I Was in a B-29 Bomber As Tokyo Was Firebombed. This Is My Story.

May 23, 2019 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIMilitaryTechnologyWorldTokyoJapan

I Was in a B-29 Bomber As Tokyo Was Firebombed. This Is My Story.

"On tonight’s mission, the primary weapons, 500-pound E-46 chemical incendiary bombs, would rain down on Tokyo like giant firecrackers. Each bomb contained 47 small bomblets, called M69s, strapped together inside a metal cylinder fused to break open at 2,000 or 2,500 feet and to scatter the individual bomblets."

God’s Will was burning precious gas and was lost. Carter had long since become accustomed to the drone of the R-3350 engines in his ears. He peered from his blister trying to discern some distinctive feature, any distinctive feature, in the early morning darkness.

Over Tokyo, silvery B-29s continued to pass through searchlight beams, incendiary bombs continued to tumble from their bays, and the city burned with such intensity that flyers could smell roasting flesh. Aboard God’s Will, navigator Pettit and radar operator Baker struggled to get their radar screens to work. Pettit made no attempt at celestial navigation because of poor visibility in a sky now filled with snow. The radar flickered on intermittently. Pettit told Fling that he was seeing Choshi Point on his scope.

He was wrong.

Retracing Their Steps

Fling made a 90-degree left turn to head to the west toward Tokyo. God’s Will made landfall over the Japanese home islands for the first time. About 15 minutes later, Dwyer, looking down from his perch in the nose, saw a mountain covered with snow. Right-seat pilot Peterson saw it too.

“There’s a snow-capped peak right below us,” Dwyer said over the interphone.

“There’s not supposed to be a mountain there,” Fling said. There was no mountain near Choshi Point.

Dwyer would later say that God’s Will came close to slamming into the mountainside. Fling threw the aircraft into an abrupt, climbing 180-degree turn. He pointed the bomber’s nose back toward the ocean from which they had just come.

They retraced their route. The radar went on the blink again.

Weary from struggling to get into the right place, the Fling crew was skirting the Japanese coast north and east of Tokyo.

By now, more than 200 B-29s had passed over Tokyo. One was blown out of the sky right over the Imperial Palace, but the heavy losses that had been predicted were not taking place.

Three Hours off Schedule

The crew of God’s Will had been lost for an extraordinary, fuel-guzzling 21/4 hours, had nearly slammed into a mountain, and were seething with frustration and anxiety. It was less than a week after Malo’s first ever B-29 landing on Iwo Jima, and crews had been briefed that if they couldn’t get home, they should try for Iwo.

Fling’s men were determined to carry out the mission even though, as Carter noted in his journal, “We knew we wouldn’t make it back to base because we were low on gas.”

When God’s Will belatedly stumbled upon Tokyo, as many other B-29s were doing in the confusion of the night, Carter thought of it as deliverance. “We were 80 miles away when we saw the fire,” he wrote. The bombing had been going on for two hours.

When God’s Will entered the final swarm of B-29s approaching Tokyo, Carter heard the sounds of other aircraft and of gunfire. He saw the searchlights, the flak bursts, the burning urban sprawl rushing toward him. Carter wrote in his journal that the flak was “intense and rather accurate” and that “about 100 searchlights” were stalking the B-29s.

God’s Will, far later than anyone ever intended, began its bomb run. Fling turned the aircraft over to bombardier Dwyer.

God’s Will was now flying parallel to B-29s from a different group, braving the heat thermals with Dwyer hunched over his Norden bombsight, trying to ignore the spectacular view of a world afire.

In the final moment of the bomb run, Carter peered out and saw a falling bomb. It had come from a B-29 above them. He estimated that it missed the left wingtip of God’s Will by just 10 feet. Dwyer said, “Bombs away.” It was 3:01 am and God’s Will was almost three hours behind schedule.

Every member of the Fling crew knew that God’s Will did not have enough fuel to return to Tinian. They hoped they could make embattled Iwo Jima. When God’s Will approached Iwo, the sun had become bright, flying conditions were as good as they would ever get in this weather-racked corner of the world, and Iwo’s Motoyama No. 1 airfield looked almost red in its brightness. God’s Willtouched down on Iwo at 10:30 am.

Dwyer recalled, “Bullets were flying around us” as Fling taxied God’s Will to a halt in front of a cluster of Marines.

God’s Will—although it sustained two shrapnel holes in a wing—was capable, once it could be refueled, of flying its crew home. Carter noted when they took off that the Japanese were firing small arms at them as they accelerated down the runway.

The Most Destructive Bombing in History

The great Tokyo firebomb mission ignited the hottest fires that ever burned on the earth and killed more people—possibly 100,000; the exact number will never be known—than both subsequent atomic bombs. It was the most destructive bombing attack in history.

Losses on the great Tokyo firebomb mission of March 9-10, 1945, were 14 B-29s, including the three that flew into a mountain together, three that ditched, and one that simply vanished.

The Tokyo fire raid marked the beginning of what became known as the fire blitz. The Fling crew did not participate in the first blitz after Tokyo to Nagoya on March 11-12, but it did fly the remaining three blitz missions against Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya.

Of the Kobe mission, Carter noted: “The fire looked even bigger than the Tokyo fire to me. An area with a diameter of about 30 miles over the target was as bright as day but it had a reddish color. The sky was full of B-29s, Jap fighters, phosphorus flak, shrapnel flak, rockets, tracers and the blackest smoke I have ever seen. It was enough to scare the devil.”

Flying Through Flak over Nagoya

The fifth and final mission in the great fire blitz took B-29s to Nagoya again on March 19. Now, stocks of firebombs were so low that many Superfortresses carried explosive bombs. God’s Will, which carried incendiaries, was caught in 15 searchlights for six minutes. Fortunately for the Fling crew, another B-29 going over at the same time was caught in 25 to 30 searchlights and received most of the flak. Carter wrote that the other B-29 “flew right thru it but I don’t see how.”

The blitz involved 1,595 sorties and used 9,373 tons of bombs to burn about 32 square miles in four cities. Air Forces commander General Henry “Hap” Arnold sent a message to Twenty-First Bomber Command, saying that the blitz was “a significant example of what the Jap can expect in the future. Good luck and good bombing.”

Japan’s Lt. Gen. Noboru Tazoe, a key air defense leader, said that as a result of the fire blitz he knew, finally, that Japan could not win the war. Thanks to LeMay’s risky decision to fly low and light, B-29 Superfortress crews were finally accomplishing something.

27 Combat Missions

Major George Bertagnoli took over God’s Will when Fling was made group assistant operations officer. The crew became the first from the 9th Bombardment Group selected for “rest camp” in Hawaii because the men had flown more combat missions than any other crew. When they returned to Tinian, they learned that the Malo crew from their squadron, which had made the first B-29 landing on Iwo Jima, was lost in combat over Kawasaki on April 16, 1945. One month later, Captain Samuel N. Slater became the crew’s navigator when Pettit was moved up to group headquarters.

Carter completed 27 combat missions, including another mission to Kobe on June 6, 1945, during which a swarm of attacking fighters wounded Bertagnoli, Peterson, and Dwyer and shot out two engines and damaged a third, prompting another emergency landing on Iwo Jima. The Bertagnoli crew was credited with three Japanese aircraft shot down plus two probables.

God’s Will‘s Rebellious Fly-Over

When General Douglas MacArthur oversaw the formal Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sunday, September 2, 1945, a 2,400-aircraft flyover was supposed to be part of the event. The weather near Tokyo was poor, so the start of the flyover was delayed.

The Japanese signed first. Observers looked around for the planned flyover and saw no sign of it. The delay was causing some irritation on the part of those orchestrating the ceremony. After the Japanese finished, MacArthur began signing.

Columbia correspondent Webley Edwards was providing a real-time radio narrative. “General MacArthur is using a fifth pen,” Edwards spoke into his microphone. “And here comes one of the big B-29s which I suppose is the leader of the flight which was to put on a demonstration of air power here over the bay this morning.”

But it was not. Although his plane was not part of the planned flyover, B-29 commander Bertagnoli was going to fly over the ceremony whether LeMay, MacArthur, or anyone else liked it or not. Bertagnoli was a “really good man,” Carter said, but he had a rebellious streak, too. Before the planned aerial formation could arrive, Bertagnoli detoured from an assigned supply flight to a different location and, without permission, set his B-29 up for a straight, flat run over the moored Missouri.