Key point: U.S. bombers killed more Japanese than the atomic bombs.
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.
To command the first B-29s, Arnold selected Brigadier Kenneth B. Wolfe, an ideal choice since he was the project officer for the entire program and was intimately familiar with the airplane. Wolfe established the 58th Bombardment Wing (H) at Marietta, Georgia, where B-29s were being produced, then began training crews at Salina, Kansas. He drew up plans for operations from China called “Early Sustained Bombing of Japan” and given the code name Matterhorn. The Matterhorn plan called for the B-29s to be based in the vicinity of Calcutta, India, with forward operating bases established around Chengtu, China. It was an ambitious plan, particularly in terms of logistics, since all military operations in China were solely dependent on air transportation for supply.
Although there was an established airlift operation from India to China conducted by the Air Transport Command, Wolfe proposed that XX Bomber Command, the organization he would take to India, be entirely self-sufficient. The XX Bomber Command would include its own air transportation group equipped with older Consolidated B-24 Liberators that had been converted into C-87 transports and C-109 tankers. The B-29s would also be used as transports, and after they arrived in India several were converted into tankers to haul gasoline.
In an effort to maintain a degree of secrecy, the War Department took advantage of the B-29 development programs and put out a story that the planes had proven unsuccessful as bombers and were being converted into armed transports for duty in the China-Burma-India Theater. It is unlikely that the Japanese bought the story.
Operation Matterhorn’s Stormy Start
The first B-29 to depart for India went by way of England, where it was put on display for publicity purposes in an effort to indicate that the bombers would be used against Germany. B-29s began leaving for India in March 1944. By April they were flying transport missions from Calcutta to Chengtu. Matterhorn called for the first missions to be flown in June, and extensive preparations were made. Plans to airlift their own supplies proved optimistic, and the Air Transport Command was called on to provide additional air transportation. Supply problems were compounded in May when the Japanese went on the offensive in China and the theater commanders had a sudden increased need for supplies. They naturally took those that originally had been intended for Matterhorn, which had yet to fly the first combat mission.
The first B-29 mission, scheduled for mid-May, was an attack on the Makashan railroad yards in Bangkok, Thailand. Wolfe wanted to fly it at night since his crews had been engaged in transport operations and needed proficiency in formation flying and other combat tactics, but he was overruled by Arnold and the Twentieth Air Force staff, most of whom had come from the European Theater, where the emphasis was on daylight bombing. Arnold insisted that the first B-29 mission be a daylight precision attack.
Wolfe postponed the mission and instituted a training program. By June 5, 1944, Wolfe had 112 Superfortresses ready for the mission, but only 98 managed to get off the ground. One crashed immediately after takeoff. The weather was so bad that the B-24s that were supposed to participate in the attack canceled. Their commanders were not under pressure from the White House to perform, while reduced visibility and low clouds caused assembly problems for the B-29s. Fourteen B-29s aborted, and many of the crews failed to find the target. The remaining bombers were over Bangkok for an hour and a half, with each crew making its own decisions as to run-in and bombing altitudes. One navigator described the confusion as “Saturday night in Harlem.”
There was little enemy opposition, but monsoon thunderstorms made the return flight hazardous. Three B-29s failed to return because of fuel problems, while more than 40 made forced landings at airfields all over China. One crashed on landing, bringing the total losses to five brand-new B-29s and 17 crewmembers killed or missing. Post-strike photographs revealed minimal damage to the target. Nevertheless, Twentieth Air Force considered the first mission a success.