Western fires bring memories of photographer

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Wally Avett stands with Charlie Killebrew and a stringer of Tar River catfish.


Special to the Telegram

Sunday, December 23, 2018

I once worked with one of the North Carolina’s busiest photographers, a man whose 470,000 collected pictures from a 50-year career are now archived at the university library at Chapel Hill.

His secret mission during World War II drives this tangled tale.

On the TV news we have seen endless footage of fire disasters in California. Twisted wreckage of million-dollar homes burned in ritzy suburbs. Shell-shocked survivors telling horror stories of driving through flames to escape, vehicles literally burning and abandoned on the roadside.

I talked to my brother-in-law, who has lived near Sacramento for 40 years or more. He said there were lots of old folks and mobile homes in Paradise, California, a city of 27,000 people destroyed, with more than a thousand missing, presumed dead — their ashes in their cars or homes.

This is what Japan wanted for America during World War II, random fires in the cities and forests of the West. Fire-bombs would be delivered by weather balloons, riding the polar jet stream east from Japan to our coast. In the early winter of 1944, they launched thousands of the infernal devices.

Our government too had looked at airborne arson as a military tactic. Knowing that Japanese buildings had a lot of flammable materials in them — paper, bamboo, thin wood — our experts were experimenting with tiny incendiary rigs strapped to bats.

That’s right, bats. Each with a tiny bomb. The bats would be released from a plane flying over Tokyo, hide in the nearest roofs and the city would burn.

The project ended when a group of bats, which had been armed, flew to a wooden Army barracks in New Mexico and accidentally burned it down.

In the 1950s, newspapers and magazines carried lots of stories about the recent war.

Reader’s Digest especially had some good stories, and it was there I read about the Japanese fire balloon attacks, and remembered.

Fast-forward to 1962.

A new graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill, I had found work at what was then called The Evening Telegram in Rocky Mount. I was soon paired with Charlie Killebrew, a legendary camera-man exactly 20 years older than me and a World War II veteran.

We became good friends quickly and covered a lot of events together. The Civil Rights era was beginning so we went to Klan rallies, civil rights demonstrations and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s visit. Also the usual fires, meetings, auto accidents, political gatherings, sporting events,etc.

Charlie and I ate barbecue together and fished together and flew together. Charlie had started an aerial mapping service that did lots of flying, covering counties all over the state.

We had lots of conversations and then one day, without warning, it happened.

Somehow, I don’t remember the main topic, I started talking about the Japanese and their deadly weather-balloon attacks.

“How did you find out about that?” Charlie snarled at me. He was mad and had turned pale. “That is classified information … our orders were not to tell anyone. Who told you?”

As calmly as I could, I told Charlie — it was in Reader’s Digest several years ago, not a military secret now.

When he finally recovered, he began telling how he had been assigned to a flying squad that went all over the West to where a fire had occurred. Their job, he said, was to keep any news of the fires from being published.

The only deaths, he said, “were at that Sunday School picnic when the fire balloon snagged on a barbed-wire fence and killed a teacher and five kids.”

The news blackout worked well. With no feedback about their balloon warfare, Japanese generals ended it.

In early 1967 at the age of 25, I was hired as managing editor of the daily newspaper in Statesville, 100 miles east of Asheville.

Tex is the boss of all the printers in the back shop. A cigar was apparently surgically implanted in the corner of his mouth at birth, never saw him without it. Brought me a cool Mexican switchblade for a souvenir from his annual vacation south of the border.

His World War II memory was the most graphic.

America dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 and Japan saw a real blaze. The nuclear fireball detonated 1,800 feet above the city and 35,000 people were vaporized on the spot.

A Navy veteran, Tex told me his ship pulled into the harbor soon after, once the war was over.

The stench was overwhelming, he said, you smelled it in the air everywhere. It was obvious where it came from.