By JENNIFER STULTZ
An old watch arrived at the B-29 Bombers on the Prairie Museum in Pratt, Kansas for safe-keeping two weeks ago, still wrapped in packaging direct from Japan. It no longer has a military issued band and it couldn’t be relied upon to keep accurate time, though the second hand still functions. However, this watch is a special time piece, or rather a piece of time, because it carries with it memories from WWII, lived by the United State veteran who wore it and shared with and by his family.
1st Lt. Scott Downing’s Bulova watch came to Pratt on October 20 because it needed to be placed with other memorabilia from WWII so others could listen and read its story. This story is one his family hopes will help others remember and learn what happened during the war years of 1944 and 1945.
“My dad was wearing this watch when he was captured by Japanese citizens after his plane, the Mary Anna II, went down following a bombing raid over Tokyo in 1945,” said Stuart Downing, who brought the watch to Pratt. “He survived the crash but was captured and tied to a tree and tortured. They removed his watch and all his gear and beat him, but he endured as a POW in Japan. His watch survived too. It’s really an amazing story how it came back to him.”
Downing visited Pratt and the B-29 Museum last month, along with his mother, Bitsy Downing, who spent years interviewing and writing down WWII veterans war stories and memories. Her husband, and owner of the watch, 1st Lt. Scott M. Downing served his country as a bombardier and as an investigator of war crimes for the International Military Tribunal. He died of natural causes in 2017. A special book chronicling his story and the stories of his fellow crewmates during and after WWII brings to life not only the life and times of those war years but also a special awareness of how life today could have been totally different had Japan not been stopped from world domination just over 75 years ago. This book, “A Ball of Rice and A Cup of Water,” compiled by Scott and Bitsy Downing, now resides with the watch in a special display case at the B-29 Museum. It is a story full of details available for those who wish to know the how and why of those historic years.
According to Downing, the watch his father wore during WWII was found by a Japanese researcher in the bay near where the Mary Anna II went down that fateful day in March 1945. The 8-man crew aboard the plane had completed a successful bombing raid over Tokyo, one of more than 300 on their assignment list, and all were breathing a collective sigh of relief that they had made it out of search-light target ranges from below when a fighter plane came out of nowhere and fired at their plane. The Mary Anna II took two direct hits right in the middle of the plane. Communication was cut from front to back of the B-29 bomber and the pilot gave a command to bail out because he no longer had any control of the machine. Five of the eight crew members made it out, parachuting into a Japanese village below. Three were never heard from again; perhaps they died in the initial blast, perhaps they went down in the fireball that the Mary Anna II became. Those who parachuted out were captured on the ground by natives. And that is where the story of the watch begins.
“We are guessing that someone from the village initially kept the watch after it was stripped from my father,” Downing said. “It shows a lot of wear like it was worn, and the band was replaced.”
Isao Arai was a child in the village where Downing and crew crashed. He witnessed the B-29 bomber in a fireball as it crashed near his village. It inspired him to a lifetime of finding WWII items and returning them to war veterans and their families. He was instrumental in returning the watch to the Downing family that once belonged to their father and husband, 1st Lt. Scott Downing. It took 75 years for Downing’s watch to make it back into the possession of his family, but it is a story filled with good-will from the Japanese people after a war that caused so much destruction for those all who were part of it.
The stories that go along with the return of the watch are outlined as part of the new display at Pratt’s B-29 Bomber Museum. Other similar stories can be read in additional materials at the museum. Some can be tapped into on the B-29 Museum Facebook page.
For the Downing family, placing their father and husband’s watch at the museum brought them comfort.
“It’s a captured treasure,” Stu Downing said. “This watch is a physical reminder that the memories we hear so little about from our veterans are more than just stories. They were real. They show how the course of a world, the lives of many, were changed. Many veterans lost their lives in the torture and abuse that followed their capture. My father survived. But he never forgot any of those he served with. The watch helps us all remember parts of history that could have, and in many ways did, change us all. We have our veterans to thank for the freedoms we enjoy today.”
A restored WWII Parachute Building is now the home of the B-29 Museum, which houses many detailed displays and kiosks about wartime information. A special library and featured films portray all things military as they relate to the former B-29 bombers’ air base at Pratt.
The B-29 Bombers on the Prairie Museum is located at 82 Curran Road, part of the Pratt Regional Airport complex north of Pratt.
Stultz works for CherryRoad Media’s Pratt Tribune, in Pratt, Kan., a tri-weekly newspaper serving a community of about 6,200 people.