Vickroy: Br. Rice retiree there when B-29 carrying A-Bomb took off
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy March 11, 2013 3:02PM
Harold Cassidy, a 90-year-old World War II veteran from Homer Glen, served on the island of Tinian on the day the Enola Gay departed to drop the atomic bomb, which ultimately led to ending the war. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 13, 2013 6:04AM
Named for the mother of its pilot, then-Col. Paul Tibbets, the Enola Gay is a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber that was the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb on an enemy target in a war.
It took off from the island of Tinian in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands on Aug. 6, 1945, carrying “Little Boy,” a bomb destined to be dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.
The mission was unbeknownst to most of the world, including Harold “Pat” Cassidy, who was stationed on Tinian at the time.
“We didn’t know about the bomb being dropped until a week later,” said Cassidy, a South Side native who served as a Navy hospital corpsman with the Marines’ 2nd Division during World War II. “It wasn’t like today, with cellphones. Back then there was not much communication.”
Once he heard the news, he said, everyone was excited and certain observations began to make sense.
“I always thought it was goofy. We’d go up to the airfield all the time to look at the aircraft. We’d see these holes in the bottoms of some planes and wonder what they were for,” Cassidy said. “We knew the B-51s were helping the Navy but we couldn’t figure out why these big old B-29s were there.”
He also didn’t know until much later that his brother-in-law and a friend were also serving on Tinian at the same time as him.
Cassidy, who recently turned 90 and was feted in a multigenerational celebration in New Lenox, grew up in Chicago’s Austin community. He graduated from St. Mel High School and had a couple of semesters at Loyola University under his belt when he decided to join the Navy.
“I didn’t want to get drafted into the Army. My father had served in the Army, and he’d told me you have to sleep on the ground all the time,” Cassidy said.
He was assigned to the hospital corps because he had taken a pre-med class. But there was little glamour in the job.
In addition to helping build the hospital, which required the men to dynamite coral to build latrines, he also tended to the injured, digging shrapnel out of guys who’d been shot on the nearby islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The Japanese held on to the south end of the island, while the Americans established a foothold on the north. Having just invaded Saipan, the Allies were determined to island-hop their way to Japan.
The Navy worked closely with the Marines. The Japanese believed that in order to become an American Marine, a soldier had to kill his mother or father.
“So we were feared,” he said. But not enough to keep the starving Japanese soldiers from trying to steal the Americans’ food.
“So we had gun placements all around the hospital,” Cassidy said.
One time, when two enemy soldiers were spied in the distance, a Marine walked out with a flamethrower and set them afire, he said. Another night, they heard something making a racket and fired their guns into the darkness.
“In the morning, we found a shot-up water buffalo,” he said.
Then there was the time a plane made it back to the base but upon landing burst into flames.
“I had to go into that plane and get those guys. Ugh, they were burnt to a crisp,” he said.
“War isn’t fun no matter where you’re at,” he said.
Collecting souvenirs was a big pastime among the Americans. Swords, watches and flags were coveted items. Cassidy has a photo of himself and three other guys holding a confiscated Japanese flag.
Latrine work was difficult because of the hard coral they had to blast through, he said, but he earned two college credits for hygiene and sanitation, which later came in handy when he enrolled at St. Mary’s College in Minnesota to earn his degree in economics and then an MBA.
When news that the war had ended finally came across the radio airwaves, Cassidy said, everyone was jubilant. They prepared for the long journey home.
Because they’d seen newspaper reports of parades and celebrations stateside, they expected to be greeted with lots of fanfare.
“But we came home to nothing,” he said. The Japanese had surrendered in August 1945, but it was the following January by the time Cassidy arrived back home. The fanfare had all but disappeared.
Nevertheless, Cassidy busied himself finishing up his degree as quickly as he could, taking advantage of the GI benefits he’d earned during his service. While in college, he met his future wife, Mary, who was studying chemistry and biology at nearby St. Teresa College.
After they graduated, they moved back to Chicago, Cassidy to the South Side and Mary to her parents’ home on the North Side.
“I had to take three streetcars to meet her,” he said. “Sometimes I’d doze off and miss my stop.”
At last, the couple were married in 1950 and went on to raise seven children: Kathie, Daniel, Mary Karen, Marty, Marilyn, Jim and Patrick.
Cassidy worked for United Airlines for a few years and then took a teaching job at Brother Rice. He was the only layperson on staff at the time. He retired from the high school as assistant principal in 1989. Mary taught at Sacred Heart High School until it closed and went on to teach at Providence Catholic High School.
The couple have 21 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, and they have lived in what is now Homer Glen since 1960.
Cassidy, a Battle Star recipient and a lifelong Cubs fan, is scheduled to go on an Honor Flight this spring.