In September 1942 the Boeing Company scheduled the first test flight of its new B-29 bomber. But it would be early 1944 before the Army Air Forces received the airplane for use against the Japanese. The B-29, or Superfortress, as it was called, was designed to operate faster, at higher altitudes, and with heavier bomb loads than its predecessor, the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Considered the most advanced bombers in the world, the B-29s had pressurized cabins, remote control gun placements and 2,200-horsepower engines -- the most powerful piston engines of the time. Able to fly over 3,000 miles, up to 16 hours, these bombers were just what the Allies needed to target Japan. As Robert Rodenhouse, a B-29 pilot, remembers:
"It just blew my mind. First of all its size, and then its capabilities. And to think that they could take an airplane, a bomber, and pressurize it so that we could feel the same at sea level as we do at 30,000 feet. And that's essentially what they were doing. And then when I knew that the range that it was capable of doing, and the weight and the bomb load, I couldn't wait to get behind the wheel."
Code Name Matterhorn
In April 1944, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a plan they code named "Matterhorn." B-29 bombers would attack Japan from China. On their first mission on June 14, 1944, sixty B-29s attacked iron and steel factories on the Japanese island of Kyushu without success. Enemy attacks on bases and long distance fuel runs would plague the program in China.
Trial and Error in the Marianas
The first B-29s arrived in the Mariana Islands in October 1944. This base was closer to Japan, but the bombing runs still had problems. The B-29s had been rushed into service without complete testing. The result was not good, according to Rodenhouse:
"We had trouble even getting the bomb bay doors to retract, and also the landing gear. The biggest problem was overheating of engines. And that was so critical, because if an engine coughed or sputtered on a takeoff, you'll never make it. You'll never get off the ground. And the plane was so overloaded that it would never be able to stop it with its normal braking."
The planes were hard to handle. Heavy bomb loads made takeoffs risky. Flying 3,000 miles round trip to Japan over hostile waters made emergency landings almost impossible. But perhaps the most baffling problem to the flight crews was something we know today as the "jet stream."
"If we were going with the jet stream, our bombs were going over the target. And if we're going against it, the bombs would be short of the target. And it wasn't until about three or four missions that some meteorologist went along with the bombing group, and they determined what that was, a jet stream," recalled Rodenhouse. "It's a very common occurrence now. It's in every meteorological broadcast today, where the jet stream is, and how fast it is, and what it's moving. It has such an effect on weather systems. And we didn't know about that."
The Low Altitude Strategy
In January 1945, General Curtis LeMay arrived in the Mariana Islands to take over the problem-plagued B-29 command. For two months, his crews flew similar high-altitude missions over Japan with little more success. His job on the line, General LeMay decided on a risky new strategy: his pilots would fly daring, dangerous bombing missions at altitudes as low as 5,000 feet, low enough to be within range of anti-aircraft weapons. Robert Rodenhouse was shocked:
"We thought they could throw the kitchen sink up there and hit us. Can you imagine flying a big four-engine bomber at 5,000 feet? Why that was just unheard of, absolutely unheard of. And like my crew says, I think those generals lost their marbles. They weren't thinking straight."
The low-altitude bombing runs turned out to be highly successful. The planes carried much larger bomb loads. Crews flew at night to avoid enemy fighters. And flight personnel were kept to a minimum. Most of the gunners were removed to make room for still more bombs -- incendiary bombs.
Incendiary bombs were composed of gelatinized gasoline, known as napalm. When incendiaries hit the target, the napalm started fires that spread quickly and were almost impossible to extinguish. Japanese cities were mostly made out of wood and paper, so the fires created infernos. On March 10, 1945, flying in darkness at low altitudes, more than 300 B-29s dropped close to a quarter of a million incendiary bombs over Tokyo. LeMay's gamble was successful. Perhaps as many as 100,000 Japanese were dead, almost 16 square miles of the city destroyed, and a million people homeless.
Prisoners of War
Not all the B-29 crews made it back safely to their home bases. As war prisoners in Japanese hands, some of the men suffered unimaginable hardships. In some cases they were executed immediately, but in others they were submitted to various forms of torture including medical experimentation, beheading, cannibalism, and even death by being burnt alive. One captured B-29 flyer was put on display at a zoo in Tokyo. It is not known exactly how many downed B-29 flyers were killed while being held prisoner, but the numbers reach into the hundreds.
Out of Production
The last of 3,970 B-29s rolled off the assembly line in 1946. The planes were used in the Korean War in the early 1950s, and remained in the Air Force until the late 1950s.