 23, 2014 5:00 a.m.
Provided by William "Rusty" Major/

Bill Major in his Army Air Corps uniform before being sent to Saipan and Tinian from which he would help crew B-29s and other aircraft involved in bombing runs over Tokyo and the atomic bomb drops at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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It took 40 years for William G. “Bill” Major, who died Sunday at the age of 92, to talk about what he saw in the early days of August 1945.

According to his son, William “Rusty” Major, his father entered the military in 1943 while transferring from Wofford University to Furman University. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, Bill Major ended up becoming one of the few “triple rated” flyers in World War II -- bombardier, navigator, pilot. That triple rating would lead him to two of the most important moments in modern history.

“He ‘clipped’ a year at Wofford,” Rusty Major said of his father’s accomplishment of completing two years of college in one year. “When he came home, he said he was going to join the military.”

Bill Major’s father told him he would do no such thing, but he defied that order and joined up. Afterward, he transferred to Furman where he clipped another year of school, completing his degree in only one more year. What Rusty Major only learned recently is that his father majored in physics.

“He was scheduled to go to Europe, but because of his physics major, (the military) sent him to New Mexico,” Rusty Major said.

There, and elsewhere, his father trained on a new aircraft: the B-29 Superfortress.

In a way, being assigned to crew a B-29 continued Bill Major’s tradition of exceeding expectations.

His father, William G. Major Sr., moved from Florence to Camden in 1930, hired by Chad Barrett Jr. to help manage what would become Burns Hardware. It would take his wife, Alma “Baby” Muldrow-Major, to decide to join him.

“Grandma refused to move. They had just moved to Florence from Dillon,” Rusty Major said. “So, my grandfather moved into a boarding house on Lyttleton Street and, for five years, he visited home every weekend.”

A dinner during which Alma Major’s sister-in-law chastised her in some way in front of the entire family changed her mind. The family bought a house on Highland Avenue -- the same house Rusty Major still lives in. And, so, Bill Major came to live in Camden at the age of 13 in 1935.

It wasn’t long before he began to hit some special milestones.

By virtue of earning every single merit badge possible at the time, Bill Major became the first Boy Scout in Kershaw County to be awarded the rank of Eagle Scout.

“It was presented to him by John DeLoach,” his son said.

Bill Major was the first sports reporter for the Camden High School (CHS) Bulldog, the precursor of the Palmetto Leaf. Partnering with the late Jimmy Little, he won the 1939 and 1940 S.C. State High School Doubles Tennis Championship. Bill Major graduated salutatorian from CHS in 1940. He also managed to earn his pilot’s license at Kershaw County’s Woodward Field.

Three years later, he joined the military. Two years after that, he flew onto Saipan, the principal island of what is now the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. By the time he arrived, Bill Major had been promoted to first lieutenant. His mission: be a part of the lead flight of B-29 Superfortresses that would bomb Tokyo for the first time since Doolittle’s Raiders in 1942.

“These were all day flights,” Rusty Major explained. “They weren’t afraid of the enemy; they were afraid of running out of fuel.”

One thing they weren’t expecting was a wall of air.

“They were flying at 200 to 300 knots when they hit a 100 mph headwind. It was like they hit a wall. That’s when they learned about the jet stream,” Rusty Major said, adding that his father’s B-29, along with others, had to drop down in order to continue on to Tokyo.

The bombs dropped on Tokyo were made of jellied petrol, a precursor to napalm, creating firestorms that flattened the capital city. Bill Major participated in 25 bombing runs, losing only two bombers.

“With the first one, a Japanese Zero rammed the B-29’s plexiglass nose. The bombardier was sucked out and the pilot killed; they lost two engines (B-29’s have four). Daddy got into the pilot’s chair and, with the co-pilot managed to pull the plane back up and limp back to Saipan,” Rusty Major said.

Among Bill Major’s medals is a Distinguished Flying Cross. He also earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

After his 25 missions, Bill Major transferred from Saipan to the neighboring island of Tinian and the 509th Composite Group.

“He told me things were better on Tinian,” Rusty Major said. “People started calling him ‘Lt. Major’ and his superiors kept asking if that was a new rank. He actually got billeted with the lieutenant colonels.”

Bill Major’s job took advantage of his physics degree and his triple rating. He performed reconnaissance missions over several southern Japanese cities.

On Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, Bill Major was onboard one of several aircraft involved with the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

“He took the last pictures of Hiroshima before the bomb was dropped,” Rusty Major said.

As scary as those two missions were, the full impact of what had happened wouldn’t hit Bill Major until after the war’s end. Promoted to captain, he served two years on Okinawa as part of the Army of the Occupation. Rusty Major said his father’s official job was in transportation. According to his son, Bill Major’s real assignment was for the Army Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. His mission: covert intelligence studying the effects of the atomic bombs by actually returning to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“He was one of the few to see what he did at ground level,” Rusty Major said. “It made him sick.”

Among the sights: the iconic image of people’s shadows burned into the steps of a building.

“It traumatized him; that’s why he got out,” his son said.

But the military still had use for Bill Major.

He worked as a banker for what is now the Bank of America, but was urged to join the National Guard by his best friend, Jack David. Bill Major became David’s executive officer and, ironically, trained on anti-aircraft artillery.

With David’s later promotion, Bill Major assumedthe command of Company B, 713th Gun Battalion of Camden’s National Guard unit.

In July 1950, American entered the Korean War. The U.S. federalized the National Guard.

“They had to live at the armory,” Rusty Major said.

Not too long on, Bill Major found himself overseas again.

“They sent him to artillery school and then sent him to Korea,” Rusty Major said. “But my godfather, Russell Simpson Johnson, from Iowa, transferred him to his staff. He was eating steaks; he never saw a bullet.”

Just three months later, Bill Major was back home, to greet his son who had been born while he was away. He went back to work at the bank and entered the reserves.

The family bought what was only the 36th house on the Camden side of Lake Wateree in 1955. In 1960, Bill Major decided to build a pole pier.

“He was using a sledgehammer on the pylons. Me and my friends were swimming in the water and one of them said, ‘He’s gonna miss it.’ He did, and went straight into the water with the sledgehammer. We all laughed and he laughed about it, too.”

As much as he enjoys retelling his father’s military stories, it is memories like those Rusty Major treasures most.

Others include receiving his first electric guitar at the age of 14.

“At Christmas, there was a big present under the tree. I was hoping it would be a guitar, but it turned out to be an amp,” Rusty Major said. “Then Dad said to look under my bed -- and there it was: a Silvertone.”

Bill Major retired from banking in 1986. For 20 years afterward, he worked as a Camden Police Department crossing guard at “Roscoe’s Corner” by Grace Episcopal Church and Camden Elementary School. He joined most of Camden’s civic organizations, becoming a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Camden Shrine Club and Kershaw Lodge of Ancient Free Masons.

He continued a 60-year relationship with the Boy Scouts, becoming only the second Kershaw County citizen to earn the Silver Beaver, the “Medal of Honor of the Boy Scouts,” according to his son. He also served as treasurer of the local March of Dimes for 40 years.

Bill Major also enjoyed bowling, becoming a Hall of Fame bowler by scoring three perfect 300 games in the 1960s and 1970s.

He also coached the Camden High School bowling team.

In addition to his son, Bill Major is survived by his second wife, Annie Grace Blackwell-Major; two daughters, Sandra Reeves and Gloria Boone; and three stepsons, John, Michael and Donald Mims. He was predeceased by his first wife, Colleen Elizabeth Barfield-Major; and his eldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Ann “Beth” Reeves.

A memorial service is being held today at 11 a.m. at Kornegay Funeral Home, Camden Chapel.


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