It was a fatal mistake one night in July 1945 that resulted in the B-29 gunner scrabbling around his open bomber bay and unleashing dozens of jammed 500-pound munitions 7,000 feet above Akashi, Japan — saving his plane and his crew.
Sitting in his tidy kitchen in Fairfax, Mr. Palmer, 87, is matter-of-fact about his daredevil actions during the final months of World War II.
"If you've got a job to do, you've got a job to do," he said, blue eyes shining. "Just do it, get it done, and then worry about other things."
Sixty-eight years later, he was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross (with valor). It came after his aircraft commander just three years ago told Mr. Palmer at a reunion of the 73rd Bomb Wing Association that he had regretted not submitting his name for a medal. As it turned out, it wasn't too late.
Part of a four-man team — and overall 11-member crew — Mr. Palmer's job all those years ago had been to find enemy planes in his gunsight, line up the wings and fire. He had enlisted along with his twin brother, Willard, in the Army Air Force Reserve a year earlier at 17 years old with the hope of getting a good-paying job. Both men would become central fire control gunners for B-29 bombers based in Saipan but did not fly together.
Before each mission, the B-29s were loaded with 40 bombs, each weighing 500 pounds, by professional armorers. Mr. Palmer — then a staff sergeant — said he and his crew would stand and observe, but the loading was left to the professionals.
Shortly before their mission on July 7, 1945, armorers were loading the explosives when one of the men had his head crushed between a bomb and the bomb rack. After his body was recovered, the armorer crew continued with their work. But something would go wrong.
"We believe that somehow in the process of loading bombs and the anxiety of the accident, the bomb racks were not armed properly," he said. "There was a lot of anxiety that trip."
The B-29 carrying Sgt. Palmer, his team and 10,000 pounds of explosives flew into the night sky, and the crew prepared to unload the bombs over their targets in Japan. But when the bombardier tried to drop the rear bombs, the mammoth explosives didn't budge. The plane flew on to its backup targets, but once again failed to drop its payload.
Sgt. Palmer and the crew realized they had limited options remaining. They could bail out over the water, a tactic that had a 5 percent survival rate, or try to bail out on land and let the plane blow up over the ocean. Landing back at the base was out of the question, since the live bombs were malfunctioning.
"You can never train for it," Mr. Palmer said this week of the glitch. "We decided the thing to do was try to get those bombs out of there."
Armed only with a screwdriver and flashlight, he and the bombardier crawled into the open bomb bay and wedged themselves in among the bombs and racks as they worked to dislodge the 20 heavy explosives by hand. It took about 30 minutes to get the bombs out of the plane, and then the two men had to maneuver around the open bay door and climb back to their positions.
"There was nowhere to step," he said. "You just couldn't walk."
The men's actions saved the plane — and the other 10 on board.
After the war, Mr. Palmer — donned "Lefty" in high school because of his pitching prowess — went on to work in civil service for 42 years, though he was called back in 1951 during the Korean War. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Air Force Reserve.
He retired from civil service but then went on to become a real estate broker until 2008, when he retired a second time. It was around 2009 when the aircraft commander of the B-29 on that fateful July night reunited with Mr. Palmer at a meeting of the 73rd Bomb Wing Association. He said he would be putting Mr. Palmer's name in for a medal, along with the bombardier who worked with him. It took three years before medals for both men would be approved.
Today, Mr. Palmer is an active community member, church parishioner and family man. He's been married to his wife, Doris, for 64 years, and his extended family is growing to include seven great-grandchildren next month. He is also an active member of the Bomb Wing Association.
This past weekend, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, presented Mr. Palmer with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax sponsored the award ceremony, a decision post commander Mike Kimlick said was an easy one.
"Absolutely," Mr. Kimlick said. "He'll come around for a cup of coffee. The American Legion felt honored to have the opportunity to host the event. Lefty is a great storyteller."
Mr. Connolly called Mr. Palmer "truly heroic.
"He put his own life on the line to save the mission, the plane, and the crew," Mr. Connolly said. "But Lefty didn't view himself as a hero at the time. He was just doing his job in service to his nation. There is a reason why his generation is known as the 'Greatest Generation.'"