Harry Hink, World War II pilot in Northern Va., recalls lost colleagues on Memorial Day


Harry Hink, a former Army Air Corps pilot who flew missions over Japan in 1945, at his home on May, 13, 2013 in Ft. Belvoir, Va., with a painting of the bomber that he flew. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Harry Hink always wanted to be a pilot when he was growing up in Oklahoma. He just never envisioned flying over Japan in the last year of World War II, dodging kamikazes and drawing Japanese fighters from Hiroshima before the first atomic bomb was dropped.

After flying 28 missions in the new B-29 bomber, including the 500-plane flyover above the USS Missouri at the treaty signing with Japan, Hink piloted 63 more missions during the Korean War. When he finally stopped flying, Hink settled his family in Annandale in 1960, and he still lives in Northern Virginia, surrounded by three children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

But Hink, now 90, has clear memories of those who didn’t come back, settle in the American suburbs and grow big families. And every year on this weekend, “you have to think back on the past, to the guys I was flying with and serving with. I always say a little prayer for them.”

Then he goes further. “I have a habit of calling the wives” of his former fellow soldiers, Hink said, “and talking about the good old times we had.”

Hink now lives in The Fairfax at Belvoir Woods, a retirement community just west of Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County. He served in the Army, then the Army Air Corps, then the Air Force, and when he retired from active duty after 28 years, he joined another group with many alumni in this region: the civil service, working for the Federal Aviation Administration for 18 years until his retirement in 1987.

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He remembers declaring his intentions to fly early on, making planes out of sticks in the yard of his home in Weatherford, Okla., and informing his father, “I’m going to fly one of these, one of these days.”

Hink was 19 and in college when Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941. He enlisted in the Army soon after and was summoned to active duty in 1943, after he turned 21. He immediately volunteered for the Army Air Corps, and after being trained to fly the B-17 bomber, he was one of three students chosen to learn and pilot the new B-29 “superfortress.”

The plane debuted in June 1944 and was used exclusively in the Pacific theater. Initially, American planes were launched from China and India, but the distances were too great. So Allied forces attacked and seized the Mariana Islands in the summer and fall of 1944 and built bases to launch attacks on Japan from there.

Hink landed in Guam in April 1945. With a crew of 11, he began flying 15-hour round-trip missions to northern Japan, targeting oil refineries and other war-
making machinery of the Japanese empire.

“It was something new to me,” Hink said. “I had to drop bombs on people.”

They also had to dodge Japanese fighter planes when they weren’t able to use their own high-powered guns to shoot them down. Hink said the Japanese planes weren’t as numerous or well-built as the German fleet, but the kamikaze mission of flying directly into an enemy aircraft occasionally found its mark.

“We were in the air, flying one day,” Hink recalled. “I looked over and one of our planes blew up,” its wing ripped off. “If they hit you, you didn’t have much of a chance.”

Most of the resistance Hink faced was flak from antiaircraft guns on the ground, and he said his B-29 took plenty of shrapnel hits, but “I never got anybody wounded.” He said that “one of the most challenging things was not the Japanese shooting at you. You really had to study your fuel situation” to make the 15-hour round trip.

Hink also had to make dangerous landings on Iwo Jima, where “we were still fighting the Japanese.” Enemy soldiers fired not only on the planes as they landed and took off but also on the maintenance crews working full time on the newly built base.

In August 1945, the B-29 pilots learned that they would be flying a new, powerful bomb on a secret mission to Japan. Hink said one of his colleagues, Col. Paul Tibbets, was chosen to make the run. But Hink said his crew was “prepared, we studied it and practiced it. If we had to do it, we could have done it,” though no one really knew the specifics of how powerful the bomb was and whether it would even work.

Instead, he and some other planes were sent on a run “to draw all Japanese planes away from” Hiroshima. “Apparently it worked,” he said.

Hink said he flew over the bombed city three days later. “The whole area was just scorched,” he said. There was very little information at the time about how much damage had been done. “All we knew is we dropped a bomb,” Hink said.

In all, Hink logged more than 417 hours of combat flying time in World War II. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and numerous other medals.

After the war ended, Capt. Hink was assigned to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, then to Okinawa for the Korean War, where he flew 63 more missions in the B-29. Following that conflict, he was assigned to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where he flew for Gen. Frank A. Armstrong, the inspiration for the book and movie “Twelve O’Clock High.”

Assigned to the Pentagon in 1960, Hink moved to Annandale but also served as a staff officer flying over and inspecting airfields in Taiwan, Thailand and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He retired from the Air Force in 1970, then worked for the FAA in airport safety until 1987.

Hink retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, and a part of his crew will always be near him. His navigator for six years, Col. Ted Dalides, asked to be buried near Hink’s family in Arlington National Cemetery and is about four graves away from the grave of Hink’s first wife, Cherry, which will also be Hink’s final resting place.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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