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

Posted on January 1, 2013
By Robert F. Dorr

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was wrong.

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

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

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

This happened too late to help Hansell.


Enter LeMay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Fling Crew

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

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

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

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

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


Bombing Campaign

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

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

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

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

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


Sulphur Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The McDonald Crew

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

Wrote Parry,

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

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

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


Fire to Tokyo

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

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


B-32 Dominator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Excerpted from Mission to Tokyo: The American Airmen Who Took the War to the Heart of Japan by Robert F. Dorr.

Copyright 2012 by Robert F. Dorr.

Reprinted with permission from Zenith Press.

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

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