Destroyer of Empires: How the B-29 Bomber Was Built

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October 14, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S. Air ForceB-29BombingAircraft ManufacturingTechnology

Destroyer of Empires: How the B-29 Bomber Was Built

The Bell plant, usually referred to both then and now as The Bell Bomber Plant, had already churned out 357 “regular” model B-29s since the first one, assembled mostly by hand, rolled out of the plant’s doors in November 1943.

When Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the hard-driving commander of the Twentieth U.S. Air Force based in Guam, decided to change tactics in early 1945 to boost the effectiveness of the B-29 Superfortress, it was the Bell Aircraft plant in Marietta, Georgia, that ultimately provided him with the stripped-down bombers that played such a key role in ending the war in the Pacific.

The Bell plant, usually referred to both then and now as The Bell Bomber Plant, had already churned out 357 “regular” model B-29s since the first one, assembled mostly by hand, rolled out of the plant’s doors in November 1943.

Between January and September 1945, that plant produced all 311 of the B-29B models that shouldered much of the load after LeMay decided to switch from high-altitude bombing to low-altitude firebomb attacks. He also decided the planes could fly faster and have less trouble achieving takeoff speed if they weighed less.

Japanese fighter strength was in decline and their attacks tended to come from the rear, so LeMay’s solution was to remove all defensive armament except for those in the tail. That saved the weight not just of the guns, ammo, and turrets, but also of their fire-control system (a then cutting-edge analog computer that corrected for distance, speed, temperature, gravity, barrel-wear, etc.). LeMay also decided that leaving the planes unpainted would save each one several thousand pounds of unneeded weight.

Ground had been broken for the Marietta plant in March 1942 just three months after Bell Aircraft head Larry Bell chose the city as the site for a factory in which to assemble the mammoth new bombers under contract from Boeing.

Why Marietta? It was just a small town near Atlanta in the middle of the Cotton Belt with a prewar population of only 8,000—very few of whom had college degrees or experience in an industrial setting. It was best known, if known at all, for being in the shadow of Kennesaw Mountain of Civil War fame. Some in Washington initially resisted the idea of training farmers to assemble what was to be, up to that point, the biggest and most technologically advanced plane ever built.

But there were advantages to the Marietta site as well. It was only 15 miles from the large, untapped pool of labor in Atlanta, which lacked any other munitions plants. Those workers could commute via the Marietta-Atlanta trolley while components for the B-29 (such as the plane’s 18-cylinder Curtiss-Wright R-3350 engines assembled elsewhere by Pratt and Whitney) could be delivered to the plant via the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway (today’s CSX), whose tracks skirted the western edge of the chosen site.

In addition, the plant could make use of a runway that was already in the very early stages of development by the city and county governments as part of a deal with Eastern Airlines’ President Eddie Rickenbacker of World War I fame to handle the overflow from Candler Field in Atlanta (today’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport).

Marietta leaders had traveled to Washington, D.C., in the autumn of 1940 hoping to land federal funding for their airport and wound up hitting the jackpot, thanks in part to President Franklin Roosevelt’s crash rearmament program—and also to a fortuitous coincidence.

In 1940 Congress was still under the sway of antiwar isolationists and was reluctant to fully fund FDR’s plans, so he persuaded that body to pay for the construction of more than 450 civilian airports around the country. If war came, they could be converted to military airbases. And, as luck would have it, the Army officer in charge of developing those civilian bases was a native of Marietta.

The Marietta delegation was walking the halls of the Civil Aeronautics Administration when the city’s mayor unexpectedly saw on an office door the name of his Marietta boyhood friend, Major Lucius D. Clay (West Point, 1918) of the Army Corps of Engineers. The mayor barged into the office—and soon learned that Clay was the de facto head of FDR’s airport construction program, despite his comparatively minor rank.

Clay, the son of late U.S. Senator Alexander Stephens Clay of Marietta, had served as chief engineer under MacArthur (and his chief of staff Dwight D. Eisenhower) in the Philippines until 1937. Not long after Pearl Harbor Clay was promoted to director of material procurement for the Army. (After the war he would serve as the four-star military governor of the U.S. sector of Occupied West Germany and commanded the Berlin Airlift before retiring in 1949.)

But in 1940, Clay’s title was secretary to the approval board for airport construction and assistant to the administrator of the CAA. He told the Marietta leaders standing in his office that he wanted to see his hometown do well and that, if they could procure the land for an airport, he would ensure they got federal funding for it.

Clay proved as good as his word, first getting the city the funding needed for the runway (which initially was christened “Rickenbacker Field” and today is the centerpiece of Dobbins Air Reserve Base), and then a year later helping persuade Larry Bell that Marietta and its new runway would be an excellent location for the B-29 plant he had just been tasked with building.

The government paid to build the plant but left it up to Bell to decide where it should go.

“The [Army] Air Force had to have a new plant—and a big plant,” Clay told his biographer, Jean Edward Smith. “And they came to me to ask for a list of possible places where there was both a labor supply available and an existing airport. And I happened to remember Marietta, so I gave it to them as one of the names. It had tremendous labor potential—both from Atlanta and from the surrounding mountain area.”

Robert Lovett, who, in 1941, was assistant secretary of war for air, later told Smith that the reason the Bell plant went to Marietta was, “It was an area with a large population of first-class Anglo-Saxon farmers with not much to do in the way of farming. They were men with a mediocre amount of education, but a good farm boy from that area could take any kind of machine apart and put it back together again. He had to in order to live on his farm. So you had a good basic labor force. And when they opened the doors, the plant was flooded with them.

Lovett also noted that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Walter George was from Georgia, and the congressman who was approaching seniority on the House Military Affairs Committee, Carl Vinson, also was from Georgia.

The government spent $72 million to construct the plant—nearly as much ($83 million) as it spent on another major construction that got started in 1942: the Pentagon. The Bell plant was the largest industrial facility ever built south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a distinction it reportedly still holds.

After breaking ground on March 30, 1942, the 3.2-million-square-foot plant was completed just 54 weeks later, even though there were severe war-related shortages of construction materials, such as the 32,000 tons of steel used for the main assembly building. That building was a half mile long and approximately a quarter mile wide (a size comparable to 63 football fields) and boasted enough space for a pair of parallel final assembly lines.

The facility’s construction was an enormous investment in money and materials, especially when one realizes the prototype for the new bomber, the XB-29, did not make its maiden flight until September 21, 1942—nearly six months after the Marietta groundbreaking.

No attempt was ever made to camouflage the Bell plant, presumably because by the time it was coming on line in late summer 1943 the tide of the war had turned sufficiently that enemy air attacks were no longer a concern.

The plant had another notable distinction for that era—a feature usually limited to government buildings and large theaters in the prewar era. But, with the Allies struggling against the Axis in the first two years of the war, there were real fears that German bombs might at some point be raining down on the East Coast, so the plant was designed to meet blackout specifications so as not to emit any light at night, which in turn tended to rule out including windows. Yet a windowless building would be unbearably hot during a Georgia summer.

In addition, since the B-29 would be of all-metal construction, the plant would need to have a constant temperature to prevent metal aircraft components from expanding and contracting.

More than 100 contractors and their crews labored 24/7 to build the plant. They worked so quickly, in fact, that many concrete walls and support footings for the plant’s basement and subbasement were complete before those basement areas had been completely excavated. Once those walls and footings were complete, the builders realized the doors to the basement were too narrow for them to get their mechanical excavators back in to finish the job. Yet there was far too much dirt still to be moved for a simple pick-and-shovel operation. The solution? Mule-drawn equipment was hired from nearby farmers.