cover of LAST TO DIE

A Defeated Empire, a Forgotten Mission,
and the Last American Killed in World War II

by Stephen Harding

Da Capo Press
$26.99 / $33.99
ISBN 13: 9780306823381

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Excerpt from Last to Die

by Stephen Harding

When John Houston sighted the Japanese fighters closing on 578’s tail, Joe Lacharite and Tony Marchione had been starting to stow the K-22 camera and its associated gear. Because of the problems with the camera’s mount and its electrical control box, Rupke, the photo officer, and not been able to operate the camera remotely from his position in the aircraft’s nose. As the B-32 had passed over its assigned photo targets Rupke had therefore simply used the intercom to tell Joe when to trip the camera’s shutter. Tony had been helping to steady the mount, and had assisted in changing the film magazine as needed. It wasn’t the ideal way to shoot aerial photos but it was better than nothing, and when the Dominator finished its final photo run, Joe mentioned to Tony that he thought they’d gotten some usable images.

Despite the closed bulkhead door that separated Houston’s tail turret from the compartment where Joe and Tony were working, the two men could clearly hear the banging of the guns when Houston engaged the incoming fighters. Moreover, Smart’s top turret guns were all the more audible for being barely ten feet away. Neither man was particularly bothered by the sound of the big .50-calibers pumping out rounds or the acrid smell of gun powder—both were, after all, qualified aerial gunners themselves—though the reality that they could not actively help defend the aircraft in the way that they had been trained to do would certainly have added to their anxiety and frustration.

One way to contribute, however, was to help the men actually on the guns to locate targets they might not otherwise be able to see. Because 578’s ball turret was unmanned there was no way for the men in the operable turrets to know if an enemy fighter was coming in from beneath the aircraft. Tony and Joe were both hooked into the Dominator’s intercom system, of course, and by peering out the observation windows on either side of the fuselage they could spot those aircraft and call them out to the appropriate gunner. That was what the two men had been doing when the injured Jimmie Smart unexpectedly dropped from his damaged turret.

The observation window Joe had been looking through was set into 578’s aft fuselage about twenty-eight inches above floor level. It was some two feet forward of, and three feet below, the leading edge of the Dominator’s starboard horizontal stabilizer. Roughly oval in shape and about thirty inches across at its widest point, the window was made of plexiglass and was intended as a way for crewmembers to scan the rear of the starboard wing, its two engines, and the main landing gear on that side. Directly below the window, right next to and just to the right of the belly entrance hatch that also served as the aircraft’s main camera position, was a smaller optical-glass port intended for use with an obliquely mounted aerial camera.

Even as the image of the incoming Japanese fighter in the large observation window was registering in Joe’s mind, 7.7mm machine-gun rounds from a second, unseen fighter coming in from three o’clock low punched through the lower right corner of the small camera port, shattered the optical glass, and slammed into Joe. One bullet tore completely through his left leg just above the kneecap, exiting out the back of his thigh, while four others lodged in his right leg between the ankle and knee. The impact spun the photographer around, and he fell to the floor of the aircraft just forward of the small door leading back to the tail and Houston’s turret, blood already streaming from his mangled legs. The fall had jerked Joe’s intercom cord from the jack it had been plugged into and Tony, who had been kneeling on the folded-down settee and looking out the portside observation window set into the fuselage just above it, was following the track of an incoming Japanese fighter and was momentarily unaware that Joe had been hit. But Jimmie Smart, still lying beneath his turret and attempting to stop the bleeding from his head wounds, saw Joe sprawled on the floor and called out to Tony over the intercom.

Luckily, Joe had fallen right next to the barracks bag carrying his and Tony’s equipment, and he was able to yank the braided-cotton closure cord from the top of the bag and hurriedly tie it around his left thigh as a tourniquet. He was struggling to wrap the now-disconnected intercom cord around his right leg when Tony, having turned away from the observation window, carefully lifted Joe onto the settee and then, kneeling down, began tightening the second tourniquet himself. As he was doing this Tony announced over the intercom that Joe had been wounded, and from the cockpit Anderson said he would send Rupke back to help. Tony had just acknowledged the pilot’s transmission when a 20mm cannon round punched a ragged, double-fist-sized hole through the B-32’s thin aluminum skin just above and slightly forward of the portside observation window….