Plane brings back memories of mission

Although more than seven decades have passed, Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Erwin "Pete" Ziner recalls the details like it all happened yesterday.

It was around 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 14, 1945, and Ziner and his crew, part of the 331st group of the 315th Wing of the 20th U.S. Air Force (then called the Army Air Corps) were preparing themselves and their B-29 bomber for their ninth bombing mission over Japan.

At something like 3,500 miles round trip, this mission – targeting the northern Japanese city of Akita – would by far be the crew’s longest since they arrived at the U.S. base in Guam only three months earlier.

What they didn’t know, Ziner told me the other day as we chatted in his Nashua apartment, is that it would also be their last. But in a good – very good – way.

"We got there, did our job and were heading home" to the base, said Ziner, a sharp 93-year-old with an even sharper memory who moved to Nashua from Wayland, Mass., in 2000 with Arline, his wife of more than 65 years.

Suddenly, he said, the aircraft’s Armed Services Radio monitor crackled to life. An urgent voice came on with an important news bulletin: Japan had surrendered. The war was over.

The crew celebrated, of course, not learning until later that it was not only their final mission, but the final U.S. bombing mission of World War II.

"Oh, yeah, we were pretty happy to hear that," Ziner said, a wide grin crossing his face. Their only regret, he added, is by the time they got back to Guam, their fellow troops had celebrated themselves into oblivion.

"They all got drunk … they were all passed out," he said, laughing.

This coming week, such happy memories – mixed, undoubtedly, with a few unhappy and unpleasant ones – will likely come flooding back for military veterans like Ziner with the arrival at Nashua’s Boire Field of "Fifi," the restored B-29 bomber that’s almost an exact replica of the aircraft that took Ziner and his crew on nine successful missions so many years ago.

"Really looking forward to it," Ziner said of his plans to spend some quality time at Boire Field while Fifi is in town.

The "Superfortress," as the B-29 was known back in the day, is scheduled to arrive June 8 and be on display through June 12, giving everyone ample opportunity to check out Fifi up close and personal.

(See accompanying information box for times and other details.)

A stroke of luck led me to Pete Ziner and his figurative treasure chest of fascinating firsthand accounts of one of the most significant periods in U.S. and world history.

Colleague Don Himsel sort of introduced us when he showed me an email he got from Ziner in response to Don’s May 25 feature on Fifi and her upcoming Nashua visit.

Ziner mentioned Fifi’s visit last year, when a lot of would-be viewers missed her because schedule delays and poor weather shortened her stay.

The people at the Commemorative Air Force, a Texas-based organization that rescued Fifi from the scrap yard and restored her to her original glory, said they’re coming back this way to make up for last year.

Fifi is one of three vintage World War II aircraft that are visiting several Northeast cities as part of the CAF’s Airpower History Tour. The others are a C-45 Expeditor (affectionately, "Bucket of Bolts") and an SB2C Hell Diver.

Pete Ziner, meanwhile, was 20 when he signed up in 1943 to fight for his country. He trained as a navigator, which involved attending a string of schools to keep up with a rapidly evolving technology called Radio Detection And Ranging – now known as radar.

"I went from one (school) to the other," Ziner said. Eventually assigned to a B-29 crew in Nebraska, he was sent to California for more training – then, with his crew, he was shipped to Jamaica to get used to tropical heat.

The final leg of his circuitous route to Guam began in Kansas, went through California, then to Hawaii before reaching the base from which they would fly their missions.

His turned out to be the last U.S. unit sent to Guam, Ziner said.

Now, as he looks forward to Fifi’s visit, there’s one thing about it that would please him to no end: "I really want to be there to see it land."

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443, or @Telegraph_DeanS.