Robert Wright can tell you all about the half-dozen replica World War II-era planes that adorn the walls of his Waterville residence.
Mr. Wright, who is celebrating his 96th birthday Saturday, piloted or co-piloted all of their real-life versions during his time in the Air Force. He discovered his love of flying at an early age, and well into his 90s, he still takes to the sky in his friends’ airplanes.
“My dad used to take me out to the airport when I was a little kid,” Mr. Wright said. “He had a friend who had an airplane and on the weekends he would take me out to the airport and show me how the controls worked. I was fascinated by that and always had a love of airplanes after that.”
While his memory of combat missions stays strong, the paper trail on his service is mostly nonexistent.
Mr. Wright’s nephew, Steve Michalski of Terre Haute, Ind., has been on a quest to ensure his uncle receives full military honors when he’s “no longer with us,” but has stumbled upon an issue: The bulk of Mr. Wright’s military documents burned up in a fire at the National Archives in St. Louis.
Mr. Wright grew up in Continental, Ohio, near Findlay, and enlisted in the Air Force in 1943 at 19. It was a preemptive maneuver on his part to avoid getting drafted as a foot soldier, but he also knew he wanted to be in the air during wartime.
After he enlisted, Mr. Wright was sent to Keesler Air Base in Mississippi for basic and flight training, where he flew P-51 Mustangs. He was assigned to the 20th Air Force’s 58th Bombardment Wing and was stationed on Tinian Island near Guam in the South Pacific.
The Air Force had a surplus of pilots and converted Mr. Wright into a radar officer during combat missions aboard a B-29 Superfortress.
“Most of our missions were at night,” Mr. Wright said. “So the bombardier couldn’t see the target. I could see the target with a great radar scope and I would call that information over the intercom to the bombardier to send the bomb. Those planes were fantastic.”
Mr. Wright and his crew of 11 men completed eight combat missions flying over Tokyo, assisting a campaign that wiped out about one-third of the city ahead of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The B-29 had an operational range of 3,200 nautical miles and could attack from as high as 30,000 feet, making it a powerful and effective force to attack Japan. B-29s were responsible for nearly 90 percent of the bombs dropped on Japan.
Mr. Wright met some of the men who carried out the missions to drop the two atomic bombs.
“They were at our officers club on the island where the atomic bombs were based first,” Mr. Wright said. “They wouldn’t talk to us before it was dropped. We didn’t know, of course. So we thought, ‘Boy these guys are really stuck up.’ We found out later the bomb had been dropped.”
Those kinds of stories can be passed on through family, but finding paperwork to document Mr. Wright’s service has been hard to come by. Mr. Michalski has been working with four air bases to locate his uncle’s DD-214s, which include discharge information.
“I’ve contacted government agencies, congressmen … I’ve never seen so much red tape in my life,” Mr. Michalski said. “Was the National Archives the only place they kept military records? What do veterans do who are still alive who can’t prove it? There’s a problem there.”
He said he has made more than 80 phone calls regarding the matter and is hoping the situation is resolved soon. He said the National Archives sent a form to Mr. Wright for him to fill out to get the ball rolling on replacement papers.
“These people lined up knowing there was a good chance they wouldn’t come home,” Mr. Michalski said. “They should be honored to the highest. All this information, all the memories and what these men and women actually saw in World War II, when these people are gone, so are those memories.”
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