The B-29 was a long-range heavy bomber, designed to carry huge loads long distances. It was used entirely against Japan in WW II because it was the only heavy bomber able to reach Japan–across the Himalayas from India and from islands in the Pacific.
Boeing proposed the plane to the Army in 1940. Technologically advanced, it had remote control guns. Two crew areas–front and back–were pressurized and connected by a long tube over the bomb bays, allowing crew members to crawl between them. The tail gunner’s area was also pressurized.
My dad, Warren Neal, was an Iowa farmer who became a pilot during WWII. Born in 1917, he was a little older than other cadets, and was asked to be an Advanced Instructor after earning his wings at Marfa Army Air Base, Texas. In December of 1944, the first B-29 landed at Marfa. “A person can’t realize that they can get so much iron and steel off the ground,” he wrote. He said that the brakes smoked to get the Superfort stopped before the 1 ¼-mile runway ran out. People ran out to see it before the huge plane was parked.
After Pacific islands were captured by the U.S., near enough to Japan to reach it by long-range bombers, we set to work building runways. Hundreds of B-29s were sent to Gram, Tinian, and Saipan as quickly as possible.
With the war in Europe winding down, Advanced Instructors were eyed as B-29 pilots. Men with over 1000 hours of flight were mainly sent to multi-engine training, at first in B-17s, returning from combat in Europe.
Warren was ordered to Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas, to train. His first time up in a B-29 was July 19, 1945. Training missions were at least seven hours, as combat missions would be long ones. “Sure is a big clumsy brute,” he wrote his wife Doris.
A Superfortress was like a military command where they all had to work as a team. Each crew member had his own specific coordinated functions. Even before getting into the plane, the crew lined up for a formal inspection by the commander, as he was responsible for the performance of his entire crew.
The biggest job was getting it pre-flighted. And from the cockpit–fifteen feet ahead of the wings–they couldn’t see the wheels or the flaps, so needed to “scanners” in the back who told him over the interphone their positions. They were short of planes, so just kept the crews on the flight-line to be ready whenever a plane would return.
The commander, copilot, and bombardier worked in the forward flight deck, with the navigator behind the commander. A ladder behind the navigator led to a crawl space above the bomb bays to reach the other stations. The rest of the nine- to ten-member crew were the engineer, radio operator, tail gunner, and two gunner-scanners.
The crews had to report to the flightline at 4:00 in the morning. “Give me the good old farm where you don’t have to get up until 4:30,” Warren wrote.
Warren told Doris not to worry about him, “as a B-29 will float for days, even weeks if a good landing is made on water.” He called his plane the “big iron bird.”
B-29 Superfortresses were mainly used in the Pacific, with as many as 1,000 at a time bombing Tokyo, destroying large parts of the city.
August 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped an atomic (uranium) bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The next day more B-29s raided Japan, but there was still no talk of surrender. August 9, the B-29 Bockscar dropped another atomic bomb (plutonium) on Nagasaki.
Orders for Warren’s crew were to leave for combat staging September 18–to make long single plane night raids over Japan from Saipan. The atomic bombs meant that probably they wouldn’t see combat, but instead would be part of the army of occupation.
Doris’s youngest brother was killed in Transition Training the morning the second atomic bomb was dropped. Warren was not allowed to come back for the funeral. Doris, afraid her brother had waited too long before trying to bail out of the plane, told Warren that–if anything went wrong with his plane–to jump quick.
Warren answered not to worry about him, that he wouldn’t hesitate to get out. “I keep the boys reminded all the time that when I say ‘go,’ we go and fast, because they can build more 29’s.”
Waiting and wondering and hoping for the war’s end were nerve wracking for the crews. Their departure day was extended to September 21. Training schedules went on as before, just shortened flying hours. There was talk about “peacetime conversion,” and the strongest rumors were that they would be going over on patrol duty or transporting cargo and men back. B-29s could be used for either.
In his August 18 letter, he said that they knew shortly after they got there where they would have been stationed, type of missions, etc. They were the first class of “special crews,” all trained to be the lead crews in combat. “Single night missions with 29’s stripped of all guns except the tail turret. Depending on speed for safety rather than guns.” He said it wouldn’t have been as bad as it sounded since no U.S. fighter could catch a B-29 at 30,000 feet. But he’d been afraid Doris would worry about it if he’d told her before.
Now they were to finish up as regular crews, Warren wrote Doris, with turret ship and a central fire control gunner, which they hadn’t had before. And it called for formation practice, which they hadn’t had yet in the B-29. By the end of August, they were told that they would be going overseas as a Bomb Group replacement, gone not longer than a year and a half.
But by the end of September, Warren was back in Iowa and out of the Army Air Force, having logged 54 hours in a B-29 Superfortress within two months.
Dad was right. You can’t see the wings from the commander’s cockpit. Mom never got to see Dad fly a Superfort, but Mom, Goria, and I visited Fifi, then the only airworthy B-29, at the Mason City Airport in 1991. We drove up the day before to watch it land. It was already there. What a disappointment.
It came up that I was doing some writing about WWII. The man in charge said, “I tell you what–if you want to come back up the day we leave, you can fly with us to Grand Rapids, but you’ll have to get your own ride home from there.”
I never did get a ride in the B-29, but all three of us did climb up into the cockpit and took turns taking each other’s pictures in the commander’s seat.
Fifi taking off from Dallas Executive Airport, 2014.
1945 film “Birth of the B-29 Superfortress”