Backtracking: The Early Years: Oneonta man could finally tell story in 1953 of WWII escape

Courtesy of the Fawcett familyJust before marriage in 1945, James Asbury Fawcett is shown with Alice Foley of Jamaica, Queens, at a quiet lunch in Babylon.

 

It was a furlough well deserved for Staff Sgt. James A. Fawcett of Oneonta in 1944.

“Reported missing in action Sept. 11, 1943,” The Oneonta Star reported on May 1, 1944, Sgt. Fawcett “…returned Saturday night and is spending a 21-day furlough here. He will report at Miami, Fla. for assignment. For security reasons, Sgt. Fawcett can not relate many of his experiences since he disappeared while on a bombing mission, although he at one time was reported in ‘friendly’ country.”

So imagine, you’re visiting friends and family — and can’t say a word about what you’ve been doing overseas. It was a predicament Fawcett had to carry silently then, and onward until 1953.

The Star could tell that Sgt. Fawcett was an aerial gunner and was one of the 156 charter members of the “I Bombed Japan” club, formed by members of the 11th Air Force in Alaska who participated in bombing missions to Paramushiru and Shimushu in the Kuriles, northeastern islands of Japan.

Fawcett graduated from Hartwick College in 1932 and joined the Oneonta Police Department in 1936. He enlisted in the Army in July 1942. Upon training in gunnery school in Texas, he was promoted to staff sergeant.

Fawcett was finally able to discuss what happened during that missing time, speaking with a Star staff writer and reported on Feb. 14, 1953:

"I was one of the 60 American airmen who were prisoners of war in Russia during World War Two, when Russia was an ally. For ten years all of us have kept silence about our experiences which were classified by the War Department as ‘top secret’ that not even unauthorized intelligence officers of the army were permitted to question us about what happened.

“It began toward the end of August, 1943, when there was a call for volunteers for a ‘bombing mission to an undisclosed destination.’ We were all stationed in the Aleutians Islands. We had an idea we were heading for Japan — and we were.

“On Sept. 9 … 24 planes, some B-25s and some B-24s, took off from the air strip at Attu for what was the first U.S. mass bombing raid from a land base on Japan. A B-24 had left two weeks before on a similar raid and never returned. Members of its crew were also in our prison camp, and was one of Jimmy Doolittle’s crew that made the first, famous raid on Japan.

“We were told that a U.S. destroyer would patrol about 200 miles off the coast, and so if we were hit we were to try to make it out there to be picked up, or else return to the Aleutians.

“But we were also told that if for some reason we could neither get home or to the destroyer, we were to try to make the USSR air base at the tip of the Kamchatka, north of the Japanese island chain.”

The mission had several miscues, and before they knew it, Fawcett described skies being “thick as flies” with Japanese Zeros.

“We got hit too badly to even try to get back to base or the destroyer and headed for Russia.”

One hitch in this whole thing was that while Russia was an ally on the Western Front, she hadn’t entered the war against Japan. The Americans were put under guard. “The Russians grabbed our planes and personal weapons. They didn’t believe our ‘training flight’ story.

“We were kept there for three weeks. Every day Russian intelligence men would question us. Except when taken for interrogations, or, under guard, taken outside for washing up or exercise, we were confined to barracks.”

Fawcett said they really were not mistreated, but there was no communication between American and Russian diplomats or consuls during this time of being prisoners.

After three weeks the men were flown across Russia and kept at another barracks in Tashkent, near the Caspian Sea. In February 1944 they were told they were going to be shipped to the Balkans, stationed at an air base and put to work.

The men traveled by train, which broke down in the middle of a desert, with only the train crew and one unarmed security guard. The crew said they were going to the next town for repair equipment, leaving Fawcett and the other men on their own.

They discussed their opportunity at hand and decided to risk walking across the border into Iran. They soon met up with a U.S. convoy, which took them to Tehran, and safety. Not long after, Fawcett arrived in Oneonta for the furlough.

After World War II, Fawcett returned to Oneonta, and rejoined the police department. He was named a sergeant on the force in 1946, where he continued to serve until early January 1973.

On Tuesday: Local college events were plentiful during May 1989.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area before 1950. His Tuesday columns address local history 1950 and later.  If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

Ask Mark... 

Have you ever had a question about a history-making event or a prominent person in our area and didn't know where to find the answer? Well, we've got an expert who might be able to help you. Historian Mark Simonson has spent many years chronicling major local happenings, and he's ready and willing to dive into The Daily Star archives for answers, which will appear in this newspaper and online at www.thedailystar.com.

Write to him at "Ask Mark," The Daily Star, 102 Chestnut St., Oneonta, NY 13820 or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com