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2014, Aaron Elson




Karnig Thomasian

Army Air Corps, prisoner of war of the Japanese

    Karnig Thomasian of River Edge, New Jersey, was a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Rangoon, Burma.

2014, Aaron Elson

River Edge, N.J., May 12, 2000

    Aaron Elson: How old are you?

    Karnig Thomasian: 76 … 76 Trombones.

    Aaron Elson: You’re about as young as you could be and still be a World War II veteran.

    Karnig Thomasian: Yes, just about.

    Aaron Elson: Now, you’re Armenian, I take it.

    Karnig Thomasian: I’m of Armenian descent.

    Aaron Elson: Were you born in New Jersey?

    Karnig Thomasian: I was born in New York. In Washington Heights.

    Aaron Elson: I went to school briefly at George Washington High School.

    Karnig Thomasian: Oh, did you? That’s where I went.

    Aaron Elson: Actually I went to Stuyvesant, but I failed math and went to summer school at George Washington.

    Karnig Thomasian: I failed math too, and I had to go to summer school.

    Aaron Elson: Now, you being of Armenian descent, you must have grown up with tales of…

    Karnig Thomasian: Oh yes, of the Turkish genocides, absolutely. My father-in-law – Diana’s father – he was there and he saw his sister dragged off, beaten and raped and killed. He couldn’t do a thing about it. He’s dead now, but he could not be in the presence of a Turk. And I can understand from the experience that he had, it was very close to his, what makes everything tick in a person, and he naturally was very adamant about it. He gave them no quarter whatsoever. Now, I guess your next question is what are my feelings? My feelings are – as they are with the Japanese as well – that that was a period of time that was very upsetting to everyone. There was a regime in the Turkish area where they were just trying to annihilate a race, regardless of what the reasons were, there was no question about this, and historically, that’s a fact. What I resent about the Turkish government is that they will never admit to this. And I think it’s all political in our government not pushing them because they’ve got forward bases there. Simple. I understand it. But I don’t know that I can hold the children of the children of that period responsible; I mean, that gets to be a little ridiculous. Unless they prove to be otherwise, you’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt. Like the Japanese. The ones that were there I despised. If I saw them I’d kill them. But again, am I going to hold the descendants forevermore responsible for their acts? It’s a hard thing. I can’t. I just don’t believe it. I believe those that are responsible, those that beat us and tortured us, they were the animals. And at this point I’ll say we had those type of animals in our group, too. In our armies. But far different. The difference between being a Japanese prisoner and a German prisoner was the cultural difference. The Japanese culture was totally alien to us. Totally. Whereas in Germany there were certain aspects of it that were compatible you might say, maybe it’s the wrong word. The values of life and death were pretty much the same. They’re totally different in Japan, and I imagine China and Korea. It’s a different makeup, and unless you understand that it’s difficult to appraise the things that happened. We saw – I saw with my own eyes – a Japanese officer beating his enlisted man with a teakwood club, just like they beat us. I thought he was going to kill him. I said, "What can this poor soul," because he looked pathetic, this young kid, and the officer was whaling away at him. God knows what he did, I have no idea. But that’s when we knew, hey, we’d better watch our butts because we’re gonna get the same and we did. And for no reason. That sort of background gets into it.

    Aaron Elson: You were what, 18, when you went into the service? Were you drafted?

    Karnig Thomasian: No, I enlisted at 18. I didn’t graduate high school. I opted to enlist, but during the summer, before I decided to do so, I went to the Delehanty Institute for a month, learned how to rivet, and then went to the Brewster Aircraft Factory to help the war effort. I was put on the night shift, being among the later entries into the work force, and we’d be working away, when suddenly, ding! A bell would ring and suddenly everybody’s gone. I said, "Where did they go?"

    And the head union guy of that group came over and said, "Hey, what are you doing?"

    I said, "I’m working."

    He said, "Come on! Get off the line. Take a break. Smoke."

    "I don’t smoke."

    He said, "Well, take a break anyway. You know, you’re probably not gonna make the union cut."

    I said, "What do you mean? There’s a war going on, and you guys are smoking? What kind of nonsense is this?"

    He said, "You don’t like it? Take off." Words to that effect.

    And a week later, I just walked away, and then I enlisted in the Air Corps.

    Aaron Elson: Did you have to take a test, or did you have any special qualifications?

    Karnig Thomasian: Not particularly. To be a pilot, yes, you had to have perfect vision, and that I didn’t have, so right away I knew I wasn’t going to get into that area of the business, But I did like airplanes, so I went to airplane mechanic school in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and from there I went to electrical specialist school in Chicago, Chinook Field. And there I did quite well. I was in the top group of the class, so they offered us – the ones that were at this level – an opportunity to volunteer for a new bomber that was being built. And we would be taught how to be flight engineers. I said, hey, that sounds good. They couldn’t tell us anything else, but it sounded to me, an 18-year-old kid, boy, that’s exciting! So I jumped into that, along with a bunch of my friends, and we went out to Seattle, to the Boeing aircraft factory, where we were taught by the civilian engineers. As yet we hadn’t seen the plane. And in the classes – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the field there but it’s in like a valley, and the planes have got to really climb to get over the mountains there, and the factory is down below on the other end of the field. And on the top ridge are all the quonset huts where they were teaching us. So we’d see big struts, my God, look at the size of them, we’d never seen anything like this. And we’d see pieces and drawings, gee, everything was amazing. Also, what was amazing, there were people that were going for this assignment that were college students, they’d taken high math, and unfortunately, to be a flight engineer you had to have pretty good math. How they figured I had pretty good math I don’t know, but a lot of stuff was bouncing off the back wall and I realized, oh boy, this is no child’s play. And sure enough, I flunked out in that aspect of it. However, I learned a lot. And with everything, like in life, even when you fail you learn, it’s a good thing, if you don’t learn then you’re really in trouble.

    From there we went to gunnery school in Denver, and there we were taught to manipulate the guns and tear them down. We had to learn a whole different system because the B-29 had the central fire control system whereby you’re sitting at your window and there’s a little machine there, I’d say 13 inches wide with two big knobs. And as you turn these knobs on a four inch square glass plate, you would see blips, dots, going in and coming out, and if this was the plane’s wings coming at you, as soon as they touched the perimeter of the wings, you’d press your trigger and the bullets should hit him. Providing you have put in his wingspan, you recognized the plane and put the wingspan into the computer.

    Well, it sounds great, right? In the heat of battle, try and do that. So when you’d have your briefing of the mission they’d tell you what planes to expect and you’d put in the most probable thing and then hope and pray that they stick with it. So I usually looked at my tracers.

    Aaron Elson: That new plane was the B-29?

    Karnig Thomasian: Yes. I must say also, while we were learning, someone said, "Hey, I hear some engines going." And then, "Hey, it’s a B-29!" So we poured out of the classrooms. All of us stood on this ridge, and can you imagine, we see the B-29 and in front of it was a little plane – a B-17. I said, "Oh, my God!" Now we saw a one-to-one difference. Geez, wow, I get goose pimples just talking about it. It was absolutely so thrilling. And so the B-17 revved up and then took off, and it took most of the runway and finally lifted off. And then the big Pratt-Whitney 2800s, they started revving up and they were vibrating – of course it was a stripped down plane, they were both stripped down, so they had not that much weight compared to a full load. However, when he let go of those brakes, he virtually lurched forward and then roared, like a fighter. I could not believe my eyes. We were absolutely enthralled with this whole thing. We went back with more vigor and excitement; we couldn’t wait until we could get into one these things, which was going to be months later.

    This was early in 1943. And then we went to the gunnery school at Denver, and from there we went to Clovis, New Mexico, where we formed crews, and we trained on B-17s because there were no 29s yet. Basically for the crew there wasn’t that much to do, it’s just strictly for the pilots and engineer and co-pilot and radio operator and navigator. Those were the ones that were getting the experience. We just sat there with nothing to do.

    I joined a baseball team there. I had fun doing that. In fact I pitched against Joe Gordon. I have the honor of having him hit the longest ball I’ve ever seen in my life. I had two strikes on him, and cocky Karnig thought I would slip one by him, I had a good fastball, but my fastball is nothing like these fastballs in the major leagues. Well, he swung and that ball went – the outfielders just looked – they haven’t found it yet. I never saw in my life, at that period of time, a ball hit that far. I was mesmerized.

    Now, do you want to know some funny things that happened?

    As I told you, it’s pretty dull for the guys, and all the other crews would fly off, do their mission, and sometime or other they’d stop off at some city, presumably out of gas or low on something, engine trouble, they’re a little doubtful, and they’d have an overnight.

    Our pilot was gung-ho. He was a fabulous pilot, this guy Doc Triemer. He was a veteran of B-24s down in South America, and he was terrific, God bless him. But he wanted us to have a perfect record.

    One day we got together and we got the co-pilot in with us, we said, "What do you think?"

    We had a mission to go over Tucson. Well, you’ve got to go over mountains, then come down. And you need oxygen then – on 17s, not 29s. So we said, We’ll put full force oxygen all the way on the mission.

    When we came back, the flight engineer looked, and said, "We’re low on oxygen."

    "Oh, okay," the pilot said.

    So we land. Well, stupid us, we all had our suntan clothes on. We jumped out with our suntans, not fatigues. The pilot took one look at us – I don’t want to say what he said but he was livid. "You get back in the plane!" He got the guys to fill up the tanks, we took off within half an hour, we were up and over the mountains. We had our tails between our legs. We just blew it. We should have come in with fatigues. Oh yeah, we were gonna go to town, have a ball. Instead we got back and kept our record intact.

    We went from there to Wichita, Kansas, where we picked up our ship, and we finally had our own ship. Brand-new. Right off the line. We had to put some time in on it, get the pilot to get used to it, because we’re going to fly it overseas. We did all that and we got familiar with the guns and all, so one time I crawled through the tunnel – it’s all pressurized, you don’t need oxygen – and there was a tunnel you could crawl through from the back to the front of the plane. It’s all pressurized. So I crawled through the tunnel, "Hiya guys."

    "Oh, hi, Tommy!" They called me Tommy at that time.

    I went up and looked at the cockpit, and the pilot said, "Do you want to sit down here?"

    And I said, "Sure."

    Chet Paul, the co-pilot, got up out of his seat and gave it to me. I was like a kid with a toy.

    He said, "That’s your pedal, the rudder, and then your throttle’s over here," and then he said, "Go ahead." I’m looking at the dials and things, and I happen to look up. "Oh," I said, "there’s clouds coming up."

    He said, "Do you want to take over?" He said, "You’re flying instruments now. I haven’t taken my your off the instruments, so you might as well go through the clouds."

    They all kidded me but that was a funny thing. So what was the difference, you’re looking at the instruments anyway. But that was something.

    Aaron Elson: How many men were in the crew?

    Karnig Thomasian: Eleven. There was a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer, bombardier, radio operator, so that makes six in front, and then in the back, left gunner – I was the left gunner – right gunner, central fire control, he sat in between us up in the top. Tail gunner. And then a radar operator that was in between the tail and our compartment; there was another compartment, all dark, no windows, he was in there, what a lonely spot. I don’t know why you would want a job like that.

    We finally put the proper amount of hours in, whatever they were, 25 or 50 hours, it didn’t take long. And – oh, my good friend Vernon Henning, he was very close to me. He was the central fire control fellow. And his father lived in Concordia, Missouri, which is just on the corner where all the states there come together. He drove over to see us. He was a tall, lean Midwesterner, blue eyes, aw, geez, a nice old gentleman. I’ll never forget him. He put his arms around us and he said, "Take care of one another."

    He was such a nice gentleman. We all said, "Yeah .…"

    Well, Vernon never made it out … he never made it out of the plane.

    He was right behind me. His feet were on my shoulder. Anyway, we’ll get to that point and I’ll tell you.

    All right, so we said our goodbyes, and then we took off the next morning and went to Florida, landed for gas and we picked up our final orders there. We were to go to Chakulya, India. And we went by way of Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico. We landed there. Then we landed in Belem, Brazil. In Belem, we had a leaky gas tank. Where are you going to get a B-29 gas tank in Brazil? They had to fly one down. And we were there a month, just sitting on the beach.

    We finally got the tank put in, and then we flew over the ocean to Agra on the coast of Africa. Then from Agra we went to Khartoum, Egyptian Sudan. And the reason we went there is because we couldn’t go to Karachi because of the monsoons, so we stayed in Khartoum for a few weeks.

    Aaron Elson: Now, with you having Armenian features, did you blend in with the population?

    Karnig Thomasian: Oh, yes. I’ll tell you, I got dark. When I am really in the sun, I get dark. And we had these little Arab kids, their parents in the white tunics would be the bearers to help get you tea, this, that and the other thing. We had a nice barracks, and we’d play cards. So we said to one of the little kids, "Come here. We’ll give you some money, you’re gonna play cards." So he played with our money. It was just for fun. Well, his father came in [and he was furious]. We explained, No, we’re giving our money, not his money, don’t worry, he didn’t lose, it’s just for fun … we couldn’t explain it, forget it.

    Well, that kid, the next day he showed up but he kept away. And then he came when we were going to leave. And we’re packing up and he’s helping us pack. He says, "Sahib. …"

    I said, "Yes?"

    He had a little cloth with things wrapped up. He wanted to come on the plane.

    I said, "You can’t. We’re gonna go to war. We could get killed."

    "Oh, I wait, I come back."

    See, his philosophy – he saw how dark I got, he thought, he goes to America, he’d get white. Can you believe this? This was his concept. He was too much of a child to put me on this way, I mean, he had big eyes, so innocent. I almost cried.

    Then we got out on the runway and he’s still hanging around, hoping, hoping, praying. It was heartrending, really, I mean the innocence of this, in the midst of all this other crap that’s going on.

    From there we finally took off, and then another incident happened. Our life raft popped out – don’t ask me why. We had to go land. In order to land we had to let go a lot of gas because we were too heavy, so we landed, got that all done. There goes – what’s that? – it’s our life raft! We’re going to go near the Indian Ocean so I guess they figured we’d better have one.

    Then we got to Aden, Arabia, and that is where Cleopatra’s baths are. Big, deep, round things with steps going down the side. So we saw that, big deal. But then we went into town, and we all had sidearms, .45s now that we’re over there. We went into town in a jeep, and then pretty soon we went into one place, and we got into the jeep again and we started moving, and the crowds are starting to come around, and we said, hey, we’d better get our butts out of here. This doesn’t smell good. So we went at high speed. The MPs told us we shouldn’t really go around like that. He said there’s a lot of nonsense going on.

    I said, "Okay, we’re not gonna go again."

    Then the next day we went to Karachi. In Karachi we had problems with the exhaust manifolds, and we had to repair those, and that we had to do ourselves because those people didn’t know what was going on. So our flight engineer, Bert Parmalee – incidentally, this fellow was exceptional, and he really knew his stuff – guided us, and we finally fixed the thing. And then rains were diminishing to a point that was fly-able, so we went directly to Chakulya. We landed, and it was an overcast day, murky and drizzly. It was a dismal looking day, what a day to go into some place. We went in to get our bedding, and my right gunner, McCutcheon, he looked at this gray olive drab box that said, "Missing in action," and he said, "Wow, you can get killed out here." How prophetic. He didn’t come back either.

    We took some training flights, to get used to the area. And then we were ordered to go down to Koregpour, which was another base where they had these re-fitted B-24s; they were virtual gas tanks, and we would ferry the gas over the Hump to China. We had four forward bases, and these four forward bases would have to be loaded with gas, so that when our B-29s came over to do a mission to Japan, they’d land and get gassed up, go to Japan, come back, get gassed up, and fly back over the Hump. So you had a lot of gas to get over there. And that was very dangerous. The only ones that went on these missions were the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio operator and flight engineer.

    Aaron Elson: Were there Japanese fighter planes in the area?

    Karnig Thomasian: Not that we knew of, but from the ground anything can happen. A stray guy, who knows what. Or bad weather, and they went through tremendous weather. Over the Himalayas you can drop like in a vacuum. It happened to us once with our B-29, Whooooa, my stomach went, I said, "What was that?"

    "We hit a pocket." Nothing. Just a void. If there was a mountain peak under you and you had that void … Anyway, the guys did this, and the rest of us stayed in Koregpour and worked on the line, the line being, every time the plane came in it would go turn around, land, and then we’d check it for the battery, the oil, everything, and up at the other end they’d load it with gas, and they’d take off. This happened all day.

Interviews                       Karnig Thomasian, Page 2