Tail gunner recalls world war, service

After service, path leads Wythe into architecture

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Joseph Henry Wythe in his Pack River home next to photo albums from his days as a World War II B-24 tail gunner. The black-and-white photograph in the foreground is Wythe during the war. “It was not a good war, just a just war,” said Wythe, who has since become a Quaker. (Photo by LEE HUGHES)

SANDPOINT — Joseph Henry Wythe was a 21-year-old architecture student studying for an exam at the University of California, Berkley School of Architecture, when the music on his transistor radio was suddenly interrupted with a news bulletin: the Japanese Navy had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

“I knew I was in for it,” Wythe, the white-bearded 94-year-old recalled from his warm home near the Pack River.

He didn’t talk about his involvement in the war to anyone for years afterward. Not due to excessive trauma, hardship or deprivation — although he had his share of excitement — but rather on principle, one that sticks with him 70 years after Europe was liberated by the Allies from the tyranny of fascism.

“I didn’t want to glorify the war, “ Wythe said of his silence. “War is not a glorious experience at all. There are high moments, but most of it’s just boredom.”

A contemplative man, that trait that kept him from spontaneously enlisting like so many “angry volunteers,” despite having recently registered with the Selective Service.

“I wanted to think about how I was going to participate in the war,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to fight the war in some mud hole.”

Since he was a kid, Wythe had been fascinated by flying, a relatively new and rare phenomenon in those days. So he eventually decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps, the father of the modern day Air Force.

Beginning in 1942, Wythe was sent to training across the U.S. — Nebraska, Texas, Arizona. He was eventually assigned as a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber, a position he called, “a good situation.”

He and his 10 fellow crewmembers — in those days crews were designed to stay together from start to finish — picked up their B-24 in the summer of 1944 and flew a circuitous route across the Atlantic to Europe. They barely made it.

On the leg between Marrakesh, Morocco, along the northwest coast of Africa, and Naples, Italy, Wythe began smelling gasoline. Then one of the plane’s four engines caught fire. He got to work to resolve the issue right away.

“I was busy putting on my parachute,” Wythe said.

He was opening an escape hatch when the pilot put the plane into a dive, a sudden maneuver that nearly caused Wythe to fall through the hole in the belly of the plane. But the maneuver worked: the flames were extinguished by the rapid descent.

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“The pilot knew what he was doing,” Wythe said. “I think that was the worst experience I had.”

They flew back to Marrakesh, where the plane stayed for repairs while the crew was ferried on to Naples. After some repairs, their plane finally caught up with them, and they began flying combat missions on industrial and transportation-related targets, like oil refineries, in the fall of 1944.

An engine was damaged during one such mission. The B-24 was a design improvement on the older B-17 that flew early missions over Europe from England, such as those idealized in the movie “Memphis Belle.”

“They had some tough targets,” Wythe agreed.

So did squadrons like Wythe’s. They flew a few “heavy missions” thick with anti-aircraft flak.

“The sky was so black you could almost walk on the stuff.”

As the tail gunner, one of his jobs we to count the parachutes of downed planes, and hope that 10 — the number of crewman on each plane — “would blossom out,” he said. At least once there wasn’t a single parachute, Wythe wrote in a 2005 unpublished memoirs.

“You got pretty damn nervous watching the guy on your wing blow up,” Wythe said.

But most of the time it was simply boring. Flights could last as long as 10 hours in temperatures reaching 30 below zero at an altitude of five miles. Crews wore heated suits to fend off the cold, and brought a backup. Wythe had to rely on his reserve suit once, and needed the help of a buddy to hop out of his malfunctioning suit and into his spare.

“I changed pretty fast,” he said with a smile.

In his memoir, Wythe talks about growing misgivings about his role in the war, and began to “consider where I was coming from.”

During furloughs he toured the historical architecture of Italy, the great cathedrals of the Vatican, the epicenter of Catholicism. Despite being miles overhead of, and insulated from any killing or death in what he termed an “impersonal war,” he was aiding in its delivery.

“I never saw the face of the enemy as did my friends hunkered down in their foxholes,” he wrote in his memoir.

The B-24 could carry a bomb load “higher, further and faster” than a B-17 — but not on only three of its four engines, according to Wythe. A plane running on three engines was quickly left behind by the rest, and like a stray calf in the wilderness, they became easy pray for hungry German Luftwaffe fighters.

It happened to Wythe’s crew once, but they were lucky enough to be escorted back to Italy by fighters from the 332nd Fighter Group — the Tuskegee Airmen.

But by then the threat was minimal; the war had turned.

“The Germans had given up on Italy,” Wythe said.

By early 1945, a victory in Europe was but a foregone conclusion, and post-war rumors were running thick. Wythe and his fellow crewman flew their last sortie 70 years ago this month. It was Wythe’s 34th. Then they received orders stateside, just before the German’s surrendered on May 8, Victory in Europe, or VE Day.

All eyes now focused on the Pacific and the battle against the Japanese. Wythe’s crew were told they would be trained to fly the new B-29 Superfortresses when they arrived back in the states to support the war in the Pacific.

But the Army Air Corps had by then developed a point system for aircrews, based on number and types of missions flown. By the time Wythe arrived in California he had accumulated enough points to be discharged. But before he could be processed out, the U.S. began dropping a new kind of bomb on Japan — one bomb that could annihilate an entire city of 100,000 people.

“I was horrified and angry,” Wythe wrote in his memoir upon learning of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. “In our barbarism, we had become no better than the enemy. Why couldn’t Truman have ordered a demonstration blast on an old battleship or something of no value?”

The moment Wythe walked out of the building in which he was processed for discharge, he was surprised and delighted to hear ships whistles suddenly erupting in a load cacophony in nearby San Pedro harbor, “in celebration of my discharge,” he said. In fact, the world had, at the very moment Wythe had again became a civilian, learned of the Japanese surrender in the Pacific. It was VJ Day. World War II was over.

Wythe soon picked up his Berkley architectural studies were he had left them when they were interrupted by the war. He made the acquaintance of famed architect Bruce Goff, whom he followed to the University of Oklahoma, where Wythe earned his degree as one of Goff’s first graduates.

He later married and had four children with his first wife. He met his second wife, Lois, in California, where in 1973 they married. A native of Idaho, Lois and Wythe moved to Sandpoint four years later. Lois died from a prolonged illness in 2011.

A licensed architect in five states, Wythe specializes in organic architecture of the Frank Lloyd Wright school. He lives in a beautiful, cozy home nestled in the woods next to a pond. It’s a home he designed himself, of course, one that, as one guest described it, “wraps it its arms around you,” when you walk in.

Wythe explored his spiritual side. He was a Unitarian for years before, and eventually became a Quaker, due mainly to the influence of Lois, he said. Together they started a Quaker meeting in Sandpoint.

Wythe is a frequent editorial writer to newspapers in which he expresses his anti-war views, known as a Peace Testimony, a Quaker anti-war perspective that promotes peace.

And he maintains strong, even conspiratorial worldviews, ranging from the cause of World War II and the wars and conflicts that followed, to corporate globalization, global warming, and an America that, in his view, has become an oligarchy — a country ruled by a small group of people.

Asked about the U.S. role in World War II, Wythe responded, “It was not a good war, just a just war.”

He fought his fight when called to do so. But the sacrifices made by Wythe and those who fought in that and subsequent wars seem to have been for nothing. Like fighting and taking casualties for some innocuous battlefield hill only to allow it to be taken back again by the enemy.

“I think we blew it. I think we’ve been taken,” Wythe said of the current state of America and the world since his generation rescued it from totalitarianism.

“What’s going to become of us in 50 or 100 years with global warming? I’m glad I’m not going to be in that.”

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