Last to Die
A Defeated Empire, a Forgotten Mission, and the Last American Killed in World War II
Da Capo Press, Boston, 2015, 288 pages
Book Review published on: June 30, 2017
Stephen Harding brings to life the story of the B-32 Dominator aircraft within the context of a young ambitious Italian immigrant and a recalcitrant Japanese Imperial Staff that was filled with fanatics even as the ruins of a nuclear attack still smoldered. Although most Americans are well aware of the checkered and often controversial place in history of the B-29 Superfortress, very little is known about an alternative aircraft, one that could very well have been selected to fly the nuclear mission over Japan in place of the Enola Gay. That alternative aircraft, the B-32 Dominator, is at the heart of Last to Die. While the title of this book may hint at the long path of a young immigrant who became an airman, Harding sets the stage onboard a combat platform whose lasting claim to fame is as that of the last U.S. airman to die in the closing days of World War II.
Anthony Marchionne was a young Italian immigrant who ventured into the U.S. Army Air Forces during the last years of World War II hoping to become a gunner; instead, he was assigned to aerial photography duties on a B-32. The B-32 was an experimental airframe that was rushed into service to fill a gap in the closing days of the war as part of George Kenney’s 5th Air Force. Kenney was in dire need of bomber replacements for his unit’s vintage B-17s or B-24s, and he pushed hard to have the B-32 fill this gap. If the need had not been so great, it is highly unlikely that this airframe, which claimed the life of its manufacturer’s senior test pilot, would have seen any action in the Pacific Theater. The more Harding delves on the process that put the B-32 into service, the more cognizant the reader becomes of the reasons why the B-29 was favored over the B-32 for the atomic runs over Japan. In Harding’s words, the B-32 was a “concept aircraft” that was filled with “Gremlins no matter how much troubleshooting was performed” to fix and perfect it.
Regarding whether Marchionne’s ultimate fate can be pinned primarily on the technical flaws of the B-32 or on the defiant Japanese Imperial Staff and its string of fanatic aviators, it is evident that Harding favors the former. The B-32 was sluggish to maneuver and its electronic systems were unreliable. Were it not for those flaws, it is quite possible that the young crew onboard Marchionne’s B-32 would have completed its aerial reconnaissance mission successfully.
More than a touching story on the last airman to die in World War II, Harding’s greatest contribution is perhaps having brought to life the story of a little know airframe that, were it not for its troubles, could have very well been sitting today in place of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The B-32 was just not meant to take that place.
There are no copies left of the B-32; the last one was, at one time, destined for museum display. However, it was instead sent to the crusher in 1949, evidence that some memories are best not left to linger. In the end, Harding yields to the memory of young Marchionne as the last airman to die in the war, and he brings to life the sacrifice of a young aviator who, along with his fellow crewmates, ventured into the postnuclear Japan skies onboard an aircraft that was far from perfect.
Book Review written by: Hiram Morales, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas