Walt Huss was one of Sonoma County, California’s, best-known World War II veterans, a former B-29 tail-gunner, accompanied always by his memories of being downed over Japanese-occupied Manchuria and imprisoned, and by the reverence he bore for the nine fellow crewmen who died.
Huss rarely missed public salutes to veterans, and was present less than a month ago at Santa Rosa’s “Avenue of the Flags” Memorial Day observance.
He died Monday, June 23, 2014, at the age of 91.
In late 1945, he was an emaciated, 22-year-old Army Air Corps sergeant when Russian troops liberated the prison camp at Dairen at the end of the war in the Pacific. Once he was physically able, one of his first acts was to visit the families of each comrade who was killed when a kamikaze fighter pilot rammed their Superfortress on December 7, 1944.
“He felt duty-bound to do that,” said one of Huss’ two daughters, Jackie Hallerberg of Forestville.
He befriended some of his fallen buddies’ relatives, including the twin boys born to the wife of flight engineer Charles Krueger shortly before he perished in the downing of the bomber.
The death of the new father was particularly painful to Huss, his daughter said. He spent the last 70 years connecting fallen crewmen’s kin and the general public to the reality of war and the sacrifices of those who answer the call to serve.
He would ask, when he spoke in public, that Americans not forget nor give up on soldiers missing in action. He was sharply aware that his parents and two sisters suffered in Ohio upon learning just two days before Christmas of ’44 that he had been downed and was missing.
“He was very tender of heart,” daughter Hallerberg said. She noted that her father was happy, charming and successful, but she imagines how much more joyful he might have been had he not lost so many brothers at arms and endured nearly 10 months of misery as a prisoner of war.
“I think the experiences he had, none of us know what that is like,” Hallerberg said.
Walter Huss was born in May, 1923, in Fremont, Ohio. He played quarterback for his high school football team and had turned 18 when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Three years to the day later, Huss was aboard a B-29 dubbed “Humpin’ Honey” and manning the left-side tail gun. Ken Beckwith was on the right-side gun and the other nine crewman all were at forward posts.
They were on a bombing run against a Japanese target in Manchuria when the kamikaze fighter appeared and flew straight into the bomber, striking near its tail. Gunners Huss and Beckwith fell free as the tail broke off. They were the only two to survive.
Hallerberg said her father didn’t recall pulling his parachute cord. As he struck the ground, he badly fractured an ankle.
The Japanese troops who captured him and placed him in a large prison camp did not treat the injury. His captors kept him in isolation for nine straight weeks.
“They thought he had secret information,” Hallerberg said. “He didn’t.”
For nearly 10 months, Huss was fed a small amount of rice and broth, and he was never given a change of clothes.
His parents, Floyd and Alma Huss of Ohio, received notice that he was missing on December 23, 1944. Alma Huss sat and wrote her son a letter in absentia.
“I hardly know how to start this letter as I have grieved for the last five days,” she wrote. “I just know you will be back to read this letter.”
“I received the lovely orchid from you on Christmas Day. Just one, but it was lovely. I don’t suppose you ever received any of those boxes that were sent to you.”
Alma Huss signed off, “Your loving Mother,” then added, “Please, I hope you will answer this someday.”
He did. Walt Huss returned to Ohio after his liberation, convalescence and honorary discharge. He married the young woman he’d met and fallen for before going off to war. They married in 1946 on Thanksgiving Day.
Walt and Eleanor Huss settled in their native Ohio and he went to work for General Motors. He retired after 35 years as a production plant engineer.
The couple moved to California in the early 1980s before both of their daughters had migrated to the West Coast.
“Their role in California, truthfully, was as the quintessential grandparents,” Hallerberg said.
Walt Huss died Monday in the home north of Santa Rosa that he and Eleanor shared since 1985.
In addition to her and their daughter in Sebastopol, California, Huss is survived by daughter Sherry Huss of Occidental, sister Alberta McCormick of Blissfield, Michigan, and two grandchildren.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. on June 28 on the Veterans’ Patio at Santa Rosa, California, Memorial Park.