The biggest bomber to fly in World War II and the plane that delivered the atomic death-blow to Japan
One by one the Japanese delegation shuffled forward to sign the humiliating instrument of unconditional surrender. World War II finally ended on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, at 0900 on 2 September 1945 as the ceremony was concluded, the sun broke through the clouds and the concerted roar of aircraft engines drew all eyes upward to the sky. The gleaming silver ranks of 462 Super fortresses flying in battle formation provided a fitting finale to the historic occasion. For the Boeing B29 was the plane that finally brought Imperial Japan to her knees.
Back in the late 1930s. President Franklin D. Roose¬velt’s avowed military policy for ensuring America’s security was based on hemisphere defense’ that safeguarded not only the United States itself but also the Caribbean and the approaches to Canada and South America. Such an extensive concept demanded very long-range reconnaissance bombers, and in March 1938 the Boeing company produced a design study for the US Army that envisaged a pressurized development of the B17 with a tricycle undercarriage (the Model 334) Further development of this concept led to the Model 334A, of which a mock-up was built in December 1939, but combat reports from Europe dictated various design changes that resulted in the Model 345
In August 1 940 Boeing was given an order for two flying prototypes (designated XB29) and an airframe for static tests, a third prototype being requested in December. America’s entry into World War II a year later led to an immediate order for 14 YB29 service test aircraft and 500 B29 production machines, even though the first prototype had not yet flown
Boeing’s chief test pilot Edmund T. Eddie’ Allen, pulled the XB29’s wheels off the runway at Seattle. Washington State, for the first time on 21 September 1942. The number of super fortresses on order had by now risen to 1,664 and the new ‘very heavy bomber’ was earmarked for the Pacific. It could reach Japan from bases in China.
With a designed range of over 3,000 miles, 2,200hp 1 8-cylinder two-row Wright Cyclone R-3350 engines giving maximum speed of 350mph, and a bomb load of up to 20.000lb, the Super fortress was one of the most technical¬ly advanced aircraft of its day. It was also one of the largest, spanning over 141ft and grossing more than 65 tons fully loaded — twice the maximum take-off weight of a B17. The sleek fuselage provided pressurized crew , and there were four barbettes mounting .50 calibers machine-guns with remote aiming and firing mechanisms operated by gunners in domed observation positions. A rear gunner had a 20mm cannon and two additional .50 .
A major setback occurred on 1 8 February 1 943 when an engine fire developed in the second XB29 prototype during a test flight near Seattle. Test pilot Eddie Allen tried desperately to make it back to the airfield but the huge bomber crashed into a packing plant, killing the entire crew
And a number of civilian workers in the building. Despite continuing problems with the R-3350 engines, the first production B29s began to leave the factories in July 1943 and was flown to training centers in Kansas where their crews waited to begin working-up with the new ships.
Their destination the following spring was to be the China-Burma-Linda Theater: bases were being prepared in India, near Calcutta and advanced airfields around too, China, were being built, from which the first strikes against Japan would be launched
It was not long before the aircrews and technicians in Kansas realized that the bombers they were receiving had left the factories in an anything but combat-worthy state. Modifications were constantly being introduced on the production lines, essential facilities and components were lacking, and there was a general administrative confusion. Engine fires in flight were a constant hazard, with burnt-out exhaust valves, over-heated cylinder heads, and malfunctioning turbo-superchargers. By the beginning of March 1 944 there was still not one Super fortress ready to leave for combat.
In November 1943 Major General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold activated 20th Bomber Command specifically to operate the B29, and on 9 March 1944 this dynamic firebrand arrived at Saline, Kansas, to see the first Super forts take off for combat
But there were no B29s fit to leave. And when Arnold grasped the full extent of the chaos at Saline, his notorious¬ly short-fused temper ignited spectacularly. Within hours, shaken engineers were hastily preparing comprehensive progress charts to show the work still outstanding on every plane, technicians were being summoned from the Boeing factories, and sub-contractors received instructions to drop everything else and concentrate only on producing the components necessary to get the grounded super fortresses airborne.
For four weeks the Battle of Kansas’ raged Working round the clock on exposed flight lines in swirling snow storms, air force and civilian personnel performed prodigies of endurance to get the big birds ready for combat. Before the end of March the first B29 lifted off the Saline runway on its 11,500-mile journey to war.
By mid-April, 150 planes were on their way, but their troubles were still far from over. One B29 failed to leave the ground on take-off from Marrakesh, another crashed at Cairo, and five went down near Karachi. Once again, the engines were the cause of the trouble. In tropical temperatures that regularly soared above 100°F (37°C) in the shade, the R-3350 power plants overheated badly.
All B29s had to be temporarily grounded while modifications were put in hand, and crews were instructed in tropical operating techniques that would ease the load on the engines. Early in May there were 130 of the new bombers in India.
Although C46 Commando transports were available for airlifting fuel, bombs and combat equipment to the Chinese bases around Chengdu, the super fortresses were intended to carry their own logistic requirements over the mountains. All their guns except the tail weapons were stripped out for these supply runs, but the stockpiles of fuel and weapons in China built up only slowly, despite the fact that the Boeings were carrying seven tons of aviation fuel each trip.
With 20th Bomber Command now assigned to the newly constituted 20th USAAF under the direct control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, a shakedown raid on Bangkok was carried out on 5 June from the Bengal bases around Kharagpur, but results were disappointing Two of the scheduled 100 planes failed to get airborne, 21 more aborted before reaching the target, and four were forced down by mechanical trouble on the return trip The failure rate was 25 per cent None of it was attributable to the weak flak and night fighter opposition, and subsequent air reconnaissance over Bangkok revealed negligible damage
Ten days later, on 14 June, the first strike at Japan was launched from the Chinese advanced bases. Picked up by Japanese radar as they left the coast of China, the 75 super fortresses found their target at Yawata totally blacked out when they arrived at midnight and the enemy defenses on full alert. Some crews tried to bomb by radar, others attempted a visual run. The primary target, the city’s huge Imperial Iron and Steel works, escaped almost unscathed. Seven bombers and 55 men were lost, and it was going to take a month to replenish the stockpiles of fuel and bombs hauled over the Himalayas into China.
The propaganda effect of the raid was considerable, but that was about all that could be said for it Several further raids were mounted in June, July and early August, but too many bombers failed to reach their targets and too little damage was done by those that did Back in Washington, replacement of the 20th Bomber Command’s first CO. Brigadier General Kenneth B Wolfe, was under active consideration But on 29 August, the tide began to turn in favor of the mighty super-bomber of which so much had been expected. Major General Curtis E. ‘Iron Pants’ Le May arrived that day to take over command and flew with the 8 September mission to Anshan in Manchuria This was a relative success with 95 B29s dropping 206 tons of bombs from 24.000 to 28,000ft, doing considerable damage, and losing only four planes.
Le May was a former B1 7 group commander in Europe A tough, cigar-chewing go-getter, he more than lived up to his nickname and quickly introduced a number of innovations in 20th Bomber Command Training for special land crews’ was instigated, a 1 2-plane defensive box formation of the kind used over Europe was introduced, and bombardiers and radar operators attended special courses to enable them to govern their own final bomb runs when weather conditions made it necessary.
During the closing months of 1944 China-based B29s struck at Formosa, at the Komura aircraft plant on Kyushu, at Nanking, and on 18 December at Hankow, where four-fifths of the planes carried only incendiary bombs and the run-up to the target was carried out at a reduced altitude of 1 8,000-21,000ft The conflagration that summedcon Hankow’s three-mile long Yangtze water front and burned for three days gave the American High Command an unmistakable hint on the best way to set about the destruction of Japan’s equally inflammable cities.
The principal handicap under which B29 operations labored was still the need to airlift supplies into China in order to fly against the Japanese homeland — and even then only the southern island of Kyushu was within range.
When US Marines stormed ashore at Saipan on 1 5 June 1 944, the solution to this problem was in sight Saipan was in the Mariana Islands, only 1,500 miles from Tokyo. On 12 October the first big bombers to land in the Marianas put down at Isley Field and 21st Bomber Command under Brigadier General H S. ‘Possum’ Hansel was in business. By 27 October, there were enough B29s on Saipan to launch 18 bombers against the Japanese base at Truck in the Caroline Islands, followed by similar missions on 30 October, 2 and 11 November, with additional raids against airfields on ISO Jima on 5 and 8 November. Results were only moderate, but a strike on Tokyo itself was attempted on 24 November Predictably, it was not a great success, with only 90 out of the 1 1 1 aircraft set out managing to bomb the target area through an obscuring under cast. Damage to the Nakajima aircraft plant (the primary objective) was minimal and 550 Japanese were killed.
With fields for B29s becoming available on Guam as well as Saipan, operations from the Marianas were now obviously of greater importance than the logistically efforts of 20th Bomber Command in the China- Burma-Linda Theater By the end of January 1945 all super fortresses had been withdrawn from China, and although raids from India were carried out against such targets as Singapore. Saigon and Bay during February and March, with a few mine-laying sorties over the Yangtze, redeployment of men and machines to the Marianas began before the end of February,
Hansel’s handling of 21st Bomber Command had not earned Arnold’s unqualified approval a convinced advocate of high-altitude precision bombing, Hansel admitted that the accuracy achieved by his command was far short of acceptable. The abort rate was 21 per cent of sorties, and too many planes were being forced to ditch on the way home due to lack of fuel or mechanical trouble
With the winding up of the 20th, Le May moved into Guam to ginger-up the Marianas-based operations Hangsell’s last operations included an incendiary raid on Nagoya on 3 January 1945 that destroyed 140,000 sq. ft. of the target area and a successful daylight precision raid on the Kawasaki aircraft plant at Akashi which took advantage of rare clear weather over Japan Bad weather was one of the reasons why Hansel’s high-altitude precision bombing had
Not been entirely successful. Also, jet-steam headwinds reaching 200mph at 30,000ft left the super fortresses laboring in turbulent air that made accurate bombing impossible and led to prohibitive rates of fuel consumption
The first five missions 21st Bomber Command flew after Le May took over were again high precision daylight raids, but the 27 January attack on Tokyo cost nine of the 74 B29s sent out. The 100-strong 4 February strike against Kobe was a more successful effort. Only one bomber was shot down, while 2,500,000 square feet of the city’s industrial district was burned out.
With two newly arrived B29 wings boosting the number of bombers available to him. Le May put 1 72 super fortresses over Tokyo on 25 February and incinerated a square mile of the Japanese capital Encouraged by this success, the youthful major general took a revolutionary step — and a colossal risk.
To lighten the big bombers, all the defensive armament was stripped out, along with the auxiliary bomb bay fuel tanks. Box formations were abandoned and attacks were to be made at night, from altitudes as low as 5,000ft, thereby increasing the accuracy of the bombing and reducing the fuel load required since the thirsty R-3350 engines would not be guzzling petrol as the heavily-loaded planes clawed their way up to the hitherto obligatory 25,000ft or more With the strain on the power plants at take-off significantly reduced, the loss rate due to mechanical failure might come down from the disastrous 53 planes lost by this cause since November 1 944, and as the Japanese had no night fighter force worth the name and AA defenses that were pathetic by German standards, there seemed every chance of the gamble paying off.
On 9 March, 279 defenseless super fortresses loaded with incendiaries roared in over Tokyo just before midnight at what seemed to the crews to be a suicidal low level Within two hours, the city was in the grip of an uncontrollable fire storm caused by- 1,667 tons of incendiaries that
Wiped out almost 16 square miles of the capital’s heart and killed 83,783 people. To inflict the largest death toll of any single air raid cost the Americans 14 bombers, but five ditched crews were rescued
Morale among the B29 crews reached an all-time high. Two days later 285 bombers went to Nagoya, losing only one aircraft. With maintenance crews working round the clock, 300 super fortresses were over Osaka on 13 March, gutting 8 square miles of the city, while 307 bombers set light to Kobe on the 1 6th. By the time Nagoya was attacked three days later stocks of incendiaries were almost exhausted, and fire raids were curtailed until new supplies could be shipped out to the Marianas.
The capture of ISO Jima by US Marines in February and March materially helped Le May, since it eliminated Japanese air bases from which nuisance raiders had frequently attacked the B29 flight lines. It was now necessary for Super fortress crews to fly a dog leg course to avoid Japanese fighters. Radar on ISO Jima that had been able to warn home defense squadrons on Honshu of incoming raids, was eliminated, and damaged bombers struggling back from Japan were provided with an emergency landing ground.
‘Fire Raids’ burn out urban Japan
Le May now set about completely revising 21st Bomber Command s strategy, to take advantage of the effect of incendiary bombs on the volatile Japanese wood-and-paper buildings. In other words, area bombing the efforts of the command was temporarily diverted to targets in Kyushu (including airfields) during the American invasion of Odin away, but by mid-April Le May’s fire raiders were back in business. Over 500 super fortresses were now available in the Marianas and by the middle of May a series of savagely intensive fire raids had burnt out nearly half the urban areas of Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama and Kawasaki.
Daylight high-altitude precision bombing with HE bombs staged a comeback as well, with successful strikes on the Mitsubishi plant in Nagoya and the Nakajima factory in Tokyo. Oil targets , Take and Oshawa were hit by B29s from the 315th Wing which were equipped with the new Eagle radar
But the Japanese defenses were stiffening More Intel save flak and increased numbers of fighters resulted in the loss of 13 B29s on the Tokyo raid of 1 3 April and 11 over Nagoya on 14 May. With ISO Jima in American hands, long-range Mustang and Thunderbolt escorts were able to accompany the B29s to Japan, and by the summer of 1945 the strength of the Japanese home defense fighter units was waning. The super fortresses began to mount fire raids against some of the smaller Japanese cities, with over 800 aircraft available for a single mission by August 1 945. There were also mining sorties to blockade Japanese harbors flown by the 313th Wing from Titian, which eventually laid a total of 1 2,953 mines
While 21st Bomber Command was systematically burning Japanese cities, an even more terrible and prophetic weapon of destruction was being readied for use against the ill-fated Land of the Rising Sun The Manhattan Project to produce an atomic weapon had been initiated as far back as 1942 and in February 1944 a B29 with a bomb bay modified to carry an 11ft missile weighing up to 10,0001b — the probable weight of a Plutonium bomb — was conducting ballistic tests with dummies over the Murom desert in California
In the summer of 1944 the special 509th Composite Wing was established at Wendover, Utah, under the command of former B17 combat pilot. Colonel Paul W Tibet’s the B29s issued to this unit all had modified bomb bays and were stripped of armor plate; the only guns retained being a pair of .50 caliber weapons in the tail. The wing had its own engineering squadron to carry out maintenance. Its planes were tuned to perfection.
The 509th arrived on Titian in June 1945 and itself at North Field. It was without question the most highly trained B29 unit in the Pacific, capable of bombing within a 200ft circle from 30,000ft to the other bomber wings in the Marianas, the 509th was a mystery outfit. Its personnel kept exclusively to themselves and flew only endless training missions which never included formation flying but did involve making abrupt diving turns through almost 1 80°.
At 0245 on 6 August. Col Tibet’s lifted his B29 ‘Enola Gay’ off the Titian runway In its belly was the 9,000lb uranium bomb Little Boy’ B29 weather planes dispatched an hour earlier called in to report 2/10 cloud over the primary target — Hiroshima. At 0815 local time, accompanied by two other super fortresses, was over the doomed city at 31,600ft As the huge bomb dropped clear, the three aircraft banked steeply away Moments later an incandescent ball of fire erupted 1,850ft above downtown Hiroshima as Little Boy exploded at its set altitude, instantly incinerating nearly 5 square miles of the city’s center, starting a fierce fire storm, and turning the once prosperous metropolis into a channel house with
70,0 dead and missing
Between the two atomic bombs
Thrown into dismayed confusion by the holocaust, Japan’s Supreme War Council procrastinated and wrangled for another three days. The delay cost another 35,000 lives. On 9 August, Major Charles W Sweeney arrived over his primary target with the Plutonium bomb Fat Man’ in the belly of the B29 Bock’s Car’.
Cloud and industrial smoke foiled three consecutive bomb runs before Sweeney diverted to his secondary objective, Nagasaki. This city also had heavy cloud cover, assessed at 70 per cent, but with his fuel running low decided to ignore his orders to bomb visually and went in on radar.
Seconds before the release point was reached, dive-bomber Captain Kermit K. Beahan shouted that there was a cloud break and he had the city in view Sweeney instantly gave Beahan control of the run, and just one minute after 1100 local time Nagasaki suffered the same awful fate as Hiroshima.
That night, in Tokyo, Emperor prevailed upon his ministers to accept the Allied surrender terms. If it could be said of any plane that it was a war winner, the B29 surely deserves such an accolade.
With the Pacific conflict over, B29s became the back¬bone of the new Strategic Air Command, the more powerful B50 with 28-cylinder R-4360 Pratt & Witney Wasp engines and an even taller tail fin joining service units during 1 948.
In the first two years of peace, the B29 Pacusan Dream Boat’ set up a series of long distance records The first was Guam-Washington flight in November 1945, followed by Burbank (Los Angeles)-New York in 5? Hours and finally, in October 1 946, Honolulu-Cairo, 9,500 miles in 39 hours 36 minutes.
A B29 Far East theater of operations against the Japanese <3 B29 rear gunner’s 20mm cannon under inspection
By the time the Korean war began, the super fortresses had been re-classified as a medium bomber and in the new jet age it was clearly obsolescent Quickly deployed from States-side bases to Japan and Okinawa, the B29 met little opposition during the first four months of the war and bombed both tactical and strategic targets more or less as they liked in broad daylight. But with Chinese intervention MIG 15 jet fighters began coming up to meet them and losses immediately mounted In October 1951, five B29s were lost and the super fortresses were hastily switched to night attacks
, When a ceasefire agreement was finally concluded in July 1 953, B29s had flown 21,000 sorties in 37 months of combat over Korea, dropping 1 67,000 tons of bombs for a loss of 34 aircraft (1 6 to enemy fighters, four to flak), while claiming to have shot down 33 Communist fighters The USAF’s last B29 sortie was a radar evaluation flight from Air Base, Okinawa, on 21 June 1 960.
If imitation is the form of flattery, then the greatest compliment paid to the super fortresses was bestowed on the Pacific war-winner by the Russians. In the last six months of 1 944, three B29s landed virtually intact near »Vladivostok after either suffering battle damage over Charlie Man or running short of fuel
) Using these unexpected windfalls as patterns, the Russians produced the virtually identical Tupolev Tu4 which became the mainstay of Dal’naya long-range aviation bomber units during the 1950s and is still in use I by the Chinese Red Air Force Rodney Steel