The Buzz

America's B-29 Superfortress: The Plane That Bombed Japan into Submission

As the Japanese delegation stood on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, preparing to sign the documents that ended World War II, a large formation of Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers swooped low over Tokyo Bay as a reminder of the terrible destruction that had befallen their nation and turned Japan’s cities into ruins. It was a reminder the Japanese really did not need—the bombed-out rubble and steadily smoking crematories around the country were evidence enough of the violent firestorm that had befallen the Land of the Rising Sun.

The national morale in Japan was so low that almost 70 percent of the people interviewed by U.S. military personnel after the surrender reported that they had reached the point where they were unable to endure one more day of war. Most Americans, especially the young soldiers and Marines who had been slated to invade the Japanese Home Islands of Kyushu and Honshu, believed that Japan surrendered because of the atomic bomb. They were wrong. In reality, the country had already been brought to its knees before the first atomic test at the Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert two months before. Japan had been destroyed by fire from above, fire that had largely been delivered from the bomb bays of an armada of Boeing B-29s.

The B-29 Deployment: A Political Decision

The B-29 had come to symbolize American air power by September 1945 because of the role it played in the final defeat of Japan, but the large four-engine bomber had originally been conceived as a weapon for use against Nazi Germany. The initial invitation for bid had been issued in the fall of 1940 as the War Department began preparing for a seemingly inevitable entrance into the war in Europe. Design problems and production delays kept the very long-range bomber out of service until it had become obvious that such range was no longer necessary against Germany. The first production B-29s began rolling off the assembly lines in mid-1943, prompting requests for the new bombers from commanders in each theater.

Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, the air commander in General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area of Operations, was particularly insistent in his claims for the bombers. Not only had Kenney been short-changed in aircraft and crews because of the high priority given to the European Theater, but he had been heavily involved in B-29 development himself when he was in charge of Air Corps research and development at Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, in 1941. Although Air Corps commander General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was receptive to Kenney’s recommendations on use of the B-29s—the Southwest Pacific air commander wanted to use them from Australia, then from the Philippines—he had his own ideas as to where and how they should be deployed.

Arnold was also prompted by his own ambitions. In spite of his high rank and responsibility, he had never seen combat or commanded men in battle. Now he saw an opportunity for his own combat command. Instead of assigning the B-29s to the overseas air forces, he decided to establish a new air force under his personal command, a strategic bombardment unit headquartered in Washington, D.C. The new Twentieth Air Force would be controlled by Arnold’s own staff, which would select targets for the huge bombers and command the war from thousands of miles away.

The ultimate decision on deployment of the B-29s was based largely on political considerations, including appeasing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s near-obsession with mounting an aerial bombardment campaign against Japan at the earliest opportunity. The liberal president was up for reelection to an unprecedented third term in 1944 and faced strong opposition from conservatives. The commencement of B-29 raids on Japan would boost his political stock.

“Early Sustained Bombing of Japan”

In spite of their long range, there were only four places in the world close enough to Japan from which B-29s could operate, and one of those, Soviet Siberia, was off limits because of Soviet neutrality in the war with Japan. Bases in the Aleutians were in range of Japan, but the horrific subarctic weather presented problems for the untried bombers. The Joint Chiefs of Staff saw potential for establishing B-29 bases in the Mariana Islands, a concept that pleased Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations, because such a move increased the importance of the Pacific Ocean Area of Operations, the only area under U.S. Navy command. King also favored Arnold’s plan for an independent command, as it would keep the B-29s away from Douglas MacArthur.

The third option was establishing B-29 advance bases in China, an option that would allow attacks on Japan to commence several months before bases could be established on the island of Saipan in the Marianas, and this was the option Arnold chose. Operations from China were also seen as a means of improving the morale of the Chinese people, who had been fighting the Japanese since 1931.