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2014, Aaron Elson



Karnig Thomasian

Army Air Corps, prisoner of war of the Japanese

Page 2

(c) 2014, Aaron Elson

    Karnig Thomasian: We went on our first mission in December, December 7th or 8th of 1944, we were going to bomb Omura, in Japan. So we went over the Hump, landed in China in a forward base, and we waited for weather to clear over Omura. It didn’t clear. So finally they said all right, we’ve got to do something, so we’re going to go to Mukton, Manchuria, which was quite a bit further north, and that’s where we went. It was a long flight. A fifteen-hour mission, just that part of it. We went there, dropped our load, and we ran into fighters. That’s where, the one time I got one fighter, that’s all I can claim. And then one guy came up right in front of my window and zoom, in an instant, you wouldn’t have time to react even. He must have been shooting at us, so I’m glad I didn’t get in the way of one of his shots.

    Aaron Elson: What was it like shooting the one fighter down?

    Karnig Thomasian: Well, it’s nothing personal. It’s a machine. That’s the difference of air war vs. combat where you see the guy’s eyes. He was smoking, he probably got out of the plane, it didn’t blow up.

    Aaron Elson: Was it a Zero?

    Karnig Thomasian: I imagine it was. And we got hit at that point by flak over the target and we had to feather one engine, and they were talking about going to Russia. My radio operator was telling me this because he’s up there, he’s listening to them, "I don’t want to go to Russia. That’s terrible, a mistake, we can make it back," so we made it back, because if you go to Russia, you don’t know what’s going to happen. They wanted a B-29 there, to study it and come up with something better.

    Aaron Elson: Did you have to go over the Hump with an engine feathered?

    Karnig Thomasian: No, we just went back to Chentu and landed. And what would happen is that when you’d land, you were quickly guided under the underbrush and the Chinese people would come and cover it up because then the Japanese would come and bomb you. How the hell they missed I don’t know, but they did. And the peculiar thing there – this night we took turns staying with the airplane, so that someone would be in the plane. Vernon and I stayed with the plane. Earlier, the engineer was testing the plane and then he left. While he was testing the engines, he had the landing lights on because this was at night and he had to see how the engines were going, and if they were smoking.

    While he’s testing the engines, this Chinese guy comes up to one of the engines and backs up to the blades.

    I said, "What’s he doing?"

    The engineer said, "Oh, my God!" and he cut the engine. He said, "Get out of there!"

    Then the Chinese guards came around, and they got him out of there. What it was, was that the Chinese fellow was getting the devil off his back. Some guys missed, and then they ruined the blade and ruined themselves. Ruined themselves, they were mincemeat. Can you imagine, they do these things? Oh, my! I was learning a lot of things for a kid. What am I seeing? I never would have seen this in Washington Heights.

    Then we’d go to town in Chentu and then they’d have these big, enormous black pigs. And I said, "Gee, their eyes are white."

    They said, "Yes, they blind them so they can’t run around, and they just get to be big and fat and porky."

    We’d go in and get scrambled eggs, they loved scrambled eggs and bacon, they had lots of bacon. Oh, and then what we would do – every time we went to China, we’d bring cigarettes with us – cartons. And at that time, I don’t know what a carton was, a dollar-something, we’d get 20 bucks a carton, that’s tremendous. These Chinese people would come with American bills, fistfuls. We’d trade toothpaste, and shaving cream. Candy bars. We would have a cache of this stuff. I didn’t smoke and I didn’t drink, so I had a wealth of stuff I’d take over there. So in my trunk there was a lot of stuff but they didn’t send that back with my belongings I noticed. That’s all right, God bless ’em.

    All right, so that’s another hobby we had. Then we got back to our base in India, and when I came back, I was so tired I just sat by the wheel of the ship, and one of the crew members said, "What’s the matter, Tommy?"

    I said, "I don’t know, I just feel wiped out."

    Well, I had yellow jaundice. So they took me to the hospital.

    The crew had orders to go down to Koregpour, so they left me in the hospital, and a week and a half later I was released, I got my belongings and I hopped a mail truck that was going there. I walk in, now what am I gonna do? Outside the main office was a big bulletin board where you had all kinds of messages and things, what you’re supposed to do, and my name was nowhere. I asked around, I said, "Where’s so and so, Vern Henning and…"

    "Oh, they’re over at that corner there."

    Okay. It was a tent. So I got myself a bunk there. And the guys were all gone, working or flying. And so I said, "Gee whiz, I wonder if I can open up the side of the tent, put up poles and have a little air here." So I did that. And then I searched around for some boards, and I made a little table. So pretty soon I had a little like an office next to my bunk. The guys come in, they said, "Hey, what are you doing here?"

    I said, "What do you mean? I’m making myself comfortable. What’s the matter?"

    "Oh, geez, you’re going down the line, aren’t you?"

    I said, "Nobody asked me."

    Ohhhhh. … Well, they wouldn’t tell on me. I was there for a week. I went to the NCO club and I got friendly with this master sergeant, and in our conversation it came out that I could draw and paint, so he says, "You know what I’d like to do. I’d like to make a big 20th Air Force insignia."

    I said, "I could do that. You get me the equipment."

    Meanwhile, I kept going to the bulletin board, till finally I saw my name. And I said, "Hi, I’m reporting. I didn’t know where to go. Nobody told me anything."

    "Well, you usually come to the office, don’t you?"

    "Yes sir."

    So he said, "Well, report down to Lieutenant So and So on the line."

    I said, "Okay."

    I went down and reported on the line, Yes Sir.

    "What are you, an electrical specialist?"

    "That’s my MO"

    "All right. Then you be in charge of checking batteries."

    He said, "Take this private with you, Sergeant."

    "Okay." So this was a young kid – young kid, younger than me; no, he couldn’t have been younger than me, nobody was younger than me. But he was green behind the ears. I said, "Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna work real fast."

    We had about eight or ten, I don’t know how many planes in a row. We’d go in, check the battery, fill it, whatever we had to do, we did them all. I said, "Boy, we did it in record time, okay, here we go."

    "Where are we going?"

    I said, "We’re going to the NCO Club."

    "But we’re on duty."

    "Do you see any more planes?"


    "We’ve done our job."

    So I went to the NCO Club. I said, "Sergeant, you’ve got to get me out of this."

    He said, "What’s the matter?"

    "They want me to work on the line. If I work on the line I won’t be able to do your thing. Maybe you could write something for the lieutenant."

    "I’ll take care of it." So he wrote something, put it in an envelope, gave it to the lieutenant.

    The lieutenant said, "Boy, you guys … all right, take off!" He was disgusted.

    And zoom, I took off. And there I was. Well, now, the repercussions of this, because in the morning the guys thought, "Ahh, they finally got him!" And at night, there I am, so I milked it. I set up the table outside the tent, I was in my shorts, and my hat, and had a Coke. I said, "Hi, guys!"

    I thought they were gonna kill me. It was hysterical. Oh, God, they were so mad. They wanted to do the same thing. I said, "Hey, you’ve got to be talented."

    But anyway, these are the fun things that happened.

    Karnig Thomasian: And then the other thing was that every time Brooksie – Richard Brooks was our radio operator, and he had to go on the missions. He was only enlisted man on these ferrying trips. Well, it’s very dangerous. So every morning before he’d go, we’d get him and put him down on the ground, get his wallet, get his ration card out. "When you come back we’ll give it to you." We were just horsing around, God bless us.

    He said, "God damn! You can’t do that!"

    I said, "You’d better get going. You’re gonna be late."

    So we’d horse around and things like this. Every time he’d come back, the first thing, "Give me my ration card!"

    "Here you go."

    Aaron Elson: When they did these ferrying trips, did they get credit for missions?

    Karnig Thomasian: No, it’s not that type of mission. It’s not a combat mission. But it’s recorded. It hasn’t got an asterisk next to it."

    Aaron Elson: Did they have the same combat mission quota they had in Europe, where you would fly 25 or 30?

    Karnig Thomasian: Yes, but these guys would never get to 30. That’s a lot of missions. You’ve got to understand, we weren’t, like in Tinian they’d do it every day. We would do one a week. The rest of the time we’re renovating the plane, taking guns out, putting different setups in, taking a 20-millimeter out of the tail, putting four .50s in instead, which is far better. A 20-millimeter is a cannon, it’s a big, but with our sight system you can’t calibrate for the trajectory of a .50 and a 20-millimeter, only in one spot will they traject equal. So it wasn’t practical. Four .50s were a lot better.

    Now, the third mission that we were going on was on Dec. 14. We got briefed the night before, and we went to bed. They said, "This is going to be a virtual milk run." Because there’s no opposition, no airplanes, they don’t anticipate anything. Okay, we’re going to go down and we’re bombing Bangkok, Thailand, a bridge.

    In order to bomb a bridge, you’ve got to hit it with no fuses, because the bombs have got to blow immediately upon contact. So that means that when you drop them, and the flywheel goes off, it’s armed. And it gets armed almost as soon as it enters the air.

    Well, they loaded the ship with 500-pound bombs and 1,000-pound bombs. Now, being in close proximity like this to each other, the one bomb will straighten out faster than the other, and the likelihood that they’ll hit each is very great. So the head bombardier went to Colonel Blanchard and told him this. And Blanchard called General LeMay’s office and LeMay wasn’t there but his subordinate said, "This is your call. We’ve have had no problems with it."

    So he said, "All right." And he ordered the bombardier, "You go on this mission or you get court-martialed."

    This is all validated.

    Now, the rest of us didn’t know this, naturally.

    We went on the mission, and we went over Bangkok and there was cloud cover. We went over it again, cloud cover again. Finally they said, Go to the secondary target, Rangoon, Burma, railroad yards, dump our load and go home. So we’re going back, and already we’re planning on going to Calcutta for the weekend, we’re gonna have a lot of fun. We get over to Rangoon. Whenever we went over prior to a drop, either Leon McCutcheon or myself would sit by the bomb bay hatch door, which had a window, and we’d look to make sure that all the bombs had been released and cleared. Otherwise we’d have to depressurize, go out and kick it or whatever. McCutcheon had done it on the previous two missions so I said, "I’ll take over this time." It might have saved my life, that one little thing.

    I unhooked my safety belt from the seat. We always had a big, thick belt tied to the chassis because people had been blown out of the ship from the Plexiglas blowing out, and then suctioned out. Then I sat by the hatch, with my chute on, and I’m looking up at Vern, "Well, it’ll all be over soon," you know, whatever. He was looking around, and I said, "Any planes up there?"

    "No. Nobody."

    Then the bomb bay opened, and tch, they’re gone. I go, "Bomb bay. …" Then there was a tremendous, I mean the most tremendous blast I have ever heard in my life. Everything turned red. I mean, red. Like you’re looking through a red filter. The air rushed in, the door blew in, my hands were bleeding, and I was glued to the seat. I didn’t realize why until in prison the guy that was in the next ship said, "You flipped over," and it just missed him. The plane went upside down and then finally turned around and went rightside up.

    No wonder I was glued to my seat, from the centrifugal force. We kept going in a bigger circle, like a circle within a circle, and finally we straightened out.

    Now the air was rushing in, and I saw Vernon behind me, and there was so much noise and air and everything and the shock of it all, and then I looked out again and I saw a body go by, and then flames are coming past the bomb bay after they were open. I said, "Jesus, we’ve got to get out of here." Normally you’d hear a clanging, but there was no clanging, because they have a big horn that means bail out. And I saw the ground was just going around and around and around and around. Vernon’s feet were on my shoulder. I said, "Okay, come on out." And then – we didn’t talk, which was, to me, later on it affected me greatly because I just couldn’t understand why we would not have had some kind of a dialogue.

    Aaron Elson: Maybe he was in shock.

    Karnig Thomasian: He was and I was. We were all in shock. I can just see a silhouette of Leon, he was at his seat and bent and I saw a silhouette of him, he was unhooking his buckle, so he was up, in other words he wasn’t killed by anything. He was the right gunner. So he was getting out. Vernon was coming down. Vernon’s chute was a chest pack which was sitting by the hatch, that’s where he kept it. The hatch blew there and covered it up maybe, and he didn’t realize it? I can’t imagine he couldn’t realize it. You see, we don’t practice these things. I think they should practice these things, in retrospect.

    I was wearing my chute on my back. Because of Vernon’s position he couldn’t wear a chute, it was too tight. So he’d wear a chest pack.

    I tried getting out. I couldn’t buckle my chest harness because of my hands bleeding. I had it open because in the sun and the heat I get airsick so I liked to keep it open. And so I finally figured, in my stupidity, "I’ll be able to hold it in." Schmuck. How are you gonna hold it in? You see, we never went through anything like this, so we don’t know the immense pressure of the chute opening, what it would cause.

    I finally pulled with both hands on the rim of the window toward the center, because I’m still this side of center, and I’m trying to overcome centrifugal force, so finally I get up over a point where my weight drops me out, and that’s the last thing I remember. I don’t remember pulling the cord. I don’t remember anything. And I was hanging by my leg, because things had ripped; both straps had ripped by my forearms, and they were numb for months from the abrasion of it. And then I had to climb back up. Now I imagine we’re about 15, 16,000 feet by this time, maybe a little less, but the air is fairly thin there. So I was getting a little out of breath from the exertion. I just got one arm through.

    Pretty soon, above me, I hear, "Tommy! Tommy!" It’s my radio operator, he’s calling me. And then we’re getting closer and closer to the ground and then I hear "tseew! tseew!" They’re shooting from the ground. And I look at the strap – there are straps that come down to your chute; then there’s a big ring and the shrouds go off of these rings. Well, the strap had a V in it, so they must have clipped one, and it still held. Thank God! Otherwise I would have candled down. Oh, man. But they missed me and I curled up like a little ball as much as I could.

    Then finally I landed and then I landed in a rice paddy. Now, Rangoon, there’s a city of Rangoon and there’s a river, right at the edge of it. Immediately on the other side are rice paddies, and the natives live there. That’s where I landed, about two rice paddies over. About two or three hundred feet. I landed and then I got up, got my first aid kid, and ran towards the ocean. Well, where was I gonna go? A Caucasian in this native land, it was so ridiculous, preposterous, the whole thought. But in order for me to get out, I’d have to go to the ocean, go up about 100 miles, and there’s Missera Island, off the coast. At Missera Island there’s a spot there where you’ve got a radio, I mean it’s so preposterous how in the hell you could do it. And not be seen.

    Aaron Elson: Who in your crew got out of the plane?

    Karnig Thomasian: Everybody in the front but the pilot. And I’m the only one from the back. So five out of six got out in the front and one out of five got out in the back.

    Aaron Elson: Did you find out what happened to the pilot?

    Karnig Thomasian: Well, they figured that he was the type of guy that was forever trying to get that ship to straighten out, to give the guys a little more chance to get out. And the navigator was the last one to see him. The navigator said, "Okay, Wayne. …"

    "No, after you, Norm."

    Aaron Elson: And the pilot’s name was?

    Karnig Thomasian: Doc Triemer. Wayne Triemer. A very nice guy, and an excellent pilot.

    Aaron Elson: Was yours the only plane that went down?

    Karnig Thomasian: No, there were others. But I didn’t know that yet. So we go down and I land, and then I got into the rice paddies and all of a sudden I’m surrounded by natives with pitchforks. As I saw them coming over the rice paddies, it reminded me of Milton Caniff’s "Terry and the Pirates." It was so identical, because there were native types there and there were native types here. Oh my goodness, how that flashed in my mind I’ll never know, but it did. So they surrounded me, and then the Japanese came and they took control of things, and they got the .45 which I did not pull out. One of the natives took the .45 and started waving it. He tried to shoot it in the air, but the safety was on, he didn’t know about safeties, thank goodness.

    Aaron Elson: He was trying to shoot you?

    Karnig Thomasian: No, he was just trying to shoot, have fun. Who knows what, if he shot, maybe he would have [shot me], I don’t know. So they tied my hands behind me and then marched me towards the river, which was two or three hundred feet, and then I saw my co-pilot next to a hut sitting down with his hands tied, and I said, "Hi, Chet. How’s everything?"

    "All right."

    Then they got a boat, a little trawler like, and put us on there to go across the river, and they were taking movies of us. I said to Chet, "I think we’re gonna be on the 6 o’clock news."

    Oh, would I love to get a piece of that tape, wouldn’t that be something?

    Aaron Elson: The people taking pictures were Japanese?

    Karnig Thomasian: Yes. We got onto the other side of the river and they marched us down the block to a building, with steps going up. We walked up the steps and through the doors, and this was the local jail. We were in the processing area and there was a water fountain and I just went for the fountain, not knowing, but nothing happened, I just drank from the water, I slurped it up, oh I needed so much water. Then they took us downstairs to the cells. These were big cells, with 12-foot ceilings, 15 feet deep at least, if not more, and about 14 feet wide. And they had big four-by-four teakwood – all teakwood, a lot of teakwood there – bars. The walls were concrete. And there was a toilet in the back. Just a pot.

    Aaron Elson: Was it just the two of you at this point?

    Karnig Thomasian: We saw different people, or heard. They shoved me in this one big room, and then I soon learned that you’ve got to be standing at attention whenever they come by.

    Aaron Elson: How did you learn that?

    Karnig Thomasian: By mistake. My co-pilot was in the next cell, and when they went away we’d get down to the corner of the cell and whisper to one another; he’d whisper from the other side of the wall and we could hear each other. We’d whisper, "All right. Keep cool, that’s all. It’ll be all right. I have somebody else in here, he’s from So and So’s Crew."

    "Oh, really!"


    I said, "I have nobody with me."

    Then pretty soon some other guy came in, they threw him in with me. Edward Dow. He had jet black eyebrows and jet black hair, and in my mind, I wonder if this is a setup, he looks Japanese. It could be. So I went down and whispered, "Hey Chet, there’s somebody here, Edward Dow."

    He said, "Oh yeah?" And he talked to his friend. "Oh, that’s his so and so, he’s on his crew."

    "Oh, okay." So it was all right.

    That was the second day. The first day they had me standing up and I just stood up and then I sat down, they banged on the bars, get up! So I stood up again. And I stood up like that all night. All I remember is I found myself on the floor asleep in the morning, who knows, I must have just gone down and slept. And then I heard the clanking of the rice bowl. They gave us some rice and some tea, or hot water. And that was it.

    Then we went into interrogation. The door opened up and we had to crawl out of the cell because the door was low, and then your shoes were on the outside. So we put our shoes on and we followed the guard up the stairs and into this room. And there was this Japanese officer with an interpreter next to him, and the guard was in the back, and the officer said, "Ahhh, so. What’s your name?"

    I gave him my name.

    And he said, "Where you from?"

    I said, "I’m only going to tell you my rank and serial number."

    And the guy interpreted for me.

    "Ahh, so." Then he said something in Japanese.

    I said, "What did he say?"

    "He says, ‘You talk or we will kill you.’ "

    I said, "So. You won’t find out anything then." 

Interviews                       Karnig Thomasian, Page 3