From India and China
The B-29 Superfortress entered combat from bases in India and China. In the period after Pearl Harbor, the USAAC believed that the most effective weapon to use against Japan would be the heavy bomber. After the early Japanese victories of 1941 and 1942 the only Allied territory within range of Japan was in China. Even this was not straightforward. The Japanese invasion of Burma cut the land route to China, and so all supplies would have to be flown over the “Hump”, the air route over the Himalayas.
Production aircraft began to appear from October 1943, and were used to equip the 58th Bomber Wing. This wing was initially based at the Bell factory at Marietta, before it moved to Smoky Hill Army Air Base in Kansas on 1 May 1943. Just under one year later, on 26 March 1944, the first aircraft were ready to leave for India, travelling via Africa. The journey revealed one unexpected problem – the temperature in Cairo was too high for the B-29’s engines, always prone to overheating. After a delay of a week the aircraft were ready to move on, and by 15 April the wing had 32 B-29s at their Indian base at Kharagpur.
The 58th Bomber Wing operated from Kharagpur and from a staging base at Kwanghan in China that would allow the B-29 to reach China. The increased scale of American war production is clear when one compares the first B-29 mission to the first B-17 mission. That had seen twelve aircraft attack marshalling yards at Rouen. One year later, on 5 June 1944, one hundred B-29s took off from Kharagpur to attack a similar target at Bangkok. Eighty of them reached their target, but bad weather hit the target and only eighteen bombs actually hit their target.
The first attack on Japan followed on 15 June. The target was the Imperial Iron and Steel Works at Yawata, the sort of precision daylight raid that the USAAC was carrying out in Europe. For the next five months the B-29s of the 58th Bombardment Wing were the only Allied bombers capable of reaching Japan.
The 58th Bombardment Wing carried out 72 missions from India and China. Amongst them was the longest B-29 mission of the war, a 3,900 mile round trip to attack the crucial oil refineries at Palembang, Sumatra. Operations came to an end in the autumn of 1941. It was simply too difficult to operate the B-29s from such distant bases – the only way to get fuel supplies to their Chinese base was to use B-29s to fly it over the hump. In the spring of 1945 the 58th BW was transferred to the Mariana Islands, and joined the main American bomber offensive.
The American island hopping campaign in the Central Pacific made much quicker progress than anyone had expected at the start of the Pacific War. In the summer of 1944 the Americans reached the Mariana Islands, and suddenly the Japanese Home Islands were within range of land based American bombers operating from those islands, at the end of a much easier supply chain that the one to China. The advance guard of the 73rd Bombardment Wing (part of XXI Bomber Command) arrived on Saipan on 24 August, and on 12 October the first B-29 landed on the island. Their first mission, an attack on the Japanese submarine pens at Truk, took place only sixteen days later.
The first raid against Japan was made on 24 November 1944 by 111 B-29s. Its target was the Musashino aircraft factory at Tokyo. Once again, the B-29 was being used on daylight precision bombing missions. The results of these missions were disappointing. At 30,000 feet the B-29s found themselves flying in the jet stream. It proved to be impossible to bomb accurately from these heights. The speed of the jet stream pushed the bombs around as they fell, and it was impossible to predict the wind speeds at lower levels. Even incendiary bombs dropped from high altitude failed to perform as expected, producing only scattered fires. Early in 1945 General Hansell, the commander of XXI Bomber Command, was replaced by Curtis LeMay, fresh from China.
As well as the low accuracy of the bombing, the B-29 campaign was suffering from high casualty rates. One problem was posed by the island of Iwo Jima, where the Japanese had an early warning radar site and an airbase that they used to attack the B-29 bases on the Marianas. On 19 February 1945 the Marines landed on Iwo Jima, and less than a month later an emergency airfield opened on the island. Between then and the end of the war 2,000 B-29s landed on Iwo Jima, saving as many as 22,000 lives. During the attack on Iwo Jima 6,000 Marines had been killed.
On 9 March 1945 a new method of attack was tried out by General Curtis LeMay. Instead of attacking from 30,000 feet in daylight, LeMay decided to attack at low level, by night and using incendiary bombs to burn down the wooden Japanese cities. The aircraft were stripped of guns and ammo, and didn’t need the fuel needed for the long climb to 30,000 feet, allowing them to carry a much larger bomb load. On the night of 9-10 March 1945 the bombers hit Tokyo, causing a fire storm that killed 80,000 people and destroyed sixteen square miles of the city. The pattern was set for the rest of the war. Low level night raids destroyed city after city in an attempt to avoid the need to invade Japan. By the end of the war XXI Bomber Command had carried out 34,000 B-29 sorties, dropped 160,000 tons of bombs and devastated large parts of Japan, at the cost of 371 aircraft, but the Japanese had still not surrendered.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The USAAC had begun to prepare to drop the Atomic bomb in 1944. Operation Silverplate saw the 393rd Bombardment Squadron of the 509th Composite Group trained to carry the bomb. A number of modified aircraft were produced. Like the B-29B they had all but the tail guns removed to reduced weight. The sighting domes were faired over and the aircraft were given engines with fuel injection. The bomb bay was also modified to carry the big bomb.
On 6 August 1945 the Enola Gay, the most famous of all B-29s, dropped the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima, destroying the city. The Japanese government was paralysed with indecision with factions supporting immediate surrender, a fight to the death and every possible option between. This delay was fatal for the people of Nagasaki, for on 9 August a B-29 called Bockscar dropped the second bomb, Fat Man, over that city. This was not the final bombing raid of the war, but it was perhaps the most decisive.
The end of the Second World War was not quite the end of the line for the B-29. Although more modern aircraft were under development when the Korean War broke out, the B-29 was still in service. For three years, starting in June 1950, the B-29 was used to bomb targets in North Korea, this time flying from Okinawa and Japan.