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Air Force Featured Stories

WWII aviator returns to Guam after 71 years, gets unexpected surprise

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Benjamin Gonsier
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
The year was 1945 during the tail end of World War II. The sound of roaring aircraft engines and boots on the ground filled the air, raising decibel levels to resounding heights.

For Rowland Ball, now 91, the sounds became familiar and today serve as a nostalgic reminder of his time as a B-29 Superfortress navigator.

When he was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Ball once called Guam home, flying 27 missions out of Northfield, which is now known as Andersen Air Force Base.

“I was in Guam for about six months and left as the war ended,” Ball said. “During my time, we flew two types of missions: daytime strategic formation flights, where we would bomb factories and other assets, and night flights, which were missions where we bombed our adversaries.”

Ball has many memories of Guam, which he was able to recall in vivid detail despite the lengthy passage of time. The challenges he and his crew faced tested their courage and willpower to a breaking point as they faced unimaginable turmoil and anguish.

“We lost so many good men,” he recounted, with tears in his eyes. “I don’t have many fond memories.

“My crew almost perished during a mission over the city of Gifu (in Japan), where we were shot up so badly, bailing out of the plane seemed like the only option,” he continued. “Why we did not die that day, I will never know.”

That 18-hour mission was the most frightening. With bad intelligence, mechanical issues and constant enemy bombardment, death was at his crew’s doorstep. After bombing Gifu, the plane was in such critical condition, they decided to bailout over the Pacific Ocean. Ball was to be the first to jump, but after looking down at the ocean, he asked his team to rethink the situation. After weighing which course of action would have the greatest chance of survival, they decided to fly the aircraft back to Guam or die trying.

The condition of the plane was dire. Preceding their bombing of Gifu, a mechanical error hindered their ability to drop bombs on their targets on time. Also, an explosion in the bomb bay should have destroyed the whole plane. While all of this was occurring, they still had to avoid enemy fire, much of which was inches away from damaging crucial equipment. Despite the problems, the team stuck together and flew back to Guam.

The war ended soon after the crew’s successful return from bombing Gifu, and Ball was on his way back to the U.S. after a few more non-combat missions.

After leaving Guam in 1945, Ball never thought he would receive the opportunity to see it again. As a surprise, his wife bought him and a few family members plane tickets to the small Pacific island. After reaching out to base leadership, the family received a warm welcome and an unexpected opportunity of a lifetime while touring the base.

Just like he remembered

During 1945, the flightline was full of excitement and action, with an assortment of planes taking off every minute. Fast forward 71 years, the name of the airfield may have changed but air operations remain.

The flightline has never skipped a beat, staying just as active as Ball remembered it. He was able to gaze upon the generation of bombers that followed the B-29. In an unprecedented moment, the B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit were all present in front of him. He said he had never fathomed the opportunity to see one of the bombers up close, let alone all three at once.

“It’s mind-boggling the type of equipment we have now,” he said. “The technical advantages have come a long way since my time. I remember having to look up at the stars to navigate, but now there is this amazing equipment that makes navigating much easier and efficient. It’s a different world altogether. ”

What astonished him the most was the amount of damage a B-52, B-1 or B-2 can inflict on an adversary compared to multiple B-29s.

Those who accompanied Ball were also able to share their experiences with him as they guided him through the airfield he could only reminiscence about.

“Showing him the aspects of the airfield that stayed the same and pointing out what has changed or been added was an exhilarating experience,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Kippie, the 36th Operations Support Squadron commander. “To be able to show our base and flightline to somebody who forged this theater and gave us our freedom is something to be remembered.”

Past and present aviators

After visiting a few more areas on the airfield and seeing what had changed with his own two eyes, Ball had the chance to share his stories with present-day aviators.

“He shared many combat stories with us, but also talked about the ingenuity and creativity his crew displayed during a trying time,” Kippie said. “What our generation of Airmen can learn from someone who has been to war is courage. His message, that he reiterated multiple times, was how it took a team working together to get to a target. Sometimes sorties didn’t go as planned, but they stuck together to accomplish the task at hand as a team.”

His message spoke to more than just aviators, but to maintainers, engineers, cooks and other support staff. Ball showed appreciation to each organization, as he knew just how important they were to the war effort.

“Even though someone he knew died every day, after every sortie, these men still found the courage to take off,” Kippie said. “What we take for granted these days is their sacrifice. I’ve flown around 60 combat sorties and I don’t know anyone who has been shot down. This is something we train for, but it’s not in the forefront of our minds when we are flying combat sorties. We have not had that type of experience, so it was jaw-dropping listening to him talk about it.”

Despite long days, hectic missions, the loss and turmoil his crew faced, there were some lighter moments he shared.

“The cooks would give us three sandwiches for an 18-hour mission. I had to decide how I would eat them. Should I eat two before a bomb run or after? Would I even be alive to eat the sandwich I saved,” Ball said as he took a brief pause to let the audience laugh.

“One time, ice cream was included in our meal. Now why would they give us ice cream of all things? So, during that mission, we decided to fly at a higher altitude than normal, to keep it frozen,” he continued. “Unfortunately, by the time we completed our mission, the ice cream was unsalvageable.”

After Ball finished sharing his experiences, he received a standing ovation. As he bid farewell to the Airmen, they all lined up to shake his hand. The sound of Velcro soon followed, as he was presented multiple squadron patches in appreciation of everything he stood for and accomplished.

“It was remarkable speaking to these young Airmen,” Ball said. “These planes have become so technologically advanced throughout the years. It is astonishing what they have to learn and the amount of studying that needs to take place to fly these behemoths. They will lead America into the future.”

As his visit ended, Ball, who was never at a loss for words, was speechless. Emotional and grateful, the only word he could muster was “thanks.”

“Thank you people for allowing my family and I to have the opportunity to see this place,” he said. “You have all been so nice and wonderful. I thought I might be able to see a plane, but this was something else. This visit has made my life and I will remember this forever.”