Plowing through the weather in a B-29

I had always thought that the point of the pressurized World War II-era Boeing B-29 bomber was to fly above the weather, as modern airliners generally do. However, Bringing the Thunder: The Missions of a World War II B-29 Pilot in the Pacific (free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers) says this is not how they were used:

The specifications were impressive, both for its size and for its time. Depending on fuel load, bomb load, and altitude: top speed, 365 miles per hour at 25,000 feet; cruise speed at maximum weight, 230 to 260 miles per hour; landing speed, 90 to 120 miles per hour; service ceiling, 32,000 feet; range, 5,400 to 5,800 miles; empty weight, 70,000 to 72,000 pounds; maximum gross weight, 125,000 pounds; maximum bomb load, 20,000 pounds; maximum fuel load (with auxiliary bomb bay tanks), 10,000 gallons. … However, once in combat, we loaded them routinely to as much as 140,000 pounds and, in one or two instances, to 142,000 pounds.

It was early evening on March 9, 1945. … At our briefing we were dumbfounded and wondered if Bomber Command had gone crazy: the tactics to be used on this mission were a complete departure from the design objectives of the airplane and, to us, tantamount to a suicide strike. Gen. Curtis LeMay, over the objections of some of his planners, had concluded that because of the difficulties of achieving the maximum bombing effectiveness at high altitude in daylight because of reduced bomb loads, weather (including 250 mph jetstream winds), the strain on engines, high fuel burn, fighter opposition, and the lack of the element of surprise, he would send the B-29s to Japan with absolute maximum loads, at very low en route and bombing altitudes. He had also concluded, based on intelligence estimates in response to projected airplane and crew losses, that Japan had relatively few night fighters, so the strike force would not be subjected to the air-to-air opposition that it would if flown in daylight.

Thinking about all of this, I had many concerns: the takeoff would be dangerous, exacting, and challenging; there was considerable weather en route; we would have neither guns nor ammunition (removed to save weight); Tokyo was the most heavily defended city in Japan; and we would fly the bomb run at only 230 miles per hour at only 5,600 feet altitude. …

The storms in those latitudes at that time of the year could be particularly turbulent and vicious. Compounding the rough ride and the train of flying instruments in that kind of atmosphere was the constant worry of traffic in the clouds—the danger of midair collisions with other bomb-laden B-29s. We flew these missions at moderate altitude, so we were in the middle of the worst turbulence. It was not like flying above the weather at 25,000 or 30,000 feet. While I logged only four hours of instrument time on this trip, in my letter to my wife afterwards, I said, ” I’d almost as soon face flak and fighters as weather like that again!”

Night missions in bad weather were sometimes nerve wracking. You couldn’t see, so you blundered into some very nasty stuff. The only clue you had at night when in the soup was observing lightning flashes and listening to the crashes of static in your headset. This racket was, however, a fairly accurate indicator of the distance to the turbulent disturbance by the volume in your ears. A really loud crash indicated you were almost in it.

The flights to and from Japan could be 16 hours long, driving through clouds and thunderstorms to the point that logging 7 hours of IMC (instrument conditions) was not uncommon.

Military instrument flying had been deadly before the war:

One of the most publicized, ill-planned, and tragic was Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 politically motivated cancellation of the airline mail contracts and subsequent ordering of the Army Air Corps to fly the mail. Roosevelt perceived that there had been collusion in the awarding of the mail contracts. … Roosevelt was determined to punish the airlines. It was an unfortunate decision. He took this action without a hearing or trial, thereby subjecting the Air Corps to a blood bath. Charles Lindbergh sent Roosevelt a much publicized telegram which was highly critical of his decree, and Eddie Rickenbacker was so incensed that a speech in which he had planned to criticize the mandate was denied air time by NBC after receipt of orders from Washington. Both of these preeminent members of the aviation community and the airline industry were concerned not only about the gross injustice of the situation on the airline side, but also about the lives of the Air Corps pilots that would be lost. Rickenbacker categorized it as “legalized murder.” The prophesy of these two men proved to be all too true: within two months, thirteen Air Corps pilots had been killed. Neither the Army’s equipment nor their pilots were qualified or adapted to fly the mail. In those days Army pilots averaged only about 180 hours of flying time per year, and there were only three Army pilots with as much as 5,000 hours. They probably spent 99 percent of their meager air time flying in clear weather, practicing military maneuvers. They were not instrument qualified. Contrasted to airline pilots who flew day and night in good weather and bad, they were woefully inadequate. So was their equipment, which lacked the instrumentation and radios that the airlines had.

The author, Gordon Robertson, also recounted an in-flight engine failure and fire, about 200 miles from Japan.

What was the reward for taking these risks? A pilot with a rank of second lieutenant earned $245 per month in 1942 ($3,850 per month today). Recreation?

control was exercised by providing the soldiers on pass with an approved list of houses of prostitution whose inmates were medically supervised and where patrons could get preventive treatment upon leaving. However, even all these measures did not stop the incidence of the “social diseases,” so the final element of control was a brief genitalia specific monthly physical examination—usually on, or just before, payday. If a soldier was found to be infected, his pay was withheld and the time it took to cure him (called “bad time”) was added on to his enlistment period and an entry made in his medical records about the reason. … For the boys it was called a shortarm inspection, and for the girls it was called a tunnel inspection.

Life on Guam was a bit like Burning Man:

The island had been thoroughly sprayed from the air with DDT prior to the construction of the field and its environs, so there were no mosquitoes and thus no malaria. The clearing of the jungle and grading of the coral, however, created another problem. It was the dry season, and although hot and humid, there was nearly always a breeze which stirred up the red coral dust, and it got into everything, including our eyes and noses. My eyes were red rimmed and I had a ruddy complexion from a coat of it. Some of the mechanics and others on the flight line were forced to wear goggles much of the time. Even though it was the “dry” season, there was a rain shower from time to time, and then the problem was mud. It was like the clay back home—it stuck to everything in great gobs.

As at Burning Man, there was a perimeter fence:

We were not allowed in the jungle since there were still numerous hold-out Jap soldiers there and the Marines were rooting them out. During the first few weeks after our arrival, one or two a day were captured and others killed. Presumably the reason we were prohibited from the jungle was because the Marines were trigger happy and shot anything that moved. We didn’t have any great desire to explore the jungle anyway. One day in one of the lines for a mess hall, there was a slouched figure shuffling along with his head down and his U.S. Army fatigue hat pulled down over his face. Someone in the line didn’t think he looked just right and jerked his hat up to reveal—you guessed it—a desperately hungry Jap soldier. He was unarmed and immediately captured and turned over to the intelligence boys. At least he accomplished his objective in U.S. captivity he would eat well.

Pilots had standard officer tasks as well:

Another extracurricular duty to which we were assigned from time to time was censoring the enlisted men’s mail. … in a very significant number of the letters, after the expressions of love, were stern admonitions to the women to behave themselves. The guys didn’t trust them. As one writer put it, “Keep your panties on, your skirt down, and your legs crossed until I get home.” Some of the admonishments were even more graphic.

With all of those buttons, is it easy to push the wrong one?

We were loaded with GP (General Purpose) demolition bombs containing a new explosive known to us only as “Composition B.” It was supposed to be very touchy stuff and reportedly the bombs would detonate if dropped on any hard surface from a height of ten feet or more whether they were armed or not. We had preflighted the ship and were all on board with all four engines running just waiting for some other 29s to clear the taxiway as Bud read the last item or two on the checklist. One of those was to close the bomb bay doors. I responded with “bomb bay doors coming up” and reached down to the aisle stand between us to throw the switch. There were two upright switches next to, and in line with, each other—one marked, “Bomb Bay Doors,” and the other, “Bomb Salvo.” Don’t ask me how or why, but I mistakenly and inadvertently hit the Bomb Salvo switch, and the whole load dropped on the tarmac of the hardstand, rolling and tumbling all over the place under the airplane.

After my faux pas, an order was issued and distributed throughout Bomber Command and back to the factories in the U.S. that the bomb salvo switches on all B-29s were to have a half-moon guard installed on them, and the toggle switches safety wired so this couldn’t happen again.

Fatigue was an issue:

I had been without sleep for forty-two hours at this point but found myself scheduled to fly again almost immediately. I didn’t think I was physically able to go another thirty or forty hours without sleep, but there was no time to think about it. We were going—period! We grabbed about seven hours of sleep while the ground crew prepared the airplane for another mission, and we took off again that evening for a night strike against what most of us considered our roughest target, Tokyo.

There were a few times when I just couldn’t keep the lids up, so after taking off and setting up the autopilot, I’d tell Bud to watch everything and to wake me up at Iwo if I was asleep; then I’d doze in my seat with my chin on my chest as we droned on.

Will our military fight, if necessary, even if some members are disappointed Hillary voters? The author kept fighting despite saying that he wasn’t sorry when President Roosevelt died because he was “leading us down the road to socialism.”

Robertson was surprised that the Japanese didn’t surrender:

I was thinking about the massive force we had in the air—and this was only the beginning: before long we would be sending out a thousand planes at a time as they had in Europe. I hoped the Japanese would realize this and spare themselves the annihilation that was bound to be their lot, but I really doubted that they would. … I couldn’t help wondering what the Japanese people below thought when they looked up and saw us. Their government had promised and convinced them that the war was being prosecuted to the fullest and, indeed, that they were winning the war. Yet there we were, four hundred strong, deep into Japanese territory and there wasn’t a single fighter up to defend them. Couldn’t they see what was happening? Did it matter?

He also ponders the nature of courage:

One of the effects of this on some individuals was the loss of the ability to cope with it all, and their courage and bravery abandoned them. We had one crew who, after a number of missions, requested and was sent on a rest leave. I don’t recall that they ever returned to combat status. We had another crew whose pilot, upon approaching the target, or simply arriving at the coast of Japan, would feign some aircraft malfunction, or fake some excuse to avoid going over the target, and, instead, would drop his bombs on some insignificant little village or in the middle of nowhere. His crew ultimately mutinied for fear they wouldn’t get credit for missions flown. They went to their squadron CO requesting a new pilot. The CO told them that their request would not be tolerated, and if they knew what was good for them, they’d better just continue as they were. They were stuck with him.

At one point, we had several crews out of commission because one or two members were in the hospital complaining of “combat fatigue.” This brought on some lectures by the brass to the effect that there was no such thing as “combat fatigue,” and we’d better get it out of our heads. The flight surgeons couldn’t find anything physically wrong with the boys in the hospital, but they were tired and scared and just couldn’t face doing it anymore. Were they lacking in moral fiber? How could you get their courage back for them so they would be dedicated fighting men again? Or is it possible? Perhaps not for some people.

Robertson expresses no regret that we dropped atomic bombs on Japan and is happy about the end of the war:

This was a time also when I felt at peace with myself. The war was over, and I would not have to take off into combat again. I had been challenged and had met the challenge. Indeed, all America had been challenged and passed with flying colors. The war had united the people of the country like nothing else ever before in history. It had been a moral war—right against wrong, good against bad, good guys against bad guys, white hats against black hats—and we had been the good guys in the white hats.

We lost 485 B-29s in total in the Pacific and almost half of the 29th Bomb Group—weren’t all those guys just like me? All I can say is that I shall always be grateful—what else is there that I can say?

What is it like to grow old in the U.S. after this experience?

at first you were talking to your own generation who, for one reason or another, didn’t go to war; then you were talking to the generation just behind you who were slightly too young to be in World War II; then you were talking to everybody else—all the generations that came along later. How could you convey to them what it was really like to be pinned down for days at a time in freezing cold in a foxhole in northern Italy under withering German artillery fire, your buddies being blown to bits all around you; or what it was really like to be aboard a ship off Okinawa taking kamikaze attacks against which it was almost impossible to defend yourself, and where your fellow sailors were killed by the hundreds; or what it was really like to fly through flak thick enough to walk on while tracers were coming up from the ground like rain in reverse and where enemy fighters shot down airplanes and then shot your fellow airmen while they were suspended in their parachutes?

There was another aspect of not understanding, and that was the lack of an appreciation for the thinking, the beliefs, the presumptions, the convictions, the principles, and the attitudes, the zeitgeist, the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of our era and our generation. Much of what we might have said would fall on deaf ears because the zeitgeist of those following was quite different from that of our World War II generation. Over the years, many of us had become very disappointed in the behavior, the demeanor, the manners, and the morals of our young people. They had, in our opinion, deteriorated far below our standards and had lost the strength of our convictions. So many just shut up about who we had been and what we had done. Not only did the listeners fail to understand, but most were not interested.


9 thoughts on “Plowing through the weather in a B-29

  1. Phil,
    Thank you for the book report. Many of the perils of war and what vets faced in their growing-old years could have been written by my father. He was a tank driver in Patton’s Third Army and experienced many terrifying moments that he was reluctant to speak of as he aged. And like the author of “Bringing The Thunder”, my dad was always sad that many younger generations of Americans didn’t seem to understand the significance of war or even care.
    Thanks again for the book comments. I’m buying it today.

  2. Phil,

    There’s a link between the history of computing and the B-29 raids which goes through Alex Green’s sliderules.

    How Slide Rules Won a War

    To add context to the events described in your post:

    The poor destructive efficiency of the high altitude raids caused General LeMay to change tacticts to low altitude fire bombing. In Green’s view, this change was militarily decisive, and would have resulted in Japanese military defeat, if not surrender, whether or not atomic bombs were employed.

    From Green,

    As an Operation Analyst and slide rule designer for
    the 20th AF, both of which require quantitative assessments,
    my view of the main factors that ended the war
    with Japan are as follows:

    The tactical fire bombing raid on Japanese-occupied
    Hankow on December 18, 1944, and the devastation
    wrought by fire bombs on Dresden on February 14, 1945,
    had impressed General LeMay. Compared with the poor
    destructive efficiencies of high-altitude bombing, he estimated
    a large impact of fire raids on Japan’s predominantly
    wooden and paper buildings. Imitating brutal tactical
    operations first used by the Japanese and the Germans,
    LeMay altered the high-altitude bombing design
    strategy of the B-29 and used low-altitude fire bombing

  3. My father in law was a B-29 flight mechanic stationed in India. He flew the hump to bomb Japan just like the stories in this book. He collected four bronze stars from that duty. He said it was a wild experience. He told stories of coming home on two engines and landing as they ran out of gas. He talked about all the issues with balancing the gas between the tanks in the plane as they flew. He said he had to climb inside the wing cavities when they had leaks or lost an engine. Another time he said they came home with holes all over the plane from flak. He talked about flying the plane (he was never a certified pilot) to test stuff that had been fixed and almost crashing it. I guess this happened often due to lots of traffic and botched repairs.

    He also talked about the hungry skinny Indian kids and would never let anyone waste food. He was one tough old guy and a very good engineer who could fix almost anything.

    He was fine with our generation. Plus in our family he was very proud of his kids success and his grand kids success and his two great grand sons.

  4. “Imitating brutal tactical operations first used by the Japanese and the Germans” – this is just rationalization. The Germans also operated death camps and the Japanese did medical experiments on humans – would it have been OK for the Allies to imitate those also?

    If the Allies had lost the war, LeMay, Bomber Harris, etc. would have been put on trial for war crimes against civilians. There was never any military justification for these campaigns and they were accomplished at a huge cost in Allied blood and treasure. They were however effective in this sense – the Japanese and German people seem to have really lost their taste for waging future wars as a result, so maybe they were worth it in the end.

  5. The link to How Slide Rules Won the War is bad. In any case, they didn’t – Green’s SHORAN slide rule ended up not being used because the war ended after the atomic bombs were dropped.

    I am from the very last generation to use slide rules. When I was in high school (class of 74) we still used them (I still have mine) as pocket calculators were just coming into use. They were surprisingly good enough for most purposes and they made you realize (as electronic calculators don’t) that you don’t need 8 decimal places of accuracy for most calculations when chances are the data you are starting with is only good to a couple of decimal places (if that much) to begin with.

  6. There is solid historical data that the code breakers and mathematicians of Bletchley Park were instrumental in shortening and winning WW2. See below.

    “According to the official historian of British Intelligence, the “Ultra” intelligence produced at Bletchley shortened the war by two to four years, and that without it the outcome of the war would have been uncertain.”

    Also related is the significant contributions of women to do much of this work.
    “at the peak of code breaking efforts, some 10,000 personnel were working at Bletchley and its outstations. About three-quarters of these were women.”

  7. Bill: Thanks for that. Every topic these days must segue into celebrating the purportedly forgotten accomplishments of purported women!

    [Why “purported women”? How do we know that any of the people who worked at Bletchley Park actually did identify as women? That was before our modern era when people are comfortable disclosing their true gender ID.]

Comments are closed.