World War II friends reunite after 45 years
copyright the Chronicle September 3, 2014
by Bethany M. Dunbar
Addison Merrick of Craftsbury and Seymour Leven of Cavendish met in Peyote, Texas, in late 1944 or the very beginning of 1945. They were in the U.S. Army Air Corps getting ready to be shipped out to the Mariana Islands in the South Pacific during World War II.
Dr. Leven, who later became a psychiatrist, remembers it well. He walked into a Quonset hut where a bunch of the men had already chosen bunks. He looked around.
“The only one who was reading was him,” said Dr. Leven.
Mr. Merrick, who later became a professor of English literature, remembers that he was reading Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann.
The two became fast friends, chasing women together when time off the base allowed. Dr. Leven said he thought Mr. Merrick would be a good guy to go chasing women with, because he was so good looking the women would flock to them. He added that his plan actually worked pretty well.
They would both soon be shipped to Saipan. They never ran into each other there and lost touch.
Fast forward 45 years to 1990, and Dr. Leven was flying in a six-passenger plane from Boston, Massachusetts, to Hanover, New Hampshire. On the seat next to him was a copy of Yankee Magazine. He picked it up and the page flopped open to a spot where the subscription card was attached.
“There looking at me was this handsome dude,” said Dr. Leven with a laugh. “I called him immediately.”
It turned out both had settled in Vermont after the war and lived within a few hours of each other.
Yankee Magazine had written an article about an historic farmhouse that Mr. Merrick and his wife, Helen Ellis Merrick, had up for sale in Tamworth, New Hampshire.
“He showed up the next morning in Cavendish,” said Dr. Leven. “We’ve been meeting and eating French food ever since.”
Both had been married for decades and raised their families by the time they got back in touch and started taking day trips to restaurants in Canada.
Each have memories of their time in World War II that include long days in the planes, narrow escapes, the horrors of war and the bonds that formed while in service.
Both served in B29 bombers, and both said the plane and equipment were advanced for the times. Dr. Leven was a tail gunner, and Mr. Merrick was a radio operator.
An advantage of the B29 over earlier planes was that it had a pressurized cabin, so it could fly up to 30,000 feet and the crew did not need to wear oxygen masks. The guns were computerized, and the plane could fly 3,000 miles without needing to refuel.
“Iwo was a big deal for us,” said Mr. Merrick. When the U.S. forces captured Iwo Jima, it meant a stop on the way, if needed, during a long bombing mission.
“The training I got was very, very, good. It was very intense,” said Mr. Merrick. “A lot of things I didn’t like about the Army, but the training was good.”
The point of all that training was to make sure he could contact rescue planes if another bomber went down into the ocean. It was up to Mr. Merrick to give the coordinates. The first time he had to do it, he had three possible frequencies he could use. Something went wrong with the first one he tried. The second one didn’t work either. By then Mr. Merrick was sweating hard. But the third frequency worked, and a rescue plane was sent out.
Mr. Merrick did not take instantly to the radio training. He liked the Morse code work, but soldering radio parts together was not his natural talent. He remembers trying to copy the guy next to him in the radio class. The moment of truth came. Each soldier turned on the radio he had built, and each one played music from a nearby station. Mr. Merrick’s gave off a series of small explosions.
Luckily, he was so good at the code he was given a chance to take the class over while training others in Morse code.
Meanwhile, Dr. Leven had to learn how to take apart a 50-caliber machine gun and put it back together, blindfolded, in one minute.
While Dr. Leven’s crew was all extremely sharp, Mr. Merrick’s was a different sort.
“We would be voted the crew least likely to succeed,” said Mr. Merrick. “We called the pilot Hopalong White because he’d bounce along on the landing.” The crew didn’t trust the co-pilot’s flying skills much at all. But he had nerves of steel, Mr. Merrick said, and that saved their bacon more than once.
Each of the two men had close calls.
Mr. Merrick remembers the Japanese gunners flying through the middle of the U.S. planes’ V formation to try to draw fire from the U.S. gunners — hoping they would shoot each other by mistake. Another time his B29 got so close to a Japanese plane Mr. Merrick could see the Japanese soldier’s moustache through the window and glass turret.
One time the co-pilot screwed up and went way too high, then started to drop.
“I had this really out-of-body experience,” Mr. Merrick said. He could see himself from above and knew that he was most likely going to crash and die. He braced his feet out of instinct. But somehow, the co-pilot pulled the huge bomber out of its drop at the last minute and the crew lived.
Another time, his crew armed their bombs and dropped them without opening the bomb bay doors first. For a few minutes the armed bombs were rolling around in the belly of the plane with their little propellers whirling before the crew could get the doors open.
“We bombed the ocean,” Mr. Merrick said.
Dr. Leven described an incident when there was a huge bombing raid on Tokyo. It was a maximum effort from the Marianas, which meant 800 planes at once over Tokyo.
“We were in a unit that was in a later echelon,” Dr. Leven said. “By the time we got over it, it was already in virtual total ruins.”
Smoke and flames were shooting up into the air 10,000 feet, and the bombers were coming in at about 6,000 feet. The plane hit a thermal updraft and shot up to 9,000 feet all at once, nosed over, did a flip, and then started to fall from the sky. It dropped to 3,000 feet before his pilot managed to pull it out. Dr. Leven’s belt broke, and his lighter shot out of his pocket and cut him on the chin.
“I got a little nick, for which I never claimed the Purple Heart,” said Dr. Leven. The Purple Heart medal is for soldiers wounded in military service.
Both remembered a key war decision made by a general named Curtis LeMay. U.S. planes were consistently getting shot down during daytime raids, so General LeMay decided to shift to night raids, done close to the ground. That way the Japanese could not see them, nor could they track them.
Before the atom bomb was dropped, Dr. Leven got shipped back to the states for special training. Later there were rumors his crew might have been a back-up crew for the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped a nuclear bomb.
The crew was in special training in San Bernardino, in what is now Edwards Air Force Base. “It was never, for us, elucidated,” he said.
Both remember the moment when they heard that the nuclear bomb had been dropped. Mr. Merrick was in the B29, halfway between Japan and Saipan.
“We were flying back from a mission. I had turned the radio on. Sometimes I would tune in Tokyo Rose. I could switch it so all the gunners could hear it, and the pilot, and everybody. I was listening to the news and that was it.” He said it was hard to explain how it felt.
Dr. Leven remembers feeling relief when he heard the news.
“I felt great relief because I knew it had to be the end. I didn’t think of it in any specific detail. Only later can you conceive of the incredible horror that this thing was.”
At the time, it just seemed great to think their 15-hour days would end soon.
“War is hell. You’re reduced in moral strength to some degree. You’re there to live,” said Dr. Leven.
By skill or chance, both did live. More, they managed to reconnect years later to enjoy some French cuisine.