Ronald F. Heemann, 76, World War II flier, POW

October 05, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Ronald F. Heemann, an Army Air Forces navigator who survived a prisoner-of-war camp after his B-29 bomber was shot down off the coast of Japan during World War II, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Towson. He was 76.

Mr. Heemann, a Baltimore native who was raised in Hamilton, graduated in 1943 from Polytechnic Institute and at age 18 enlisted in the Army Air Forces.

"He always knew he wanted to fly," said his childhood sweetheart and wife of 52 years, the former Jean M. Sause.

He was assigned to the 330th Bombardment Group in Guam and flew as a radar navigator aboard B-29s on bombing runs over Japan.

On April 24, 1945, while returning from Tokyo, his plane was attacked by ground fire and an enemy fighter, and two engines were damaged. The crippled B-29, a half-mile off the coast, filled with smoke as its pilot ordered the crew to bail out.

Mr. Heemann and two crewmates, Eldon Peterson and George R. Farmer, parachuted from the plane as the pilot ditched the plane in the Pacific. The eight remaining crew members, including the pilot, were killed.

Fishermen rescued Mr. Heemann and the other two fliers, and they were turned over to Japanese authorities and confined in the Nagoya prison camp near Tokyo.

"We endured our stay in Japan, which was rough at times," said Mr. Farmer, 77, of Sioux Falls, S.D., now the lone survivor of the mission. "After two weeks of interrogation, we were kept separate from the other prisoners, who were British, Australian and survivors of the Bataan Death March. We were housed in a wooden barracks and fed one hard biscuit and a half a cup of water a day."

In August, two weeks after the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, the Japanese surrendered the camp to the highest-ranking prisoner.

"We lost lots and lots of weight because of the lack of rations. I think Ron got appendicitis and was taken to a hospital, and we went on home without him," said Mr. Farmer, a retired insurance executive.

The three men never saw each other again, but they kept in touch by letter and with cards at Christmas. "Every April 24, the anniversary of our bailout, we sent cards and celebrated with a bowl of rice," said Mr. Farmer.

Mrs. Heemann said, "Even though there was mental and physical cruelty, he didn't dwell on it. He was rather private about his war experience, but he did say that the only reason he had his Poly ring was because the Japanese didn't cut off his finger."

"He was a deeply religious man, and when he learned he had cancer, he said, `God got me out of the POW camp and gave me 50 more years.'"

Mr. Heemann was discharged with the rank of lieutenant and decorations that included the Purple Heart.

Returning to civilian life, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1950.

A traffic manager, he worked for Olin Matheson, Standard Lime and Refractories, and Martin Marietta Aluminum, retiring in 1987 from the latter's corporate headquarters in Bethesda.

He was a lifelong member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, where he had been president of the congregation and a church council member. He was also a former president of the board of Augsburg Lutheran Home.

He was an active member of American Legion Post No.183 in Parkville and a member of the Traffic Club of Baltimore and the Country Club of Maryland.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Loch Raven Boulevard and Belvedere Avenue.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Heemann is survived by two sons, Stephen M. Heemann of Timonium and Dr. Kerry R. Heemann of the Hampton section of Baltimore County; a sister, Gwendolyn Woodbury of Baltimore; and six grandchildren.

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