Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Wendy Godwin
Marvin Nester relaxes in his recliner. He is wearing khaki dress pants and a neatly ironed brown checked shirt. Wizened eyes look out through wire-rimmed glasses as he surveys the small group of family and friends gathered in his living room. After sixty-nine years, Marvin is ready to talk.
“I hope it won’t be too long,” he says, “I know my memory in sixty-plus years is not what it once was.”
Actually, his memory is quite accurate. Certain events are life-defining and leave an indelible imprint. These memories take Marvin back to a time in his life when divine protection was poured out to him upon each wave and alongside each bootstep.
Marvin always dreamed of becoming a pilot, but the Army had other plans for him. “They decided that I would be a better radio operator than a pilot,” he says, “because they needed a lot of radio operators.” So, he completed basic training and was sent to radio school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
As the lone radio operator on a B-24 Liberator bomber, his job was to call in every hour to report his aircraft’s position; this was crucial information while on a reconnaissance or bombing mission. He became an expert at using International Morse Code. Often, there was an extreme amount of static on the airwaves as other operators, foreign and domestic, all tried to call in their positions at the same time.
Marvin’s job was tedious; his “office” tiny.
In addition to the stacks of radio equipment, the radio operator’s compartment held one small swivel chair with an adjustable back. He was positioned sideways in the aircraft, where he could view the left wing through a side window. On one side of him was a long box full of .50-caliber ammunition. This was where he would rest his Army-issued .45-caliber pistol. On the other side, a box stretched back to the waist gunner’s compartment. He could use this for personal storage, although he never had much to store. He remembers his belongings on the warm evening of June 11th, 1945, consisted of a pack of chewing gum and an English-Chinese translation booklet he had tucked in the pocket of his one-piece flight suit.
“It should have been just a routine flight,” he begins.
His expression tightens just the slightest bit. His half-smile is replaced with a more serious look. Still there’s a quiet confidence in his eyes.
On June 11th, Marvin Nester and the rest of the U. S. Army Air Force 43rd Bombardment Group checked in for their 2:00 PM briefing and were ready to take off from Clark Field in the Philippines by 6:00PM. They had flown four successful missions as a crew already. Their mission on this day: to find and target Japanese ships, docks, or airfields located near Shanghai at the mouth of the Yangtze River.
“We flew low. We flew just a couple hundred feet off the ground to not be spotted,” he says.
It was getting dark when they spied the island of Formosa. As they ascended to seven thousand feet, they started to see streaks of light from below as Japanese forces attacked their aircraft.
“It’s always kind of a funny feeling when you see those tracers,” Marvin says, and makes a curving motion with his hand to mimic the arc of the bullets. “But they were far enough away. We got high enough. They’d go trailing off to the side all the time.”
The crew traveled several more hours before they reached the China coast. At about 3:00 AM they were heading up the Yangtze River when they spotted a large Japanese vessel. They flew over a couple of times, turned, and got ready to make a bomb run. On routine flights, this was the point when the pilot turned the flying of the plane over to the bombardier,who then flew the plane with the Norden Bombsight and auto-pilot system used to pin-point the target.
“The last thing I remember the pilot saying was ‘one hundred and sixty feet’, and we were turning,” Marvin says. “And whether we were lower than we thought we were or what, I feel like our wing hit the water.”
The plane’s wing hit the water at an airspeed of 170 mph. Incredible force broke the bomber into three parts, splitting it just in front of and behind where Marvin sat. The bomber’s tail stuck up out of the water; its wing section floated on the surface. “Everything went black,” he says.
Marvin’s little chair swung around to face the rear of the plane but held him tight throughout the impact. Instinctively, he reached for his .45 but realized it was gone. There was nothing left of what had once surrounded him. He grasped above him to where the emergency escape hatch was located. It had already released itself and was open. He pulled himself up and crouched on top of the plane.
Marvin inched his way toward the right wing of the plane. “I looked out along that wing and here’s a life raft, already out, already inflated, tied to the plane. Just waitin’ for me,” he says. He slipped out onto the wing and into the raft. He sat there tethered to the plane, peering out over the wreckage and water, and hoped to see evidence his crewmates were alive. He glanced down at his feet, amazed they were still dry.
After what seemed like forever, Albert Garnto, the flight engineer, popped his head out of the water beside the raft. Marvin pulled him in. Soon after, Daniel Redmond, the radar operator, joined them in the raft. Only these three survivors, out of eleven men, made it to shore that long dark night.
At one point, the survivors were only about two-hundred yards from a Japanese outpost, but were never discovered. They hid from Japanese soldiers in a deep rice paddy drainage ditch filled with mud. They walked for days on end. They traveled by rickshaw, or hidden in a wheelbarrow. They rode on horseback, and in a Chinese junk. Anything to evade the ruthless Japanese forces stationed at the mouth of the Yangtze.
Marvin remembers the strong soy sauce odor that seemed to permeate everything. And the food: eel and rotten fish, chicken (every part was eaten), freshly dug clams, and purple sticky-rice bread cooked outside in a clay oven.
He chuckles as he recounts finally being introduced to someone who spoke English, a fourteen-year-old boy who attended school in Shanghai. “Yu Gen Singh liked to be with us. Liked to help us any way he could,” he says. “He even liked to use our toothbrush.” Marvin smiles as he remembers this young Chinese friend whose father, a wealthy man, allowed the soldiers to hide out a week in his home.
“I can say that the Chinese people were so good to us,” Marvin recalls. “They treated us like we were treasures, and it was just unreal how determined they were to take care of us.”
The Americans were aided first by Chinese guerrilla troops, then the Communist New 4th Army, and finally the Chinese National Army. But most importantly, Marvin believes, they were aided by the hand of God.
Marvin’s wife, Debra, takes a pan of brownies out of the oven. She sets them on the kitchen counter along with some other refreshments for their guests. On the table nearby is a display of Marvin’s memorabilia from the war.
Many treasured pictures of Marvin and the rest of the crew are scattered about. In the center is his certificate from the Radio Operator and Mechanics Course. Beside it, his collection of war medals sit secure in their boxes. Among them, a Purple Heart.
Off to one side of the large table, nestled among more photos, is a typed letter signed by then Acting Adjutant General Edward Witsell. It’s the kind of letter no mother wants to receive:
“As promised you, I am writing again concerning your son. . . who was reported missing in action. . . It is therefore with deep regret that I must inform you that no further report in his case has reached the War Department.”
To the left of this letter, however, is better news. Tucked underneath more pictures is a yellowed newspaper article. In bold print, the headline reads:
“Sergeant Marvin Nester Writes That He Is Safe in China.”