ST. PAUL -- Seventy years ago, a young Army pilot from Minnesota named Robert Wieman was preparing for the invasion of Japan, a battle that was intended to finally bring World War II to an end.

Wieman’s plane, the heavily armed A-26 attack plane, was built for the kind of low-level strafing and bombing that would be needed to support American troops hitting the shores of the Japanese home islands. The plane’s name, the Invader, reflected the task ahead.

But the invasion, scheduled for fall 1945, never took place. Seventy years ago this month, Japan capitulated after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Wieman still flew his A-26 over Japan. He took part in the post-war occupation of the nation. In flights over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he saw for himself the devastation caused by the atomic bombs. He toured the massive network of caves where the Japanese military would have staged its last stand.

Wieman, now 93 and living in St. Paul’s Highland Park, retired after a long career with 3M and then as a real estate agent. He only recently gave up riding a motorcycle. But he’s taken up writing, authoring accounts about his experiences as a wartime pilot and getting published in magazines such as Air & Space and Flying.

He writes today that President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was the right one, arguing that it saved millions of lives on both sides that would have been lost if a full-scale invasion had been fought.

Wieman’s mission during the occupation was to fly reconnaissance flights, looking for signs of Japanese military activity despite the surrender. He never saw any. The defeated former enemy seemed more relieved than hostile.

“We were happy the war was over. They were happier the war was over,” Wieman said. “They had been bombed by B-29s, and that got kind of old.”

Flying to Japan

Wieman grew up on a farm in Arlington, Minn., but he got hooked on flying early in life.

In August 1933, he was an 11-year-old with a 4-H Guernsey calf. While he was at the Sibley County Fair, a family friend paid for a $5 ticket for Wieman for a 15-minute flight on a Curtiss Jenny biplane giving joyrides at the fair.

“I said ‘I sure would like to be a pilot some day,’” Wieman said.

He got his chance after World War II started. On his 20th birthday, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps Pilot Training Program. Training took him to bases around the country, to Missouri, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Florida and Hawaii.

The Army taught him to fly everything from open-cockpit training planes to twin-engine medium bombers. Before the war was over, he ended up in the pilot seat of about a dozen types of planes, including a P-38 fighter.

“I’m a farm boy. To go from milking cows to flying something like that is a big step,” Wieman said.

At first, it looked like he would fly a bomber in Europe, but then he was assigned to get ready for the invasion of Japan.

That meant rehearsing low-altitude attacks, practicing “skip-bombing” a bomb into cave entrances or strafing ground targets. His plane, the twin-engine A-26, had speed and a lot of firepower for the job: 14 forward-facing, .50-caliber machine guns.

“We trained a year for the invasion of Japan. That’s the only thing we trained for,” Wieman said.

He and his plane’s crew - a gunner and a navigator - were in Kauai, Hawaii, in August 1945 when they heard the news of the atomic bombings and the subsequent unconditional surrender of Japan.

“We were sort of let down. This big thing we were training for wasn’t going to happen,” Wieman said of his initial reaction.

But he soon realized they were lucky that the killing had ended.

Wieman didn’t see combat, but he still saw plenty of death and close calls. Fellow fliers were routinely killed in training accidents or in bad weather. Wieman survived a crash when one of the engines of a P-38 he was flying failed during a landing. He once flew through a harrowing tropical storm over the Pacific, an experience he wrote about in Air & Space Magazine.

“It’s amazing when you see the statistics how many planes and pilots and crews were lost in training,” he said. “I was 21 when I started this. I was 24 when I came home. When you’re that age, you don’t think of the danger.”

By the end of August 1945, Wieman started the long trip to Japan to take part in the occupation, stopping at several of the islands that American forces had just finished wresting from the Japanese: Tarawa, Eniwetok, Leyte.

On Sept. 2, 1945, he was flying to the Philippines and tuned in to the live radio broadcast of the official Japanese surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

A few weeks later, Wieman would be in Japan himself, stationed at an air base near Yokohama.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We thought there would be a lot of hostility there.”

But the Americans were treated with respect. They never felt threatened or needed to carry weapons with them. When he wasn’t flying, he was free to go anywhere, taking a jeep to tour Tokyo or the countryside.

“We had no restrictions,” Wieman said. “None, that is, except the Imperial Palace Grounds. We could walk around it and look at it through the fences, but we could not go in. Not even the Japanese people could go in. Not even General MacArthur could go in, and he was ‘God.’ At least, he thought so. And he convinced most of the Japanese people he was.”

Wieman stayed in Japan until June 1946. He was discharged from the Army and became a civilian again on July 4, 1946.

Past connection

Wieman was the youngest member of his attack plane crew, and he’s the only one still alive today. But last year, the daughter of Wieman’s gunner came across one of Wieman’s articles on the Internet that mentioned her father.

“I saw the picture, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s my father,’” Lynn Rose said.

She contacted Wieman and made the trip from California to visit Wieman in St. Paul this spring.

Rose said her father, Hugh Dunwoodie, rarely spoke of his war experience.

From Wieman, she learned about a flight Wieman took with Dunwoodie and their navigator, Rex Whitney, in Japan on April 8, 1946.

Wieman said he got permission from the base commander to fly his plane outside of the area they usually patrolled.

“I took my crew and we went down and flew over Nagasaki and Hiroshima,” Wieman said.

In an A-26, the gunner was normally positioned in the rear of the airplane. But on this flight, the three men who had been together for a year as a crew sat next to each other in the front of the cockpit.

“I didn’t want Dunwoodie to take this ride in the back of the airplane by himself,” Wieman said.

They flew down to 1,000 feet to examine the only cities in history destroyed with atomic bombs. Wieman said the fliers had seen other Japanese cities that had been nearly leveled by conventional bombing during the war.

He said Hiroshima “didn’t look very much different than other Japanese cities. The difference is one bomb did it rather than thousands.”

On the way back to the base, they circled Mount Fuji at 10,000 feet and climbed to 13,000 feet to peer down at the crater at the summit of the national symbol of Japan. Then they landed at their base and got dinner, Wieman said.

“That was the last flight the three of us had together.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.