A week from Tuesday, a small group will gather in southwestern Japan, near the site where an American B-29 bomber crashed exactly 76 years earlier in the waning days of World War II.
They’ll come together to remember the 12 crew members on that plane, all of whom died either in the crash or as prisoners before the war officially ended about a month later.
One of those men, Frederick Allen Stearns, grew up in Keene and spent childhood summers at Camp Takodah in Richmond. The son of two local teachers, Stearns, who went by his middle name, graduated from Keene High School in 1943, and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces that fall. After his plane, B-29 #42-94098, was shot down near Omuta, Japan, on July 27, 1945, Stearns and six other crew members on the plane parachuted to the ground. All of them were illegally executed before Japan surrendered on Aug. 15.
For Stearns’ nephew Tim Francis — a U.S. Navy historian who in 2019 cowrote the stories of the 12 Takodah campers who died in World War II with Graeme Noseworthy, president of the camp’s board of directors — the ceremony holds special significance.
“Here are some contemporary Japanese people who are acknowledging this past experience of the war, and yet how we have since turned that around and become very close allies,” said Francis, a Silver Spring, Md., resident who holds a Ph.D. in military history from the University of Maryland. “... So, it’s sort of a good-news story, I think, about how well things have turned out over the course of all these decades. And I just like being able to be a part of communicating that story.”
Neither Francis nor Noseworthy, a Leominster, Mass., resident, knew about the ceremony until a few weeks ago. Heather Buchanan, the granddaughter of one of Stearns’ fellow B-29 crew members, contacted them through the Camp Takodah website about three or four months ago, Francis said. She found the site while researching a book she plans to write on her grandfather Charles Appleby’s plane crew and ultimately connected Francis with Donald Langford.
Langford, a retired Santa Clarita, Calif., resident, started in 2017 researching B-29s that were shot down near the end of World War II, beginning with his cousin’s husband’s plane. While researching that aircraft, Langford found a group of Japanese people led by Hiroyuki Fukao, who were looking for information on the same plane and its flight crew.
In 2018, Langford traveled to Japan for a memorial service for the B-29 crew that sparked his research interest and has continued to assist Fukao with subsequent ceremonies.
“When Mr. Fukao wants to try to find people [related to Americans killed in World War II], he gets a hold of me,” Langford said in a phone interview Monday. “… So that’s what I’ve been doing on and off since then for five or six memorials that they’ve done.”
These memorials, Langford said, seek to foster further international peace and cooperation.
“What he said is he believes what he’s doing will hopefully keep the friendship going between the two countries,” Langford said of Fukao’s work.
Fukao organized a memorial service for the crew of Stearns’ B-29 about a year ago, Langford said, but at the time he had been unable to track down any living relatives of the men who died. This year, though, he’s been able to contact family members for seven of the 12 crew members on the plane, all of whom are sending a written reflection that will be read at the ceremony.
And while Francis said it’s too late for him, or anyone else connected to Stearns, to be able to attend the ceremony this year, he hopes to travel to Japan next year, if another memorial service is held.
In the meantime, Francis said the upcoming memorial service, and his connection with Buchanan, who is working on the book about his uncle’s crew, have reignited his and Noseworthy’s research. Their work had essentially paused after they presented their findings on the Takodah campers at a ceremony in Richmond in 2019.
“In general, after the ceremony at Camp Takodah at the end of June 2019, we took a break while we were waiting for more information to come from the National Archives, particularly some of the personnel records,” Francis said. “... And then, of course, the pandemic hit, and that has essentially delayed getting any material from the National Archives.”
Now, though, Francis said he and Noseworthy are talking about working with Buchanan to tell the stories of the men who died alongside his uncle.
“Maybe we now tell the story of the plane crew, which is a whole different group of people [than the Takodah campers] and a whole different group of families that will want to know as much as they can, that we can find answers for them,” Francis said.
For that, he added, he could return to initial research on his uncle’s story, which ultimately led to a 1997 article published in the Pacific Historical Review. When Noseworthy began researching the 12 Takodah campers who died in World War II, he came across that article, leading him to contact Francis and the two to become research partners.
And regardless of the direction it takes, both Francis and Noseworthy say they’ll continue their research.
“The work is continuing. We did the ceremony in 2019, but we didn’t have every story at that point,” Noseworthy said. “We’re still discovering new stuff. … The men, their stories are still being discovered 70, 80 years later.”