B-29 Superfortress

B-29 Superfortress

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In 1933 the Boeing Aircraft Company began work on producing a strategic bomber for the United States Air Force. The specifications provided by the USAF included an aircraft that could carry 2,000 pounds of bombs a distance of 5,000 miles.

After the development of several prototypes, the B-29 Superfortress flew for the first time on 21st September, 1942. The aircraft, with its ten man crew, had a maximum speed of 358 mph (576 km) and had a range of 4,100 miles (4,800 km). It was 99 ft (30.18 m) long with a wingspan of 141 ft 3 in (43.05 m). The aircraft was armed with one 20 mm cannon, 10 machine-guns and could carry 20,000 lb (9,0909 kg) of bombs.

A total of 3,970 were built and over 2,000 of these were operational before the end of the war. By 1945 B-29s based in the Pacific were carrying out heavy bombing raids on Japan. The large number of Japanese buildings made of wood made it easy for the bombers to create firestorms. On the 9th and 10th March 1945, a raid on Tokyo devastated the city. This was followed by attacks on other Japanese cities.

By the summer of 1945 the USAAF was ready to mount its final strategic bombing campaign. On 6th August 1945, a B29 bomber piloted by colonel Paul W. Tibbets flying at 330 mph (528 km) at an altitude of more than 30,000 ft (9,630) dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima. Japan continued to fight and a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. On 10th August the Japanese surrendered and the Second World War was over.

B-29 FIFI B-29/B-24 Squadron

FIFI was acquired by the CAF in the early 1970s when a group of CAF members found her at the U.S. Navy Proving Ground at China Lake, California where she was being used as a missile target. The airplane was rescued and restored and flew for over thirty years until 2006 when the chief pilot made the decision to ground her pending a complete power plant re-fit. What followed was an extensive four year restoration that included replacing all four engines with new custom built hybrid engines. FIFI returned to the sky in 2010 and since that time has traveled coast to coast attracting large crowds at every tour stop.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress is a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber designed by Boeing which was flown primarily by the United States during World War II and the Korean War. It was one of the largest aircraft operational during World War II and featured state of the art technology. It was the single most expensive weapons project undertaken by the United States in World War II, exceeding the cost of the Manhattan Project by between 1 and 1.7 billion dollars.[4] Innovations introduced included a pressurized cabin, dual-wheeled, tricycle landing gear, and a remote, computer-controlled fire-control system that directed four machine gun turrets that could be operated by a single gunner and a fire-control officer. A manned tail gun installation was semi-remote.

B-29 &mdash The Superfortress Survivors

As the CAF members looked around, they found that only a very few B-29s still existed after they were retired following the Korean conflict. The two atomic bombers still existed, Enola Gay and Bock's Car, plus one or two more were in storage for museums. Just when it looked like finding a B-29 would be impossible, fate brought a remarkable discovery. CAF member Roger Baker spotted what looked like a group of B-29 airframes on the bombing range at China Lake, a highly secret US Navy weapons testing base in the California dessert.

The CAF contacted the US Navy, who replied that they did in fact have no B-29 aircraft. The disconnect is classic military red tape. The US Air Force gave the "government issued property - aircraft" to the US Navy in 1954. The US Navy accepted "government issued property - static ordinance testing devices". So, the Navy was right after all, they didn't have any old USAF airplanes. Once the red tape was sorted out, it was confirmed that upwards of 50 Superfortress airframes has been sent to China Lake. Some were destroyed, some blown up, some were cut up, but a surprising number were still in good condition.

The CAF was granted the right to pick the first aircraft. They picked S/N 44-62070, spent several weeks cleaning it up, and then flew it out of China Lake in 1971. Fifi remains the only active B-29 today. Another 30 Superfortress sections were brought out of China Lake, resulting in the vast majority of the B-29s that are now on display at air museums across the US. Some of these museum aircraft are composites of sections from as many as two or three airframes. The last B-29 was pulled out of China Lake in the late 1990's. She is Doc, one of the B-29s painted up as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Doc is currently in Wichita, Kansas, being restored to flight status. It is hoped that she will be the second airworthy Superfortress before the end of the decade.

The USAAF built the B-32 Dominator as a backup to the B-29 in the event that the B-29 project failed. The B-32 resulted in only a handful of aircraft, all of which were scrapped after WWII. It is frightening to think that one of the most important aircraft types ever produced, the B-29 Stratofortress, might be similarly extinct today had it not been for this cache of bombing targets that were long forgotten in the high dessert.

November 1, 1944: First B-29 Over Tokyo (Warplane Recon Variants)

On November 1, 1944, the first of what would end up to be thousands of missions by the famous Boeing B-29 Superfortress flew over Tokyo, Japan on a reconnaissance mission, the first allied aircraft over Tokyo since the 1942 Doolittle Raid. The aircraft was a special photo-reconnaissance version of the big bomber, equipped with 3 powerful cameras. Unlike many other warplanes fitted for reconnaissance, the F-13 and F-13A versions of the B-29 retained their defensive guns and bombing equipment. The 118 F-13 and F-13A Superfortresses were later re-designated RB-29 and RB-29A in 1948.

Digging Deeper

Although military aircraft designed from the start to perform reconnaissance have been built, notably the Lockheed U-2 and Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, fighter and bomber aircraft have often been adapted for this role by virtually all air forces through history.

The British used unarmed Mosquito light bombers and Supermarine Spitfire fighters without guns to take photos of enemy positions in World War II, with the stripping off of armaments allowing the planes extra speed to avoid interception. The Germans flew perhaps the best recon aircraft of World War II, the Arado 234 jet powered bomber equipped with cameras instead of bombs, which flew so high and so fast the Allies often did not know they had been overflown! The US fielded the F-3 recon version of the Douglas A-20 Havoc attack plane in all theaters during World War II.

America’s first jet bomber, the B-45 Tornado was converted to the RB-45C for recon duty during the Korean War. The United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps used recon versions of the remarkably versatile McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II equipped with side looking imaging radar and FLIR as well as standard photographic equipment for many years, the speed of an F-4 in a “clean” configuration” without rockets, bombs, and guns allowing great speed. These RF-4B, C and D’s served from the 1960’s until 1996 with the US military. The US Navy also used recon versions of the A-5 Vigilante extensively in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In fact, this plane designed as a supersonic nuclear bomber, carrier borne, was so much better in the recon role that of the 156 Vigilantes built, 140 were RA-5C reconnaissance configured.

The Boeing RB-47 recon variant of the first US nuclear strategic jet bomber served from the early 1950’s until 1969. The beautiful swept wing 6 jet engine powered bomber made a dandy recon platform, with daylight and nighttime cameras, radars, and electronic data gathering devices. These (240 of the RB-47E models along with other RB-47 types) were the only B-47 jets to see combat, often overflying Soviet territory resulting in a total of 3 of them being shot down by the Soviets. (From 1951 to 1959 when the B-52 became fully operational, the B-47 was the strategic nuclear bomber of the USAF.) Other notable American ‘warplane to recon’ converted jet aircraft of the Cold War included the Martin RB-57 Canberra, the Douglas RB-66B Destroyer (the Navy version was the A-3 Sky Warrior), and the McDonnel RF-101A Voodoo. Many other fighter and bomber aircraft have also been used in the recon role by the US.

With the retirement of the RF-4 and SR-71 in the US inventory, speculation about what dedicated reconnaissance aircraft have been secretly fielded to replace them is rampant. (We still use versions of the venerable U-2.) What we do know is that our current bomber and fighter aircraft have the performance and stealthiness to carry camera equipment in the recon role if needed, and probably do (although recon versions of the F-15 and F-16 were shelved). No doubt the B-2 stealth bomber and F-22 Raptor stealth fighter would make great recon planes, and perhaps the F-35 family of multi-role fighters will be used this way at some point. Additionally, satellites have taken over some of the missions formerly allotted to manned airplanes.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite warplane turned recon plane? If so, tell us your reasons in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

The featured image in this article, a photograph of Twentieth Air Force B-29s over Japan, 1945, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.

About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.

Famed for its World War II exploits, Boeing's Superfortress was conceived before the war. The B-29 was born near the war's midpoint, flying on September 21, 1942, built and employed in large numbers during the conflict. It successfully performed several roles during 15 months of combat, including bomber, minelayer, photoreconnaissance, search and rescue, and electronic warfare. B-29s fought in the Pacific theater, flying mostly from small islands with the world’s largest airbases, over vast stretches of ocean to enemy targets that could be more than 2,000 miles distant. Known as the only aircraft to drop atomic bombs in war, the B-29 contributed a major share to the Allied victory over Japan with its firebomb attacks and mine laying missions in the waters surrounding the home islands.

The Peerless Superfortress

The Superfortress had no peer during the war among propeller-driven bombers. It compared favorably with the only operational turbojet bomber, Germany’s impressive Arado Ar 234 Blitz (Lightning) in speed at altitude, and was markedly superior in service ceiling (the highest an airplane can climb while still flying horizontally) and ferry range (the farthest distance a fully equiped airplane without payload can fly).

To the observer aboard the B-29, it shouts "American" in every direction, for the impression is of substantial size, great strength, overflowing technology, and assurance that this warplane can take on any foe and win. B-29 crewmen enjoyed (if that’s correct in a combat setting) a relatively spacious working environment with standup room for all, except for the tail gunner, especially when compared to its older sibling, the cramped B-17 Flying Fortress. Cabin pressurization, heating, and air conditioning added to the crew’s comfort.

Requirements for a High Performance Bomber

In the late 1930s, the Army Air Corps (AAC) began a search for a new high performance bomber that would stretch the state of the art of airplane design. During January 1940 the AAC issued a specification for a very heavy bomber with these requirements: 400 mph speed, high altitude capability with pressurized crew compartment, 5,000+ mile range with bomb load, defensive armament, and tricycle landing gear.

In order to attain the AAC desired top speed, Boeing proposed an aerodynamically clean, unarmed bomber, which would rely on its high speed and altitude capability as defense against enemy fighters. The AAC insisted on a fully armed pressurized bomber, which then led to remote controlled gun turrets, since open doors (resembling those on the B-17) were not compatible with pressurization. Fully armed B-29s did not meet the speed requirement, but the later Bell-built B-29B and Martin-built atomic bombers, which were shorn of all turrets and sighting blisters, except the tail turret and its guns, attained more than 400 mph.

Boeing and Consolidated Win Contracts

Boeing’s model 345 was chosen as the most promising of the designs submitted a development contract for two XB-29 prototypes was issued on August 24, 1940. So high was the confidence of the AAC and especially its commanding officer General Arnold in Boeing’s ability that by time the XB-29 flew, 1,664 production airplanes were on order.

Consolidated’s B-32 Dominator served as a backup should the Superfortress fail. It flew several weeks before the B-29, used the same engines, was among the first airplanes with reversible pitch propellers, but its overall performance was lower. In the absence of cabin pressurization in production aircraft, all gun turrets were manned. The Dominator flew late war combat missions, but did not participate in the strategic bombing of Japan. It flew several photoreconnaissance sorties over Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped. Production totaled 118 aircraft of all models.

B-29 Design Features

An aerodynamically efficient high aspect ratio (long, narrow) wing with tightly cowled engines was joined to a streamlined, tapered fuselage surmounted by a large vertical tail. Eleven crewmen were housed in three pressurized compartments, the nose, waist, and tail turret sections. A communications tube (approximately 28-inches diameter x 35-feet long) through which crewmen could crawl joined the nose and waist compartments. Four waist area crew rest bunks were an original design element that was replaced by the radar operator’s station when navigation/bombing radar equipment was added.

Cabin pressurization enabled the B-29 to over-fly most of Japan’s defenses. Some late war Superfortress models flew above 40,000 feet altitude where they were invulnerable to attack. The B-29 built upon the earlier pressurization system Boeing developed for its 307 Stratoliner airliner, being the first mass production pressurized (by design) airplane and bomber. This key technology, perfected by the U.S. during World War II, would stand Boeing and America in good stead during the post war airliner boom, when it became essential. Much of Boeing's success today as a jet airliner manufacturer can be attributed to its pressurization expertise.

Wood was utilized for worktables, ladders, and floors, doubtless due to the Superfortress’ Pacific Northwest origin.

Powerful, Troublesome Engines

Wright Aeronautical provided the B-29 with four R-3350 Duplex Cyclone radial engines, which were then the most powerful, at 2,200 hp. Each engine was equipped with twin General Electric turbo-superchargers, which enabled the R-3350 to maintain maximum power up to 30,000 feet altitude, giving the Superfortress both high altitude and high-speed-at-altitude capability. However, engine fires dogged the B-29 during its early service. Magnesium (used in pyrotechnics it burns with a white searing flame) in engine and airframe components exacerbated the problem.

Defensive Guns Directed by Electro-Mechanical Computers

Fully armed B-29 versions featured five gun turrets -- upper forward and aft, lower forward and aft, and a manned tail turret. Each turret mounted two guns, except for the upper forward, which had four. All turrets were electrically powered (the B-29 was an electric airplane with more than 100 electric motors, including landing gear actuation), remotely sighted and controlled (no in-flight gunner access, including the tail turret), electro-mechanical computer directed, with manually fired guns.

General Electric developed the Central Fire Control system, which consisted of five interconnected electro-mechanical analog computers, one per gun turret. Each gunner could directly fire his own guns if the computer system was inoperative. All gunners had control of their turret and secondary control of others -- an intercom system provided communication between the gunners. A gunner could fire the guns of another turret from his sighting position, and, uniquely, fire the guns of two or more turrets at once.

Thousands of these computers were manufactured for and utilized by B-29s. This program, then, represents the first mass production and use of electronic computers, although they included mechanical components and thus were not purely "electronic."

The defensive armament system proved successful in combat, and was exclusive among the combatants during the war. On January 27, 1945, the B-29 identified as "B-29 A Square 52" scored 14 kills over Tokyo, Japan, as follows: rammed by two fighters, gunners then shot down 12 more fighters, the damaged bomber flew 1,500 miles back to Saipan on three engines, crash landed, all crewmen survived, but the aircraft was written off. This is probably the highest number of air-to-air kills by a single airplane during one mission.

B-29 Combat Missions

To introduce the B-29 into combat, bombers were based in India to strike at Japanese targets in Indochina. Combat operations began on June 5, 1944, with the bombing of Bangkok, Siam (Thailand). In order to bomb Japan itself, Chinese staging bases were prepared. To mount a mission from China, the B-29s had to first ferry their supplies from India over the "Hump" to China. When sufficient material was accumulated, the B-29s struck Japan from their Chinese bases. These attacks were ineffective and costly.

With the capture of the Pacific Mariana Islands group from the Japanese, a much better venue from which to launch B-29 raids against Japan was available. The Marianas were closer, and the Navy brought in the necessary supplies. Five huge airbases were built on the islands of Tinian, Saipan, and Guam.

The first raids on Japan were doctrinaire high altitude, precision-bombing missions, for which the B-29 had been expressly designed. They only minimally affected Japan’s war production capacity. A change in leadership put General Curtiss LeMay in command, he soon switched tactics. Low altitude, area bombing with unarmed B-29s dropping firebombs on Japanese cities proved highly successful. These attacks were the most destructive in history, atomic bombing included, leveling cities and crippling their war manufacturing efforts.

Atomic Bombs

The two atomic bombs dropped by B-29s on Japan remain the only ones ever used in warfare. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 named Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima. Three days later, without a Japanese offer of surrender, a B-29 named Bockscar bombed Nagasaki. Contrary to popular belief these attacks did not end the war.

It continued unabated with the largest B-29 force of 828 bombers striking on August 14, 1945. Even after the Japanese agreed to the cease fire of August 15, fighting continued until August 18, when the last action probably occurred. Japanese fighters attacked two B-32 photo aircraft flying over Tokyo, two crewmen were wounded and one was killed.

Deadly Warplane had a Humanitarian Side

The B-29, while functioning as a deadly warplane to its enemies, had a humanitarian aspect to its missions. Probably unique in the annals of war, Superfortress’s dropped leaflets over Japan, listing the cities to be bombed next, thus some residents could and doubtless did escape harm. B-29s nicknamed Super Dumbos provided an ocean search and rescue service for their downed brothers. After the war, B-29s dropped food and clothing to inmates of prisoner of war camps.

The Soviet Union's Bootlegged B-29

Toward the end of the war the Soviet Union observed the massive destruction visited on Germany and Japan by Allied bombers. Lacking an equivalent aircraft, the U.S.S.R. set out to reproduce what it considered the best bomber, namely the B-29. Soviet forces had access to the latest German turbojet and rocket aircraft, but the B-29 was the only manned aircraft copied (the U.S. reproduced the German V-1 Buzz Bomb missile during the war, but did not employ it).

Fortunately for the Russians, three B-29s fell into their hands during the war, and from these pattern aircraft, Soviet designers reverse-engineered a near replica designated the Tupolev Tu-4. An entire aircraft industry segment was created to produce the very advanced airframe, engine, electrical and electronic components needed for it. More than 800 production aircraft were built.

B-29s in the Korean War

The B-29 fought again during the Korean War, in which the enemy used both propeller driven and very fast turbojet fighters in attempts to stop its bombing raids. The bombers were updated with more powerful engines, reversible pitch propellers, and other enhancements. B-29s were in action on all but 26 days during the war, some 35 months of combat, with a relatively small force of just over 100 bombers. Nonetheless, a bomb tonnage was dropped on Korean targets, almost equal to that during the earlier Pacific campaign. Smart bombs were dropped on Korean targets radio guided Razon and giant Tarzon (12,000 lb.) weapons knocked down bridges successfully.

B-29s flew day and night missions accompanied by escorting fighters, but Mig-15 turbojet fighters (only) downed some of the big bombers, while taking losses from their defending guns. In a notable action, three Mig-15s were shot down by a single bomber, which survived the war, and later accounted for two more Mig-15s.

Mother Ship to the Supersonic Airplane

A Superfortress was instrumental to the first successful manned supersonic airplane flight. On October 14, 1947, a B-29 mother ship carried the Air Force Bell XS-1 rocket engine research aircraft (a World War II design) to launch altitude. After release from the B-29, Captain Chuck Yeager piloted the XS-1 to 700 mph/Mach 1.06. Interestingly, the Soviets used their Tu-4s and captured B-29s as mother ships in a similar research program.

The End of Active Service

On June 21, 1960, the B-29 flew its last mission for the Air Force, but the design lives on today in the Russian Tupolev Tu-20 Bear bomber, whose defensive gun system was derived from B-29s captured during World War II. Communist China evidently still flies Tupolev Tu-4s, modified with turboprop engines and a radar rotodome, in the airborne early warning role.

Three manufacturers built 3,960 Superfortresses in five factories. Boeing’s Seattle, Renton, and Wichita plants completed 2,766 aircraft, 70 percent of the total. The Renton facility, today the home of Boeing's single aisle jet airliners, built the last B-29 on May 28, 1946.

The B-29 Superfortress in the American Air Campaign: January 1- March 3, 1945

At the start of 1945, the world was paying little attention to the B-29 Superfortresses that would continue to operate three months longer with XX Bomber Command in India and China. Crewmembers in India and China felt their contribution was being overlooked, and it was. Twenty-First Bomber Command in the Mariana Islands was immediately and totally eclipsing XX Bomber Command in India and China.

On Saipan and Tinian, on January 3, 1945, the command marked a high-altitude firebomb raid on the industrial city of Nagoya, rapidly becoming a familiar target, where the Mitsubishi plant was relentlessly turning out new aircraft. Ninety-seven Superfortresses launched on the mission, including one that crashed at Anatahan Island in the Marianas. Seventy-nine bombers reached the target, but the formation was split up and only fifty-seven dropped on the primary target.

The B-29s encountered swarms of fighters. The fighters made aggressive firing passes on a bomber named American Maid. In the American Maid’s left blister, gunner James Krantz was blown out of the airplane by sudden decompression after gunfire narrowly missed him. Krantz was the gunner who had paid attention when Sgt. August Renner was catapulted out of a B-29 named Mustn’t Touch over Nagoya twenty days earlier. A harness of Krantz’s own design prevented him from falling six miles to the ground. Instead, Krantz dangled precariously outside the aircraft in the rushing, frigid airstream.

Other gunners struggled in vain to pull Krantz back into the aircraft. Like an unwanted appendage to the B-29, Krantz dangled there, flapping, being slapped about in a world of noise and wind blast, fortunately with his oxygen mask still attached and working. After a couple of attempts and about ten minutes, a trio of crewmembers combined their strength and succeeded in pulling Krantz back inside. The B-29 returned to Isley Field on Saipan and Krantz was still around to talk about the experience six decades later.

Krantz recovered fully from his subzero ride outside his bomber. Metaphorically speaking, Krantz fared better than XXI Bomber Command boss Possum Hansell, who was under pressure from his superiors. The B-29 campaign in general, and the Nagoya raids in particular, did not seem to be working well. Apart from the loss of two other B-29s over Nagoya, the latest incendiary bombing was determined to have been largely ineffectual. After months of trying, Superfortress crews still had not found a way to cope with winds and weather at high altitude over Japan.

Hansell enjoyed a superb record as a bomber leader in Europe. He was truly a pioneer in the B-29 campaign. On Saipan, he struggled to ease frictions with his 73rd Wing commander, the headstrong Rosy O’Donnell. Hansell had every reason to believe that he was doing a good job and that, as the B-29 force continued to grow in size, he would remain in command.

Winds, weather, and the simple element of misfortune besieged the Superfortress crews when they returned to Nagoya on January 14, 1945. The B-29s were engulfed in Japanese fighters and most had to bomb through haze. Five B-29s were lost, although one returned to Saipan on two engines and made a shaky landing, the last ever for this bomber that saved her crew.

On that mission, a squadron mate remembered the loss of one aircraft: “Capt. Leonard L. Cox was KIA [killed in action]. The number 3 engine caught on fire on the way to Nagoya. Cox released the bombs and fragments struck the aircraft. Cox attempted to ditch the aircraft and the center section of the plane exploded right before they struck the water. The aircraft crashed northwest of the Marianas about one third of the way to Iwo Jima. Four out of the 11-man crew survived the crash and were picked up by the Navy in life rafts.”

On January 19, B-29s from Saipan struck the Kawasaki aircraft plant at Akashi. Of eighty bombers that made it into the air, sixty-two dropped on the primary. No aircraft were lost, and the mission was deemed the first true success of the year.

This happened too late to help Hansell.

Enter LeMay

On January 20, 1945, Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay arrived on Guam from China for what he thought would be a brief visit and a routine meeting with Hansell, his counterpart in the Marianas. But Hansell had a visitor from Washington, and the meeting was not routine. Army Air Forces commander Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold had dispatched key aide Lauris “Larry” Norstad from Washington to tell Hansell that Arnold was firing him. No one on Guam was expecting this. The situation was tragic and heartrending for all: Hansell was an experienced combat commander he and Norstad had worked together for years, and their families had socialized before the war.

But Norstad was far more than an unwilling hatchet man bearing bad news from the boss. Norstad was, in fact, the engineer of his friend Hansell’s downfall. While Arnold viewed Hansell as too slow in achieving success—his extraordinary accomplishment in fielding the B-29 force in the Marianas goes largely unrecognized in the history books—Norstad saw Hansell as the obstacle to using the weapon Norstad favored, the incendiary.

“I had to decide to take the action [relieving Hansell] before we lost the goddamned war,” Norstad said later. “The Old Man [Arnold] really had to come to a point where he was torn between his great fondness for Hansell—very warm personal feeling—and what had developed. And surely there were . . . more circumstances in which Hansell had no control, and over those which he did have control, utter absolute complete and irreversible lack of competence.” As Norstad said later, Hansell’s belief in daylight precision bombing had cost him “the best job in the Air Force.”

Everyone involved in the change of command knew that LeMay was an experienced combat commander and more of an operator than an administrator. Hansell himself readily acknowledged that LeMay was superbly qualified to take over XXI Bomber Command. Respect for LeMay was universal, but respect did not mean affection. When LeMay spent a few days on Guam before returning to China to pack his bags, come back, and take over the campaign against the Japanese home islands, St. Clair McKelway wrote:

He was around a few days, said almost nothing to anybody, was what, by civilian standards, would be called rude to many people. He was a big, husky, healthy, rather stocky, full-faced, black-haired man, thirty-nine years old, from Columbus, Ohio. He apparently couldn’t make himself heard even in a small room except when you bent all your ears in his direction, and when you did he appeared to evade your attempts to hear him. He did this by interposing a cigar or pipe among the words that were trying to escape through teeth that had obviously been pried open only with an effort, an effort with which the speaker had no real sympathy and to which he was unwilling to lend more than half-hearted assistance.

Brigadier General Roger Ramey, Hansell’s deputy, flew back to China with LeMay to take over XX Bomber Command. Gracious to the last, Hansell wrote to Arnold: “General Norstad arrived yesterday and informed me of your decision to relieve me of this command, and replace me with General LeMay. I was surprised, but I accept your decision.” He had but one favor to ask: “I have a request to make. It is this: I should like to be protected against the well-meant efforts of my friends to find me a job that is ‘commensurate with my varied experience’ or one that will absorb my energies. I am being relieved of the best job in the Air Forces my energies are, at least temporarily, spent. It has been my lot to prepare for and pioneer both the air offensive against Germany and that against Japan. I should like a job now which will afford me the time and opportunity to rehabilitate myself.” Hansell’s request was to command a training wing in the southwestern United States.

LeMay was back by late January. A tentative plan to have Hansell stay on Guam in a newly created slot as deputy commander was a bad idea—when a top leader is removed from a job, he should be whisked away as quickly as possible. The idea to keep him there was all the worse because LeMay had been Hansell’s subordinate in Europe three years earlier. With a lot of fuzzy thinking going on, Hansell seemed to be the only person who realized this. He explained to his bosses why it would make no sense for him to remain, and he was soon gone—a great airpower leader whose final wartime assignment would have to be called a failure. After a tearful farewell to many, including the Catton crew of the B-29 named Joltin’ Josie, Hansell departed Guam for the United States on January 20, 1945.

At the end of January, LeMay received a visitor and learned something Hansell apparently didn’t know. An Army engineer captain stepped off a plane from stateside and flashed papers that impressed everyone he saw and immediately got him an audience with the two-star general. In LeMay’s office on Guam, the captain told him about Groves’s Manhattan Project and the supersecret effort to develop a new weapon called the atomic bomb. This apparently was the occasion when LeMay learned that, on orders from Arnold, Col. Cecil E. Combs, Twentieth Air Force deputy for operations, had set aside four Japanese cities not yet bombed and ordered that they were not to be attacked. If the new weapon was to make an impression on the Japanese, it needed to be used in warfare, not shown off in a peaceful demonstration, and its effects would be most apparent if it was deployed to a location where no bomb damage existed already. The cities were Niigata, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima. For separate reasons having to do with culture and religion, Kyoto was also off the target list.

LeMay had other things on his mind—Hansell’s B-29s hadn’t been hitting targets with anything resembling accuracy, and now that they were LeMay’s B-29s, they still weren’t—so he listened to the briefing with limited interest.

“Generally speaking, I could understand what the Army man was talking about,” LeMay said later. “We had a very powerful weapon. But it was late in the war and I was busy.”

It is not usual for a captain to make a demand of a major general, but the junior-ranking visitor secured LeMay’s written agreement not to fly any more combat missions. With a Distinguished Service Cross in his 201 File, LeMay had no need to prove his courage, but the restriction annoyed him. To the extent possible, he had always led from the front. The stage was now set for an important mission to Tokyo to be led not by LeMay but by Tommy Power.

In retrospect, Hansell faced an impossible task: trying to implement a strategic bombing campaign with green crews and untested aircraft against enemy targets more than a thousand miles away and weather conditions never previously encountered in warfare (in part because bombers had never before flown so high). Add maintenance problems, logistics nightmares, and a unique command relationship (Hansell reporting to the always-impatient and seriously ill AAF chief, General Arnold), and it appears that the seeds of Hansell’s dismissal were sown almost from the moment he took command of the fledgling B-29 force.

The Fling Crew

On January 21, 1945, the Fling crew of the aircraft later to be named God’s Will embarked on the long journey from the United States to the western Pacific. The men left McCook Field, Nebraska, in their own B-29 and paused at Herrington, Kansas. Their subsequent stops in New Mexico and at Mather Field in California were typical of the long, winding path from the training grounds of the American Plains to the war zone of the Pacific islands. Like many before them, the Fling crew proceeded to the island of Oahu in the Territory of Hawaii and from there to Kwajalein, and finally to Tinian.

The long transoceanic trek was anything but routine as another B-29 airplane commander, Bud McDonald, would soon learn when he had to turn back after taking off from Oahu. Concerned that Superfortress crews did not have enough training in long-distance formation flying, Hansell had requested that the Air Transport Command (ATC), which was responsible for the men until they reached the war zone, allow squadrons to make the 2,300-mile journey from California to Hawaii in formation. Permission was denied on the grounds that the aircraft lacked sufficient range to fly that distance in formation. The flight would have been without bomb load and would encounter no opposition, as they would in a few weeks later on similar flights from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian to Tokyo. Still, Gen. Harold Hal George, commander of the ATC and Hansell’s friend and mentor, refused to agree to Hansell’s plan. There is no indication that LeMay subsequently planned the proposal.

Left blister gunner Reb Carter noted that Tinian offered “short rains nearly every night,” an outdoor theater for his outfit, the 9th Bombardment Group, badminton, horseshoes, swimming (including a potentially risky swim into an underwater cave), and a few USO shows. At one such show, Carter met Dixie Dunbar, a vivacious, Kewpie doll–like burlesque performer from his hometown of Atlanta. After a show, the two Georgia natives talked for fifteen or twenty minutes.

The men slept in large tents, any one of which could house the enlisted members of two B-29 crews. They slept on cots on a crushed-coral floor. Carter noted that the enlisted men’s club did not initially have refrigeration. The men dipped bottled beer in 100-octane aviation fuel and placed it in the shade to cool. Initially the men had a windmill-like device to wash their clothing.

Carter found a Japanese skull, took out some of the teeth, and mailed them to his girlfriend Phyllis to give to her young nephew. He had come a long way from Atlanta.

Bombing Campaign

In the early part of his tenure, LeMay continued to send B-29s on high-altitude, daylight precision bombing missions of exactly the kind that had gotten Hansell fired. A January 23, 1945, return to Nagoya was made in the face of furious winds and heavy clouds. Seventy-three Superfortresses launched. Only twenty-eight dropped on the primary target. Two aircraft were lost.

A January 27 mission to Tokyo was worse. Fighters were everywhere. The Japanese shot down nine B-29s.

The 313th Wing, commanded by Brig. Gen. John H. Davies, joined the fight from North Field on Tinian in February, bringing to the Marianas the 6th, 9th, 504th, and 505th Bombardment Groups. Soon afterward to Guam came the 314th Wing (Tommy Power’s outfit) with the 19th and 29th Groups, to be joined later by the 39th and 330th.

By now, the silvery B-29s had taken on individual personalities with names (often incorrectly called nicknames), pictures (named “nose art” by later generations, although the term did not exist at the time), and plenty of color everywhere. The elaborate scheme of identifying bomb groups and individual aircraft with geometric symbols and numbers on each fin was approaching its zenith. Even from a distance, it was possible to know almost everything about an individual Superfortress merely by scanning it from nose to tail. Some of the pictures on noses would not be allowed in a family publication today, but they reflected the unwillingness of crews to lose their sense of humor, as well as their unconquerable irreverence, even when the bombing campaign was going very poorly.

On February 4, 1945, XXI Bomber Command launched its first full-strength mission under LeMay. It was considered a success. A week later, two combat wings struck the Nakajima plan at Ota, near Tokyo. It, too, was deemed successful. LeMay had not yet instituted changes but appeared to be faring somewhat better than Hansell.

Sulphur Island

On February 19, 1945, the largest force of United States Marines ever assembled-—seventy-four thousand Marines of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine divisions under V Amphibious Corps—journeyed to a tiny hunk of coral and slag close to the Japanese homeland. Iwo Jima is just five miles long and two and a half miles wide at its widest point, and it has been described by many as a pork chop when viewed from the air. Located in the Bonin island chain west of the midpoint between Saipan and Tokyo, the island is mostly barren, with a 556-foot extinct volcano on the southern tip of the island, Mount Suribachi. It was a prefecture of Japan and a place of dark caves and smelly sulphur, and it became the site of one of the epic battles of history.

To history-minded Marines, the waterborne attack on this worthless piece of rock “better suited to death than life,” as Life magazine described it, evoked memories of an earlier American battle on dry land. Watching the landing craft head ashore, one American officer noticed that the order, the neatness, and the inevitability of it, was an exact copy of Pickett’s Charge on
the third day at Gettysburg—the only American offensive action in which greater casualties were suffered. Life magazine noticed that Suribachi was just about exactly the height of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, while a nearby slagheap of volcanic dirt resembled Gettysburg’s Cemetery Ridge. “Among Americans who served on Iwo Island,” wrote Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific command, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

For the amphibious assault on Iwo Jima, 880 ships and hundreds of warplanes backed the invasion force. LeMay’s B-29 crews were among the Army, Navy, and Marine aircraft that pounded Iwo in the longest sustained aerial offensive of the war, although many in the B-29 groups saw this as a distraction from their primary function. “No other island received as much preliminary pounding as did Iwo Jima,” said Admiral Nimitz.

The effort to soften up Japanese defenses helped little. Entrenched in caves, Japanese troops—who were outnumbered by the Marines five to one—fought on for thirty-five days. It was a horrific, point-blank battle. For the men on the ground, it was unspeakable.

Iwo, of course, was the site of the most famous photo ever taken: Joe Rosenthal’s immortal image of the second raising of the American flag on Suribachi. When it was over, the Marines had suffered more than 6,821 dead and about 19,217 wounded. Of the eighty-four Medals of Honor awarded to Marines during all of World War II, fully twenty-seven, or almost a third, were awarded for action on Iwo Jima.

After it was over, a former chief of naval operations, retired Adm. William V. Pratt, asked in Newsweekmagazine about the “expenditure of manpower to acquire a small, God-forsaken island, useless to the Army as a staging base and useless to the Navy as a fleet base . . . [one] wonders if the same sort of airbase could not have been reached by acquiring other strategic localities at lower cost.”

The seizure of Iwo Jima almost immediately provided a boon to those who had to fight in the air. Iwo was neutralized as a base for Japanese warplanes. Never again would the B-29 force in the Marianas come under air attack.

Until the island was taken, Superfortresses en route to Japan routinely flew a dogleg-course around the island increasing the already extended distances they were forced to cover. This burned precious fuel, but could not hide the giant aircraft formations of very heavy bombers from radar surveillance. Iwo Jima had been the ideal early-warning site to bolster other Japanese intelligence assets, reporting B-29 formations and giving the Japanese home islands time to prepare for an oncoming bomber stream.

Now in the hands of the Americans, Iwo Jima became a base for escort fighters to accompany B-29s to Japan, not just the proven P-51D Mustang but the yet-untested P-47N Thunderbolt, a new, longer-range variant of a familiar fighter. Iwo Jima now began to host facilities for rescue forces that might save B-29 crewmembers when they ditched.

Iwo had three small airstrips. The airfields were Motoyama No. 1, also called Chidori or Central Field, even though it was located on the southern corner of the island Motoyama No. 2, also called North Field, even though it was in the center of the island and Motoyama No. 3, also near the center of the island. Seabees quickly extended runways and expanded facilities. None of Iwo’s airfields was large enough to house a B-29 combat group, but they could handle fighters. Most importantly, with quite a bit of tweaking by the Seabees, they could serve as an emergency stopping-over place for battle-damaged B-29s limping home from the Empire without sufficient fuel to reach the Marianas. LeMay told Adm. Raymond Spruance that, “without Iwo Jima, I cannot bomb Japan,” although he had been doing so before the invasion started.

The McDonald Crew

The long trek from the United States to the war zone was difficult for all who took part, but never more than for the crew of Bud McDonald, which traveled from Great Bend to Kearney (both in Nebraska) to Albuquerque to Mather and onward to John Rodgers Field on Oahu, Hawaii. McDonald’s navigator, 2nd Lt. Alexander L. “Lew” Parry, later wrote that the plan for the next day was to pass over Johnston Island and proceed to Kwajalein. “On takeoff, the oil cooler flap stuck closed on no. 2 engine. This turned out to be eventful. We were carrying a full tank of gas in the bomb bay and were heavy. The engine overheated and failed and then began to windmill (turn backwards due to wind resistance). The windmill placed a very serious drag and took some smart work by Mac and Kit,” a reference to airplane commander McDonald and pilot 2nd Lt. William “Kit” Kittrell.

We dropped the gas tank from the bomb bay and headed back to Hawaii. We were only a few minutes out. We were losing altitude rapidly and I told Mac the shortest route was to fly over Pearl Harbor, which was a “No, no.” It was over Pearl or into the drink. Up came the fighters and they were signaling that the engine was trailing lots of smoke. Without further interference, we got over the end of the runway, still too high, and [McDonald] holding on for dear life. Mac told Kit to cut the throttles (he had in mind slowly) and Kit cut them as directed and we plunked down on the runway—so hard I thought the landing gear would go through the wing.

As it turned out, this mishap, all too routine for the trouble-prone B-29, gave the crew a respite from the war: they were forced to spend two more weeks in Hawaii until a replacement engine could be delivered and installed.

On their second attempt, the McDonald crew reached Kwajalein, refueled, and continued to Tinian, where they left their B-29 to be operated by another crew. They were taken to Guam and assigned another B-29, eventually called The Merry Mac’s.

Fire to Tokyo

Growing constantly as new bomb squadrons joined the force, Twentieth Air Force and XXI Bomber Command attacked Iwo Jima, Truk, Nagoya, and Tokyo (twice) in February 1945, all with few changes in tactics. The largest mission yet came on February 25 when 229 Superfortresses launched for the Japanese capital and 172 dropped on the primary target.

Operation Matterhorn, the separate B-29 war waged from the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater, was on the verge of wrapping up. Typical of late contributions by India-based airmen was a March 2, 1945, mission staged from bases in China and flown against Singapore, which at this late date was still in Japanese hands. The 468th Bombardment Group lost two Superfortresses of the sixty-four that began the mission. They were the last B-29s to be lost in the CBI.

B-32 Dominator

While the AAF were preparing to pound Japan with wave after wave of B-29 Superfortresses, they also invested heavily in an aircraft that was meant as a backup to the B-29. While the B-29 was developed in great secrecy, the B-32 Dominator seems to have been designed, developed, flown, and taken into combat in almost total obscurity. When he saw something about it in the GI newspaper Stars and Stripes, B-29 crewmember Carl Barthold scratched his head and asked, “What’s a B-32 Dominator?”

Lieutenant General Barton K. Yount, the wartime head of AAF Training Command, told Popular Mechanics magazine, “The B-32 will help us knock out the Japs just twice as quick.”

Built by Consolidated and looking much like a single-tailed version of the planemaker’s B-24 Liberator, the B-32 employed four of the same troublesome R-3350 engines found on the Superfortress. The first prototype retained a twin tail and lacked a pressurization system, gun turrets, and landing gear doors that appeared on subsequent airplanes. It was prone to—surprise—engine problems and fuel leaks. There were also general stability problems. It crashed after thirty test flights, stalling the program. By that point, B-29s were arriving in the China-Burma-India Theater, and Consolidated had not yet flown an example of the B-32 that had the features of a production-standard airplane.

It would have been appropriate to cancel the B-32. Instead, the AAF placed an initial production order for 1,500 aircraft. This was later reduced to 300, of which just 115 production versions of the Dominator were delivered (although with three test ships), making up just two-tenths of 1 percent of the 50,750 bombers manufactured in the United States during the war. Consolidated built the aircraft at its Fort Worth, Texas, facility where the second production B-32 crashed before it could join the test program.

Project crews—who were far more familiar with the complex controls of the B-32 than a “line” crew would have been—eventually took two aircraft to Clark Field in the Philippines to test them in actual combat where more soon joined them. They found the B-32 to have an unreasonably high noise level, a poor engine layout, and, of course, engine troubles. Author Stephen Harding wrote that the B-32 was “a rugged and stable, although admittedly temperamental, bombing platform.”

The high-mounted, 135-foot wing, similar to the narrow wing developed for the B-24 and with about 6 feet less of wingspan than the B-29, would have made the B-32 a poor aircraft in which to ditch at sea, although it appears no crew ever did so. The B-32’s fuselage was approximately 83 feet in length, making it fully 16 feet shorter than a B-29. Its armament and bombload were comparable to that of the B-29. Speed, range, and service ceiling were almost identical. The B-32’s gross weight of 101,000 pounds was about 20,000 pounds less than that of a B-29. Its crew was eight men compared to the eleven typically on a B-29.

Eventually, officials dropped plans to include pressurization and remote-controlled guns, both features of the B-29, on the B-32. Apparently unaware that Curt LeMay had taken the war to low altitude, Yount told Popular Mechanics’ Wayne Whittaker, “We can now safely approach Japan at moderate altitudes, climb up over the target for the bombing run, and after the bombs are dropped come back down for most of the trip back to home base.” Yount also said with some justification, “tests on the combat model of the B-32 showed more accurate fire control with individual turrets.”

By the end of the war, in addition to an expanded presence in the Philippines, a single squadron of B-32s was committed to the effort against the Japanese home islands. After a series of delays involving other B-32s, just two of the planes, named The Lady Is Fresh and Hobo Queen II and piloted by Col. Frank S. Cook and Col. Frank Paul, reached Clark Field, Luzon, as planned, after a journey that included a stop at Guam where B-29 crewmembers displayed enormous curiosity.

The B-32 crewmembers were good men, but it would be an exaggeration to credit them with much influence on the outcome of the war. They were every bit as irreverent as some B-29 flyers could be (for example, they simply ignored the Pentagon when it decided to change the name of their plane from Dominator to Terminator).

The men who supported, maintained, and flew these heavy bombers had experiences similar to those of B-29 crews and were every bit as dedicated. Among them was an Army aerial photographer, Sgt. Anthony J. Marchione. He was just nineteen. He hailed from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and played the trumpet in high school. For reasons both poignant and tragic, Marchione was to become the best-known crewmember of the B-32 aircraft.

Copyright 2012 by Robert F. Dorr.

Reprinted with permission from Zenith Press.

ROBERT F. DORR is an Air Force veteran (Korea, 1957–1960), a retired senior American diplomat (1964–1989), and the author of dozens of books, including Mission to Tokyo: The American Airmen Who Took the War to the Heart of Japan, and thousands of magazine articles and newspaper columns about the Air Force and air warfare. He has written for Air and Space Smithsonian, Flight Journal, Air Forces Monthly, Air Power History, and many other publications. He is a columnist for Air Force Times newspaper and writes the Washington Watch feature for Aerospace America magazine. Mission to Tokyo is a follow-up to his previous book, Mission to Berlin.


The Marianas chain of islands, consisting primarily of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, were considered as being ideal bases from which to launch B-29 Superfortress operations against Japan. The islands were about 1500 miles from Tokyo, a range which the B-29s could just about manage. Most important of all, they could be put on a direct supply line from the United States by ship. In August 1944, Major General Haywood S. Hansell, Jr was directed to take over command of the organization. [1]

Serious planning for the movement of the XXI Bomber Command's B-29s from their Second Air Force training bases in Kansas to newly constructed combat airfields on Saipan, Tinian and Guam began in April 1944. The construction and defense of the airfields would be the United States Navy's responsibility, as would logistical support. Before the B-29s could begin operating against Japan from the Marianas, the islands first had to be taken away from the Japanese. [1]

This began with Saipan on 11 June 1944 when a four-day naval and air bombardment of the island began. On 15 June United States Marine units stormed ashore, followed a day later by Army units. After several weeks of heavy fighting, during which over 3000 American and 24,000 Japanese lives were lost, the island was finally declared secure on 9 July. [1]

The seizure of Saipan enabled invasions of Guam and Tinian to proceed, which were attacked on 21 and 24 July respectively. The Marine Corps and the United States Army 77th Infantry Division's 305th Regimental Combat Team landed on Guam. By 10 August the island was secured. Tinian was assaulted on 24 July, and by 1 August it was secured. [1]

Airfield construction Edit

Construction of the B-29 airfields on Saipan began almost immediately, even while the fighting was still going on. Naval Construction Battalions (N-C-B), the "SeaBees" began construction at a former Japanese airstrip called Aslito. This was later renamed Isley Field, after Navy Commander Robert H. Isely (unfortunately his name was misspelled and the incorrect version stuck). The SeaBees did not meet their schedule but came very close. In a little over three months they had built a support base and air field on Saipan, capable of supporting the 240 B-29s of the 73d Bombardment Wing and their logistical support units. [1] [2]

On Tinian, the SeaBees built the largest bomber base ever, North Field. The 6th Naval Construction Brigade built four 8500-foot runways for the 313th Bombardment Wing, and all required infrastructure then went to the west end of the island and at West Field laid down two 8500-foot runways for the 58th Bombardment Wing. [2]

Initial B-29 Operations Edit

The 73d Bombardment Wing was ordered to the Marianas rather than to the CBI Theater after its training with Second Air Force in Kansas. The first B-29 arrived at Isley Field, Saipan on 12 October 1944. By 22 November, over 100 B-29s were at Isley Field. The XXI Bomber Command was assigned the mission of destroying the aircraft industry of Japan in a series of high-altitude, daylight precision attacks. However, General Hansell was fully aware that his crews still lacked the necessary experience to carry out such missions. [1] [2]

In late October and early November 1944, a series of tactical raids were carried out as training exercises for the crews. On 27, 18 October B-29s attacked lightly defended Japanese installations on Truk. The submarine pens at Truk were the target, and four Superfortresses had to abort because of the usual engine problems, and combat formations were scrappy. The bombing results were mediocre, with only nine planes bombing the primary target and only a few bombs hitting it. The same two groups returned to Truk on 30 October with even fewer bombs landing on the target. The third try, on 2 November, was briefed as a radar bombing mission. Again the results were indifferent, with bombs scattered all over the general target area. [1] [2]

Aware that there was now a new threat, Japanese aircraft based on Iwo Jima staged a low-level raid on Isley Field on 2 November, damaging several B-29s on the ground. Retaliatory strikes were ordered against the two enemy airfields on Iwo Jima on 5 and 11 November with the 497th and 498th Bombardment Groups dispatched to bomb airfields there, but the results were once again poor. As in the XX Bomber Command Operation Matterhorn bombing campaign from India, the B-29s were in danger of being dissipated in tactical missions and even these were not all that successful. [1] [2]

In order to properly plan missions to Japan, up-to-date reconnaissance photos of the proposed targets were needed. Other than information which was used during the Doolittle Raid in 1942, there was scant information about the locations of Japanese industry, especially the aircraft industry. On 1 November 1944, two days after arriving on Saipan, A 3d Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (3d PRS) F-13A Superfortress (photo reconnaissance-configured B-29) took off bound for Tokyo. The 3d PRS was attached to the 73d Bomb Wing. The aircraft flew over Tokyo at 32,000 feet for 35 minutes taking picture after picture. A few fighters made it up to the camera plane's altitude but did not attack. These photos, along with other intelligence gave the XXI Bomber Command the locations of the Japanese aircraft manufacturing plants and enabled mission planners to plan missions for the combat crews to attack. In honor of his mission, the aircraft was named "Tokyo Rose". [1] [2]

The 3d PRS continued to fly single plane missions to Japan, taking high altitude pre-strike target planning photos and post-strike damage assessment photos. The losses incurred by the 3d PRS in this type of activity were relatively light. Seldom were the Japanese able to get fighters up to 30,000 feet in time to intercept the photo ships. [3]

All four groups of the 73d Bomb Wing were sent on their first mission to Japan on 24 November with 111 planes airborne. The target was the Nakajima Aircraft Engine Plant at Musashino in the arsenal sector of Tokyo. Also, for the first time, the B-29 encountered the Jet stream, which was a high-speed wind coming out of the west at speeds as high as 200 mph at precisely the altitudes at which the bombers were operating. This caused the bomber formations to be disrupted and made accurate bombing impossible. Because of the jet stream winds and bad weather, only 24 planes attacked the primary target the majority dropped their bombs on the secondary target of the Tokyo Docks. [1] [2]

The group returned to Musashino on the 27th and closed out November with a raid on the Tokyo Industrial Area and Docks. The pace picked up the next month, with a return to Musashino on 3 December. Again, poor bombing results were achieved, with the high speed jet stream winds scattering the bomb drops and the aircraft in the formation, with the result of not much damage to the enemy being done. 8 December saw 82 planes attacking the Iwo Jima Air Fields (Motoyama Nos 1 and 2). Then it was back to attacking Japan, hitting Nagoya on 18 and 22 December. The airfields on Iwo Jima were revisited on 24 December and Tokyo the final target of the month on 27 December. [1] [2]

In addition to the wing strikes, December saw the initiation of another type of single plane mission: the weather strike. These were missions to Japan to collect weather data and drop nuisance bombs on Japanese cities. Again, these were high altitude missions with surprisingly low losses. The 3d PRS lost two planes in December. Out of the 75 weather strike missions flown in December, there were only three losses. During the same time period the 73rd Wing lost 21 planes to all causes on the six multi-plane raids by the wing as a whole. [1] [2]

The pace continued to quicken for the 73d in January. Musashino on 9 January cost six planes Nagoya on 14 January, another five. One weather strike, out of 83 flown, was lost on 10 January, but help was on the way as new B-29s from the United States were arriving almost daily and new groups were arriving in the Marianas. The 313th Bombardment Wing, operating from Tinian, sent 44 planes to Pagan Island on 16 January, another 33 to Truk on 21 and 28 January to attack the Iwo Jima Air fields on 24 January. Thirty-three more returned to Iwo Jima on 29 January. The 313th's 504th and 505th groups joined in the attack on Kobe on 4 February, while on 9 February their sister groups, the 6th and 9th, made their initial training mission against the Moen Island Air Field on Truk. [1] [2]

United States Marines landed on Iwo Jima 19 February 1945 with a mission to seize the island and for Navy SeaBees to utilize the Japanese airfields to build emergency landing airfields for XXIst Bomber Command as well as fighter airfields for VII Fighter Command. On 25 March the Battle of Iwo Jima was declared over and the island secured, although mopping up continued until June. Construction Battalions extended and transformed the former Japanese fields to accommodate B-29s and the first AAF units moved in during the beginning of March. [1] [2]

B-29 Incendiary Operations Edit

The high-altitude bombing raids on Japan carried out by the command were not causing a large amount of damage to the targets, primarily due to the jet stream winds over the islands. The failure of the command to successfully carry out its mission was causing severe problems, both with the War Department in Washington, which had planned to eliminate the Japanese industrial base by the same strategic bombing techniques which were being carried out in Europe. Also General Hap Arnold and the AAF command staff which were aware of the Manhattan Project, and planned on using the B-29 to drop the Atomic Bombs, were concerned that the B-29 would be unable to carry out that highly secret mission. [1] [2]

Since little progress in the bombing campaign was being made, General Arnold recalled General Hansell and moved General Curtis LeMay from the inactivating XX Bomber Command in India to take over XXI Bomber Command on Saipan. General LeMay arrived in the Marianas on 20 January 1945. General LeMay had analyzed the structure of the Japanese economy, which depended heavily on cottage industries housed in cities close to major industrial areas and issued new orders on 19 February. His plan was to destroy the feeder industries, that would slow or halt the flow of vital components to the central manufacturing plants, and disorganize the production of weapons vital to Japan. LeMay decided to do this by using incendiary bombs rather than purely high-explosive bombs, which would, it was hoped, cause general conflagrations in large cities like Tokyo or Nagoya, spreading to some of the priority targets. In addition, LeMay had concluded that the effects of the jet stream, cloud cover, and high operating altitudes were to blame for the failure of the B-29 raids to do any significant damage to the Japanese war industry. The initial raids against Japan had taken place at high altitudes in order to stay above anti-aircraft fire and the effective altitude of defending fighters. LeMay suggested that high-altitude, daylight attacks be phased out and replaced by low-altitude, high-intensity incendiary raids at nighttime. The aircraft would attack individually, which meant that no formation assembly over the base at the start of the mission or along the way would be needed. This would extend the range of the aircraft and allow them to reach targets in northern Honshu and Hokkaido. [1] [2]

The 6th and 9th Bombardment Groups joined in the attack on Tokyo on 25 February, as did the 314th Bombardment Wing's 19th Bombardment Group, flying out of North Field, Guam. With these new tactics, a total of 302 B-29s participated in the Operation Meetinghouse raid on Tokyo on the night of 9–10 March, with 279 arriving over the target. The raid was led by special pathfinder crews who marked central aiming points. It lasted for two hours. The raid was a success beyond General LeMay's wildest expectations. The individual fires caused by the bombs joined to create a general conflagration, which would have been classified as a firestorm but for prevailing winds gusting at 17 to 28 mph (27 to 45 km/h). [4] When it was over, sixteen square miles of the center of Tokyo had gone up in flames and nearly 100,000 people had been killed. Fourteen B-29s were lost. The B-29 was finally beginning to have an effect. [1] [2]

On the night of 13–14 March, eight square miles of Osaka went up in flames. On 16–17 March, three square miles of Kobe were destroyed, and on 19–20 March in a return visit to Nagoya, three more square miles were destroyed. This destructive week had killed over 120,000 Japanese civilians at the cost of only 20 B-29s lost. [1] [2]

A month later, on 12 April, the 314th Bombardment Wing's remaining two groups, the 39th and 330th, joined in the attack on the Hodagaya Chemical Works in Koriyama. With the addition of the 39th and 330th, the XXI Bomber Command now had three wings, twelve groups, thirty-six squadrons of 15 B-29s each at their disposal. In May, the 58th Bombardment Wing completed its move from India to Tinian, adding four more groups to the XXI Bomber Command. [1] [2]

In April 1945, General LeMay gave new orders for more incendiary raids. This time, aircraft engine factories at Musashino and Nagoya were to be hit, but urban areas in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kawasaki, Kobe, and Yokohama were also to be attacked. On 7 April 153 B-29s struck the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries aircraft-engine complex at Nagoya, destroying about 90 percent of that facility. Five days later, 93 B-29s destroyed the Nakajima factory at Musashino. The Japanese aircraft engine industry essentially ceased to exist after this time. On 13 April 327 B-29s burned out eleven more square miles of Tokyo. Seven more B-29s were lost. [1] [2]

On 5 June, the B-29s attacked Kobe with such effectiveness that the city was crossed off the target list as not worth revisiting. By the end of the month, the six major cities on LeMay's list had all been effectively destroyed. [1] [2]

Late May saw the arrival of the first of the 315th Bombardment Wing, whose B-29B planes were equipped with the new AN/APQ-7 "Eagle" radar. The antenna for this radar was an 18-foot, wing-shaped unit mounted under the forward fuselage. The antenna swept a 60-degree arc along the flight path of the plane, and a higher frequency (X-band) signal gave a much-improved radarscope picture. The 315th had been trained for low-altitude, nighttime pathfinder missions. Between 26 June and 10 August, they carried out a series of fifteen strikes against oil production facilities which essentially shut down the Japanese oil industry. The B-29Bs were also stripped of much defensive gunnery, adding capacity for additional incendiary or high-explosive bombs. [1] [2]

By now, the B-29 raids were essentially unopposed by Japanese fighters. In late June, B-29 crews felt sufficiently confident that they began to drop leaflets warning the population of forthcoming attacks, followed three days later by a raid in which the specified urban area was devastated by mass carpet bombing. By the end of June, the civilian population began to show signs of panic, and the Imperial Cabinet first began to consider negotiating an end to the war. However, at that time, the Japanese military was adamant about continuing on to the bitter end. [1] [2]

The ‘Bleaklow Bomber’ today

Today the wreckage still sits atop the hill near Higher Shelf Stones, and is as exposed as when it crashed. Its Duplex-Cyclone engines, fuselage and wing sections, gun turrets, and undercarriage can be seen amongst the grassy moorland.

A memorial stone is present at the site, erected in 1988 by servicemen from RAF Finningley, and remembrance poppies are often placed in memory of those who were killed.

The B-29 wreckage provides a contemplative walk through the Peaks, where evidence of its military history may be discovered first-hand.

Meet “Doc,” One of Only Two Flying B-29s in the World

On a grassy strip beside the runway at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, it’s about to get hard to hold a conversation. Four enormous radial engines on the newly restored Boeing B-29 Doc are firing up nearby. It’s July 17, and here—near the site of the factory where the bomber was built in 1944—a crowd of restoration volunteers and assorted VIPs await Doc’s first flight since 1956.

“Being the eternal optimist, I guess I always thought this day would come,” says Tony Mazzolini. He was a regional manager at Continental Airlines until retiring in 2008, and spent spare time on the board of a Cleveland air museum as well as founding a local Commemorative Air Force chapter. Fifi, the CAF’s perennial airshow star, was the sole flying example of the superlative Boeing species that darkened the skies over Japan and ended a world war. The idea of a second, Ohio-based Superfortress to galvanize crowds hounded Mazzolini. “I have a love affair with this particular airplane,” he says.

In the 1950s, Mazzolini had been a U.S. Air Force flight engineer in North American B-25s, flying cold war electronic countermeasures (ECM) missions off the East Coast. He recalls seeing B-29s flown during that era for ECM too. Once, at Griffiss Air Force Base in New York, he even glimpsed a B-29 squadron nicknamed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which included a B-29 named Doc. Some 30 years later, Mazzolini’s goal became finding a B-29—any B-29—that could be restored to flying condition. It would become an all-consuming quest that stretched across decades.

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This story is a selection from the November issue of Air & Space magazine

Worst-case assumptions, circa 1940: Hitler occupies the entire European continent the fall of Britain is a fait accompli. The first responder is the four-engine Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, but that was 1930s tech in a 1940s war. The U.S. Army Air Corps requires a state-of-the-art high-altitude bomber with a max speed of 350 mph, multiples of B-17 bomb tonnage, and an arm long enough to pound Germany when launching from off-continent bases. In the official Air Corps requirement issued to aircraft manufacturers for a superbomber, the wording is “hemispheric defense weapon.”

By mid-1942, however, War Department forecasts are more optimistic, predicting Germany’s probable collapse around autumn 1944, give or take. Moreover, the vast numbers of B-17s and Consolidated B-24s available for its Combined Bomber Offensive plan are declared mission-worthy, thank you. From that point forth in B-29 concept and construction, the only intended target was Japan.

“The first place I was told to look,” recalls Mazzolini, “was Disney Studios, believe it or not. They had acquired several B-29s as movie props.” As he only belatedly discovered, Disney’s last B-29 had starred in The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark, which premiered in 1980. Mazzolini hadn’t seen the movie, in which a B-29 is converted into a boat to transport animals. “It had been flipped upside down, had both wings cut off, and the fuselage floated out into the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii,” he says. Now what?

Mazzolini set his sights on a more auspicious supply: the Naval Ordnance Test Station at California’s China Lake. In the 1950s, surplus B-29s had been dragged into the Mojave Desert bombing range for aerial ballistic target practice. Mazzolini knew China Lake was where Fifi had been rescued in the early 󈨊s. However, Navy officials answered his inquiries with repeated assurances that all of the range’s B-29s had either taken direct hits or been fed into an enormous metal shredder and reduced to recycle-friendly fragments.

“I always doubted that,” says Mazzolini. “I’d seen the records. I knew that at least 100 B-29s had been taken out there.”

After a flurry of phone calls, a range custodian finally provided the evidence Mazzolini had been longing for: An aerial photograph of a sole Superfortress in mostly one piece, wasting in the California sun.

So pressing was the need for a long-range superbomber to attack Japan, the U.S. Army Air Forces had taken the unheard-of step of ordering 250 B-29s while the airplane was still only a plywood mock-up in Seattle. Before the first XB-29 prototype had even flown, Boeing factories in Wichita Renton, Washington Marietta, Georgia and Omaha, Nebraska, were already tooling up for mass production. Each of the nearly 4,000 Superforts manufactured incorporated 55,000 discrete part numbers, miles of wiring, and thousands of rivets.

Connie Palacioz, age 92, has kept track of hers. “All my rivets are still there, except for seven,” she assures me, pointing proudly toward Doc on the runway apron. Palacioz means the fasteners she personally installed over 70 years ago. As a teenage assembly line worker at Boeing’s Wichita Plant 2, she riveted her way from the forward pressure bulkhead to the nose of hundreds of Superforts, including Doc. “I think we were turning out three B-29s a day towards the end,” she says.

More than a half-century after she helped construct the bomber, Palacioz joined a group of volunteers called Doc’s Friends to help reconstruct it. “When the plane first arrived, it came with hundreds of loose parts,” says Palacioz. “I had to polish each one so we could read the old serial numbers. I had to clean out the inside—it was really terrible. Then I worked on sorting out blueprints that were all mixed up.”

The Superfortress was one of the United States’ most expensive weapons program during World War II, and no American aircraft approached the innovation it incorporated. “It was the Cadillac of the war,” says William Greene, one of the B-29 vets here to witness Doc’s first flight. “It was a heated, pressurized cabin, and you could wear whatever you had on—just a T-shirt if you wanted. You didn’t have to wear bulky suits that restricted your movements.” At 19, Greene was a central fire control gunner on raids targeting Japan.

Early missions were the high-altitude operations the bomber was designed for. To sharpen bombing accuracy, however, General Curtis LeMay, at the time head of the 21st Bomber Command, ordered the Superforts down as low as 5,000 feet. “He was trying to get us killed is what he was doing,” Greene laughs. “We didn’t like that at all. We thought we’d be staying up at 35,000 feet, where nobody could get us.”

Facts of The Groundbreaking B-29

The American B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber entered service in 1944 and spearheaded the mass bombing campaign of mainland Japan. It then saw limited use in Korea before being phased out of service in 1960.

It was by far the most expensive project of World War II, costing around $41 billion in 2018 dollars. For context, that is the entire budget of Belgium’s armed forces for the next ten years.

The Germans so feared it being deployed in the Western European theater–although it never was–that they developed the Focke-Wulf Ta 152 high altitude fighter/interceptor to deal with it.

B-29 Superfortress in Flight.

It was only in production for 3 years (1943-1946) and the need for massive numbers of them quickly disappeared when WWII ended. Many went straight from the production line into storage and were eventually scrapped.

It was also quite quickly made obsolete. First, it was reclassified from a heavy bomber to a medium bomber.

Then, it was replaced entirely by the larger and faster Convair B-36 Peacemaker. This too was quickly replaced by jet powered bombers and rapid advancements in technology.

B-36 Peacemaker.

Here are some interesting facts about the mighty Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

Performance and Attributes

Compared to other Aircrafts

Boeing XB-29 Superfortress 41-002 “The Flying Guinea Pig” 1942 Ground crew at work on B-29 Superfortress from XXI Bomber Command on Saipan.

More Facts

  • Was the first bomber to have a fully pressurized cabin.
  • Had a central fire control system that controlled its remote control guns, aided by a early analog computer.
  • Had a revolutionary new high-lift wing design which could take tremendous amounts of stress.
  • Had 11 crew members consisting of: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, flight engineer, navigator, radio operator, radar observer, central fire control operator, right gunner, left gunner, and tail gunner.

Value for Money

A B-29 would cost you in today’s value (2018) just over $9 million, which could also buy

  • Half a BAE Hawk Advance Trainer.
  • 1/8 of a F/A 18E Super Hornet multi-role fighter.
  • 1/200 of a B-2 stealth bomber.
  • 85% of a British Vulcan strategic bomber–a bargain as it could carry the same bomb load over the same range, but at twice the speed and 4 miles higher than the B-29 could.
  • 450 brand new Ford Focus hatchback cars, with free servicing!

Uses For the B-29

  • Apart from being a strategic bomber, it was also used for air-sea rescue, electronic intelligence gathering, and weather reconnaissance.
  • A stripped down B-29 was used to test the idea of broadcasting television via aircraft rather than satellite in 1949. The system was called Stratovision and though there was attempts to develop it over the years, ultimately it was not a success.
  • Used to experiment with the failed concept of being a mother-ship, carrying McDonnell XF-85 Goblin Parasite Fighters.
  • Converted Superfortresses called KB-29s were used to explore the then-radical idea of air-to-air refueling. 282 were later successfully converted into Strategic Tankers for aerial refueling.

Close Relatives

The B-50 Superfortress, which had more powerful engines and a stronger airframe, was introduced in 1948. It was the first aircraft to fly around the world nonstop. A variant of the B-50, called the Washington, was used as a stopgap aircraft by the British for a short time in the 1950s.

Boeing B-50D. Photo: RuthAS / CC BY 3.0

Several B-29s were forced during WWII to make emergency landings in Soviet territory. The Soviets took the opportunity to develop their own version of the B-29 through reverse engineering.

It was called the Tupolev Tu-4 Bull, and filled an important gap in the Soviet arsenal as it lacked any kind of strategic bomber at that time. A total of 847 were built and a small number were given to communist China.

Tupolev Tu-4 at the Central Russian Air Force museum, Monino. Photo: Maarten / CC BY 2.0

Soviet attempts to develop variants of the Tu-4 were unsuccessful. Only 1 aircraft each was built of the Tupolev Tu-70 passenger liner and the Tu-80, which had longer range. Neither went to serial production.

The Chinese attempted to develop a TU-4 fitted with an Airborne Early Warning Radar called the KJ-1AEWC Project 926. Only 1 was built in 1969. Despite some far-fetched claims by the Chinese authorities that it was equivalent to 40 ground based radars, it was quickly considered obsolete by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and the project was canceled.

KJ-1 AEWC at China Aviation Museum. Photo: allen watkin – CC BY-SA 2.0

B-29 and the Atomic Bomb

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” –J.Robert Oppenheimer, head of the U.S. project to develop the atomic bomb.

The atomic bomb has only ever been used twice in warfare, and both times it was delivered by a B-29. As a result, the B-29 was often associated with the atomic bomb during its career.

On August 6, 1945 Enola Gay, a B-29 named after the pilot’s mother, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The blast killed 75,000 Japanese, injured 70,000 more, and destroyed 69% of the city.

B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay 82

A B-29 called Bockscar dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later. The blast killed 35,000 Japanese, injured 60,000, and destroyed 44% of the city. The aircraft was named after its regular pilot Captain Frederick Bock, but on that day it was piloted by Major Charles Sweeney.

Boeing B-29 “Bockscar” nose art

In 1950, a B-29 crashed into a mountain in New Mexico while carrying atomic bombs with detonators installed. There was no radioactive contamination, and according to the U.S. military there was never any chance of the bombs going off as they had not been primed.

The first atomic bomb to be dropped by Soviet aircraft was carried by a Tupolev Tu-4 Bull, the reverse-engineered copy of the B-29.

Watch the video: Crawl through a B-29 Superfortress IN FLIGHT! + Real-Time procedures. ATC - Oshkosh AirVenture! (May 2022).