World War II vet was eyewitness to history
KULPMONT - From a U.S. bomber plane two miles above Japan, Michael Yonkovig witnessed the devastation from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
For Hiroshima, his unit flew in the area the next day, "and we could see the fallout from the radiation," Yonkovig said.
For Nagasaki, his plane was providing air support the day the bomb was dropped, "and we saw the mushroom cloud."
Those unique experiences live with the 88-year-old Kulpmont man this Veterans Day weekend, his memories intact in part through the logs from his flying missions.
As a radio operator on a B-24 Liberator bomber, Yonkovig flew 23 missions in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II, He was a member of the 494th Bombardment Group, the last B-24 bombardment group to be dispatched from the United States during World War II.
A member of "Kelly's Cobras," named after the unit's commanding officer. Col. Laurence B. Kelly, Yonkovig operated the
H2X "Mickey" radar system. It was used during World War II for navigation during nighttime or overcast daytime operations.
'Had enough pilots'
Yonkovig signed up for the military while still in high school on the advice of his brother, Danny, who said the "Air Cadet program was the best program."
"While you were in school, you enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and began to learn that way. You didn't have to report until you graduated." Yonkovig said.
Danny, however, never got the chance to fly, Michael said. He was killed by a lightning strike on Michael's 18th birthday.
Yonkovig entered the Air Corps on Nov. 20, 1943, but it wasn't in the cards for him to be a pilot.
"They told me they had enough pilots, so they asked me what I wanted to be, so I told them I would be a radio operator," he recalled.
After schooling in Boca Raton, Fla. and flying over Cuba to gain experience on the radar equipment, Yonkovig was flown to Seattle, Wash., then Hawaii, before his combat experience in the Pacific.
"I flew in 10 missions over Japan, two missions over Cuba and eight over all the other islands in the Pacific," Yonkovig said. "I got a lot of history."
Logged all missions
As radar operator, Yonkovig's job was to help the navigator, either with bombing or in flying the plane.
"When the navigator couldn't see, the radar operator came into play, but I only took over just a couple of times," he said.
Flying aboard the "Playmate," Yonkovig kept a log of all his flying missions in the war. Scratched in the margins are comments on each mission.
His first combat mission was on Feb. 7, 1945, when the Playmate targeted Iwo Jima. His comments included: "Bad weather, snow and sleet, lost engine over target and had to throw out all ammunitions."
Yonkovig's notes from a March 10, 1945, mission mentioned a culinary experience.
"We had a stove on the plane and I toasted our sandwiches," he wrote.
While the Playmate did not have any problems during its missions, crew members were prepared in case the plane was shot down. They carried a card that displayed an American flag and the same phrase translated into six Oriental languages, including Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Annamese and Lao. The same phrase was also translated into French on the same card.
The phrase, translated from French, reads as follows: "I am an American aviator. My plane is destroyed. I cannot speak your language. I am an enemy of the Japanese. For more information, please protect me, care for me and take me to the closest military office closest of our allies. The government of my country will reward you."
Discharged at 20
Yonkovig, just 20 years old, was honorably discharged on Nov. 28. 1945. He earned the following awards and medals: the Air Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, AAF Air Crew Member Badge, World War II Honorable Service Lapel Button; American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Philippine Liberation Ribbon and the World War II Victory Medal.
After returning home, he enrolled in college, but bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder kept him from learning. Under the tutelage of Harry Brest, he instead learned the business of meat packing. Later in life, he joined with Frank Varano to own and run the Shamokin Packing Company, which closed after Yonkovig's retirement in 1986.
Yonkovig stayed in touch with his military roots during reunions of the 494th, but said those gatherings have ended.
"The last meeting was in Chicago, and they announced that it would be the last meeting because everyone was getting old and no one could handle the arrangements," he said.
Still, for Yonkovig it was an honor to serve his country.
"I know my brother was proud, and my dad," he said. (My dad) served his country in World War I, so I felt proud to keep up that tradition and serve."