Last to Die

A Defeated Empire, a Forgotten Mission, and the Last American Killed in World War II


By Stephen Harding

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On August 18, 1945 — three days after Japan announced it would cease hostilities and surrender — U.S. Army Air Forces Sergeant Anthony J. Marchione bled to death in the clear, bright sky above Tokyo. Just six days after his twentieth birthday, Tony Marchione died like so many before him in World War II — quietly, cradled in the arms of a buddy who was powerless to prevent his death. Though heartbreaking for his family, Marchione’s death would have been no more notable than any other had he not had the dubious distinction of being the last American killed in World War II combat.

An aerial gunner who had already survived several combat missions, Marchione’s death was the tragic culmination of an intertwined series of events. The plane that carried him that day was a trouble-plagued American heavy bomber known as the B-32 Dominator, which would prove a failed competitor to the famed B-29 Superfortress. And on the ground below, a palace revolt was brewing and a small number of die-hard Japanese fighter pilots decided to fight on, refusing to accept defeat.

Based on official American and Japanese histories, personal memoirs, and the author’s exclusive interviews with many of the story’s key participants, Last to Die is a rousing tale of air combat, bravery, cowardice, hubris, and determination, all set during the turbulent and confusing final days of World War II.




THE AMERICAN AIRMAN WHO would suffer most from the decision to send B-32s back over Tokyo despite the August 17 fighter attacks was born almost exactly twenty years earlier—on August 12, 1925—in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Anthony James Marchione, or Tony, as he was always known to family and friends, was in many ways the embodiment of the millions of young Americans who left their homes and families to serve in the nation’s armed forces in World War II. Indeed, Tony’s personal history—a loving, all-American son of immigrant parents who grew up in a small town, dreaming of a career as a musician until war drew him far from home—might make him seem almost like a caricature of the clean-cut, self-effacing, and resolutely brave servicemen portrayed in the scores of rousingly patriotic movies made during the early 1940s.

Yet, by all accounts Tony Marchione was exactly the fine, upstanding young man that he appeared to be. And much of the credit for that rightly goes to his parents, who themselves traveled far from their childhood homes to make a new life in the New World.

ITALY IN THE EARLY twentieth century was a land of widespread economic inequality, with the northern parts of the country vastly better off in most respects than the central and southern regions. The nation’s population was growing rapidly, and many people emigrated to avoid what they saw as a future of crushing poverty. Among those who made the momentous decision to leave their ancestral homes for the promise of a better life abroad were two young people from the Abruzzo region on Italy’s Adriatic coast: Raffaelle Marchione and Emelia Ciancaglini. Though born in the same week of June 1897 and in villages only nine miles apart—he in San Buono and she in Scerni—the young man and woman who would become Tony Marchione’s parents never knew each other in Italy.1

Raffaelle was the first to arrive in America, sailing into New York harbor on September 30, 1913, aboard the SS Ancona. He was just sixteen, and spent his first few years living with his older brother, Nicola, who had already established himself in the sprawling Little Italy section of New York City. America’s 1917 entry into World War I prompted Nicola to join the Army and Ralph, as he was now known, followed his brother into that service in January 1918. Assigned to the Army Medical Department, Ralph served in France before being honorably discharged in October 1919. After leaving the Army the young man settled in Pottstown, where he lived with a cousin while apprenticing as a shoemaker.

It may well have been in a shoe-repair shop that Ralph first met Emelia. The young woman had arrived at the port of Philadelphia in May 1921 on the SS Taormina, and was met by an aunt and uncle who lived in Pottstown. It was while staying with them that she first encountered Ralph. The two obviously hit it off, for they were married in the city’s St. Aloysius Roman Catholic church on June 25, 1922. The newlyweds settled in the heavily Italian south end of Pottstown, and Ralph continued to work for other people until he was able to open an independent shop in the mid-1930s. By that time the couple had three children—Tony; Theresa (Terry), born in 1927; and Geraldine (Gerry), born in 1932.

At about the same time that Ralph opened his own shop—Peoples’ Shoe Repair on High Street—he and Emelia bought a modest three-level rowhouse at 558 King Street in central Pottstown. The rhythms of life in the Marchione household were dictated by work—six days a week in the shop for Ralph, every day in the home for Emelia—and school for Tony and his sisters. The elder Marchiones were devout Roman Catholics; though they sent their children to public schools, they ensured that Tony and the girls went to catechism at St. Aloysius on Saturday mornings and to Mass on Sundays. The family didn’t have a car when the children were young, so parents and children walked wherever they needed to go.

The 1930s were economically challenging for most American families, and the Marchiones—like many others—lived frugally. Ralph had a backyard garden in which he grew tomatoes and peppers, and when the season was right Emelia would can the produce for later use. In addition to her long hours cooking and cleaning, Tony’s mother also made a few extra dollars by knitting socks at home for a local company. She turned the heels by hand, and was paid for every pair she completed. Despite her workload and family responsibilities, Emelia maintained what her children later remembered as a generally cheerful disposition, singing Italian songs at the top of her lungs while she worked. Nor were songs the only Italian heard in the home—unlike Ralph, whose time in the Army and work in the shop had allowed him to become fluent in English, Emelia was far more comfortable in her native tongue and generally spoke Italian to both her husband and her children.

As the only son and oldest child in a traditional Italian-American family, Tony was doted on by his parents. This could have been a recipe for disaster, in that many children in similar situations grow up self-centered and spoiled, but Tony was devoted to Ralph and Emelia and by all accounts did all he could to ease their hard lives. He would often scrub the floors in the home so that his mother wouldn’t have to do it, and from the age of fourteen he worked after school at a local bakery to earn the family a little extra money. He occasionally brought home leftover desserts, a trait that endeared him to his sisters.

Fortunately for their hardworking parents—and likely because of the loving and nurturing atmosphere Ralph and Emelia created in the home—Tony and his sisters got along well together. Eighteen months older than Terry and five years older than Gerry, Tony was an easygoing and supportive brother. Although he took his family responsibilities seriously, he was always ready with a smile or a joke and would often pull out his trumpet to play Terry and Gerry new tunes he’d heard on the radio.

Music was a huge part of Tony’s life. He’d started taking trumpet lessons while in elementary school, and by the time he entered Pottstown Senior High School as a sophomore in 1940 he was so accomplished with his horn that in addition to playing in the school orchestra he was asked to join the swing band made up almost entirely of juniors and seniors.2 The group played at school dances and during halftime at football games. Tony and a few of the others also got the occasional paid “gig” at local churches and, in the summer, at Pottstown’s community swimming pool.

It was as a high school junior that Tony discovered another creative outlet. An average student in most subjects, he excelled in drafting and mechanical drawing. Having designed a built-in bookshelf for the family home as part of a school assignment, Tony went on to a considerably more ambitious project: he drew up the complete plans for opening up an enclosed stairway in the King Street house by taking out most of a non-load-bearing wall and replacing it with a mahogany handrail and white balusters.

Tony’s skill with the drafting pen apparently grew from some innate creative ability, for he was also something of an artist. He occasionally worked with watercolors but his preferred medium was simple graphite. His pencil sketches of people, objects, and landscapes decorated his school workbooks and were pinned to the walls of his bedroom. The understanding of scale and perspective that he’d acquired in his drafting classes stood him in good stead in his drawing, as it did when he became interested in photography during his senior year. Tony characteristically immersed himself in all aspects of the art form, including the technical: he was fascinated by cameras and their mechanical components.

Tony graduated from high school in June 1943, some two months shy of his eighteenth birthday. While he had hopes of ultimately becoming a professional musician, he knew—as did every young and healthy male leaving high school that summer—that his personal plans would have to wait. The United States had been at war for sixteen months and Tony was certain to be drafted after he turned eighteen. Rather than attempt to launch himself into further schooling or a career that would certainly be interrupted before it had truly begun, Tony took a full-time job at the Pottstown factory of the Doehler-Jarvis Corporation. The metal-castings manufacturer produced shell casings and other military matériel, and offered decent wages for workers willing to undertake twelve-hour shifts.

Tony stayed on the assembly line as summer turned to fall, waiting for the letter that would change his life. But as he waited he also considered his options. He knew that as a draftee he would have no say in the type of duty, or even the branch of service, to which he’d be assigned. Although he was happy to serve his country, he had no great desire to undertake that service as an infantryman or sailor, and he knew that the only way of avoiding either of those possibilities was to enlist before his draft notice arrived. He’d always been fascinated by airplanes and the technical aspects of aviation, so on November 20, 1943, he did what must have seemed the logical thing: he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces.

RALPH AND EMELIA MARCHIONE were understandably devastated by their only son’s decision to enlist, but they understood his motivations. His sisters were proud and supportive, and when it came time for Tony to report for induction the whole family saw him off at the Pottstown railway station.

Tony’s first stop was New Cumberland Army Air Field, some sixty miles west of Pottstown and just south of Harrisburg. It was a brief stay, however, for after only a few days of initial processing—which included a basic physical, a host of inoculations, and the assignment of Army serial number 33834700—he and several hundred other young men left the snow-covered post aboard a train bound for a much warmer location, Miami Beach, Florida. Their ultimate destination was officially known as USAAF Technical Training Command Basic Training Center Number 4, and upon his arrival Tony was assigned to Flight X-202 of the 409th Training Group. Over the following four months he and his fellow trainees were introduced to the Army way of doing things, from how to march in formation to how to field strip and fire the standard M1 Garand rifle. This first taste of military life was probably as jarring and as challenging for Tony as it is for most everyone who goes through basic training, but the few records that survive from this period in his life indicate that the young man from Pottstown adapted quickly and did well.

Tony may have harbored hopes of becoming a pilot, but for reasons that are now lost to history the USAAF apparently had other plans for him. Upon completion of his training in Miami Beach he was transferred to the 569th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion at Drew Army Air Field near Tampa. As its designation indicates, the 569th’s mission was to locate and identify enemy aircraft in combat zones using mobile ground-based radar systems. The unit had been established just a few months before Tony joined it, and the logical assumption is that he had been tapped for training as either a radar operator or some sort of technician. The surviving records don’t clearly indicate the nature of his assignment with the 569th, yet we can be certain that Tony wasn’t pleased with it. For some reason—most probably because watching aircraft on a radar screen was not his idea of aviation—just weeks after arriving at Drew Field Tony volunteered for a job that would definitely allow him to fly: he signed up to be an aerial gunner.

As America’s participation in World War II progressed, the Army Air Forces fielded thousands of light, medium, and heavy bombers of various types, and all of them carried defensive machine guns. These weapons were mounted in power-operated, manned turrets (except on the B-29, which used remotely operated turrets) and on flexible, hand-held mounts. The AAF had opened its first flexible gunnery school in 1941 at Las Vegas Army Airfield, and by 1944 it and six other installations were turning out a collective average of 3,000 gunners a month. Because gun turrets were of necessity small and cramped spaces, enlisted gunners could be no more than six feet tall and weigh no more than 180 pounds. Prospective gunners also had to possess excellent eye-hand coordination and have a high level of mechanical aptitude in order to care for their guns and the turret systems.3 At five feet six inches and 125 pounds, Tony Marchione certainly met the physical requirements, and we can assume that his scores on the standard mechanical-aptitude tests were equally sufficient because he was accepted for instruction and transferred to the 38th Flexible Gunnery Training Group at Tyndall Army Airfield in Panama City, Florida.

Tyndall’s location on the Florida panhandle made it an ideal aerial gunnery training installation, in that the Gulf of Mexico afforded vast stretches of open water that could be used as machine-gun ranges. The first class of students began training in February 1942, and by the time of Tony’s arrival in mid-1944 the process for producing qualified and capable aerial gunners had evolved into a six-week, 290-hour mix of academic and practical instruction.

Every day that the prospective gunners spent at Tyndall, except Sundays, began in the same way—with an hour of physical training meant to ensure that the young men were fit enough to handle the rigors of aerial combat. Early on in their training they were also tested for their ability to work at high altitudes, an evaluation that was carried out in Tyndall’s low-pressure chamber. The men filed into the air-tight enclosure in small groups, put on demand-flow oxygen masks,4 and then sat, unmoving, until the pressure within the chamber replicated the conditions they would experience at 35,000 to 38,000 feet. They were then told to take off their masks in order to familiarize themselves with the first signs of hypoxia, or oxygen starvation; within minutes they would be unable to perform even simple tasks, and instructors often had to help them put their masks back on. Any man who had obvious difficulty dealing with the altitude—whether it was severe sinus, ear, or vision problems, or an inability to come to grips with the sensations involved—was immediately dropped from the gunner-training program and transferred to other, nonflying duties.

Those men who passed the altitude tests—including Tony Marchione—went on to learn the nuts and bolts of their new profession, beginning with in-depth study of what would soon be the primary tool of their trade: the Browning M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun. Over the course of forty-one hours of classroom instruction the trainees studied every aspect of the M2’s design and construction, memorizing the nomenclature, location, and function of every one of the machine gun’s parts. They learned the different types of ammunition the weapon could fire—including ball, tracer, armor-piercing, and incendiary—and how to clean and maintain the eighty-three-pound gun. Most important, the would-be gunners repeatedly practiced how to tear the weapon down and reassemble it, a process known as “stripping.” There were two methods the men had to master. The first, detail stripping, involved the disassembly of every removable piece of the weapon and would normally be done only when the “.50-cal” was to be thoroughly cleaned. In the second method, field stripping, the trainees removed only the parts required to discover the source of a given malfunction.5 Given that the latter operation might have to be done in the dark and at altitudes that would require the gunner to wear cold-weather gear, the trainees had to learn to field strip and reassemble the M2 while wearing a blindfold and heavy flying gloves.6

Though learning the mechanics of the machine gun was important, of course, being able to put the weapon to effective use against the enemy was ultimately the only reason for a gunner’s presence on an aircraft. Tony and his fellow trainees at Tyndall were therefore taught the science of air-to-air gunnery in a series of cumulative steps, beginning with classroom instruction in the physics of projectiles. This covered such topics as how a bullet’s trajectory is affected by gravity and air density, by the speed and orientation of the aircraft from which it is fired, and by the relative speed and position of the target aircraft. The trainees learned how to estimate a target’s speed, range, and direction of flight, and learned to hit a target by using the techniques of deflection shooting—the way in which the gunner must “lead” the target by firing at a point ahead of, below, or above it, depending on circumstances. To aid them in the sighting process the gunners-to-be also learned how to use and maintain a variety of optical and mechanical gunsights.

All of this theoretical instruction was put into practice on Tyndall’s ground gunnery ranges. After being introduced to and mastering stationary skeet shooting with shotguns (in order to hone their eye-hand coordination), the trainees progressed to shooting at clay pigeons launched from the backs of moving trucks. They then moved on to firing BB guns at carnival-type moving target enclosures, and used electronic “guns” to fire at motion picture images of attacking aircraft projected on a screen. During the third week of training they graduated from “peashooters” to the real thing, firing .50-caliber machine guns first at standing paper targets, then at aircraft-shaped targets moving across the width of the range atop poles attached to pulleys or vehicles. During this phase they fired both from flexible mounts and from a variety of aircraft gun turrets mounted on wooden platforms—turrets that they also had to learn to maintain and repair. In their last week at Tyndall Tony and the other trainee gunners finally got to take to the air, firing from the rear seats of AT-6 Texan dual-place trainers at target sleeves pulled—usually at a safe distance—behind other aircraft. Then, after passing a series of comprehensive examinations that evaluated not only their weapon knowledge and skill but also such other vital abilities as aircraft recognition and combat first aid, the trainees became full-fledged MOS (Military Occupational Skill) 611 aerial gunners, their new incarnation denoted by the silver wings awarded to each man at the graduation ceremony.

That ceremony was a hugely important waypoint in Tony’s young life, of course, and he marked it by buying a postcard he intended to send to his parents. Purchased at Tyndall’s small post exchange, the card carried a bit of rhyme that expressed the pride and esprit de corps that Tony and his fellow newly minted gunners felt. Titled “A Gunner’s Vow,” it read:

                        I wished to be a pilot,

                        And you along with me.

                        But if we all were pilots

                        Where would the Air Force be?

                        It takes GUTS to be a GUNNER,

                        To sit out in the tail

                        When the Messerschmitts are coming

                        And the slugs begin to wail.

                        The pilot’s just a chauffeur,

                        It’s his job to fly the plane,

                        But it’s WE who do the fighting,

                        Though we may not get the fame.

                        If we all must be Gunners

                        Then let us make this bet:

                        We’ll be the best damn Gunners

                        That have left this station yet.

As it turned out, Tony was able to deliver the card in person, for he was granted “leave en route” to his next assignment and was able to spend a few days at home in Pottstown. He was welcomed joyously by his parents and sisters, and spent most of the precious few days with his family. He taught Gerry the Army Air Forces song and how to jitterbug, the latter a skill he’d apparently picked up during his off-duty hours at Tyndall. His leave ended all too quickly, and at the end of the week Ralph left sixteen-year-old Terry in charge of the shoe shop and he and Emelia boarded the local train to Philadelphia with Tony. At the city’s main terminal they bade farewell to their son, who then boarded a train bound for a place none of the Marchiones had ever been: Arizona.

Like all newly minted aerial gunners, Tony’s next assignment was to a combat crew training school where he would integrate his skills with those of other airmen before they all shipped out for overseas duty. In his case the school was located at Davis-Monthan Army Air Field, just outside Tucson. Run by the 233rd Army Air Forces Base Unit, part of the 16th Bombardment Operational Training Wing, the 223rd was dedicated exclusively to forming and training ten-man replacement crews for the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber. The pilot, copilot, navigator, and bombardier were officers whereas the others—the flight engineer/top turret gunner; the nose, tail, and ball (belly) turret gunners; and two waist gunners—were enlisted men. All members of the crew had already qualified in their respective skills, and it was during the ninety-day combat crew training that they learned to work and fight as a team.

Upon his arrival at Davis-Monthan Field Tony was assigned to a crew headed by lanky, twenty-three-year-old Second Lieutenant Robert W. Essig. The Iowa-born pilot had played semipro baseball before entering the service, and his approach to both flying and leadership was professional and competent, but relaxed. Tony eventually wrote home to his parents that Essig was “the best doggone pilot in the country” and a “top-notch leader,” and that “every member of the crew would stick by him till the very end.” Tony also wrote glowingly about three crewmates with whom he became fast friends, fellow gunners Raymond Zech, Rudolph Nudo, and Frank Pallone.7

It was a good thing that the men of Essig’s crew bonded so well and so quickly, because the training they underwent at Davis-Monthan was intense. Given the nature of the air war in both the European and Pacific theaters, much of that training focused on high-altitude, long-distance formation flying, initially in groups of two to four aircraft and later in twelve-plane “squadron box” formations. The B-24s flew practice missions that lasted eight to ten hours, during which they would drop live bombs on target ranges and undertake formation evasive action against simulated enemy air attack. These flights also offered Tony and the other gunners the opportunity to coordinate their responses to incoming fighters—usually portrayed by war-weary P-40 Warhawks—by alerting each other to the “enemy” plane’s changing position as it zoomed into and through the B-24 formation.

All of the training that Bob Essig and his men underwent at Davis-Monthan was intended to turn them into a first-rate B-24 bomber crew that could undertake combat missions immediately upon arrival in an overseas theater. Throughout their training Essig and his men had been told that they would ultimately be assigned to a bomb group of Major General Nathan F. Twining’s Italy-based Fifteenth Air Force, a possibility that was especially pleasing to Tony, Rudy Nudo, and Frank Pallone, all of whom still had relatives in the “old country.” But on December 16, 1944, a few days after the crew completed training at Davis-Monthan and while they were awaiting orders for overseas movement to Italy, the plans changed abruptly.8 As Tony later described it:

It was getting late in the morning and the sun was getting hotter by the minute. The enlisted men of the crew were just getting out of their sacks after a late-morning nap. We didn’t have anything to do now since we were waiting for our final orders to ship out. We all knew that our training here in the U.S. had been completed and that we were headed overseas for the big fight . . . we just wanted to get in the fight, for the sooner we got there the sooner this damn war would be over, according to us. One thing each one of us was sweating out was whether we were going to get a furlough to see our families and girl friends before we left.

Just then Bob [Essig] comes walking in our barracks dressed to kill. He had his pinks [officer’s dress uniform] on and they were as neat as could be, with creases in his pants as sharp as a knife.


  • Praise for Last to Die

    Booklist, 6/1/15
    “Harding, a military-affairs journalist, has woven together letters, interviews with family and friends, and both Japanese and American military records to provide an intense, quietly moving, and, of course, sad chronicle of a young life cut short…Harding treats the youth with admiration and affection that elicits compassion without becoming cloying or melodramatic. This is a superb look at the life and death of one young man among millions of others who loved, were loved by others, and died too soon.”

    Kirkus Reviews, 6/15/15
    “[Harding] seems to be making a specialty of the forgotten closing episodes of WWII…In a neat blend of military and technological history, Harding links Marchione's story to the development of the aircraft he staffed, a lumbering target called the Consolidated Dominator…A worthy sortie that explores a curtain-closing moment in history that might have gone very badly indeed.”

    Publishers Weekly, 6/22/15
    “[A] meticulously researched account of the days following Japan's surrender… [Harding] relates his gripping account of the fight between Japanese and American forces in breathless detail, and the tale is impressive and inspiring, as is Harding's determination to tell it.”

On Sale
Jul 14, 2015
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

Stephen Harding

About the Author

Stephen Harding is the author of nine books, including the New York Times bestseller The Last Battle, which is in production as a major motion picture, and The Castaway's War, optioned as a major motion picture. He is currently the editor-in-chief of Military History magazine and lives in Northern Virginia.

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