Kenneth Baeth recalls sitting in his American history class decades ago at Libby High School, gazing out the window and daydreaming about flying.
He soon realized it wasn’t enough to fantasize about it. He wanted to do it.
In October 1942, at age 20, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a forerunner to the U.S. Air Force. His desire to fly would soon become reality in the midst of World War II.
He would go on to fly 40 eight- to 14-hour missions as a nose gunner on a B-24 Liberator with nine other men aboard. He operated a machine gun turret in the front, or “nose,” of the plane until October 1945 when he was discharged.
The crew was in charge of an array of .50-caliber machine guns in the tail, top, belly, sides and nose of the plane to provide protection against enemy fighter planes.
At 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 142 pounds, Baeth was considered the perfect size to crawl inside the nose. He had a bird’s-eye view of the action, some of which he wish he hadn’t seen.
And if the plane went down, the last place any man wanted to be was in the nose.
“Once I went in that bubble, they locked me in,” he said. “I couldn’t get out.”
Today, at age 90, the details of those missions are a little fuzzy. But where his memory fails him, the log book in which Baeth religiously documented his days at war help fill in the blanks.
May 4, 1944: Mission No. 1. Left Kwajalein for staging — stayed over night. Hit Ponape at noon the 4th. Saw first ack-ack (anti-aircraft), had military target. No interception — was nose gunner. Really set the island on fire. Ponape is a big beautiful island — big as Oahu. Everybody OK.
It was curled in the nose turret of the bomber, the Lady Luck, that Baeth had his first brush with war. His entries are long on facts and detail, short on emotion.
May 5, 1944: Sea search for crew lost over Ponape. No trace except for life vest floating.
Baeth is one of about 90 World War II veterans who will travel to Washington, D.C., this month to visit the National World War II Memorial. He is part of the third tour of Big Sky Honor Flight that will make the trip April 21-22. He was given priority on the flight because he is terminally ill. He has been in hospice care for cardiac disease at Eagle Cliff Manor in Billings since June 5, 2012.
Brian Huso, administrator at Eagle Cliff Manor, said attempts to get Baeth aboard the first two flights fizzled. Huso was adamant that Baeth not be left behind this time.
“Let’s get this settled,” Huso said.
Baeth is one of about 18,000 World War II veterans living in Montana. Based on the most recent statistics, they are dying nationally at the rate of about 900 per day.
Baeth will be accompanied on the trip by his oldest son, Roger, who lives in Missoula.
In anticipation of the trip, Baeth has been putting in extra time working with a physical therapist to become more mobile and ambulatory.
Baeth has never been to the nation’s capital. His anticipation is palpable.
“I want to stand there and look at everything visible,” Baeth said.
He knows his flight to D.C. aboard a private charter jet will be markedly different from his B-24 Liberator. One of his clearest memories of his days aboard the bomber was skimming a few hundred feet over the South Pacific with the door of the aircraft open. He was able to wave his hands in the air.
“You haven’t flown until you’ve done that,” he said.
For now, he’s reliving those days of the 1940s by studying his log book and myriad scrapbooks, bulging with mementos of yesteryear.
One of his other most vivid memories is the night he spent midair over Wake Island. The B-24 Madame Pele was struck by anti-aircraft fire just ahead of Baeth’s nose turret. Ten of his comrades perished.
May 17, 1944: Mission No. 4. 1st raid to Wake Islands — ask-ack pretty dense. Saw a B-24 go down in flames. Hit target OK. Evasive action OK. Pretty scared.”
“Their bunk was right across from us,” he recalled with precision. “We had to clean out their belongings. That made it reality. It shows you what a bomb can do to an airplane. One bomb just shattered it to nothing. There were just pieces of bodies and men and airplane wings, motors, everything. It was just one big mess. And you realize you’re capable of getting hit, too.”
Though the entry documents his fear that particular day, Baeth said he didn’t worry about dying. His focus was elsewhere.
“I did my job,” he said.
With the air attack on Iwo Jima, the last stop before Japan, coming to a head, every B-24 was needed to pave the way for the ground troops preparing to take the island. Baeth was on deck.
Dec. 11, 1944: Mission No. 30. Hit Iwo Jima at 11:30. Bombed No. 1 runway. Good bomb hits. Top dome hit by flak. Broke gun sight. Everybody OK.
Baeth does not elaborate.
Baeth’s 40th and final bombing run was Jan. 12, 1945, over Iwo Jima. It was about a month before the Feb. 19 invasion of the island.
Jan. 12, 1945: Mission No. 40. Finished up 40 mission Jan. 12th at 2105 hour. Dropped 40 bombs on Nov. 1 airstrip at Iwo Jima. Target clear. Ack-ack moderate and accurate. Nearly lost No. 2 supercharger. Everybody OK. Happy day.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1944 for his extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.
On April 22, he hopes to have the privilege of seeing the World War II Memorial up close and personal.
“I will be amazed at it,” he said. “I’ll be amazed at the craftsmanship.”