Jim Cherkauer and several fellow sophomores at Buffalo State College realized chances were “very likely” they would soon be drafted to serve in World War II.
So they did their homework and checked out their options. Cherkauer wanted to fly, so he decided to enlist in the Army Air Forces Reserve.
“I didn’t pick the Navy because there was a chance that when I flew back from a mission the aircraft carrier might not be there,” he said.
By the second semester of his junior year, Cherkauer was summoned to active duty in the Army Air Force.
His first assignment in the American Theater was as a copilot on a B-24 bomber stationed on Baltra Island, part of the Galapagos Islands.
“Our job was to protect the Panama Canal, and we had different missions. Sometimes we would try to sneak in past our fighter planes that were there protecting it,” Cherkauer said of a maneuver aimed at keeping the fighter pilots on their toes. “They were very alert, but we still managed to sneak in two or three times.”
A member of the 6th Air Force, 397th Squadron, he was plucked from his 10-member crew and sent in 1944 to Tonopah, Nevada, where a bomber flight training center was in trouble.
“They were having a number B-24 crashes, and my colonel told a group of us he wanted to straighten things out. That’s why we were sent there. In fact, when we arrived, we were immediately sent out to look for a crew that had crashed up in the mountains.”
Training improved, and by the end of the war, he said, the center had a stellar safety record.
Jim Cherkauer, 94
Residence: Town of Tonawanda
Branch: Army Air Force
Rank: 1st lieutenant
War zone: World War II, American Theater and Pacific Theater
Years of service: enlisted, June 4, 1942 --- Dec. 23, 1945
Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Army Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, Pacific Theater Medal, Philippines Liberation Medal
Specialty: pilot, B-24 bomber, also known as the Liberator
But by February 1945, Cherkauer had moved to the Pacific Theater and in April was promoted to pilot, stationed at air strips on different islands with the 65th Squadron.
“We were bombing all over the place, a lot in the Philippines, and in Hong Kong and Okinawa,” he said.
On May 18, 1945, during a bombing run above Formosa, Cherkauer experienced perhaps his most dangerous moments.
He starts the story by telling how amazed he was at the accuracy of the ground-based enemy anti-aircraft guns shooting at him.
“Then I happened to notice a Japanese training plane about half a mile to my right, and it was obvious he was radioing our location to the ground crews,” he said. “I called our fighter pilots and told them to get over there and get that guy.”
He said he has no idea if the pilots succeeded because so many things were happening at once.
“After the lead bombers, I was in the next echelon of bombers. I was on the right wing of our lead plane, and it was hit and blew up. The plane on the left wing of the lead bomber was also hit, and I thought there was fire in our bomb bay. I immediately released our bombs and they hit our target.”
There was no time to celebrate.
Cherkauer noticed crew members in the plane to the left were parachuting out.
To make matters worse, two of the engines on his left wing were ablaze and all of the instruments in the cockpit were knocked out. Two of his crew members, gunners, were seriously injured.
“We feathered the two engines and fortunately the fires went out and we got one of those engines running partially,” he said. “It took us about four hours to get back to the Philippines.”
His injured crew members were returned to the United States for treatment. They were lucky. Not so lucky were two of the crew members who had parachuted from the other bomber.
“I learned that they were never found and one of them was actually from Buffalo,” Cherkauer said.
As for his plane, it was hit more than 600 times.
“The shrapnel that hit us was from the lead plane when it blew up next to us,” Cherkauer said, adding that flak from anti-aircraft guns also contributed to perforating his plane.
“After we landed, my navigator said to me, ‘Jim, look at your parachute.’ We sat on our parachutes and mine had a hole in it from the flak. If we had bailed out, my chute wouldn’t have opened.”
For his actions that day, Cherkauer received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
And less than three months later, he had a ringside seat to witness the aftermath of the first atomic bomb.
“We had gone out on a bombing run Aug. 6, 1945, three hours after the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. We could see the big mushroom cloud in the distance.”
But he was unaware at that time of what had happened. When he landed, he reported to intelligence officers that he believed “every B-29 in the Pacific must have hit Hiroshima that day.”
That is when he learned what really happened.
“President Truman went on the radio and told the world that it was an atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan,” Cherkauer said.
After the war, Cherkauer completed his teaching degree at Buffalo State College and later earned a master's degree in higher education at the University of Buffalo. In 1948, he was hired as a math instructor at Buffalo State and several years later, he earned a doctorate in higher education at UB.
For 41 ½ years, many of them as a professor, he taught at Buffalo State before retiring in 1989. He and his wife, Anita, have been married 53 years.
One of his pastimes, Cherkauer says, is to read histories of World War II.
“I try to check how history has recorded it,” he says, explaining that he has uncovered a deficit of historic facts. “The history books on the war in the Pacific are all about the Navy and the Marines. There’s very little written about the Army and the Army Air Force.”