Friday, March 8, 2013

WWII B-29 pilot Leroy Florence visits Saipan

Dinah Lee and her father Lt. LeRoy Florence at the 360 Revolving Restaurant on Saipan.

Military Historical Tours Inc. brings to Saipan WWII veterans Hal Johnson, right, and LeRoy Florence, center. Photos by ALEXIE VILLEGAS ZOTOMAYOR

WWII B-20 pilot Leroy Florence visits Saipan
Variety Associate Editor / Reporter

SAIPAN, Nothern Mariana Islands –– IT’S his first trip to Saipan since World War II.

B-29 co-pilot 1st Lt. LeRoy Florence of Kansas City, Missouri, who took part in 35 bombing missions from Saipan to Japan in the nine months he was at Isely Field as a member of the 878th Bomb Squadron, 499th Bomb Group, 73rd wing, 15th Air Force, arrived on Saipan Wednesday with his daughter Dinah and eight other visitors.

Florence and his daughter were part of the Military Historical Tours Inc.’s group that will be visiting Saipan and Tinian until March 9.

Asked how it felt to come back to Saipan, Florence said, “Emotional.”

“It has been a terrific feeling. Everybody has been very pleasant, very helpful,” added Lawrence who was 24 when he arrived on Saipan on Nov. 13, 1944 aboard the B-29 they called “Hell’s Belle.”

“I was here for nine months,” said Florence who was stationed at what was then known as Isely Field.

His daughter, Dinah, said that her father was on Saipan from November 1944 to August 1945.

For the 92-year-old WWII veteran, coming to Saipan “has been smooth.”

Dinah is happy that her father was able to make the long trip to Saipan which she described as not at all an easy trip.

Despite the long flight, coming back to Saipan brought back memories for Florence.

He said he joined the service in 1942. “I enlisted and went into the Air Corps.”

He said he went to mechanic school and, while there, had the opportunity to take the test and get into an officer-training program.

“I did that. Then they suggested I go to flying school and become a pilot,” said Florence who graduated from the flying school in June 1943.

“After moving to a number of places, I got married just before I graduated. I moved around to various places for a year or so. Finally I ended up in the B29 program,” he said, adding that he travelled to different places in Kansas for training in the B-29 program.

His only child, Dinah, said “I was born as he was coming here and so he didn’t know whether he had had a son or a daughter. He knew I was coming, but he didn’t know what he was going to get.”

While on Saipan, Florence kept a notebook that served as his journal.

His daughter said, “Every time they would fly, he would write down where they were going, what 
time they went, what happened.”

With his daughter’s prodding, Florence expanded his war journal into a book. “One thing led to another, and then it became an illustrated book for the family,” said Dinah Lee.

Variety was able to obtain a copy of some of his notes.

On Dec. 4, 1944, Florence wrote, “Saipan Dec. 4, 1944 Giot informed me through a letter from his wife that I was the father of a girl, Dinah Lee. No mail from home yet.”

The following day, his journal entry celebrated the arrival of mail. “Saipan 5, Dec. MAIL TODAY — Six letters from Martha. Three letters from Mother. Dinah was born Nov. 15, 1944 11:53 PM.”

It was the first mail he’d received since leaving Salina, Kansas the month before.

Now close to 70 years down the road, Dinah Lee was upbeat about taking the trip with her father.

“It is really different from what I thought it was going to be,” she said.

“Everybody has been very nice, she said, adding that people let her father take his time to get around.

She said, “It has been working out great.”

Dinah Lee, who has two sons living in Washington State, told Variety she is proud of her father and of his service to the country during WWII.

She also said her father has always loved airplanes and he loves flying.

“I am very proud of him and so are my sons. They are really proud of him,” she said.

She told Variety how her father and the rest of the young men and women of his time rose to the occasion to serve the country.

“They put these 24-year-old kids in charge of those big airplanes and sent them on 18-hour trips. 

There were lots of responsibilities on those big airplanes,” she said.

She also said, “It was so exciting that they didn’t realize how serious it was flying there or what could happen.”

As to her father belonging to the greatest generation, “I think it is true.”

Hell’s Belle
As to the plane that brought Florence to Saipan, he said it was named after the manufacturer in Georgia.

Dinah Lee said, “After they had been here a few days, the Japanese came and bombed it. So they got another airplane, but they didn’t name it this time.”

Variety asked Florence why, and he said, “No point in renaming the airplane when you don’t know how long you are going to have it anyway.”

She retold a story her father used to tell about the airfields on Saipan and on Tinian.

But Florence served only at Isely Field on Saipan. “Neither on Guam nor Tinian,” he said.

Dinah Lee said there were differences between the Tinian and Saipan airfields in terms of the experiences the crews had.

She said, “The B-29 engines would get heated up a lot when they took off. Here, they could take off high and drop down low to cool off. Over on Tinian, they were low to begin with. So when they would take off and the engines got into trouble, they just fell into the water. Those airplanes went into the water. They could take off better from here.”

Florence took leave in August, 1945.

He said he was en route to Hawaii when he found out about the atomic bomb being dropped in Japan.

He also served in Korea in the 1950s as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force.

When the Korean War reached a stalemate in 1953, Florence said, “I resigned my commission and got out, and I have been out ever since.”

He sold air-conditioning units for some time and then electronic equipment “until I was 72.”

“I have been retired for 20 years,” he said.

Florence, who used to play golf often, now spends more time on his computer.

His daughter said, “He likes to mess around with the computer quite a bit.”

“Now I sleep a lot,” said Florence smilingly.

Florence is the sole surviving member of the crew he flew with to Saipan in Nov. of 1944.

Asked if he had any advice for the young generation of service members or those who intend to serve, he said, “Take advantage of the chance and just enjoy what you are doing. Have the pleasure of doing something for the country.”

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