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B-29 Superfortress: The Plane That Bombed Japan into Submission

B-29 Superfortress: The Plane That Bombed Japan into Submission

A plane like no other. 

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.

Hitting Japan’s Steel Industry

The very next day, Wolfe received an order from Arnold to mount an attack on a target in Japan by June 20. Wolfe faced a dilemma. His supplies at the Chinese forward fields needed replenishing. He had set a date of June 23 for a 100-plane mission and needed the extra three days. General Joseph Stilwell, the senior American officer in China, had diverted the supplies intended for Matterhorn operations from China to the Fourteenth Air Force. Wolfe wired Arnold that he could put up 50 planes on June 15 or 55 five days later. Arnold responded by ordering an attack with 70 airplanes on June 15; the order also demanded an increase in Hump airlift operations.

Twentieth Air Force had decided to mount a campaign against the Japanese steel industry, and the target for the first attack was the Imperial Steel Works at Yamata on the island of Kyushu. June 15 was the date for the impending invasion of Saipan, and Washington wanted to send a message to Tokyo that the end was drawing near. Wolfe managed to dispatch 92 B-29s to China, but nine arrived with mechanical problems. Each bomber was armed and ready for combat and would only need fuel and rest for the crews at the Chinese bases.

The mission order called for 75 airplanes but only 68 got off. One crashed and four aborted, leaving 63 to continue to the target. The first airplane reached Yamata just before midnight. The crew reported that the target was “Betty,” meaning the weather conditions were less than 50 percent cloud and that they had bombed. In spite of the good visibility, the steel mill was blacked out while smoke and haze obscured the ground. Only 15 crews were able to bomb visually, and 32 dropped their bombs using radar, a technique that at the time was considered inferior. There was strong fighter and antiaircraft opposition, but not a single B-29 was damaged over Japan, although one was lost over China during the return flight. Six B-29s were lost due to various causes, and 55 airmen were reported missing. Damage to the target was insignificant.

In spite of the lack of damage to the target, the mission produced results, causing the Japanese people to realize for the first time since the war began that they were in imminent danger. The following day, the War Department announced the existence of Twentieth Air Force, and the news of an attack on Japan competed with news from Normandy in the headlines. Arnold wired Wolfe that it was imperative that pressure against Japan be increased in spite of the logistical problems.

Immediate objectives were attacks on Japanese steel mills in Manchuria, harassing raids on Japan itself, and an attack on the Palambang oil refineries in Sumatra. Wolfe submitted a plan for a 50-plane mission against the Anshan steel works in Manchuria instead of the 100 that Arnold wanted and received a message that he was to return to the United States immediately for “an important assignment.” Wolfe was being “kicked upstairs,” with a promotion to major general and command of the Material Command, a move by Arnold to make way for a more aggressive commander.

With Wolfe gone, responsibility for XX Bomber Command operations fell to Brig. Gen. Laverne “Blondie” Saunders, the 58th Bombardment Wing commander. On July 7, an assemblage of 18 B-29s conducted a harassing mission against Japan. One aborted, but the other 17 managed to bomb “something.” Two were forced to turn back because of fuel transfer problems, but their crews dropped the bombs on the Japanese depot at Hankow in China.

Saunders decided that he would be able to mount an attack on Manchuria by postponing the Palembang mission. He received a major boost when July turned out to be a banner month for the Air Transport Command Hump operation, but he still faced a shortage of operational B-29s, a condition produced in part by the conversion of several to tankers. He proposed a halt to transport operations 10 days in advance of the raid and that the bombers begin moving up five days early, a move opposed by Fourteenth Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault out of fear the presence of the bombers would provoke Japanese attacks. Washington approved the plan, and the feared attacks failed to materialize.

 

Of 111 bombers dispatched from India, 107 reached China. Weather led to the attack being moved up a day to July 29. Rain kept one group on the ground, but 72 got off. Aborts and a crash reduced the number to 60 bombers over the target. Although weather conditions were ideal, the first bombs fell upwind from the target, and the smoke from the fires drifted over the mill. Fighters met the formation, and the B-29 gunners claimed three probables and four damaged. The 444th Group managed to get off when the rains let up to bomb targets at Tak and Chenghsien. One B-29 was lost after it was damaged by flak, then jumped by five fighters, one of which was an apparently captured Curtiss P-40 bearing the markings of the Chinese-American Composite Wing.

Matterhorn missions five and six ran jointly on the night of August 10, 1944, striking the Palembang oil refineries and the docks at Nagasaki. The double-barreled attacks were made possible by reducing the number of airplanes required for the Palembang mission. Washington originally wanted a daylight strike with a minimum of 112 planes, but fear of heavy losses led to a change to a dawn or dusk strike with half that number. Further negotiations gained permission for a night attack.

 

Part of the new plan called for mining the Moesi River, through which all of the complex’s exports were shipped. Eight 462nd Bomb Group minelayers went beneath a 1,000-foot ceiling to drop 16 mines “with excellent results.” One crew ditched with one casualty. The Palembang raid turned out to be the only mission flown out of Ceylon in spite of extensive preparation. The Nagasaki mission was considerably smaller, with only 24 bombers reaching the target. The mission was memorable in that gunner Technical Sergeant H.C. Edwards was credited with the first official B-29 confirmed aerial kill of the war against a Japanese plane. The mission went off surprisingly well, although the bombing results were indistinct because of poor quality photo intelligence. In spite of heavy flak and reports of 37 Japanese fighters, not a single B-29 was even scratched.

Saunders faced opposition from Chennault, who felt that attacks on the steel industry were fruitless. As the senior air officer in China, Chennault put forth an ultimatum that Matterhorn should either concentrate on the Japanese aircraft industry or withdraw to India. He considered the B-29s more of a liability than an asset in his theater as they used up valuable air transport space and their advance bases had to be defended. Saunders elected to ignore Chennault and continued planning attacks on steel targets.

On August 20, a total of 75 B-29s took off for Kyushu. One group was unable to get off until later in the day after a crash blocked the runway. Sixty-one B-29s hit the target in spite of intense opposition that claimed four bombers. Three were lost to what may have been a suicide attack when a fighter rammed the tail of one B-29 and the falling wreckage brought down two more. The 462nd Group managed to get its airplanes off the ground over the wreckage after lightening their loads for a night attack. Ten got over the target with little resistance. Still, the day was costly, with 14 bombers lost to various causes and 95 airmen killed or missing. Although XX Bomber Command believed the target was damaged, Japanese records indicated otherwise.

“Synchronous” Bombing

Saunders planned another attack on Manchuria, but before it was flown Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay arrived to take over XX Bomber Command. The mission was flown as planned, with LeMay going along to observe his crews in action. The attack resulted in considerable damage to the Showa Steel Works, but LeMay decided to institute new policies, including changing the basic formation from four planes to 12 to get a wider bombing pattern and consolidating the force into fewer groups with larger squadrons in a move to reduce support personnel and improve maintenance. He also instituted a new policy of “synchronous” bombing, with one bombardier staying on radar while the others attempted to acquire the target visually.