Veteran shares a survivor’s story
Byron Kinney of Evanston (left) and Louis Zamperini. Kinney flew the B-29 that dropped life-saving food supplies at a POW camp at Naoetsu, Japan where Zamperini, a onetime Olympic long distance runner, and others were held. | Photograph courtesy of the Louis Zamperini collection
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:52AM
On Sept. 2, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender, pilot Byron W. Kinney and crew members of the 502 Bomber Group flew a B-29 on an eight-hour mercy mission to Naoetsu, Japan, dropping life-saving food supplies at the notorious Prisoner of War camp.
As the crew prepared to make the second drop, they could see “people running for the food already dropped in a rice paddy, and a man frantically motioning them to get back. He could see we intended to make another drop that could possibly injure people in the camp,” Kinney recalled.
“The vision of that man, in charge in spite of the situation, burned into my mind,’’ he said.
Kinney, 88, a resident of Westminster Place in northwest Evanston for nine years and before that a resident of Wilmette for 44 years, recalled his experiences during a recent talk at the Presbyterian Homes.
The fleeting image would lead to a crossing of lives, going on nearly 70 years, said Kinney, who also wrote an autobiographical account of his experiences titled “A Mission of Mercy Touches Two Lives,” published in 1995.
Author Laura Hillenbrand, author of “Seabiscuit,” wrote about the incident in “Unbroken,” her book on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.
The man frantically motioning was Capt. Louis Zamperini -- one of America’s great distance runners in the pre-war years -- a participant in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and the National Collegiate mile record-holder as a sophomore at the University of Southern California.
On May 27, 1943, Zamperini, a B-24 bombardier, and pilot Lt. Russell Phillips were on a rescue mission of their own, flying the only available B-24 after a radio message was picked up about a downed plane 200 miles north of Palmyra Island, said Kinney, describing the events in his book.
When the plane’s two engines conked out, the two were forced to crash land the plane in the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini, the pilot and tail gunner were the only members out of the 11 men who survived.
They lashed two rubber rafts together, Kinney wrote. With little to eat or drink, they drifted more than 2,000 miles in the Pacific over 47 days -- the longest drift in the history of the U.S. armed forces -- and ended up in Japanese hands somewhere in the Marshall Islands, he said.
At Naoetsu, Zamperini, who saw his weight plummet to 60 pounds after the ordeal in the ocean, was held with 700 others. “We were starving,” he would say later.
On the morning of Sept. 2, he looked up and “a great silver plane came flashing out of the sky and proceeded to drop an enormous amount of food, “ he said.
“The hum of our plane, the food and the buzz job made us feel for the first time like real Americans again. It made us feel that our sufferings were worth it all,” he would say later.