After a long and gruesome battle, Japan officially surrendered from World War II on Sept. 2, 1945. Hugh Sutton was pleased to play a historic role in making it happen.
"A small part, but I guess it was a part," says Sutton, a retired doctor who, for the last decade, has lived full-time in the Durango area with his wife, Mary.
The Fort Wayne, Ind., native reported for duty the same day he graduated from high school - June 1, 1943. Almost all his classmates were patriotic, he says, and eager to help the Allied cause.
"Several of my best friends were killed in the war," he says.
On Memorial Day 2009, his days of dropping bombs are a far-distant memory. And his greenbelt-surrounded back porch, where a persistent well-fed squirrel feasts on sunflower seeds meant for birds, is a long way in time and space from a rocky airstrip in Southeast Asia.
The Suttons moved to Southwest Colorado to ski. They'd lived for 12 years in the Phoenix area, where Dr. Sutton worked for America West Airlines performing physicals on pilots. Trips between Phoenix and central Colorado ski areas brought them through Durango, and they began skiing at Purgatory.
Before that, they'd lived for three decades in Michigan, where Sutton worked in a family practice. With Sutton piloting a private plane, the Suttons and their three children would fly to Colorado for ski vacations.
Sutton took an interest in flying as a teenager, and eagerly boarded a troop train that day in June to enter the U.S. Army Air Corps. Months of pilot training in California and Arizona prepared him for battle.
In late 1944 in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sutton's six-man crew stepped aboard a brand-new B-25, a twin-engine medium bomber, and headed toward ... somewhere.
"We couldn't open our orders until we took off," Sutton recalls.
In the air, they learned they were headed for Karachi, India. From there, they received orders to fly over "the hump" to their post with the 14th Air Force (dubbed the Flying Tigers) in China.
"The hump" is what the Allies dubbed the 530-mile air passage over the rugged Himalaya. The high altitude and extreme weather - violent drafts, poor visibility - made the flight a harrowing one. Sutton and crew completed the journey on their second attempt, on a day so clear that you couldn't miss the impressive sight of Mount Everest.
Why to China? The Allies were eager to help the battle-worn country, which had been fighting Japanese invaders since 1937. Keeping Japan engaged with China meant the Japanese could focus less attention on their adversary in the Pacific, the United States.
Sutton's squadron set up in a small village not far from Kunming, in southern China. They lived in mud-brick cabins, and, yes, "We had a lot of rice."
"There was an airstrip there that was pretty well built by hand, with Chinese labor. They broke up rocks and gravel-sized stones to pave the runway," Sutton says.
Local women hauled the stones in baskets slung across their shoulders.
During the war, Sutton flew 11 combat missions, totaling 85 hours. The B-25 had about a dozen 50-mm guns and also dropped bombs during its tree-top-level runs to take out troops and bridges. Ground fire was a hazard, but more often, it was weather that took down U.S. planes.
"It was interesting," Sutton says. "Of course, as young as I was ... at that age you're kind of fearless, you know, and don't have enough sense.
"The aircraft had a few holes in it from time to time. I never lost a crew member, so we were very fortunate."
The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, but nearly a month later, Japan had not officially surrendered.
Sept. 1 began routinely for Sutton, who flew a C-47 to Kunming that morning to pick up cargo to supply the nationalist Chinese, who, by then, were about to resume their civil war with Mao Tse-tung's communists. More important to Sutton's brush with history, China and the U.S. were preparing to fly surrender terms to the Japanese, whose Southeast Asia command was in Canton, China. The co-pilot for the mission did not show up in Kunming, and Sutton was snagged for the job.
So he ended up as co-pilot on the Sept. 1 flight that took high-level Chinese and American military leaders to Canton to deliver the surrender terms for Southeast Asia.
One catch: "We attempted to contact (the Japanese) by radio, but they never responded," Sutton says. "So we didn't know whether they'd accept us peacefully or shoot us down or what they'd do."
The arrival was indeed peaceful, although the Japanese they encountered appeared, as Sutton wrote his parents, "rather undefeated."
The next day, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies, concluding World War II.
Sutton stayed in China for several months, volunteering to support the Chinese nationalists.
"A lost cause," Sutton rues.
By early 1946, he'd returned to Indiana. A couple years later, he married Mary, then became a doctor and an avid skier.
Today is Memorial Day, and Americans will honor their military war dead. World War II gave us more than 400,000 soldiers to mourn. Hugh Sutton considers himself fortunate to not be one of them, and privileged to help a long war come to an end.
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.