Of all the better-known Allied aircraft of World War II, the most controversial was Martin’s B-26 Marauder, a twin-engine cigar-shaped medium bomber that was loved by some and hated by many. Among those who hated the airplane were the crews of the Air Transport Command’s Ferrying Division who picked the Marauders up at the factory and delivered them to combat units. Those who loved it included Lt. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, who used a B-26 Marauder as his personal airplane, and most of the pilots and crew members who flew the airplane in combat.
On three different occasions, efforts were made to cancel future B-26 production, but in each case proponents of the airplane managed to prevail, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of a diminutive former airshow pilot from Lynchburg, Va., named Vincent “Squeek” Burnett. However, after gaining a terrible reputation due to the loss of dozens of crewmembers in training accidents, the Martin B-26 finished the war with the lowest combat loss ratio of any of the American bombers.
“Advanced Design” From A 26-Year-Old Engineer
The B-26 came about as a result of an Army Air Corps requirement set forth in January 1939 for a twin-engine, high-speed medium bomber. The Glenn L. Martin Company submitted a design that had been drafted by Peyton Magruder, a young aeronautical engineer who had come to the Martin Company by way of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Alabama.
Only 26 years old when he drafted the design, Magruder was well ahead of his time when he designed an airplane that would utilize a high wing loading to reduce drag and allow higher cruise speeds. Of four designs submitted, Martin’s received the highest score from the Army and was awarded the contract. The concept did not come without a price. The thinner wing required much faster than normal takeoff and landing speeds. It also had a consequently high “minimum control speed,” the speed at which a multiengine airplane can lose the “critical” engine without becoming uncontrollable. The advanced design would be largely responsible for the problems that plagued the airplane after it entered service.
The high speed of the B-26—it had a top speed of 315 miles per hour—gave the Marauder an advantage lacked by the much slower B-17s. The B-26 also featured a dorsal turret, waist and tail guns, and additional guns in the nose. Fixed forward-firing guns were added in pods on the sides of the fuselage. The B-26 crews of the 22nd also used the low-level attack tactics that came to prevail in the Fifth Air Force to which they were assigned, tactics that made the airplanes impossible to attack from below. In more than a year of combat, the 22nd only lost 14 airplanes to enemy fighters, while group gunners put in claims for 94 Japanese aircraft.
…But Quickly Replaced
However, even though B-26s initially held their own against the Japanese, their days in the Pacific were numbered. While the Southwest Pacific air forces commander, Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, was impressed by the Marauder, it was not the medium bomber he wanted in his theater. Fifth Air Force A-20 and B-25 squadrons had mastered the art of low-level attack, and dozens of the light and medium bombers had been modified to become powerful gunships. Kenney believed his command should be limited to one type each of fighter, light bomber, medium bomber, heavy bomber, and transport. His preferences were for the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter, the A-20, B-25, and Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers, and the Douglas C-47 transport.
The B-26s were left out in the cold. B-25s replaced the B-26s in the 22nd Group and the decision was then made to turn the group into a heavy bomber outfit and equip it with B-24s. A few B-26s continued to fly missions with the 22nd until early 1944, but they eventually completely disappeared from the theater. The two former 38th Group squadrons in the South Pacific also transitioned to B-25s.
A Bad Airplane, or Inexperienced Pilots?
The airplane was also gaining a bad reputation at the training bases back in the United States. It started among the ferry pilots who picked the airplanes up at the factories and delivered them to the bases. The problem was that the high wing loading of the first versions of the B-26 made it a “hot” airplane, and it became uncontrollable if a pilot failed to maintain adequate airspeed after an engine loss.
Engine losses on B-26s were frequent. The Pratt and Whitney R2800 engines were prone to failure, and when an engine failed, the pilot had to maintain a fairly high airspeed or the airplane would roll upside down and go into the ground. After several ferry crews lost their lives in B-26 accidents, many refused to fly the airplane. An increase in the span of the wing on later models enhanced the Marauder’s performance.
Accident after accident occurred among the crews who were in training, so many that a special committee known as the Truman Committee was appointed to look at the problem. There were several reasons for the accidents. Few of the trainees—or many of their instructors—had acquired any multiengine experience before they were assigned to the B-26 Marauder. Furthermore, the Army had made a number of modifications to the production airplanes to prepare them for combat. The basic weight of the airplane had increased and the center of gravity had moved rearward, thus rendering the airplane unstable.
While these were problems that an experienced pilot could handle, the pilots who were filling the ranks of the combat squadrons were severely lacking. Because of the accident rate, the Truman Committee recommended that the B-26s be removed from service. Martin turned to the men who had flown the airplane in combat in the Southwest Pacific for help. The combat pilots took up the cause and saved the airplane from extinction.
Originally Published January 30, 2019