Although it should be no surprise to me, Amazon found my number about three years ago and now knows that I read a lot of history, especially World War II history. So it pesters me with e-mails to buy books it knows I might like. And I do. Being an amateur student of the history of this period, I've noticed that many of the books carve out a chapter for something that loomed large during the war but is now all but forgotten: The vast money-burning program to build the B-29, the era's super weapon, a reputation cemented when Thomas Ferebee pickled Little Boy over Hiroshima in 1945. The B-29 has connections in many of these books and a personal one for me, too, which I'll get to a moment.
Books that treat the war in the Pacific connect the B-29 in various ways. Arthur Herman's Freedom's Forge is an extended essay on how U.S. industry retooled for war production and a couple of its chapters are devoted to what became known as the Battle of Kansas, a herculean remedial program to bail the B-29 out of the mess it had become. Proposed in 1939, the B-29 flew in 1942, but by the following year, it had so many problems that it was very nearly canceled. GM production genius William Knudsen oversaw an effort to fix it and did—just barely. Although he's known for another achievement, a guy named Paul Tibbets was instrumental in saving the B-29. The airplane sputtered into service in late 1944, but didn't become combat effective until early 1945. Once it got rolling, however, the B-29 proved to be all but unstoppable.
In a little-known post-war incident, Laura Hillenbrand in Unbroken recounts a humanitarian role the B-29 played following VJ day. The book primarily describes Louis Zamperini's gripping tale of survival at sea following a B-24 ditching and years of deprivation in Japanese prison camps. Following capitulation, Curtis LeMay's formidable Superfortress force had no military targets to attack so within days, the B-29 crews were doing a different kind of bombing: They were showering the POW camps with relief supplies, including food, medicine and clothing. Such was the capacity to do this, that prisoners were being injured by the rain of largesse from the sky. They finally had to scratch messages in the dirt, begging the B-29s to stop.
In some ways, it was the airplane's finest hour, if not quite its last. But the B-29's principle career was short. By 1960, it was done and long before that, it was relegated to minor roles, having been displaced by the jet-powered B-47 and B-52. It ended its days as so many military aircraft do: as targets.
And, improbably, that's where my life intersected with the B-29. In my misspent youth, I lived a few miles from Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland, where the Army busied itself blowing s^%t up and one of the things they were blowing up was surplus B-29s. The majestic old airframes were used to test the effects of all kinds of ordnance and aircraft survivability. Once the airplanes had been shot up, blown up and sawn in half with 20mm Gatling guns, they were just so much scrap. An Arizona company came into town and set up a field salvage yard near a rail siding in town. I got a job as cheap labor and it proved to be some of the most interesting work I've ever done. I think the year was 1967.
The airplanes arrived from APG in ragged pieces. Most were B-29s, but I suspect there were other types, too, including B-17s and maybe a fighter or two. I distinctly remember winching around a V-engine of some sort, possibly a Merlin from a Mustang or perhaps an Allison V-1710 from a P-38. As a 17-year-old high school kid, I didn't know my aircraft engines very well. What I most remember of that job was the smell: an astringent blend of leaked engine oil in standing, muddy puddles, hydraulic fluid, stale gasoline, burned insulation and the spewing drift of smoke from the on-site smelter we had.
The salvage managers, rough, foul-speaking guys, seemed to know just what they wanted from the wrecks. Engine accessories topped the list. I can't say whether these B-29s had the Wright R-3350 or the later Pratt R-4360 Wasp Major, but the engines were massive things we dragged around with big forklifts. The salvers wanted the magnetos for some reason, along with the ignition harnesses. On those engines, they're about the size of lawnmower engines and we were instructed to remove them, with all the harnesses. Same with the generators. The engine cores themselves seemed of less interest; we piled them roughly in an open gondola car on the rail siding. I can't remember how many airplanes we scrapped, but it must have been quite a few, because one gondola was full of nothing but engines.
We were also sent pawing through the wreckage to find some kind of electric-driven accumulator pump that must have been marketable. The cockpits and engineer's stations were in varying states of destruction. Some had been stripped of instruments, while others were relatively intact. The salvage company wanted pressure gauges and electrical instruments, but they tossed the airspeed indicators so I kept one as a souvenir. Had it until college, when I lost track of it. Another souvenir I kept was a huge heavy lead brick. In the airplanes we were scrapping—and this may have been true of all B-29s—the bricks were piled on a little cart that ran the length of the bomb bay, if not a little more. It was on a lead screw mechanism and I took it to be a static trim system of some sort.
The airplanes were full of paper. Aircraft documentation, records, sometimes maps and technical pubs. During lunch breaks, we would peruse this stuff, sometimes piecing together the airplane's history. I don't think we ever found anything that suggested these airplanes were combat veterans. I did learn that the checklists were all printed in white ink on black paper; very readable. The checklists described something we could never figure out: a putt-putt. The crew was duly advised to secure the putt-putt before takeoff and engage it before engine start. Always check the putt-putt circuit breakers before start-up. Then, someone dragged a putt-putt out a bedraggled tail one day and the light went on, figuratively at least. It was the APU.
I learned to use a cutting torch on that job and not your little homeshop brake-drum warmer either, but a big honking shipyard tool with a five-foot handle and a nozzle as big as your fist. We torched off all sorts of steel parts including—gasp—engine mounts that might be worth their weight in gold today. In Herman's Freedom's Forge, the author describes how Henry J. Kaiser nearly went broke trying to manufacture magnesium in volume during the war, but it evidently wasn't of interest to the Arizona salvage company. I know this because the B-29's wheels were lavishly machined in magnesium and we had neither the tools nor the skill to dissemble the heavy gear components. So the company instructed us to torch the wheels off at the axles, then we could pull the parts they wanted from the gear assemblies and cut up the rest. On several occasions, this resulted in the wheel igniting. Ever see a magnesium fire? It's really quite some show, especially in a part as big as a barrel. Inevitably, the tire would also torch, making an awful mix of oily black smoke mixed with the white from the magnesium and just magnifying the general stench of the place. Dante had nothing on our salvage yard.
We spent a lot of time pulling steel parts and flammables out of the wing and tail assemblies so they could be shoved in big pieces into the smelter. We achieved varying degrees of success at this. There was always some hose assembly or steel part that wound up in the furnace. The flammables would gush into flames, emitting sparks and smoke. I think the steel parts were later picked out of a separation grate. One day when I was off, something caused a minor explosion in the smelter, disabling it for a couple of days. An errant AAA shell, perhaps missed by our unskilled crew? Salvage work isn't exactly as benign as being at the office.
At the end of this untidy, smelly process, the once most fearsome point of the World War II spear was reduced to a lumpy ingot in a muddy Maryland farm field, to be rolled into beer cans or maybe even Cessnas. And the cycle started anew.
Around the U.S., there are at least a couple of dozen B-29s in static display, including Tibbets' Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport and Charles Sweeney's Bockscar at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson in Dayton. There are a handful of other books on the B-29 program, all of interest to the casual reader. Reading them will give you a historical perspective on what was one of the most interesting airplanes ever produced, not so much for the airplane itself, but what it took to get it flying.