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November 9, 2008

Our War: Air Corps introduced Belleville man to B-29s, A-bomb

Ed Bott never flew in an airplane until the U.S. Army Air Corps drafted him in February 1943.

Ed Bott never flew in an airplane until the U.S. Army Air Corps drafted him in February 1943.

But B-29 Superfortress bombers would be his life for the next three years as he helped plan raids all over the Pacific and became one of the first witnesses to the mission that ended the war.

"I remember the first time I saw a B-29," Bott said. "They had just come off the assembly line and it was our job to make it operational. My first impression was that there was no way they were going to be able to get that big thing off the ground."

The first flight Bott ever took was a journey half way around the world to India, where Air Corps Intelligence headquarters was set up.

"It was almost spellbinding," Bott said. "Here I was, someone who had never flown, and I'm flying overseas ... over the ocean ... from one continent to another."

When he got to India, Bott's unit would plan bomber missions in which planes flew from over the Himalayas to China and on to the Japanese home islands. Members of the unit would meet bomber crews in China to debrief them on their missions and collect reconnaissance photos taken over the targets. He was a sergeant who had a rare behind-the-scenes perspective on how the war was planned and executed.

"Very detailed, extensive reports were done about targets struck," Bott said. "We put them together and that was sent on to Washington."

Once the debriefing crews were back in India, the intelligence staff gave daily briefings to high-ranking Air Corps officers, including Gen. Curtis LeMay who -- after becoming a war hero by personally leading dangerous B-17 bomber raids over Europe -- in early 1944 was put in charge of B-29 attacks on Japan.

"He was a very congenial man," Bott said. "He would personally do inspections (of soldiers' living quarters) sometimes. I think that was his way of being close to the men and showing his respect to them."

Bott said men in his unit were so busy he had little time to appreciate the scope of history he was seeing. He later realized how fortunate he was to get the assignment.

"It was an amazing experience for a young guy in his early 20s," Bott said. "Certainly, the experience I had was at least the equivalent of a master's degree."

As the war progressed, Air Corps Intelligence was moved forward to Okinawa, where bombers could fly to the Japanese mainland and back without refueling. They arrived just six days after the American invasion of Okinawa. While the island was still being hotly contested, Bott said he never felt he was in danger.

The young sergeant was responsible for helping keep the generals informed of the war's progress. When reconnaissance photos came back from a B-29 named the Enola Gay, he was one of the first to see them.

The sight of an entire town crushed by a single atom bomb left him awestruck.

"It was just disbelief," Bott said. "We didn't understand the significance of the A-bomb although we had ordered the weather reconnaissance beforehand and the photo reconnaissance afterward. We had never heard of the A-bomb before."

Still, there was little time for pause. Bott had a job to do, so like he always did, Bott took the photos into the war room and pinned them to the bulletin board.

When he went back to his office, one of the officers asked if he'd posted the pictures.

"He said 'Ed, get out there and take those pictures off the bulletin board -- They're top secret,'" Bott said.

The ability to be a small part of such a historic event left Bott with a sense of awe.

He had another brush with history on base when he was walking down the sidewalk and happened upon a general walking in the other direction. It was Gen. James Doolittle, leader of the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942 that raised the spirits of American citizens and military members still in shock over the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"It wasn't until I got up close that I realized it was Gen. Doolittle," Bott said. "I snapped him a salute and he came up to me and shook my hand."

Bott said the famous general told him he appreciated the gesture, but that the sergeant didn't need to make such a big deal out of him because "we're both here to do the same thing."

Not too long after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945, the war ended and Bott was sent home.

He went from Guam to Hawaii to San Francisco and then took a train from the coast to Jefferson Barracks in south St. Louis County.

"While I was gone my parents moved from East St. Louis to Belleville," Bott said. "But they sent me a key to the new house so I could get in when I came home."

After the war, Bott's organizational skills came in handy. He worked for a few years as a vice president of the family business, Corn Belt Labs, in East St. Louis. After that was sold, he became an investment banker in Belleville and later became president of Mark Twain Bank.

He lives in Belleville today with his wife of 60 years, Margaret.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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