GERTIE THE B-29 BOMBER BEAR WHO FLEW COMBAT OVER JAPAN

By Henry Sakaida

During World War II, many crazy and unusual events took place which never made it into the history books. “Gertie” is a prime example. She was a Himalayan Sloth Bear who bears  (sorry for the pun!) the incredulous distinction of being the only bear in World War II to have flown bombing missions over Japan!



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Capt. Hap Good, Gertie, and radar operator Sgt. Carl Vergin

Gertie made her debut in Calcutta, India circa December 1944. She was one of two newborn bear cubs sold to a pilot of a B-29 (792nd Bomb Squadron, 468th BG, 58th Bomb Wing). Their eyes weren’t open yet and they weighed less than a pound and a half. One of the cubs died and the survivor was named Gertie.

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Gertie guzzles a bottle of bear, which was her favorite drink

Gertie bonded with the pilot, Capt. Hap Good, and lived in his tent. She became the crew’s mascot. She had a fondness for Coca-Cola until someone gave her beer.  From then on, she had a taste for beer and would actually get stoned when she consumed too much!

Capt. Good took Gertie on three bombing missions to Japan. At the end of the war, their B-29, nicknamed “Hap’s Characters,” completed 38 combat missions. Upon receiving orders to return to the states in July 1945, the crew didn’t know what to do with their mascot. It was decided that Gertie should accompany them home.

On the long trip back, the plane was put on auto pilot and most of the crew started drinking beer and getting drunk. Gertie joined in, couldn’t hold her liquor, and proceeded to tear up the cargo compartment, looking for more beer. No one had considered the toilet needs for the 7-month bear cub; consequently, she did her business all over the place.

The crew arrived at their destination in Northern California. They were surprised to learn that their plane had to be inspected before they could be cleared for entry! They bribed a couple of guards to overlook one Himalayan Sloth Bear; it cost them two Japanese Samurai swords. The question became: “OK, she made it through. Now, what do we do with her?” No one had an answer.



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On the back of this photo is a caption: “Crawling up Hap’s leg, Gertie has one leg of a pair of pants on, which she disliked very much. Taken in India.”

It was reluctantly decided that the crew would draw straws and the loser would have to take Gertie to a desolate part of the airfield and shoot her with his sidearm. As luck would have it, Capt. Good picked the short straw as the rest of the crew breathed a sigh of relief. But Good couldn’t do it. They smuggled the bear off base and gave her to the Fleishhacker Zoo, named after Herbert Fleishhacker, a San Francisco banker and philanthropist (later renamed San Francisco Zoo).

Back in the 1990s, Tom Britton, a B-29 historian, heard about Gertie and set about trying to track down the story. He surmised that Gertie was probably given to a zoo. On a hunch, he called the San Francisco Zoo. He was referred to a retired caretaker there at the time and told him the incredible story. But the old man denied ever receiving a bear under those circumstances. “Her name was Gertie,” said Tom. “And…”

“Gertie? Did you say Gertie?!” replied the old caretaker in an excited voice. He remembered! He later looked through the animal inventory card and told Tom that they had received the bear in July 1945.

During the time that Gertie was at the zoo, some of the old crewmen would drop by to see her. They were allowed into her enclosure to share a bottle of beer with her! When the visitor raised his arm in a salute, Gertie would sit on her haunches and raise her arm in response. The audience would laugh at the bear giving a Hitler salute!  At the zoo, she was known as “Gertie the Nazi Bear.”

Very few visitors to the San Francisco Zoo realized that the bear was a real war veteran! Gertie passed away in 1965.

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A tribute painting of Gertie and the crew of B-29 “Hap’s Characters.”



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