B-29 Mission in China
By F. Tillman Durdin
Boston Herald –N.Y. Times Wireless
CHUNGKING, June 17 – Eleven crewmen and myself assembled on the airfield and Maj. Robinson Billings, of Hopedale, Mass, our pilot and captain, handed out our money belts, first aid kits and language books. It was late afternoon and the take-off was 15 minutes away. He sketched the weather prospects for us and cautioned us to keep a special watch for Jap fighters during the time between take-off and darkness.
“Put on your life jackets, parachutes and flak vests now, “ he ordered the gunners. “We may have trouble anywhere on the way and you shouldn’t have to waste any time putting your gear on if anything happens.”
“And everybody keep awake on this trip all night,” he added handing out Benzedrine sulfate tablets as an aid to wakefulness.
We clambered into the big silver plane. Now we were off at last with the target Japan. Hard on the tail of another superfortress Billings wheeled onto the runway. Second Lt. John Cowsert, co-pilot, counted off the seconds until take-off time. The great ship got moving and in a moment it was pulling the runway underneath us at terrific speed.
Billings cursed as a dog trotted across our path. We roared inexorably on, crushed it with our left wheel.
“Come on up, come on up, you devil, “Billings shouted as the end of the runway raced toward the ship’s nose. We just made it and sighed with relief.
“The right wheel won’t retract,” Cowsert reported.
“Try the emergency motor,” shouted First Lt. Edwin R. Johnson, flight engineer. The wheel tucked itself in.
The clouds and late afternoon sun caressed the quiet beauty of walled towns, temple compounds and wooded hilltops crowned with white pagodas.
Billings pulled his ship up into the murky overcast to clear the mountain barrier that separates West China from Central China. The motors hummed joyfully. Billings said happily, “By God, this ship would fly all the way across the Pacific.”
He got his altitude and switched on Elmer, the automatic pilot, while he relaxed. The tension eased for everybody. The great bomber rode steadily and quietly without tremor.
We spanned mountains and poked our way over the flat plains country of Central China, riding above a low ceiling of clouds. We were nearing the biggest Japanese air bases in China and the cloud cover was staying.
Billings took out a little steel-backed Bible – a gift from his wife – from his vest pocket and read a few verses.
Suddenly two searchlights appeared far to our right. “A ship is tailing us, major,” Rear Gunner Sgt. A.E. Holst reported over the interphone. Nothing happened. We soon left the lights far behind and the plane pursuing us drifted away.
Cowsert suddenly grabbed my arm. Far off to our right, perhaps still 30 miles away, faint searchlights stabbed at an acute angle into the mists and around their base drifted a dull yellow haze of fires. This mist over the target was deep and Billings worried about whether Meredith (the bombardier) could get a good sighting.
Westbrook (the navigator) brought us in like a veteran. Billings lost altitude steeply, for we were one of the ships assigned to make a low run. Searchlight cones brightened. There seemed scores of them. We could see ground flashes of ackack and now processions of tracers marching into the sky.
“There is a B-29 just away from the target,” “Betty” Peterson called from his radio desk.
“A plane at ten o’clock,” reported Gunner Holst.
“Clear guns,” ordered Billings.
“Target ten miles ahead,” Westbrook called.
The searchlight mass straightened slowly, its poles of light converging dead ahead of us in the sky.
“They have a B-29 penned,” shouted Brown.
We saw the great plane’s bombs explode with a dull glow in the mist and smoke below. The ship twisted to evade the pinions of light. Ground guns palpitated in angry flashes that lighted here, there and everywhere like a gigantic instrument panel, and tracers raced up toward the B-29.
It seemed to be faltering. I lost it as we veered to the left.
“That’s where we gotta go. That’s the target,” said Billings.
Meredith took over the ship for the bomb run. “Plane at nine o’clock very close,” shouted Sgt. Pegg. “Looks like a night fighter.”
“Plane overhead,” reported Corp. Jackson.
A light beam detached itself from the mass around the target and started feeling our way, then another and another. The interphone cracked with exchanges.
“Lights all over the tail,” someone shouted.
A cone found the nose. Billings took over the plane and swung it sharply. We shook some of the lights, but not all. Meredith took it back and evened off of the final plunge into the fury of flak and lights.
“A bunch of night fighters at 10 o’clock,” someone said.
“This is it, men,” broke in someone else grimly.
Lights were all over us now. I no longer had to slosh uncertainly in the dark with the pencil on the notebook page, for the plane was as light as day. Flak came up but I could not see any explode. Gunners reported it flying about. I felt the tremor.
“Damn, that one was close,” Holst exclaimed from the tail.
The bomb bays were open and after what seemed an interminable agonizing minute, word came, “bombs away.”
A glowing fog and smoke covered an area ringed with funs and searchlights which lay just ahead and beneath us. It seemed certain that bombs would smash something down there in the close packed precincts of Yamata’s imperial iron and steel works.
“There’s a fighter on our wing,” shouted a gunner.
Billings looked, and chimed in, “He’s got the light right in my eyes. Shoot the bastard.”
I heard our guns stutter. The fighter, which seemed to be a two-engine job, peeled off and snapped out his lights. Billings swung our ship carefully about at terrific speed and searchlights loosed their hold.
We looked back over Yamata to see the beams spotting another B-29 and guns on opposite sides of the target spouting their explosives skyward. We judged that we were probably the third or fourth bomber to make our run and there were many more behind us.
The ship seemed all right. No one was hurt. Our gunners reported that night fighters had made tentative attacks and tracers had come our way but no attacks had been pressed home. Brown said it was past midnight.
Enroute Cowsert had patched up an ailing generator and the emergency motors brought our landing gear down. We sat down quietly, the third ship back from the target. As on our departure last night, we were just 10 minutes behind our group’s first plane.
Thirty-one year old Maj. Billings, bulky, ruddy faced and good-natured, but with plenty of determination and drive to match, like all the rest of his crew, was on the first combat mission against major opposition. Veteran of the air transport command before he shifted to super fortresses last year, he is now rated as one of the 20th bomber command’s most dependable pilots.
Billings has a wife in Hopedale, Mass., and expects a baby this fall. Chubby, genial co-pilot Cowsert who worked his way up from sergeant pilot is a natural collaborator with Billings. There is little he does not know about making heavy bombers work. Milford Daily News, June 17, 1944.
HOPEDALE, Nov. 17 (1945) – Lt. Col. Robinson Billings of the Army Air Corps was killed in action Jan. 11, according to word to this effect which was received from Washington today by his wife at Charlotte, N.C., and Mr. and Mrs. Harry A. Billings of Hopedale.
At the time of his death he was on a mission from his air base in India to the Malay peninsular and was in the vicinity of Singapore. Soon after that he was reported missing in action, but no further information was obtainable until today.
Lt. Col. Billings was born in Hopedale, graduated from Hopedale High School, studied at the Clark School in Hanover, N.H., and went to Colgate University, where he graduated in 1936 after a brilliant record as a star end on the most famous football team Colgate ever had. He worked for the Draper Corp., of which his father is a director, until 1939, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
He received his air corps training at Parks Air College at East St. Louis, at Randall and Kelly fields in Texas, and at Aberdeen proving ground in Maryland. Recognized as a very able flyer, he was assigned to the Ferry Command and was stationed at Great Falls, Montana, where he had charge of ferrying planes to Alaska and Russia.
With the advent of the B-29 he was transferred to the Pacific area and flew on the first B-29 raid over Japan. He was then assigned to the air base in India, where he had charge of raiding planes that flew over Burma, China and Japan, and flew with his squadrons on these missions.
His last mission was to Singapore, where from what meager information his parents have so far received, his plane was shot down. At that time he held the rank of lieutenant colonel, having earned his way up from the bottom by meritorious and distinguished service.
Lt. Col. Billings was married June 11, 1943, to Miss Dorothy Baker, daughter of James A. Baker, a well known cotton broker of Charlotte, N.C.
Besides his parents and widow, he leaves two brothers, Henry of Hopedale and Lt. Cmdr. William C., recently discharged from the navy after service in the Pacific.
Robinson was one of the most popular boys in Hopedale, being loved by the children, by those his own age and regarded with favor by the older people. In college he was popular with his mates, and the same ability to win confidence and regard held with the men with whom he served in the air corps.
Billings’ body was returned to the United States in 1948. He was buried in Hopedale Village Cemetery.
According to the Aircraft History paragraph, the plane Billings was the commander of, 42-24704, was unnamed, but here we can see that number shows with the name, “Gear Box,” with Singapore Kings Drydock as their target.