Firestorm Hell: A Gunner Describes the Superfortress Raid on Tokyo

January 26, 2021 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIJapanAllied BombingB-29 BomberPacific Theater

Firestorm Hell: A Gunner Describes the Superfortress Raid on Tokyo

William Carter, a Gunner aboard a U.S. B-29 bomber, lived through harrowing times during missions against the Japanese.

Here's What You Need to Know: The Tokyo fire raid marked the beginning of what became known as the fire blitz.

When the Boeing B-29 Superfortress crews poured out of the briefing at North Field, Tinian, on the afternoon of March 9, 1945, they were disgruntled. Some were angry.

Sergeant William J. “Reb” Carter, the left blister gunner on a B-29, remembered four words: “Heavy losses are anticipated….” The men had just been told they were going to Tokyo with firebombs—which they had expected. They had also been told what they were not expecting. The B-29 crews would attack at low altitude, at night, without guns or ammunition.

They would be unarmed and exposed over Japan, the destination they called “The Empire.”

Carter’s airplane commander, Captain Dean Fling, was normally a mix of congeniality and stern, businesslike bearing. Today, Fling was abrupt.

“No guns,” said Fling.

“No guns?” someone said. “This cannot be right.”

“It is.”

“There is trouble ahead,” thought Red Carter, who was a gunner but would be carrying no ammunition today.

“LeMay is going to get us killed,” somebody said.

The reference was to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the B-29 force arrayed against Japan at airfields on three islands in the Marianas chain in the northwest Pacific, Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. LeMay commanded Twenty-First Bomber Command, which included Carter’s outfit, the 9th Bombardment Group. LeMay’s unprecedented battle order for the day dictated that the bombers would carry no ammunition for their defensive guns. Many B-29 crews in LeMay’s command were going to ignore the order, but the Fling crew in God’s Will was going to follow it to the letter.

Said Carter, “I hope the big brass know something we don’t.”

Until now, bombing mostly by daylight and from high altitude, B-29s had not been having much impact on the Japanese war machine. Swatted around by the jet stream—those furious winds at high altitude that had been undiscovered until the B-29 came along—they had been getting poor bombing results. LeMay had taken over from his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Haywood Hansell, precisely because the B-29 campaign against Japan was not working. Without asking permission, LeMay decided to bring his crews down to low level.

On this day, 334 Superfortresses would take off from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian in early evening. They would arrive over The Empire shortly after midnight.

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. Three to five seconds after the big firecrackers hit, they would go off. An explosive charge would violently eject a sack full of gel that would burn intensely. The sack held the gel in one spot, thereby igniting a hotter fire. Other weapons being employed were the E-28 incendiary cluster bomb and the M47, a petroleum-based bomb that would be carried by the lead B-29s.

William Carter’s War

Typical of 4,000 B-29 crewmen heading for Japan on the night of March 9, 1945, William Jesse “Reb” Carter was born in the small town of Omaha, Georgia, delivered by a doctor who arrived at his house in a horse and buggy. Carter’s family moved to Atlanta when he was a child. They were very much people of the Deep South.

As a teenager, the tall, toothy Carter was the local whiz in yo-yo competitions. He was in the 11th grade and was 18, a little old for his level in high school and 10 months older than a distant relative—Jimmy, to the southwest in Plains, who would one day become president—on December 7, 1941.

That Sunday afternoon, Carter was listening to the family’s favorite afternoon radio show Top Tunes on Atlanta station WATL with his parents, William and Anne, and his 14-year-old brother Pete. Carter was consuming the last of the cake from his birthday party four days previously. The cake’s vanilla icing was a special treat for him.

A few minutes after 2:30 pm Eastern Standard Time, a Mutual Broadcasting System bulletin reported events at a place called Pearl Harbor. “Turn the sound up,” Carter’s mother said.

“This is an outrage.”

Carter looked at his dad, who was an accountant, and saw a furrow in his brow. There was no accounting for what they were hearing now. “The Japanese have attacked us and we are going to be in some kind of war,” the older man said.

He gave his sons a special look. They were a loving family. “I hope this thing won’t last long enough for either of you to be in it.”

"It’s God’s Will"

At North Field, Tinian, following the briefing and a quick, mild, late afternoon thunderstorm so typical of these islands, gunner Reb Carter dismounted from a boxy, 4×4 weapons carrier at the hardstand and started toward a B-29 with his crewmates, including airplane commander Dean Fling.

Carter’s B-29 today was slotted at the cutting edge of the nighttime, low-level air assault being mounted on the Japanese capital. It was scheduled to be the seventh aircraft from their group over target; the first six would carry M47 incendiaries and use their fiery bombloads to mark the “urban area of Meetinghouse,” a code term for Tokyo, for Superfortresses to follow. The rest of the group would follow with larger E-46 bombs.

Carter had no guns to fire if Japanese night fighters found them later tonight, but his role as a scanner, tipping off the flight deck crew about engine operations and events around the aircraft, would never be more important.

Seeing Carter, a member of the line crew who may have been new asked him which plane he was heading for.

“It’s God’s Will,” said Carter.

That was the name of the aircraft. In the night, no one could see the emblem painted on the nose of the bomber, a giant bluish purple shield enclosing a Christian cross bisected by a wide-bladed sword. The name was a nod to the divine intervention that had apparently saved the Fling crew during its first combat mission, but pilot 1st Lt. Harold L. “Pete” Peterson—he sat in the right front seat and would have been called the co-pilot on any other aircraft—had been planning on the name ever since the crew came together in the United States. Instead of pilot and co-pilot, the B-29 had airplane commander and pilot. Peterson was an avid churchgoer.

Cruising Without Formation

Takeoff was frightening for B-29 crewmen, especially those in the rear of the aircraft. Every man on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian had seen a B-29 fail to get skyward, falter, and fall into an unforgiving sea dotted with rock formations. The B-29 remained an imperfect aircraft. Four hundred and two B-29s were lost bombing Japan—147 of them to Japanese flak and fighters and 255 to engine fires, mechanical failures, and takeoff crashes.

God’s Will lifted into the air from Tinian at 6:21 pm that busy Friday evening. Fling, Peterson, Carter, and other crewmembers did not know that theirs would inadvertently become the first B-29 from their group to reach the Japanese coast, yet, because of ensuing confusion, one of the last to drop bombs.

If war is moments of terror interrupted by hours of boredom, the long journey across the ocean to Japan was mostly in the latter category. Tonight, there was no aerial formation. Every one of LeMay’s Superfortresses was on its own, cruising at low level across an open sea. The Dean Fling crew was out there in the night, hugging the dark Pacific, the Japanese home islands approaching. In the left front seat Fling was listening to his navigator and engineer on the interphone and glancing back and forth at Peterson in the right seat. Occasionally, when a minor problem arose, he cussed. Fling was from Windsor, Illinois, and was not as devout as Peterson.

The bombardier aboard God’s Will was 1st Lt. Don “Red” Dwyer. He was using his bombsight to give the navigator drift readings. He took off his headset and chatted with pilots Fling and Peterson.

Reb Carter acted as a scanner, keeping his eyes on the No. 1 and No. 2 engines, ready to utter a warning if a mechanical problem revealed itself.

Searching for Tokyo

As God’s Will neared the halfway point, Carter’s best friend, Sergeant Richard “Bake” Baker, the radar operator, was unable to find the embattled island of Iwo Jima, soon to become an emergency site for B-29s with battle damage, on his six-inch scope.

Navigator 1st Lt. Phillip Pettit had a radar screen identical to Baker’s that was not working, either. The crystal in the radar transmitter that powered both screens was malfunctioning. The radar screens were blank. The only thing Baker or Pettit could see was the illuminated lubber line as it swept around the scope like a second hand of a clock. Nothing else was visible.