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Navigating to a climactic moment

The Army Air Forces tried to do a lot a different things with Gordon H. Tresch, but he was determined to become a combat navigator, despite many twists and turns.

After he graduated from the University of Buffalo with a business degree, he was drafted and sent to pilot training school, where he soloed, but he kept pushing to get off the ground as a navigator.

Finally, in 1943, he found a sympathetic captain who approved the transfer. Tresch, a math whiz, did his commanding officer proud. He graduated first in his class from navigation school.

"When I was at East High School, I graduated with a 100 average in math. I took every math class there was but calculus. I was good in math, and there's a lot of math in navigation," said Tresch, who was also the high school class valedictorian.

But even after graduating with high honors from navigation school, things did not add up for Tresch in his push to navigate.

He was sent to gunnery school to learn how to operate the various guns on different bombers.

Tresch was also given courses in how to be a bombardier and radar operator. There was hardly a job on a bomber that he couldn't perform.

He eventually arrived in Savannah, Ga., where he served as an instructor navigator on B-24 Liberator bombers.

His goal, however, was to get into the thick of the fight.

"I requested a transfer to B-29 school, which I knew would send me overseas."

Again, he had a detour.

While navigating what he described as "a worn-out B-17 Flying Fortress" transporting 19 flyers from Florida to Nebraska, the plane suddenly started losing its fuel during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night.

"We all had our parachutes on and were ready to get out when I spotted what I thought was a landing field -- two rows of lights. But it was the main street in Lexington, Missouri, and when we got down over the town, we were completely out of gas and we crash-landed into a willow tree forest just outside the town."

All on board walked out, despite the fact that the aircraft was destroyed. "I was in the nose of the plane and temporarily knocked out," Tresch said. "When I awoke, I turned around, and the whole nose of the plane was off. I walked out of the nose."

In early 1945, he finally saw action. Based in Guam and assigned to the crew of a B-29 Superfortress with the 20th Air Force's 502nd Bomb Group, he and his fellow airmen were given the mission of bombing Japan's oil supply.

"Our group bombed out 95 percent of Japan's oil supply," he recalled. "We flew low-level because we were carrying full loads of bombs, and we only had a tail gunner, no side gunners. This was done to conserve fuel because they were the longest missions of the war."

The flights were at night, putting Tresch's skills to the ultimate test. "With celestial navigation, your timing in shooting the stars has to be exact," he said, "and you have to shoot three stars as a triangle so that you can get a fix and determine your location."

Little did he know that the final mission he would guide helped play an instrumental role in the conclusion of the war with Japan. Even after the world's first two atomic bombs had been dropped, the country did not surrender immediately.

So Tresch and his fellow crew members were sent out to bomb an oil refinery in Akita. It would turn out to be the longest combat flight on record, just short of 17 hours aloft.

But this mission also had much greater significance.

When they were flying over Tokyo at about 10,000 feet, the city was plunged into a blackout as a defensive move.

"They thought we were going to bomb them, and the blackout prevented a potential coup by the Japanese military over the emperor," he said. "The military wanted to continue the war, and the emperor had made peace."

After bombing the refinery, Tresch said, he and the rest of the crew heard great news over the B-29 radio Aug. 15 as they flew back to Guam:

"President Truman announced the end of the war."

When Tresch got home, he charted a successful course in business, selling Studebakers before owning a Chevy dealership in Niagara Falls.

In later years, he became a familiar face at Tonawanda Town Board meetings, serving first as a councilman and later as town clerk.


Gordon H. Tresch, 89

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: First lieutenant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: August 1942 to January 1946

Most prominent honors: Air Medal, American Theater and Far Eastern Theater medals, Navigation Award

Specialty: Navigator

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