In the world’s largest theater of war, three aircraft proved decisive: a Navy dive bomber, a Navy fighter, and an Army bomber. The Douglas SBD Dauntless won essential victories in the year after Pearl Harbor: Coral Sea, Midway, and the Guadalcanal battles. Thereafter, Japan never regained the strategic initiative.
Grumman’s F6F Hellcat defeated Japanese airpower. Hellcats represented the tip of the spear in America’s Central Pacific Offensive between 1943 and 1945, destroying nearly as many Japanese aircraft as all Army fighters in the Pacific and China-Burma-India Theaters combined.
Then there was Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress. The B-29 was unlike anything else flying, a half-generation leap from the B-17 and its contemporaries. Pressurized for 30,000-foot cruising at high speed with a large bomb load and a 1,500-mile mission radius, it was in many ways the world’s most advanced aircraft. The AAF ordered 14 evaluation samples and 250 production aircraft in May 1941, long before the first flight.
But there were problems. Lots of them.
Leading the long list of technical gremlins was the Wright R3350. Though delivering 2,200 hp, the twin-bank Duplex Cyclone suffered serious heating problems that were only cured late in the program. If the magnesium case caught fire, the crew had a 13% chance of saving the airplane.
The prototype flew in September 1942, but five months later Boeing’s chief test pilot Eddie Allen and 10 others died trying to land with a fire. Nonetheless, the Army Air Force persisted.
Eventually nearly 4,000 Superforts were built, a massive effort expanding well beyond Boeing’s home in Seattle. Factories in three other states contributed to the effort while the AAF struggled to deal with a myriad of problems. “The Battle of Kansas” was fought in early 1944 when the Wichita plant overcame most of the 29’s problems.
Meanwhile, Gen. Hap Arnold insisted on deploying the new bomber prematurely. The first B-29 wing went to India in early 1944, at the end of the war’s longest supply line. Eventually Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay produced results, but logistics forced the CBI units to move to the Marianas Islands in early 1945. There, with XXI Bomber Command, the Superfort showed its worth.
From November 1944 to August 1945, B-29s destroyed most of Japan’s urban-industrial areas. The awesome effectiveness of incendiary weapons was demonstrated one night in March 1945 when LeMay’s crews razed one-sixth of Tokyo. The nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally convinced Emperor Hirohito to “bear the unbearable” and over-ride his war cabinet.
Superforts flew again in Korea from 1950-53, mainly limited to night missions owing to the MiG threat. With improved engines the B-29D became the B-50, which soldiered on as a tanker until the 1960s.
Seven decades later, the Superfortress remains high atop the pyramid of strategic game changers.
by Barrett Tillman