The Otto Baumgarten Story
From Football to B29
by Bob Dewel
There is a reason that there are a lot of pictures of the 1943 Baraboo High School football team around town. Undefeated, they had only one touchdown scored upon them all season, while racking up 232 total points against their opponents. There in the 1944 school annual, front row and fourth from the left, is tackle Otto Baumgarten Jr. His look-alike brother Ted is just down the line. Otto is also shown in one of the cameo photos at the bottom of the page.
You’ll also find this tall and lanky athlete in the photo of the basketball squad. Turn the page and there he is on the track team. The newspaper later mentioned Baumgarten, “whose exploits on the gridiron are still vivid memories among sports fans here.” They were a proud bunch, those hardy members of Otto’s fated generations which came of age in World War II. They would not shrink from the duty soon to be imposed upon then.
Otto Baumgarten did not graduate with his class in the spring of 1944. With the draft looming, immediate enlistment offered young men more choices of assignment. Twenty-two senior men had already gone, and Otto joined the Army Air Force in February, 1944. January of 1945 found Sgt. Baumgarten in the Pacific Theater of operations, probably in the Mariana Islands.
This was serious business. In a superb example of investigative reporting, Mike Berg of Elva, WI has traced the military history of Baumgarten and his bomber in a book titled “The Crew of the Empire Express”. This story is based upon excerpts from his book.
As a blister gunner on a B29, Otto’s job called for nerves of steel. At 19, he appears to have been the youngest of the eleven-man crew of his bomber, the Empire Express. Several raids were made, flying the 12 hour round trip stretch over water from Tinian Island. As spring wore on they bombed several Japanese targets, including Tokyo.
Over Kyushu in May
As well-trained and disciplined as was the crew of the Empire Express, and as well as each man knew his job, they were not prepared for what happened on May 7, 1945 over Kyushu, Japan. As they approached the slope of Mount Hachiman just ahead, a Japanese KI-45 fighter appeared, piloted by a patriotic and perhaps suicidal Japanese pilot. M/Sgt. Tsutomu Murata flew his plane almost head-on into the Empire Express, clipping ten feet off a wing.
This sent both planes into a spiral of death on the mountainside. Only Otto and two other crewmen were able to escape the death-plunge near Sanko-Mura village. The other 8 men perished in the mountainside crash—as did Japanese pilot Murata and his co-pilot. It appears that the three surviving Americans were quickly captured and taken to a Nakatsu police station, and then to Fukuota, a seaport.
Following local outrage over a bombing of that city, a General Fukushima declared that they and some other prisoners were to be “disposed of without trial”. Japanese records indicate that on June 20, 1945 some American prisoners were killed. At least eight, perhaps including Otto and his fellow airmen were taken to a nearby school and beheaded.
Sgt. Otto Baumgarten’s remains were never located. The atomic bomb would be dropped in a little over a month and the war would end. Life was over for 19 year old Otto, but there is much more to his story. It is shared with that of the Japanese pilot, Murata.
This is not the end of the story of Otto Baumgarten, however. In a scholarly investigative effort, Mike Berg of Eleva, WI has carefully documented an unusual sequel. In short, Baumgartner shares recognition, along with his crew members in a large memorial at the site of the B29 crash on the side of Mount Hachiman in (Oita Province), a southernmost island of Japan.
Remarkably, the first modest memorial was conceived by Japanese villagers living near the site of the crash. They were also largely responsible for the development of the area into a mountainside Peace Park.
Besides the 11 man crew of the Empire Express, two other men are memorialized in the Park. The B29 was sent hurtling to the ground following a nearly head-on crash with a Japanese fighter plane piloted by Tsutomu Murata and his co-pilot, Shigeu Kato. Both badly damaged planes then crashed, carrying 8 Americans and two Japanese to their deaths. Only Baumgarten and two comrades were able to parachute out of the stricken aircraft, but they were subsequently executed
It appears that a villager or farmer first erected a post on the site with a sign which, when translated, read “Here Lie American Soldiers”. Berg writes “Later, after the bodies were exhumed, a large stone was erected at the site which read, in both Japanese and English ‘in Memory of B29 crash victims.” Both American Occupation officials and local Japanese participated in this dedication.
“Somewhat later a larger memorial and museum was envisioned by the villagers of Sanko-Mura, which is located about three miles from the site” writes Berg, on land donated by a local farmer. Both nearby American occupation forces and Japanese citizens participated in the effort, with some construction done by local workers.
Engraved on a large 4 x 6 foot granite slab is a Unites States map, with home states of the crew physically highlighted, including of course Wisconsin. Flanking the slab are granite blocks three feet high engraved with flowers, one block for each Japanese pilot. Nearby is another stone slab describing in Japanese the collision of the two planes, and again listing the names of the crew, including Otto Baumgarten. Several other monuments are on the grounds of the Peace Park.
Inscribed in the handwriting of Col. Hewitt E. Lovelace is an inscription: “Each stone embedded in the face of this monument represents a life expended in the search for world peace. May this monument stand as a perpetual reminder of the futility of war”. Berg writes that the dedication was made to a crowd of 1000 persons, on May 7, 1971 at 10:30 A.M., exadtly 26 years after the crash of the planes. It featured flags and anthems of both nations, followed by a 21 gun salute, rare for lower ranking servicemen.
There is more to the Peace Park. There are flagpoles for each crewman’s state, including of course Wisconsin. There is even a small building housing a museum. It features plane artifacts and also a newspaper clipping regarding Otto from the Baraboo News Republic. There are more flags of the home states of crewmen, and letters from the Governors of those states. Everywhere there were statements regarding the futility of war and a call for world Peace
Now Mike Berg has never been to Sanko-Mura and the Peace Park, so how does he know all of this? Mike sent personal representatives, his daughter Susan and husband Douglas Williams, already stationed in Japan. Susan wrote and recorded a long and detailed description of their search and their discoveries at the Peace Park. All of her detailed report and photos is printed in Mike’s book “The Crew of the Empire Express”.
Otto’s body was never located in the execution area, and perhaps was cremated by his captors along with his two crewmates who also parachuted out of the stricken plane. Other crewmen’s bodies from the crash site were exhumed and removed, so no Americans remains are interred at the Peace Park.
Otto’s generation, along with fellow youths from a dozen allied countries, prevailed over the tyranny and brutality of the German and Japanese “leaders”. As victors, the United States provided guided recovery and financial aid rather than oppression and recrimination. Now both Germany and Japan are allies. The Peace Park is in a way symbolic of the possibility of a better world, a peaceful world.