It’s hard to imagine having been shot down, captured, imprisoned and sentenced to die. And, for modest former servicemen like Jack Gibson, 92, it’s even harder to talk about it after the fact.
Many area residents know Jack and Jane Gibson as former managers and still active participants in the Cambria Farmers Market on Fridays, as town Citizens of the Year for 1999 and as parents of county Supervisor Bruce Gibson.
Those who don’t know Jack Gibson’s history might not understand why the Red Wing Ranch farmer went on a whirlwind trip to Albuquerque in April to reunite with a 93-year-old retired Air Force officer. Those two shared, and now we can share with a wider audience, memories that broaden understanding of the sacrifices commemorated every Memorial Day.
When two venerable servicemen get together after nearly 70 years, their reminiscences help frame the history of cataclysmic war and exorcise ghosts of the unthinkable.
Gibson served in the World War II Army and almost didn’t survive. The plane on which he was a gunner was shot down over Singapore on March 2, 1945.
The fourth-generation Californian and his fellow crewmen were captured by the enemy and jailed, mostly in solitary confinement, in Outram Road Prison. Gibson was sentenced to death. Before the sentence could be carried out, the war ended.
Gibson and others were rescued from the prisoner-of-war camp Sept. 2, 1945, six months to the day after his plane crashed. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross with cluster, Air Medal with clusters and Bronze Star.
Gibson doesn’t talk much, or often, about that part of his life. Who would, really, understand?
For him, one such person is Francis “Frank” Nye, who was a pilot during World War II and stayed in the service until 1975. Nye retired as a major general.
Gibson served as gunner on three of Nye’s missions. “He gave me my very first flight, a night flight,” Gibson said before he left on the trip to Albuquerque with daughter-in-law Grace Crittenden. “We’ve gotten together a couple of times before. When we do, we talk a lot, remember a lot.”
Gibson and Nye both remain mentally sharp, memories clear. “The older I get, the more I recall from things that happened all those years ago,” the Cambria man said. “I remember them as clearly as if they happened yesterday.”
He and Nye shared memories, many recorded by Crittenden. They visited the Veterans Memorial and the Nuclear Museum of Science and History, “which has mockups of the big bombs,” Gibson recalled.
“We recalled incidents of service when we were together,” Gibson said, according to Crittenden’s notes. “He was my first pilot on the B-29 program … Frank had served two tours during the war as a pilot. He flew the African campaign in a B-24, then came back to the states and put on the first B-29 program.”
Nye was a test pilot for the B-29, and was captain during the training at Salina, Kan., Gibson said, “I became a lead crew, and was fortunate enough to have secured gunner spot on his plane.”
Gibson fervently wanted to fly, despite his bad eyesight. He passed the vision test but eventually, his conscience got the better of him. He went to Nye to confess that “I’m on this crew by default ... I memorized the eye chart.”
Nye responded, “Are you correctable to 20/20?”
When Gibson answered yes, Nye told him, “If something is close enough to knock your glasses off, you won’t be looking for your glasses, and I will be looking for a new gunner.”
The B-29s initially sent to India and China had no ground-maintenance crew, so each crew member was trained in some form of upkeep and repair. Waist gunners were trained as engine mechanics, the radio operator could repair the entire radar system, the navigator maintained navigation equipment.
Gibson was responsible for the gunnery systems. It was that training that led him to be assigned to the flight to Singapore on March 2, 1945.
He “was one of the ‘older’ crew, at age 24. He was the top gunner,” based in Calcutta, India, and had already made 52 flights over “the Hump,” the Himalayas between India and China.
There were 11 in the crew of that 58th Bomb Wing plane, six up front and five in back: Captain Ed Millar, a copilot, navigator, radio operator, two side gunners, a tail gunner, top gunner, bombardier, flight engineer and Gibson.
Arriving over Singapore, theirs plane was among the last four to come in over the target. The warehouses were on fire, and there was smoke to 21,000 feet. They had dropped their bombs and flown out over the water when they were hit by fire from a Japanese Navy ship below.
Capt. Millar ordered everyone to bail out, and everyone did except the radio operator, who had vowed never to be captured by the enemy.
Each man had a one-man raft, but some rafts were damaged, so they doubled up. After they had been floating about 24 hours, a boat picked them up — a Japanese boat.
The Americans were put in solitary confinement at Outram. Crittenden’s record of their recollection continues: Each day, they were taken into a small room with an interpreter and a military officer. At the first interrogation, Gibson “was told that he was not a prisoner of war, but a prisoner of the emperor of Japan and was charged with indiscriminate bombing.”
Nine of the 10 crewmen were at the prison, including Millar. The radio operator was never found.
Gibson lived in a 6- by 8-foot cell, sleeping on a mahogany-wood floor. For food, the men were given a half bowl of rice each day. “He never saw any of the crew while he was locked up … There were a few whispered words and some tapping – the communication was very limited. There was no information about what was happening or what would happen to them.
“The stress and isolation was getting to him and several weeks into this, Jack found himself pounding on the floor, yelling, ‘I can’t take this anymore!’”
Then he heard a voice — as clearly as if someone was standing in the room. “Come on, Gibson, slow down, you’ll be out of here in six months.”
Whose voice could that have been? How could the date be right? There was nobody around, and the men had been told shortly before the mission that the war wouldn’t end for at least 18 months.
But somehow Gibson “believed it and knew he did not have to struggle anymore.”
Exactly six months from the day Gibson and the others were captured, the rescued prisoners were transferred Sept. 3, 1945, to a hospital in Calcutta and eventually back to the U.S.
Gibson had weighed 170 pounds when he bailed out, but only 119 pounds when he was released.
One poignant memory Crittenden captured: On “Aug. 19, all the prison cells were emptied, and the men were gathered in the courtyard by nationality. Jack remembers one odd fellow sitting on a chair backwards, wearing pajamas, hopping his chair around.”
Gibson thought the poor guy had gone crazy.
“They were all loaded onto buses and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp on the edge of the city. No one slept that night. They roamed through the prison camp talking to everyone. Jack was surprised to see the crazy Dutchman talking to a group. Jack said, ‘I thought you were crazy, had a few screws loose.’ The man responded, ‘So did the Japanese. That is how I survived for three-and-a-half years in that prison.’”
American Legion Post No. 432 hosts the Cambria Memorial Day ceremony at 11 a.m. Monday, May 27, by the flag stand at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St.
Neal Madsen, a local contractor who served in Vietnam and earned a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for valor received from the government of South Vietnam, will be the featured speaker. A barbecue sponsored by the Sons of the American Legion and the Legion Auxiliary will be offered following the ceremony.