Boeing B-29 Superfortress in flight

Boeing B-29 Superfortress in flight

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Boeing B-29 Superfortress in flight

Not the best of pictures, this does at least some idea of the size of the B-29 and the scale of the bombing offensive against Japan in 1945

B-29 Superfortress Units of World War 2, Robert F Dorr. Despite the title, this book actually looks at the development and service career of the B-29 Superfortress, from the pre-war call for a heavy bomber to its heyday in 1945 when fleets of the massive silver bomber devastated the cities of Japan. [see more]

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 Superfortress bomber takes flight

On September 21, 1942, the U.S. B-29 Superfortress makes its debut flight in Seattle, Washington. It was the largest bomber used in the war by any nation.

The B-29 was conceived in 1939 by Gen. Hap Arnold, who was afraid a German victory in Europe would mean the United States would be devoid of bases on the eastern side of the Atlantic from which to counterattack. A plane was needed that would travel faster, farther, and higher than any then available, so Boeing set to creating the four-engine heavy bomber. The plane was extraordinary, able to carry loads almost equal to its own weight at altitudes of 30,000 to 40,000 feet. It contained a pilot console in the rear of the plane, in the event the front pilot was knocked out of commission. It also sported the first radar bombing system of any U.S. bomber.

The Superfortress made its test run over the continental United States on September 21, but would not make its bombing-run debut until June 5, 1944, against Bangkok, in preparation for the Allied liberation of Burma from Japanese hands. A little more than a week later, the B-29 made its first run against the Japanese mainland. On June 14, 60 B-29s based in Chengtu, China, bombed an iron and steel works factory on Honshu Island. While the raid was less than successful, it proved to be a morale booster to Americans, who were now on the offensive.

Meanwhile, the Marianas Islands in the South Pacific were being recaptured by the United States, primarily to provide air bases for their new B-29s𠅊 perfect position from which to strike the Japanese mainland on a consistent basis. Once the bases were ready, the B-29s were employed in a long series of bombing raids against Tokyo. Although capable of precision bombing at high altitudes, the Superfortresses began dropping incendiary devices from a mere 5,000 feet, firebombing the Japanese capital in an attempt to break the will of the Axis power. One raid, in March 1945, killed more than 80,000 people. But the B-29&aposs most lethal missions would come in August, as it was the only plane capable of delivering a 10,000-pound bomb—the atomic bomb. The Enola Gay and the Bock’s Car took off from the Marianas, on August 6 and 9, respectively, and flew into history.

Korean War: The Boeing B-29 Superfortress Served Throughout the Air War

At 4 a.m. on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops poured across the 38th parallel into South Korea. The Soviet Union had supplied North Korea with large quantities of military equipment, including tanks, artillery, trucks, guns, ammunition, uniforms, rations and all the supporting elements necessary to field a modern military force. The North Korean air force was equipped with 62 Ilyushin-10 ground-attack aircraft, 70 Yakovlev Yak-3 and Yak-7B fighters, 22 Yak-16 transports and 8 Polikarpov Po-2 trainers. The force completely outclassed South Korea’s air force.

On June 27, 1950, the United Nations authorized the use of military force to stop North Korea’s attack. Eight hours after the authorization, the United States Far East Air Force (FEAF), the air element of the Far East Command (FEC), began flying the first combat air sorties over South Korea. President Harry S. Truman directed General Douglas MacArthur to supply South Korea’s military forces from U.S. quartermaster depots in Japan and to commit available U.S. forces to attack North Korean forces crossing the 38th parallel. American ground troops would be supported by land- and sea-based airstrikes. As the ground situation worsened for the retreating South Korean forces, Truman authorized MacArthur to expand airstrikes north of the 38th parallel against North Korean supply depots, railyards and supporting strategic targets.

On June 28, 1950, four Boeing B-29 Superfortresses of the 19th Bombardment Group (BG), which had been transferred from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, attacked Communist troops north of Seoul. On June 30, 15 B-29s of the 19th BG dropped 260-pound fragmentation bombs on suspected North Korean troops and equipment along the north bank of the Han River. After the strike, a close ground examination revealed there had been no North Korean troops or equipment within the designated bombing area. Either U.S. Intelligence had erred or the North Korean troops had shifted locations prior to the air attack. It was recommended that future direct-support bombing strikes by the B-29s be conducted only if the ground situation was absolutely hopeless. The B-29 was not designed to be a ground support or tactical aircraft.

In August, the 98th Bombardment Group arrived at Yakota Air Base on Okinawa from Fairchild Air Force Base in the United States. The 98th BG was temporarily quartered in a hastily built lean-to adjoining the base’s gymnasium. The majority of American military dependents at the base were shipped back to the States shortly after North Korea attacked the South, however, and their family housing units were then modified to serve as quarters for the B-29 aircrews. Many of the 98th’s initial complement of aircrews had flown combat missions during World War II and had completed five years of intense and specialized Strategic Command training between 1945 and 1950.

To reduce the flow of replacement military equipment, armament and supplies to North Korean forces south of the 38th parallel, B-29s were ordered to bomb enemy strategic and military targets in the north. The majority of those targets were concentrated around Pyongyang, Chongyin, Wonsan, Hungnam and Rashin. Militarily, it probably would have been better to use incendiary bombs on those targets, but for political reasons only general purpose (GP) bombs were used. The possible uproar over using incendiaries on North Korea so soon after the destruction of Japanese cities by Twentieth Air Force B-29s during World War II was something President Truman did not want to face at home. Consequently, it would require more B-29s per target, or repeated B-29 strikes, to knock out a target. The GP bombs were fitted with delayed-action fuses to thwart North Korean attempts to repair bomb damage or defuse unexploded munitions.

A typical B-29 load consisted of 40 500-pound GP bombs. Each bomb was fitted with a delayed-action fuse, consisting of a propeller on the bomb’s nose. After the bomb was released from the B-29’s bomb bay, the propeller turned and tightened a threaded rod running through the bomb’s nose. The rod continued turning until it ruptured an acetone-filled vial. The nose fuse was filled with Plexiglas disks surrounding the acetone vial–the number of disks determined the detonation delay time. When the acetone vial was broken, the acetone began to dissolve the Plexiglas disks, triggering the bomb’s predetermined detonation time–from one to 144 hours.

To prevent the North Koreans from easily defusing the delayed-action bombs, a groove was milled into the main body of the fuse. As the fuse was screwed into the bomb by B-29 armaments specialists, the ball bearing was forced into the deepest section of the bomb’s milled groove. Any attempt to remove the fuse after the bomb was dropped caused the ball bearing to rotate into the shallow section of the fuse, locking it into position. To further frustrate bomb disarmament efforts, a small rod was connected to the end of the fuse, and any attempt to remove the fuse triggered the bomb’s explosion. A 500 GP bomb was filled with 250 pounds of RDX composition D explosive, which is more powerful than TNT. The external casing of the GP bomb was scored so that, when detonated, metal fragments (shrapnel) would shower the area around the explosion.

B-29 operations were not restricted to visual bombing conditions. When clouds obscured a target, radar located the offset aiming points (OAPs) that set up the correct bomb release run into the target. Although weather conditions in Korea were better than B-29 aircrews had expected, weather forecasting for Korea was difficult because the country’s weather patterns were generated in the Mongolian steppes, outside of FEAF’s weather reporting area. At first, FEAF weathermen tuned in to Russian weather broadcasts from Vladivostok, but eventually they decided not to put too much faith in the validity of those reports.

Using visual and radar bombing releases, B-29s had destroyed North Korea’s strategic targets by September 15, and the decision was made to halt further attacks on those targets. In response to the B-29 attacks, North Korea increased the number of anti-aircraft defenses against the B-29s. The Soviet Union and China shipped in large numbers of anti-aircraft artillery and ammunition, and the probable B-29 attack routes were more effectively defended. By late November 1950, increased numbers of Communist flak batteries along the bomber routes forced the B-29s to fly at 20,000 feet in an attempt to avoid the flak. In doing so, however, the B-29s faced a new threat–MiG-15 fighters.

On November 12, the 98th BG attacked Nampojin. Flak hit B-29 No. 6371 in the No. 2 engine, holing the propeller and producing a runaway (out of control) engine that could not be feathered. The bomber’s crew began preparations to bail out of the aircraft while the navigator hurriedly gave the pilot a heading toward the nearest emergency airfield. Other B-29s of the 98th BG flew near the damaged bomber in case the crew did bail out, so they could watch the crew’s exit from the aircraft, provide rescue directions and coordinate air cover support. The pilot brought the damaged B-29 in for an emergency landing at the Marine Corps fighter airfield at Yanpo. The base’s Marine Corps commander informed the crew members that Chinese soldiers were approaching the air base and that he did not know if the field could be defended. The commander told the crewmen they had two options: They could be issued weapons and help defend the airfield, or they could leave for Japan on a Douglas C-54 that was due to land at the base shortly. The crew choose to fly to Japan. Without the help of the crewmen, the Marines at Yanpo repulsed the Chinese assault. When no Air Force personnel returned for the damaged B-29, the Marine Corps commander wondered if the damaged engine could be repaired. The Marines were able to locate a P2V R-3350 engine, but before it could be flown to the base, a C-54 landed with an Air Force maintenance crew and the replacement bomber engine. Once that was installed and ground tested, a ferry crew flew the damaged B-29 to Japan for a complete rework.

B-29s were used in a wide variety of missions during the Korean War. One B-29 of the 19th BG flew a decoy mission over the Korean Bay in the North Yellow Sea. Flying a racetrack pattern toward the mouth of the Yalu River, the B-29 would turn 180 degrees as it neared the river, coming no closer than five miles to the North Korean coastline. Meanwhile, the rest of the 19th was attacking a target near Pyongyang. The 19th BG’s Intelligence officer had told the crew of the decoy B-29 that Chinese Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters would probably not venture over the Yellow Sea. As the B-29 approached the coastline, however, the radar officer identified a blip on the radar coming toward the bomber at 12 o’clock and from below. The MiG did not attack and flew away at the 6 o’clock position. This cat-and-mouse game continued for approximately five hours, during which time the decoy B-29 completed 12 orbits. The B-29 also received reports from ground-based radar that there were 20 to 30 MiGs circling inland, directly opposite the decoy B-29’s orbit area.

The growing danger of being stalked by MiGs and the large number of Communist flak batteries made it necessary for the B-29s to fly at night. The bombers usually flew in a stream formation with a 500-foot altitude separation, stepped up and at three-minute intervals. North Korean anti-aircraft gunners soon began to anticipate where the bombers might fly, however, so the Americans modified their target approach tactics. B-29 intervals were altered to between one and five minutes, and the separations between aircraft in the same bomber stream were mixed.

Lieutenant General James V. Edmundson, commander of the 22nd BG, stated that fighter opposition was no problem in 1950 but that it increased as the war progressed. Initially, the flak encountered by the 22nd BG was generally meager and inaccurate. Later, though, the Communists increased their number of flak batteries.

The B-29s were still able to achieve remarkable success when bombing North Korean targets. On one nighttime mission, the third B-29 in the 19th BG’s bomber stream dropped its bombs on a bridge and completed a 60-degree turn away from the target. In order to take photographs of the strike, each B-29 was carrying two photoflash bombs mixed within the bombload. The photographs from the first two B-29s showed a supply train crossing the bridge. Bombs from the first two B-29s straddled the bridge while the trailing B-29’s bombs struck the bridge dead center. The trailing bomber’s tail gunner had a bird’s-eye view of the spectacular result: The train crossing the bridge disappeared in a series of explosions and the violent secondary detonation of its load of ammunition. The tail gunner reported that the explosions turned the black night into day for almost 30 seconds.

As North Korean targets became scarce, B-29s began attacking more hazardous areas. In September 1952, the 96th, 19th and 307th BGs were directed to attack the Siuho Dam on the Yalu River. Up until that time, B-29 targets were never located within 12 miles of the Yalu River. The bombers’ approach tactics were altered for the dangerous mission. The B-29s flew low until they reached the southern tip of Korea then they climbed to their bombing altitude. Upon reaching 16,000 feet, one B-29 of the 19th BG reported severe icing on its wings, making the plane difficult to control and keep in formation. The aircraft commander decided to abort the mission and notified Seoul Command of his decision. Seoul Command informed him not to abort, however, but to head east toward the coastline and then north to rejoin the bomber stream. Weather officers believed they had identified a possible warm air trough near the coast that should melt the ice on the bomber’s wings. The warmer air did melt the ice, permitting the bomber to turn back north. When the B-29 reached Wonsan Harbor, it turned onto a westerly heading and slowly worked its way back into the bomber stream.

As the bombers approached the Siuho Dam, they were illuminated by radar-directed searchlights, followed a few seconds later by anti-aircraft fire. They continued toward the target while being buffeted by both flak bursts and variations in jet stream winds. The B-29s were able to drop their bombs and damage the dam, although not enough to put it out of operation. The flak was intense throughout the bomb run to and from the target, with 18 of the 19 B-29s holed by flak.

When targets were located in the western part of North Korea, B-29s turned toward the east after their bombs were dropped and then continued toward the central part of Korea, where they turned south for Okinawa. One confused 19th BG navigator directed a pilot to make a 360-degree turn. The pilot automatically followed the navigator’s instructions, but on rollout the pilot and crew recognized the heading error. They quickly completed a 180-degree turn to get back onto the proper course.

Meanwhile, the B-29 that had been behind the off-course bomber reached its post-target turn point and executed the correct heading toward the central part of Korea. That B-29’s flight engineer was tired, however, and did not properly monitor the bomber’s engines, allowing them to torch. (When the fuel-air mixture becomes too rich, it causes the fuel at the end of the exhaust pipes to burn.) The bombardier on the B-29 that had made the incorrect turn saw the four exhaust plumes of the torching engines. Believing he had four MiGs in his gunsights, he began firing 50-caliber shells toward the flames, holing the higher B-29, with one spent shell landing within the navigator­radio operator’s compartment. Even experienced B-29 crews had problems on combat missions, and there never seemed to be enough trained crews.

From the very start of the Korean War, it was apparent that B-29 strength in the FEAF had to be increased and a qualified crew replacement source established. It took three months to produce an 11-man B-29 combat crew. The three-month training program was divided into two phases–one 30- day transition period (becoming familiar with and able to fly the B-29) and then a 60-day combat-training period. Virtually all crews were assigned to Strategic Air Command (SAC) after graduation and were shipped to the FEAF.

As the replacement crews arrived and became combat qualified, veteran crews were shipped home, although there was one exception. General MacArthur retained five atomic bomb­qualified B-29 bomber crews within the combat zone so that, if the war escalated, U.S. forces could respond with nuclear weapons. President Truman and his military and foreign-policy advisers, however, were firmly committed to keeping the war limited because they were more concerned with a potential Soviet armed incursion into Western Europe. It would have been unrealistic for MacArthur to initiate a widened ground offensive or launch airstrikes north of the Yalu River, but just in case, the five atomic bomb­qualified crews alternated on 10-day ground alert and 10-day off status. The retained crews also served as combat instructors for newly arrived replacement aircrews. Even though atomic bombs were never used in the Korean War, MacArthur’s contingency plans provided grist for speculation about what might have happened if they had been used.

When U.N. troops retreated from North Korea, FEAF aircrews were called upon to provide tactical interdiction. Using conventional bombs, the aircrews greatly delayed the southward advance of the Chinese Fourth Field Army, giving the U.S. Eighth Army time to prepare defenses. The FEAF inflicted an estimated 40,000 causalities on the advancing Chinese, decimating a force equivalent to five divisions.

Although B-29 atomic-qualified crews had demonstrated their ability to attack fixed positions (permanent strategic targets), there was still some reason to believe that the U.N. command forces were not well enough prepared to use atomic weapons effectively against moving ground troops (tactical targets). In any case, U.S. Intelligence did not identify hostile concentrations at Taechon and in the Iron Triangle in November 1950 until they were breaking up. And atomic attacks against Imjin and Wonju would have been close enough to U.N. troop elements to cause casualties.

The threat of using atomic weapons, however, did help to end the war. On May 22, 1953, U.S. Secretary of State John Dulles sent a message to the Chinese leadership via the Indian diplomatic corps. The Chinese were raising unnecessary barriers to an armistice agreement ending the Korean War, said Dulles, and if peace was not forthcoming, the United States would bring in atomic weapons. Within 11 days, the Chinese accepted the armistice plan, with minor changes.

By January 1951, it was necessary to restrict B-29 operations to steer clear of ‘MiG Alley’–the area between the Chongchon and Yalu rivers where MiG-15s based in the Antung complex in Manchuria constituted a particular threat. B-29s were withdrawn after Chinese troops captured the U.S. Air Force fighter airfields at Kimpo and Suwon, compelling the Americans to withdraw their North American F-86 Sabres to air bases in Japan. Since the B-29s were highly vulnerable to MiG attack, they required supporting fighters.

Nevertheless, the B-29s continued to pound other Communist targets with effective results. During November 1952, B-29s attacked three airfields that the Chinese were trying to build at the southern end of MiG Alley, north of the Chongchon River. Repeated B-29 attacks forced the Chinese engineers to stop work on those three airfields, as well as their attempts to repair previously damaged airfields.

In order to keep up such devastating attacks, the B-29s required extensive post-mission maintenance to make their three-day turnaround times. Post-mission maintenance consisted of inspecting the bomber’s engines and skin for flak damage, washing dirt and oil off the aircraft to maintain maximum aircraft speed, tightening oil connections and any loose equipment, and checking oil sump plugs for metallic shavings, the presence of which indicated the onset of engine wear and probable future engine failure. Maintenance personnel also had to clear bomber crew post-mission write-ups and then complete engine tests to monitor correct operational limits. B-29s needed 7,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and oil reservoir tanks and lines had to be topped off prior to the next mission.

Weather was an important factor in the aircraft mechanics’ work–Korea tended to be mild in the fall and spring, bitterly cold in the winter and oppressively hot in the summer. Typhoons were a severe threat to the B-29 bombers on Okinawa. One typhoon warning forced an evacuation of the B-29s and supporting aircraft to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. The majority of the ground personnel remained behind and waited out the storm. When the B-29s returned, maintenance personnel identified critical fuel-feed problems in the engines. The higher octane fuel used on Guam was eating into the seals of engine fuel-pump gaskets and causing them to leak. The B-29 fuel tanks had to be drained and the fuel-pump gaskets changed prior to the bombers being certified for the next mission.

During another typhoon alert, the winds were determined to be within the B-29’s structural tolerance, so the bombers were not evacuated to Guam. The B-29s were lined up on the runway, and the crews and maintenance climbed on board to ride out the storm. Sandbags were piled to wing level around one landing gear, while hydraulic lines were disconnected from the brakes on the other landing gear to let the bombers swing into the changing wind. The force of the winds, which reached 91 mph, caused the B-29’s propellers to turn. The crews reported it was an awesome experience, and the damage to the base was approximately $1 million. The next evening, the B-29s were ready to strike North Korean targets. Riding out the storm saved maintenance personnel three to six days of work.

Regardless of careful mission planning, fighter protection and night bombing attacks, B-29 aircrews operated in a dangerous environment. Communist anti-aircraft gunners and MiGs unloaded their vengeance on the B-29s. After the war, U.S. Intelligence studies indicated that the Communists’ inexperience in aerial warfare prevented them from making the most of their fighter force. F-86 pilots believed that most of the experienced pilots they encountered were probably from the Soviet Union or Eastern bloc countries, while the newer pilots were Chinese and North Korean. With the end of the Cold War, Air Force Intelligence was able to use Soviet records to confirm that many MiGs encountered by U.S. pilots in MiG Alley and officially reported to be Chinese and North Korean were, in fact, flown by Russian and Polish pilots. Those pilots were rotated through Chinese fighter squadrons for six weeks to gain practical combat experience against U.S. pilots. The Soviet involvement was heavily classified, but early in the war Soviet pilots were heard on radio during combat engagements. Some Soviet pilots were shot down, but the exact number has never been officially confirmed by either U.S. or Soviet air force records.

On January 10, 1953, one B-29 from the 307th BG was badly damaged by a MiG. The aircraft commander kept the bomber flying straight and level so that the crew could bail out. He stayed with the damaged bomber too long, however, and was unable to bail out. (The commander was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for saving the crew.) When the B-29’s left gunner reached the ground, a compassionate North Korean farm woman took care of his wounds before North Korean troops captured him. The gunner was then placed in solitary prison confinement until early May 1953. At that time, with about 10 or 12 other captured B-29 crewmen, he was transported to a larger prisoner of war (POW) camp.

The downed radar operator had also been quickly captured and spent three months in solitary confinement. Since he was an officer, the North Koreans made an exceptional effort to play mind games with him. At one point, he was dragged in front of a firing squad in the compound’s center courtyard. A North Korean officer barked a command, the soldiers raised their rifles at him and then held that position for several minutes. Of course, the radar officer thought he was about to be killed–as many downed crewmen were. Unexpectedly, however, the North Korean officer barked another command that made the soldiers lower their rifles and laugh at the badly shaken American officer. The radar officer was then dragged back to his cell.

American airmen suffered greatly while in Communist captivity. The food was bad and medical care practically nonexistent. Captured B-29 crewmen were usually held in isolated or solitary confinement for approximately three months and were fed two cups of rice a day. The prisoners wore the clothing they had on when captured, regardless of the condition, and slept on a dirt floor, usually without blankets. The Korean winters are very harsh and cold, and POWs suffered from all the effects of exposure. Periodically, the captured crewmen would be removed from solitary for interrogation, usually lasting three hours, and then were returned to their cells.

When the three-month initial confinement and interrogation phase was completed, the airmen were transported to a central, Chinese-run POW camp. Life was somewhat better there, but not much. Prisoners were allowed limited exercise, which had been prohibited in the North Korean­run prison. They were still completely isolated from any outside contact, including non-Communist radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines and letters, and were not allowed to have writing materials. In the Chinese camps POWs were issued some clothing, and crude shelter was provided, but captured U.N. personnel certainly were not treated according to the rules and standards set by the Geneva Convention. The 19th BG personnel who had survived when their B-29 was shot down on January 10, 1953, remained in Communist captivity until August 21, 1953. On that date, they were loaded in trucks along with other POWs and taken to the U.N.­Communist POW exchange point.

Responding to Communist propaganda techniques, the United States used B-29s to drop leaflets to persuade North Korean troops to surrender. In early April 1953, for example, a B-29 propaganda drop scattered thousands of leaflets that stated: ‘Many thousands of North Korean soldiers have been killed! Many thousands of young North Korean women will never have husbands! Blame the Communists!’ Those leaflets were designed to arouse homesickness among the North Korean soldiers and to incite them to rebel against their commanders and leaders for continuing the war in the face of relentless air and ground attacks. The leaflet drops were only an occasional diversion, however, from the main bombing campaign.

A 98th BG mission on July 20, 1953, was typical of the late war attacks against North Korean targets. On the afternoon of the 20th, more than 180 aircrews sat in the briefing room, waiting for the mission briefing to begin. The wing commander quickly walked onto the platform, took his seat in front of the crewmen and ordered them to take their seats. The operations officer waited behind the podium while another officer stood to the right of a large, drape-covered wall map. The crews drew a quick breath as the drape was pulled to one side, revealing their evening targets–two airfields near Pyongyang. The operations officer began describing the mission, ‘First aircraft takeoff will be to the north at 1830 hours,’ and as he gave locations and routes, the second officer pointed each out on the map. The Intelligence officer then briefed the crews on the general shape, size and location of the two targets, mentioning what the pre-strike reconnaissance photographs revealed about the target, its defenses, landmarks and the selected offset aiming points (OAPs). When the Intelligence officer was finished, the communications, weather and engineering officers added their information to the briefing.

As the crews exited the briefing room, many crewmen were asking each other: ‘What do you think? Will this be the last mission?’

At 4 p.m., the crews began reassembling to be issued personal equipment–parachutes, side arms, flight helmets, earphones and other equipment needed to perform the mission. The crews then boarded trucks for the trip to the B-29s parked on the steel and cement runways. Each B-29 was a beehive of activity as flight crews began their preflight aircraft inspection. Crews examined every inch of their bomber’s fuselage, wings, tires, guns, propellers and all the other items on their preflight checklist. Each aircraft commander then lined up his crew with their equipment piled behind. He slowly moved down the line of men, inspecting each piece of equipment to verify everything was combat ready. At his command, the crewmen donned their Mae West life jackets and parachutes and began loading all the equipment into the waiting bomber.

‘How about it, Captain, is this the last mission?’ the crewmen asked. He could only answer, ‘It’s the last one…for tonight!’ But all questions were soon put aside as the control tower cleared the crew’s B-29 for takeoff.

As the B-29 rumbled off its assigned parking hardstand and taxied to position on the runway, the crewmen’s anticipation grew. The B-29 turned onto the end of the runway, and the pilot put on the bomber’s brakes and ran the engines up to full power. The aircraft was vibrating, then it surged forward as takeoff power was applied and the brakes released. The four screaming engines pulled the heavy bomber down the runway into the air toward its assigned target near Pyongyang.

The B-29s encountered heavy clouds that obscured the target, even though they were flying under the light from the moon. That was a very dangerous time for the bombers because they had to fly straight and level and could be tracked by prowling Communist night fighters. The bombardiers used radar to locate their target, releasing their 500-pound bombs through the clouds. Even with the thick cloud base, brilliant flashes of flame could be seen through the cloud layer. The B-29s were being tracked by radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery, and flak burst among the bombers. All B-29 crewmen scanned the night sky looking for enemy fighters, but on this mission none approached the bombers. As each B-29 dropped its bombs, it turned away from the target and headed back to base. The crews relaxed when the aircraft landed and were parked back on their hardstand, but the evening’s mission was not over until after the post-mission debriefing.

In the trucks heading for the debriefing, the crewmen returned to the question of whether they had just flown the war’s last mission. As each crew entered the debriefing room, chaplains met them, welcoming them home and giving each a cup of hot chocolate. The crewmen unzipped their flight suits, wet with sweat and stained with dirt, as they went to the assigned debriefing table, where the Intelligence specialist tried to draw out as much information about the mission as possible. Dawn streaked the eastern horizon as the crewmen finally exited the building, moving slowly toward their quarters. At the same time, other men were getting up, ready for the heavy work of preparing the bombers for the next mission.

The mission had been part of the FEAF’s airfield neutralization program, which Brig. Gen. Richard Carmichael called a ‘blaze of glory.’ Those bombing raids against North Korea’s airfields were designed to render them unserviceable for conventional and jet aircraft. The Chinese, under the cover of inclement weather, had flown in approximately 200 aircraft to Uiju airfield in early July 1953. Once the planes had landed, they had been quickly towed to scattered dispersal revetments in the hills adjoining the hard surface highway between Uiju and Sinuiju. Most of these aircraft received some shrapnel damage during the B-29s’ airfield bombing raids.

The Chinese could still ferry in replacement aircraft before the neutral nations’ inspection teams arrived at the various North Korean airfields to record how many aircraft were at the base. Communist combat engineers were authorized to repair the dirt-surfaced runways after the bombings to permit landings of replacement aircraft, but they could not maintain full combat operations. The replacement aircraft were towed into the aircraft revetments to wait for the inspection team’s visit. Once the inspection team counted the number of aircraft on the North Korean airfields, the fields could be brought up to full operational capabilities. The armistice agreement between the U.N. and the Communists included a statement that guaranteed North Korea the right to retain the number of aircraft that were on the airfields and operational at the time the armistice agreement became effective. On July 27, 1953, the last day of the war, two B-29s of the 98th BG and two of the 91st BG flew over North Korea delivering a final round of psychological leaflets.

B-29s flew 1,076 days during the 1,106-day air war in Korea, dropping 160,000 tons of bombs on Communist targets–a greater bomb tonnage than had been dropped on Japan during World War II. Regardless of the many obstacles they faced, B-29 crews performed brilliantly, destroying industrial and military strategic targets in North Korea and supporting U.N. ground troops. The FEAF lost a grand total of 1,406 aircraft and suffered 1,144 men killed and 306 wounded during the war. Thirty FEAF men who had been declared missing were eventually returned to military control, 214 POWs were repatriated under the terms of the armistice agreement, while 35 men were still being held in Communist captivity as of June 1954. The men who flew and supported the B-29s in the Far East Command were an important part of the air war over Korea, but their contribution has seldom been recognized.

This article was written by George Larson and originally published in the March 1998 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!


Before World War II, the United States Army Air Corps concluded that the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, which would be the Americans' primary strategic bomber during the war, would be inadequate for the Pacific Theater, which required a bomber that could carry a larger payload more than 3,000 miles. [7]

In response, Boeing began work on pressurized long-range bombers in 1938. Boeing's design study for the Model 334 was a pressurized derivative of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress with nosewheel undercarriage. Although the Air Corps did not have money to pursue the design, Boeing continued development with its own funds as a private venture. [8] In April 1939, Charles Lindbergh convinced General Henry H. Arnold to produce a new bomber in large numbers to counter the Germans' production. [9] In December 1939, the Air Corps issued a formal specification for a so-called "superbomber" that could deliver 20,000 lb (9,100 kg) of bombs to a target 2,667 mi (4,292 km) away and at a speed of 400 mph (640 km/h). Boeing's previous private venture studies formed the starting point for its response to that specification. [10]

Boeing submitted its Model 345 on 11 May 1940, [11] in competition with designs from Consolidated Aircraft (the Model 33, later to become the B-32), [12] Lockheed (the Lockheed XB-30), [13] and Douglas (the Douglas XB-31). [14] Douglas and Lockheed soon abandoned work on their projects, but Boeing received an order for two flying prototypes, which were given the designation XB-29, and an airframe for static testing on 24 August 1940, with the order being revised to add a third flying aircraft on 14 December. Consolidated continued to work on its Model 33, as it was seen by the Air Corps as a backup in case there were problems with Boeing's design. [15] Boeing received an initial production order for 14 service test aircraft and 250 production bombers in May 1941, [16] this being increased to 500 aircraft in January 1942. [11] The B-29 featured a fuselage design with circular cross-section for strength. The need for pressurization in the cockpit area also led to the B-29 being one of very few American combat aircraft of World War II to have a stepless cockpit design, without a separate windscreen for the pilots.

Manufacturing the B-29 was a complex task. It involved four main-assembly factories: a pair of Boeing operated plants at Renton, Washington (Boeing Renton), and Wichita, Kansas (now Spirit AeroSystems), a Bell plant at Marietta, Georgia near Atlanta ("Bell-Atlanta"), and a Martin plant at Omaha, Nebraska ("Martin-Omaha" – Offutt Field). [11] [17] Thousands of subcontractors were involved in the project. [18] The first prototype made its maiden flight from Boeing Field, Seattle on 21 September 1942. [17] The combined effects of the aircraft's highly advanced design, challenging requirements, immense pressure for production, and hurried development caused setbacks. The second prototype, which, unlike the unarmed first, was fitted with a Sperry defensive armament system using remote-controlled gun turrets sighted by periscopes, [19] first flew on 30 December 1942, this flight being terminated due to a serious engine fire. [20]

On 18 February 1943, the second prototype, flying out of Boeing Field in Seattle, experienced an engine fire and crashed. [20] The crash killed Boeing test pilot Edmund T. Allen and his 10-man crew, 20 workers at the Frye Meat Packing Plant and a Seattle firefighter. [21] Changes to the production craft came so often and so fast that in early 1944, B-29s flew from the production lines directly to modification depots for extensive rebuilds to incorporate the latest changes. AAF-contracted modification centers and its own air depot system struggled to handle the scope of the requirements. Some facilities lacked hangars capable of housing the giant B-29, requiring outdoor work in freezing cold weather, further delaying necessary modification. By the end of 1943, although almost 100 aircraft had been delivered, only 15 were airworthy. [22] [23] This prompted an intervention by General Hap Arnold to resolve the problem, with production personnel being sent from the factories to the modification centers to speed availability of sufficient aircraft to equip the first Bomb Groups in what became known as the "Battle of Kansas". This resulted in 150 aircraft being modified in the five weeks between 10 March and 15 April 1944. [24] [25] [26]

The most common cause of maintenance headaches and catastrophic failures was the engines. [24] Although the Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone radial engines later became a trustworthy workhorse in large piston-engined aircraft, early models were beset with dangerous reliability problems. This problem was not fully cured until the aircraft was fitted with the more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-4360 "Wasp Major" in the B-29D/B-50 program, which arrived too late for World War II. Interim measures included cuffs placed on propeller blades to divert a greater flow of cooling air into the intakes which had baffles installed to direct a stream of air onto the exhaust valves. Oil flow to the valves was also increased, asbestos baffles installed around rubber push rod fittings to prevent oil loss, thorough pre-flight inspections made to detect unseated valves, and frequent replacement of the uppermost five cylinders (every 25 hours of engine time) and the entire engines (every 75 hours). [N 1] [24] [27]

Pilots, including the present-day pilots of the Commemorative Air Force's Fifi, one of the last two remaining flying B-29s, describe flight after takeoff as being an urgent struggle for airspeed (generally, flight after takeoff should consist of striving for altitude). Radial engines need airflow to keep them cool, and failure to get up to speed as soon as possible could result in an engine failure and risk of fire. One useful technique was to check the magnetos while already on takeoff roll rather than during a conventional static engine-runup before takeoff. [27]

In wartime, the B-29 was capable of flight at altitudes up to 31,850 feet (9,710 m), [28] at speeds of up to 350 mph (560 km/h) (true airspeed). This was its best defense because Japanese fighters could barely reach that altitude, and few could catch the B-29 even if they did attain that altitude. Only the heaviest of anti-aircraft weapons could reach it, and since the Axis forces did not have proximity fuzes, hitting or damaging the aircraft from the ground in combat proved difficult. [ citation needed ]

Gateway to Modernity

The B-29 Superfortress is the product of a strange transition point in aviation science, bridging the divide between the open-air early bombers and the rapid advancements of the forthcoming Cold War. B-29 bombers continued to fly through the Korean war, where they were beginning to show their age compared to new jet-powered platforms, and the mighty Superfortress was ultimately retired only 16 years after it was introduced.

But that short operational window led to a number of variations on the platform that would help usher in technologies that would go on to serve as the very basis of American air superiority in the decades to come.

&ldquoThe B-29 was a proven airframe, and it&rsquos remarkable how many variants were ultimately spawned from it,&rdquo Bohannon says. &ldquoPerhaps the most famous, of course, were the silver-plated B-29s used for atomic missions that served as the post-World War II strategic deterrent force.&rdquo

6 Computerized Fire Control

Operating at high altitudes afforded the B-29 some defense against enemy fighters, for lower operations crews relied on the tried and tested array of machine guns. Here, though, the B-29 differs, in standard trim sporting twin 0.50 caliber machine guns in the rear turret, a further 4-5 turrets serving for defensive purposes.

Rather than a hands-on manually operated system, B-29 crews used an array of analog computers and optical targeting cameras to direct the turrets. Whether the claimed accuracy improvements were useful in combat is another matter. Most sorties occurring way out of range of even the most advanced Japanese fighters.

75 Years Ago: The Flight of the Enola Gay

On August 6, 1945, the crew of a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress named Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare, called “Little Boy,” on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Another atomic attack on Nagasaki followed three days later. The delivery system for these bombs, the Superfortress, represented the latest advances in American aeronautical engineering and bomber design, and its use in the skies over Japan reflected the evolution of strategic bombing doctrine. As a new and deadly weapon, an atomic bomber, Enola Gay facilitated a turning point in human history as it ushered in the dawn of the Atomic Age and the threat of nuclear war.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was the most advanced propeller-driven airplane in the world in 1945, making it the ultimate definition of a “modern” airplane. Designed to fly farther, faster, and higher than any other bomber, the combination of the B-29’s aerodynamic, structural, and propulsion innovations allowed it to carry 5,000 pounds of bombs to a target 1,500 miles away while cruising at 220 miles per hour at altitudes up to 30,000 feet. It also had advanced tricycle landing gear and was the first bomber to have an analog computer-controlled defensive armament system and a pressurized and heated fuselage that meant the 11-person crew did not have to wear oxygen masks and heavy, bulky clothing during long missions.

The nationwide effort to manufacture the technologically-sophisticated B-29 included factories in Washington, Kansas, Nebraska, and Georgia turning out complete aircraft and thousands of sub-contractors producing smaller components and equipment.

After a long and challenging development phase, the B-29s of the 20th Air Force went into combat against Imperial Japan in June 1944 from bases in India and China and in November 1944 from the Mariana Islands. The failure to achieve results with daylight, high-altitude, precision bombing in the unique operational environment over Japan led to a switch to low-level, nighttime, firebombing raids. The 20th aimed to destroy Japanese industry and kill or drive away its workers by burning the mostly-wood cities to the ground. Approximately 300 B-29s attacked Tokyo in March 1945, killing upwards of 100,000 people and destroying one-fourth of the city in a single 24 hour period. Additional raids on selected targets and the aerial mining of shipping lanes effectively left Japan isolated and in military, economic, political, and social shambles by the end of July 1945. The 20th’s campaign came at a cost of over 500 B-29s lost in combat or operational and training accidents with their crews either killed, injured, missing-in-action, or becoming prisoners-of-war.

B-29s dropping bombs on Japanese-held targets near Rangoon, Burma in February 1945.

As the American strategic bombing campaign reached its crescendo against Imperial Japan, the United States was developing a new weapon. The atomic bomb program, centered on the government laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, was equal in size, scope, and secrecy to the B-29 program. After a successful test explosion in July 1945, the United States had a new weapon to use against Japan and to affect a rapid end to the war. There were two types of bombs used against Japan: a uranium-235 gun-type fission weapon called “Little Boy” and a plutonium, implosion-type called “Fat Man.” The codenames referred to their shapes, the former small and compact, and the latter large and rotund.

To deliver the new weapon, the U.S. Army Air Forces created the world’s first atomic bombing force, the 509th Composite Group, in December 1944. It was under the command of Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., a battle-hardened B-17 veteran of Europe. He chose his fellow 8th Air Force veterans, bombardier Maj. Thomas Ferebee and navigator Capt. Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, to join him to lead the group. The 509th’ underwent intensive training in the United States and in the Pacific for one specific mission: the delivery of an atomic bomb from the air.

Design work began on the modification of the B-29 into an atomic bomber under the Silverplate project in June 1943. Silverplate B-29s had no armor plate or upper and lower fuselage turrets, which reduced the total weight of the aircraft by 7,200 pounds. The installation of reversible Curtiss Electric propellers enabled the use of backwards thrust to slow the lumbering bomber down on the runway if it had to land with the bomb. The forward bomb bay and forward wing spar required modification to accommodate a single bomb that would weigh in the area of 10,000 pounds. To that end, they adopted the British Type G single-point attachments and Type F releases that the British used on the Avro Lancaster bomber to carry the 12,000-pound Tallboy earthquake bomb. Overall, the changes made to the B-29 enabled the modified bomber to carry an atomic bomb while cruising 260 mph at 30,000 feet.

Bomb bay of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Production of the first 15 Silverplate B-29s for the 509th took place at the Glenn L. Martin Factory in Omaha, Nebraska. Paul Tibbets personally selected one of them to be his operational aircraft on May 9, 1945. The Army Air Forces received the B-29-45-MO with the serial number 44-86292 on May 18 and the 509th assigned it to crew B-9 commanded by Capt. Robert A. Lewis. They arrived at Wendover, Utah, for training and practice bombing on June 14. They departed for Tinian by way of Guam on June 27 and arrived on July 6. Soon after, personnel added the “Circle R” symbol of the 6th Bombardment Group of the 20th Air Force on both sides of the vertical tail and the number “82” just behind the bombardier’s window position to confuse enemy intelligence.

On Tinian, the 509th was under the operational control of the 20th Air Force headquartered in Washington, D.C. It issued Special Bombing Mission Number 13 on August 2, which designated the city of Hiroshima as the target for the 509th. On August 5, Tibbets took command of 44-86292 and ordered the name “Enola Gay” be painted on the left side of the aircraft under the pilot’s window in honor of his mother.

The flight crew of the Enola Gay with ground maintenance officer, Lt. Col. John Porter (standing far left). Left to right, standing: Capt. Theodore J. "Dutch" Van Kirk, navigator Major Thomas W. Ferebee, bombardier Col. Paul W. Tibbets, pilot Capt. Robert A. Lewis, co-pilot and Lt. Jacob Beser, radar countermeasure officer. Left to right, front row: Sgt. Joseph S. Stiborik, radar operator Staff Sgt George R. “Bob” Caron, tail gunner Pfc. Richard H. Nelson, radio operator Sgt. Robert H. Shumard, assistant engineer and Staff Sgt. Wyatt E. Duzenbury, flight engineer. The other two individuals that participated in the flight, weaponeer and mission commander, Capt. William S. Parsons of the U.S. Navy, and his assistant, 2nd Lt. Morris R. Jeppson, are not pictured.

Tibbets and his crew took off from Tinian in Enola Gay at 2:45 am on August 6, 1945. Dutch van Kirk plotted the 1,500 mile route from Tinian to Hiroshima. Weaponeer and mission commander Capt. William S. Parsons of the U.S. Navy activated the bomb during the flight and his assistant, 2nd Lt. Morris R. Jeppson, inserted the arming plugs 30 minutes before reaching the target. Upon visual location of Hiroshima, Tom Ferebee aimed for the city center and Enola Gay dropped the “Little Boy” bomb from 31,000 feet at 9:15 am. Radar operator Jacob Beser tracked the bomb as it fell 43 seconds to its predetermined detonation height of approximately 2,000 feet over the city center. The explosion of the uranium bomb, which was equal to 15 kilotons of TNT, and the resultant firestorm killed an estimated 135,000 to 200,000 people, destroyed 4.7 square miles of the city, and left less than 20 percent of the city’s buildings standing.

After “Little Boy” left the forward bomb bay, Enola Gay lurched upward, and Tibbets initiated a high angle evasive maneuver to get as far away from Hiroshima as possible. A bright flash overwhelmed the senses of the crew. The bomber traveled 11.5 miles before it experienced the shock waves from the atomic blast. Staff Sgt. George R. “Bob” Caron in the tail gun position took a photograph of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. Radar operator Sgt. Joe Stiborik recalled the crew was speechless overall. Robert Lewis wrote in his journal and may have subconsciously said out loud over the radio intercom, “My God, what have we done?” Enola Gay landed back at Tinian 12 hours later at approximately 3 pm.

Enola Gay tail gunner Bob Caron took this picture of the cloud of smoke billowing 20,000 feet above Hiroshima after the explosion of the Little Boy atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.

The crew of another B-29, Bockscar, dropped a Fat Man plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, three days later on August 9. The Soviet Union declared war and invaded Japanese-held Manchuria the same day. Facing Allied invasion and the threat of continued incendiary and atomic bombings, on August 15, Emperor Hirohito, in an unprecedented radio address to the empire, announced the Japanese government’s intention to surrender. A formal ceremony followed aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, on September 2, 1945, which became known as Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day, in the United States. World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history, was over.

The history and memory of Enola Gay and its part in the atomic attacks on Japan, and their effect on ending the war in the Pacific and the nuclear tensions of the Cold War, reflects differing viewpoints. Many, especially the generation of Americans that fought in World War II and their families, saw the use of atomic bombs against Japan as a means to shorten the war and to prevent a large-scale invasion that would have resulted in the unnecessary loss of lives on both sides. Others, including survivors of the atomic bombings and peace and anti-nuclear activists, have questioned the United States government’s rationale for using atomic weapons against Japan and the world’s continued reliance on nuclear weapons in national defense that followed during the Cold War and on into the twenty-first century. Almost all recognize the terrifying legacy of power and responsibility created by the availability of what would be commonly referred to as “the Bomb” and the hope that one will never be used again in war.

The Smithsonian has been at the center of debates over those differing perspectives in terms of the interpretation and public display of Enola Gay. After being transferred from the U.S. Air Force in the late 1940s, Enola Gay remained in storage for decades. Museum staff began the restoration of the aircraft in December 1984 with the intention of it being displayed at some point in the future. Enola Gay was to be the central artifact in a planned exhibition at the Museum examining the atomic bombings during the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Tensions resulting from different historical perspectives of those events erupted into a nationwide controversy that led to the Smithsonian’s cancellation of the exhibition in early 1995.

Boeing's B-29 Superfortress was the most sophisticated propeller-driven bomber of World War II, and the first bomber to house its crew in pressurized compartments. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

This exhibition was on display in Gallery 103 from June 28, 1995 to May 17, 1998.

In a revised exhibition, Enola Gay’s forward fuselage and bomb bay, two engines, a propeller, and other components, including a deactivated Little Boy bomb, went on display in the National Mall Building from June 1995 to May 1998. When the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened in December 2003, the fully-assembled Enola Gay went on permanent display in the World War II Aviation display area in the Boeing Aviation Hangar. The display of the Enola Gay has generated a variety of responses ranging from public protests in 1995 and 2003 to opposing points of view expressed in alternative exhibitions, petitions, and reports, and continues to serve as a case study in presenting history in the public sphere that is vigorously discussed and debated to this day.

Enola Gay on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

The flight of the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945, signifies an end and a beginning in terms of our evolving understanding of technology and warfare in the twentieth century. It is part of the story of the final victory over Imperial Japan and reflects the dedication and sacrifice of the American military and industrial war machine that helped win the war overall. It also became the ultimate example of how aeronautical technology, normally celebrated to a high degree before the war as a positive force in history, could also symbolize the utter destruction of humankind itself. It is hard to disassociate two triumphs of American technology—the modern airplane and atomic energy—from the chilling fact that one B-29 with one atom bomb destroyed an entire city in August 1945, which was repeated only days later by another B-29. Those events forever changed how the world approached warfare and created a nuclear legacy that is still with us today.

Jeremy Kinney is the Chair of the Aeronautics Department and curator for American military aviation, 1919-1945.

History in flight: Last operational B-29 Superfortress bomber visits Mesa

MESA – As an Air Force mechanic in the 1950s, Jim Mathews worked on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the bomber that earlier rained destruction on Japan to end World War II.

On Thursday, he traveled back through the decades as he watched the world’s last operational B-29 bomber land here.

“It’s kind of nostalgic,” Mathews said. “I’d sure like to fly in it.”

The bomber, along with five other historic military planes operated by the Commemorative Air Force, will be at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport through Sunday for visitors to view or fly in.

A flight on the B-29 costs between $600 and $1,500, depending on the seat choice.

Mathews, who was stationed at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base from 1951 to 1955, said he visited just for the B-29.

He and his wife have seen B-29s in museums, but he said he needed the chance to watch a B-29 actually fly again.

“That airplane was kind of a challenge for us,” he said, adding that the construction was unique and difficult for mechanics and pilots to master.

The Commemorative Air Force’s history tour brings together an assortment of military aircraft to honor the men and women who built, maintained and flew in the planes in wartime. The planes move Monday to Deer Valley Airport, their last stop in Arizona, for two days.

Mike Selk, a pilot with the Commemorative Air Force’s Arizona wing, volunteered to fly a 1944 Navy SNJ trainer plane in the tour. He has worked for years with the Commemorative Air Force, a private organization that collects, restores and flies military planes.

“It’s just a privilege to be in this airplane,” he said. “It’s fun to clean it. It’s fun to take pictures of it. It’s just a nice piece of history.”

Tour visitor Thomas Moeller came from his retirement home to see a B-29 fly for the first time.

He said he has kept a model of the B-29 in his bedroom for nearly 60 years. When he was 14 and suffering from rheumatic fever, classmates gave him the model to build while home sick.

“When I put it together, I was so proud I took it to class and showed it to them,” he said. “I’ve kept it ever since.”

As the memory of World War II fades, the chance to experience history is important, said Patrick Oakley, the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport community relations coordinator.

“It’s a win-win for us,” Oakley said. “People just love airplanes.”

Debbie King, the first female pilot to fly the B-29 since World War II, called the plane a flying museum.

“It’s a little overwhelming if you think, ‘Wow, this is the last one,'” she said. “We need to keep these airplanes out in front of the public.”

Boeing B-29 Superfortress FIFI

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Watch the video: Boeing B-29 Superfortress Kee Bird, Frozen in Time! NOVA


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