3rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (3 PRS) and its Mariana Islands' History

  • Published
  • By Jeffrey N. Meyer
  • 36th Wing Historian
On Nov. 1, 2011, there will be an anniversary of sorts for an event that has been a time long forgotten. 67 years ago, Nov. 1, 1944, the 3rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (3rd PRS) from Isley Field, Saipan, made history while flying a reconnaissance mission over Tokyo.

The significance of this event was that it was the start of 20th Air Force, XXI Bomber Command's B-29 bombing missions of Japan from the Mariana Islands (Note: 20 AF's XX Bomber Command bombed Japanese possessions from Calcutta India and Chentgu China, Jun. 4, 1944 to Mar. 30, 1945). This mission was also the first U.S. aircraft to fly over Tokyo since Doolittle's Raid on May 18, 1942. This was after two and a half years of an Island Hopping Campaign that finally brought U.S. forces close enough to reach the Japanese capital. Still more amazingly this mission was completed by a lone Boeing F-13A Reconnaissance Superfortress (a modified B-29 bomber) Ser. No. 42-93852 called Tokyo Rose that was piloted by Captain Ralph D. Steakley, who took over 700 photographs of future bomb sites in 35 minutes and returned safely to Saipan. In just over 3 weeks on Nov. 24, 1944, the XXI Bomber Command would begin its sustained strategic bombing of Japan and Tokyo.

The history of the 3rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron would begin as they initially formed on May 15, 1941 and then activated on Jun. 10, 1941 at Maxwell Field, AL. From 1941 to 1944 the unit was redesignated several times before becoming the 3d Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, Very Heavy (VL), at Smoky Hill Army Air Field, KS, (Schilling, AFB) on May 19, 1944. The forward echelon moved to Saipan on Sep 18, 1944 and the Tokyo Rose (Named after a Japanese-American radio propaganda broadcaster who tried to manipulate and mislead American troops during the war) arrived on Oct. 31, 1944. The aircrew had a night's rest and then flew their historic mission the very next day. 17 more photo reconnaissance missions were flown as single sorties prior to the first B-29 bombing raid against Japan from Saipan on Nov. 24, 1944. Sadly, the 3 PRS would lose two aircraft and their aircrews of ten Airmen during this time.

Third PRS pilot and World War II veteran Lt. Fred Savage, who flew 23 combat missions over Japan said, "We would fly our F-13A at about 30,000 feet during photo missions because Japanese fighter aircraft could not reach us ... though one time I did to climb to 42,000 feet to fly over a tropical storm." During most of his missions Lt Savage flew the F-13A named the Valiant Lady, but did fly the Tokyo Rose on a few missions before his aircraft arrived from the states. Lt. Savage remembers the great camaraderie of the unit and his aircraft's crew. One of the saddest moments of his combat missions was when one of the "Bubble Blister" windows on the side of Valiant Lady blew out and the aircraft quickly decompressed and one of his crewmen was pulled out of the fuselage. A parachute was sited, but the airman was never seen again. Fortunately, this would be the only casualty of the Valiant Lady during these long and very hazardous missions.

When Major General Curtis Lemay took command of the XXI Bomber Command, he wanted his Photo Reconnaissance mission near his headquarters at Harmon Field, Guam. So, on Jan. 11, 1945 the 3rd PRS moved from Isley Field, Saipan to Harmon Field and would later add another designation "Very Long Range" (VLR) to their name on Jan. 31, 1945. However, there was a problem with Harmon Field's runway; it was too short to safely takeoff a fully loaded F-13A or B-29 on a mission to Japan. To remedy the situation flights were staged from Harmon Field to North Field (modern day Andersen AFB). The crews were briefed about 2 p.m. each day and then flew their planes with a light fuel load to North Field. The crews were then bussed back to Harmon Field while the planes were fully fueled and serviced for their night takeoffs. The crews were awakened at midnight, fed and bussed back to North Field. After completing their missions, the planes would land back at Harmon.

From there the film was rushed to the photo lab immediately so Gen. Lemay could be updated on the air war's progress. The crews then debriefed and the maintenance cycle restarted to ready the planes for their next missions. Lt. Savage said some of best memories of the war were during his tour at Harmon Field (Harmon Industrial Park). He remembers, "The Seabees would sell their mothers for booze or a ride on a B-29 Bomber." He said, "The 3rd PRS Chapel was built after a trade with the Seabees for 24 bottles of Whiskey!"

Lt. Savage's most memorable moment came when the Valiant Lady was assigned to fly 15 minutes behind the Enola Gay on 6 August 1945 during the "Little Boy" atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He piloted his aircraft in a slow right turn around the cloud twice and his crew took many photos. Three days later as standby aircraft they would take damage photographs of Nagasaki after the "Fat Man" atomic bomb was dropped by Bockscar. A frightening moment happened right after that photo mission when the Valiant Lady was nearly shot down by heavy flak north of Nagasaki over the city of Shimonoseke. However, the flak over Shimonoseke was not Lt. Savage's scariest moment while flying in the Valiant Lady. During "Operation Sunset" when aircraft and their crews were flying home to the states after the war the Lady's no. 3 engine went out, then became un-feathered, and caught on fire during its landing at Johnson Island. The F-13A landed safely, but the crew and its passengers had to wait an additional two long weeks for parts before continuing their journey home.

Another of the many interesting stories about the 3rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron is the account of Eddie Okura. He was an 11 year old Japanese boy living in Tokyo when on Nov. 1, 1944 he looked up into the sky a saw a large silver F-13A flying alone overhead. Unknown to the crewmembers of the Tokyo Rose, Eddie would become fascinated by that moment and grow up with a passion for aviation history and a desire to find the crew. On April 21, 1995, Eddie Okura would finally meet the surviving crew members and the families of the original crew of the Tokyo Rose. Additionally, his father would establish the Okura Hotel on Guam and he has donated aviation historical materials to Andersen AFB over the years.

Overall the 3rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron made many sacrifices during World War II, during their 466 solo missions. They would lose nine F-13As, and 46 airmen were either killed or missing in action. Before its inactivation on Mar. 15, 1947, the 3rd PRS would lose one more aircraft in peacetime. An F-13A crashed on take-off from North Field at Andersen AFB on June 11, 1946. All 10 crewmembers were presumed dead and very little of the aircraft was ever recovered.

Today, the 3rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron's heritage lives on in the 3d Space Operations Squadron (3SOPS) at Schriever AFB, CO. 3 SOPS conducts on-orbit operations for the Defense Satellite Communications System III and Wideband Global SATCOM satellites for the Department of Defense. The 3 PRS's old photo reconnaissance mission continues today at Andersen AFB via the 9th Operations Group, Det. 3's RQ-4 Global Hawk. Recently, the Global Hawk completed a reconnaissance mission of Japan that had nothing to do with its World War II bombing mission roots, but all about a humanitarian effort to save many lives after the earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan on March 11, 2011.