B-29 Connections

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

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.

Comments (29)

More stories! More stories!

Posted by: ANTHONY NASR | May 15, 2013 6:59 PM    Report this comment

Paul, I read your blog with great interest. My father was a co-pilot on a B-29 (actually an F-13A, a B-29 modified with cameras for photo-reconnaissance). He was assigned to Flt C, 1st PRS.

If you can get your hands on a copy of "Eye In the Sky", by David B. Morse, a project published in 1981 for the American Aviation Historical Society, read it. It's fascinating! It helped verify a lot of the stories that Dad told me.

Dad's understated wartime experiences were the subject of some of the fantasies of my childhood imagination. However in later years, his stories became more detailed, specific, and thrilling, especially how his crew was instrumental in locating the Japanese battleship, "Yamato" a few days before it was sunk on its way to Okinawa. And the mission that resulted in the loss of two of the R-3350's on one side and the emergency landing that followed on a grass field serving U.S. P-51's and Chinese P-40's.

So the early years of the B-29, with its mysterious attraction to many young men like Dad is one bookend to the B-29 story. Your blog is the other bookend, of how the once-seductive, cutting edge aircraft met its inevitable, undignified end.

Thank you.

Posted by: john leonard | May 16, 2013 6:22 AM    Report this comment

t writing Paul!

Posted by: R T | May 16, 2013 6:32 AM    Report this comment

Great anecdote. Thanks for sharing. I, too, share your interest in WWII aviation history. People today just don't understand the magnitude of the WWII effort. Your piece sheds some light on a different aspect of the air war. //

Posted by: John Moreland | May 16, 2013 7:52 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you slid right over the use of the B29 in combat during the Korean war. We flew night missions out of Kadena AFB on Okinawa. After 28 of those, I became quite familiar with the big plane, as did the recipients of our "police action" bomb loads.

Posted by: tom herbert | May 16, 2013 8:03 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for excellent reading

Posted by: Allan Hamamey | May 16, 2013 8:23 AM    Report this comment

Great stories. The B-29 all had 3350's. the B-50 had the bigger 4360. Our friend Randy can confirm this.

Dick Merrill

Posted by: Dick Merrill | May 16, 2013 8:27 AM    Report this comment

To me the sound of a big radial engine starting up is much more exciting than todays jet engines. There is nothing like hearing one of those start to crank up and then see and smell the oil smoke. As each engine starts it seems to have it's own unique personality and makes me think that it is alive. Todays jet engines are just a lot of noise!

Posted by: Barry Livingston | May 16, 2013 8:45 AM    Report this comment

Don't forget the Russians captured 3 intact B-29s and made bolt-for-bolt copies naming it the Tu-4. These three ships made a emergency landing in Vladivostok in what was thought to be an allied nation but were instead stolen by Russia. They took one fully apart to copy, used one as an assembly guide, and one for flight training. How does the saying go "Those who can't...copy".

I actually got to sit in the left seat of Bockscar once; it was a humbling experience.

Posted by: A Richie | May 16, 2013 8:54 AM    Report this comment

I hitch-hiked on a B-29 when on leave from Muroc AFB( now Edwards) in Ca to Dayton AFB Ohio.This was in 1944.I had to carry the large backpack parachute.I caught a Greyhound bus to Md but they wouldn't check the chute.Imagine carrying the chute every place I went.

Posted by: Herschel Carico | May 16, 2013 9:08 AM    Report this comment

You had one of the more interesting jobs there as a young man. Beats a paper route. Somehow the scrapping and destruction of old machinery always fills me with a feeling of sadness and anger - all that human effort going to waste, sometimes it seems almost wanton. I cringe when I read stories of airplanes and jeeps being tossed overboard or bulldozed into piles and burnt. But it's the way of humanity and progress etc. At least we seem to understand now that preserving some of this might be more worthwhile than tossing out as garbage. If nothing else one could convince bean counters that in the future stuff might have more value as historic artifacts than as scrap.

Posted by: PETER THOMAS | May 16, 2013 10:28 AM    Report this comment

Given the rarity and value of WW-II aircraft today, the war material salvage operations carried out as the conflict ended smack of Alice-in-Wonderland.

Locally famous here in the southwest was the Kingman, AZ aircraft disposal operation (possibly another branch of Paul’s employer?).

Something like 5600 fully functional aircraft were flown into Kingman’s “Depot 41”, stripped of consumables, seats and loose equipment and then chopped into manageable sections with huge crane-suspended cleaver blades for smelting. While no B-29s were “processed”, B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, etc. were reduced to ingots. Of the 5000+, only about a dozen were sold or otherwise escaped destruction, one of which was the historic B-17 named “The Swoose”, which fortunately was rescued at the last moment.

One of the more Wonderland aspects was that a number of these aircraft were flown directly from the assembly line, having been produced to fill out contracted orders even though the government knew they were unneeded.

Posted by: John Wilson | May 16, 2013 10:40 AM    Report this comment

John, now that you mention Kingman, that rings a loud bell. I wonder if that business is still alive. I think the boneyard is still there.

We had a clever on our job. Suspended from a crane and dropped on pieces too large to fit the smelter. But the Army had done a pretty nice job of blowing most of the airplanes apart, including some of the engines.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 16, 2013 11:09 AM    Report this comment

Had the chance to tour the Enola Gay back when it was still in pieces at Silver Hill (I was researching a book). Two memories stand out. One is the massive yellow hook hanging in the bomb bay. It had a little operable jaw with a single wire to power it, open it and allow the first atomic bomb to fall on Hiroshima. I touched the hook, the jaw, the wire, and felt a chill I can summon to this day.
The second memory was reading the visitor's logbook. In it, a Japanese man wrote the following:
"Thank you for saving my life." He meant, I believe, that because of the Enola Gay the scheduled invasion of Japan didn't happen. History is strange that way.
Robin White

Posted by: ROBIN WHITE | May 16, 2013 11:27 AM    Report this comment

I was just a tad in Wichita from mid 1941 until 1946. My dad, at 28, ran the flightline. He had 800 employees. In addition, he flew 280 hours a month for three years. He flew Bamboo Bombers, The twin Beech, and B29's. He loved the twin Beech. He was co-pilot on the first flight to return to base with three engines on fire. The others had crashed. I was outside on day when a B29 flew over the apartment at less than 500 feet. The bombay doors were open with smoke curling out. The co-pilot waved at me and I waved back. Dad was sometimes gone for weeks looking for lost planes. He sometimes showed up in his sheepskin flying suit. After the war, he'd tell stories and laugh so hard he couldn't talk. Many of our family friends were pilots. One favorite was in the Army and ordered to Europe. Instead of going, he dove his Cessna into ground - he was afraid he wasn't brave enough to make it. Dad investigated the crash. The pieces were tiny. I inherited his wings.

Posted by: Bob Lockhart | May 16, 2013 12:36 PM    Report this comment

Though it's focused primarily on the B-17, there is a moving video on the nose art and the Kingman graveyard on Youtube for those interested. Type in their search box 'Aviation Graveyard- Kingman Arizona..!'

There is still a very big yard near Tucson. One can spend the weekend touring around and not see it all.

Posted by: David Miller | May 16, 2013 1:25 PM    Report this comment

What a great story, and a sad ending to a great airplane.I was co-pilot on a crew in phase training based at MacDill AAF when the two big bombs were dropped.Phase training was stopped a short time later. I still have my B-29 Airplane Commander Training Manual for the Superfortress, AAF Manual No. 50-9.

Posted by: Lester Zinser | May 16, 2013 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Anybody recall the story in--was it?--Air & Space, about a P-61 Black Widow crew having to shoot down a B-29 whose crew hand bailed out on the return to Saipan or Tinian, but the bird kept flying? Apparently, once the design was fixed of early problems, it became strong-like-bull in operation. In this particular case, the concern was it would become a hazard to aerial or seaborne navigation! Took a bunch of cannon fire to bring it down.

Posted by: Wash Phillips | May 16, 2013 3:54 PM    Report this comment

You know, we all like to sit around and talk about history here, but when actual B-29 crew members log on and give their commentary I am honored to even be part of the conversation. You fellows did an amazing job. Thank you for your service, and thanks for being here.

Posted by: A Richie | May 16, 2013 5:11 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: Wash Phillips | May 16, 2013 6:17 PM    Report this comment

What great stories! I've seen Bockscar at Wright-Pat, but also know the R-3350 having flown an airplane called the Canadair Argus as a pilot, chasing Ivan around the north Atlantic, Norwegian Sea and sundry other bodies of water during the Cold War. My reward is tinnitus that lingers on.

You needed good Oilers to keep those things purring (some purr!) so my congrats to Don's dad for having been one of those experts.

Posted by: Douglas Calder | May 16, 2013 10:14 PM    Report this comment

Paul - great story, as usual. But:

"I know this because the B-29's wheels were lavishly machined in magnesium and we lacked neither the tools nor the skill to dissemble the heavy gear components."

Am I missing something, or should 'lacked' be 'had'?

Posted by: Rush Strong | May 16, 2013 10:14 PM    Report this comment

My dad was also a B29 flight engineer / squadron maintenance officer and part of the first group to take the aircraft into action. They were initially based in India with a forward base in China. Eventually his group relocated to Tinian. His crew went through 3 airplanes during his tour, the first was retired as "war weary" after something like 15 missions and many more trips across the "hump". The second was severely damaged on their first or second mission when a shell from a Japanese destroyer in the harbor they were mining nearly removed the entire tail of the aircraft (the shell was apparently fused for a higher altitude as it exploded well above the airplane after passing through the fuselage and tail). I've heard a few of his crew's exploits but much of his story remains unknown. I do have a copy of a compilation of flight logs from another member of his crew. It's my understanding that my dad was responsible for developing the "cruise control" (long range fuel management) and had some part in the battle of Kansas as well. I do know he was a pretty close friend of Vic Agather who was the technical driving force on that effort and the person who financed and named Fifi (Vic's wife's nickname). I've always been interested in any B-29 stories and a year ago I had the opportunity to catch a ride in Fifi at Punta Gorda.

Posted by: LANCE FISHER | May 16, 2013 11:39 PM    Report this comment

Human nature is funny. Anything we save too much of becomes an undervalued eyesore and what we save too little of becomes rare. In an odd twist, the dollars and love lavished on the precious few B-29s which remain are the result of this unintentional weeding out. Hopefully "Doc" will return to the skies before long so we call all enjoy a B-29 formation once again.

Posted by: Ken Holston | May 17, 2013 6:57 AM    Report this comment

Paul, here's another scrapping story you might find interesting:
I had a friend that grew up in Ohio during WW2. After the war, dozens of brand new, crated CG-4A combat gliders were dumped across the road from his farm. The salvage company was pulling the brand new gliders out of their shipping crates and selling the giant crates to a local house builder who used them to build "shotgun" houses. The new gliders were left to rot in the field as useless junk, so he and his buddies spent many days over there "flying" the machines in mock dogfights. He managed to save a few instruments before it was eventually all crushed and hauled to a landfill!!

Posted by: A Richie | May 17, 2013 1:28 PM    Report this comment

paul-this really saddened me (distruction). i was a morse intercept operator on the security service first attempt at airborne intercept that began in 1951. we had an unarmed 29 (44=62290)that had six intercept positions. (of course the large blisters were replaced by i think 12 inch ones. nice. we flew five missions over korea, then started further testing. the intercept went remarkably well (except for reporting). a sad note, Don Hill was murdered by the russians in a b-50 they shot down on the last day of the korean war. there was a foto of our ship in the pow section awhile back but showed pilots only. have bunch of tales but cannot enter here. another set of stories can be found in "the price of vigilance" by Larry Tart.

Posted by: jay botschen | May 19, 2013 12:04 PM    Report this comment

My father Marvin L Cox was a flight Engineer on the B-29 based at North Field Guam, 92 Second Squadron, they had the M on the tail, he flew about 15 missions, but would never talk about it. He did say he was on the March 9, 1945 mission where Tokyo was burned out, said it was a night mission and could see the red glow of Tokyo burning from over 80 miles out. I feel he felt very bad about what he was doing, so would not talk about it. He also received a Battle Field Commission from S/Sgt to Warrant Officer, but again would not talk about it, also received the Purple Heart.

Posted by: Robin Cox | May 20, 2013 11:14 AM    Report this comment

A guy I used to work with occasionally was a lead Navigator in the 20th. I recall one story he told of the difficulty flying that far with inaccurate weather (Mustangs from Iwo would sometimes tuck in under the wing to maintain visual) and two dead engines on the right side... WOW!

Posted by: Brad Thornberg | May 20, 2013 3:44 PM    Report this comment

When reading or viewing stories about the B-29s and B-50s I have seen little about the work that was done by the aircraft and crews that were assigned to the Air Weather Service for a time before satellites. They were designated as WBs (Weather Bombers). In the mid 50s I was assigned to the 54th Wea Recon Sqdn on the island of Guam. There were several such sqdns scattered around the world There was the 53rd, 54th, 55th, 56th, 57th,and 58th that I remember. The 54th had two birds in the air everyday except on those days that conditions required more. In the 29s a normal weather track was usually twelve hours, in the 50s this was lengthened to fourteen hours. That was in the 54th, this could have been different in other sqdns. For the seventeen months I was there I logged an average of eighty hours a month as a Airborne Radio Operator in the rear crew section of the 29. This position was moved to the rear in the weather birds. There were two radio operators as well as a weather tech and flight mechanic in the rear. In the forward crew area were the AC (aircraft commander), pilot, weather observer, (bombardier position), panel engineer, navigator, and radar operator. There were several typhoons missions flown while I was stationed there. I was on eighteen penetration missions myself, there were others who had more. As every crew member knows the flying isn't possible with out the ground crews who spent countless hours maintaining the aircraft.

Posted by: Norm Beauchamp | May 26, 2013 7:49 AM    Report this comment

Add your comments

Log In

You must be logged in to comment

Forgot password?


Enter your information below to begin your FREE registration