Bomber pilot shares vivid memories of POW camp, raids over Japan
May 22, 2013
By Dan Aznoff
Richard Murphy is at a difficult age.
At 90 years old, he can still remember the pain in his leg from the crash-landing on Sakhalin Island in December 1944. He still remembers his crew sitting down to dinner with their Russian captors while they were being held as prisoners of war.
Murphy is also aware that the early stages of dementia have taken away his ability to remember what type of plane he flew, who operated the POW camp, his rank or how he escaped. He becomes frustrated when he is unable to recall his wife’s name or how many children they had together.
The former bomber pilot still wears his pilot hat when he comes down to dinner at the Spiritwood Retirement Community at Pine Lake. He sits at the same table near the window and shares stories with the same group of men at every meal. Two or three times every week, he is joined by his son Kevin Murphy.
Sherrie Reid, the community relations manager at Spiritwood, described Murphy as a hero to members of her staff and other residents of the facility. She said the World War II veteran likes to take command of his entourage in the dining room as if he were still in the cockpit of his bomber.
“My dad likes to tell everybody within earshot that if it were not for him — and the other brave pilots who flew those tin can ice boxes during World War II — that we’d probably all be speaking Japanese right now,” Kevin said proudly. “There were lots of heroes who fought for this country during World War II. Each of them has a story, but they are in the twilight of their years and the stories are falling silent with each passing.”
Flying into an ambush
The proud son was able to fill in many of the gaps in his father’s narrative from the war. According to Kevin, his father was assigned to the Shemya Air Station at the east end of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and received orders for his first mission within hours of his arrival.
The target was a military complex on one of the northern islands that make up the Japanese homeland. The American planes would fly southwest for nine hours across the northern Pacific so they could arrive over the target at twilight to reduce the accuracy of the anti-aircraft batteries and fighters that had been assigned to protect the Japanese base.
The American attack plan had the larger B-24s scheduled to deliver their payload from high altitude followed by low-level runs from the smaller B-25 bombers. The planes took off from Alaska and flew southwest under radio silence.
The one detail commanders of the American 11th Air Force did not take into consideration, according to the younger Murphy, was that the B-25s were much faster and arrived at the target ahead of the hulking B-24s. So that by the time the larger planes arrived, the smaller bombers had finished their runs and Japanese fighters were already in the air ready to defend their homeland.
“They flew into an ambush,” Kevin said. “The Japanese fighters shredded the big slow bombers.”
Enemy fighters shot out the windshield, disabled one of its four engines and tore away a major section of underside of the fuselage, but Lt. Murphy did manage to get his crew back to base. His B-24 was only one of six that returned that day from the squadron of 18 planes that took off together.
A crash landing
The younger Murphy said the actual war was relatively short for his father. Lt. Murphy’s final mission was his 23rd bombing run over Japan on Dec. 7, 1944. His last flight ended in a snow-covered mountain valley in what he would soon discover to be the Japanese-controlled southern section of Sakhalin Island west of Japan.
Crippled by enemy anti-aircraft defenses, Murphy turned his plane north and veered west until the Japanese fighters turned back to base.
“Dad knew there was no way his plane would survive the long flight back to Alaska,” Kevin repeated from the story he heard numerous times. “His biggest concern was for the men who had been injured, especially one of the gunners who had been shot during the air battle over Japan.”
Murphy took over the controls to guide the crippled bomber toward his last hope, a risky landing in uncharted Russian territory. The crash-landing was anything but smooth. The impact shoved Murphy’s leg bone into his hip. His seat belt snapped, breaking bones in his face and upper body.
“But as Dad always said, ’Any landing is not a crash if you can walk away.’”
The crew survived the crash, but ended up being captured by Japanese soldiers within a few hours. The enemy soldiers rendered no first aid but instead locked them in a shed for the night. Knowing that they would be executed by the Japanese, Murphy and his crew escaped in the middle of the night and began their trek north toward the Russian-controlled part of Sakhalin Island, carrying the injured members of the crew in makeshift stretchers.
They hiked all night through the forest in minus 20-degree temperatures toward what they hoped would be Russia. Miraculously, they survived, only to be captured by Russian troops who administered first aid, treated them for severe frostbite and transferred the bomber crew to an old-style gulag.
According to the younger Murphy, the Russians were allies with the Americans fighting in Europe, but were neutral in the conflict with Japan. Not knowing what to do with Americans, the Russian soldiers took the airmen to what had been forced labor camps for political opponents.
Treated with respect
Murphy did remember that his crew was treated with respect and the injured were taken to the infirmary for medical treatment. The Russians even invited the Americans to join them for dinner.
It was during dinner one night that a member of Murphy’s crew realized they were free to leave the prison. As the war in Europe ended, Murphy and his crew traveled on the Siberian railroad to Iran and were repatriated in Tehran. The crew remained together until they finally made their way to Casablanca in Northern Africa, where they were liberated and eventually made their way home.
Richard Murphy returned from war to his home in the San Francisco area and was married to Edna Catherina for 55 years. The Murphys had five children together. After decades of suffering and years of bureaucracy, Kevin Murphy said his father finally had his hip replaced in a V.A. hospital in 2004.
Dan Aznoff was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California. He is now a freelance writer who makes his home in Bellevue and specializes in capturing the stories of past generations. His website is www.dajournalist.com.