A B-29 pilot recalls battling weather fronts, fighters and flak to rain fire on Japanese cities.
The crew soon realized the searchlight battery was actually emplaced halfway up 12,000-foot-high Mount Fuji, right at their 6,000- to 8,000-foot attack altitude. It was a perilously low-level mission for a heavy bomber that had been designed expressly for high-altitude work. “At 6,000 feet,” DeWitt said, “we could imagine the Japanese throwing stones at us.”
The date was March 9-10, 1945, the first night of Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay’s soon-to-be-famous 10-day blitz to firebomb four of Japan’s principal cities. Disappointed by inconclusive results from conventional high-altitude daylight attacks, the feisty cigar-chomping general was gambling on a radical change. The huge bombers, stripped of defensive armament and ammunition, would hit major Japanese cities individually in low-level night attacks. Rather than being loaded with high explosives, the B-29s’ bomb bays were crammed with 500-pound cluster bombs, each canister packed with 60 eight-pound incendiaries.
As the B-29s of the Tinian-based 504th Bombardment Group approached Tokyo, “Everything was very peaceful until the searchlights flared,” DeWitt remembered. “Then all hell broke loose. Flak exploded all around us. Both Jim ‘Hardtack’ Hardison, the aircraft commander, and myself, the pilot, pulled off some evasive action you couldn’t imagine. [The pilot on B-29 crews was known as the aircraft commander, while the copilot was called the pilot.] Suddenly the anti-aircraft stopped.
Now it was the fighters’ turn. A string of tracers flashed right in front of our nose. Then the searchlights swung away. For us, it was pitch black again. They were working the B-29 behind us.” Now Hardison and DeWitt concentrated on the massive bright orange fire ahead. “Edgar ‘Jake’ Jacobs, our bombardier, took over control and salvoed our seven tons of incendiaries right next to that inferno,” DeWitt continued. “Then it was a quick turn south toward Tinian while closing the bomb bay doors and getting the hell out of there.”
The death tolls during that mission to Tokyo, one of the deadliest aerial attacks in history, surpassed the numbers of those killed in RAF raids on Hamburg and Dresden—as well as the atomic bomb attack to come on Nagasaki. It ranked on the scale of the carnage at Hiroshima. Considering the incredible destruction it wrought and the risks he faced, DeWitt would remember that first blitz attack as “my worst mission.”
Pennsylvanian Dann DeWitt had graduated from multiengine flight school at Turner Field, Albany, Ga., in February 1944, receiving his pilot’s wings and a second lieutenant commission eight days before he turned 19. He was assigned to B-17 transition school at Lockbourne Army Air Field in Columbus, Ohio. “I loved the B-17 and I guess it showed,” he said wryly, “because after completing two months of training on B-17s, I was sent to B-29 training and crew assignment at Fairmont AAF in Nebraska. When I saw my first B-29, I thought, ‘Wow, what a beauty.’ It was terrific to fly, except for problems with the Wright 3350 engines.
“I remember a practice mission where we were supposed to fly down to the Gulf of Mexico, climb to 30,000 feet, then simulate a bomb run on Whale Rock. During the climb the number three engine blew a cylinder right off and started a fire. Larry Stokes, our flight engineer, got the fire out and feathered the four-bladed prop. We made an emergency landing at Galveston AAF, Texas.” Fairmont sent a B-17 down to fly DeWitt’s B-29 crew back to Nebraska. Their Superfortress stayed in Galveston under guard and drew large crowds.
When the crew logged some time in B-17s for gunnery practice, DeWitt got a chance to fire a waist gun: “I spent a few hundred rounds of .50-caliber ammo at ground targets. I was really impressed. We heard rumors that some local farmers complained some of their cows were shot, but not by our crew.”
In late December 1944, gunners Billy Burgess, John Tobin, Jack Wilcox and Glen Williams and radar operator Francis Blankner were shipped to the Pacific. Aircraft commander Hardison, pilot DeWitt, navigator John R. Martin, bombardier Jacobs, flight engineer Stokes and radio operator Harold O. Smith were sent to Mather Field in Sacramento, Calif., to pick up their brand-new Superfort. The name they settled on, Good Deal, was the brainstorm of Hardison, a Texan with a passion for gambling who always seemed to have a deck of cards at hand. “We hit it off well,” DeWitt said. “We split the flying evenly, and we got through the war in one piece.”
Shortly after Christmas, Good Deal took off for Honolulu, John – son Island, Kwajalein Atoll and finally the B-29 base at North Field, Tinian. At the time, Tinian’s airfield was the world’s largest, with four parallel runways 8,500 feet long. The secretive 509th Composite Group shared North Field with them.
Following their first blitz mission, on the night of March 11 DeWitt’s crew was briefed for an incendiary attack on Nagoya. Good Deal, bombs loaded, fuel tanks topped off, was set to go. “The crew chief OK’d the aircraft; our chaplain stopped by to give us his blessing,” he recalled. “We boarded, started the engines and rolled into line to taxi to the active runway. It was SOP to taxi with the bomb bay doors open. At the start of engine run-up and check, the bombardier would close the bomb bay doors.
“When Jake Jacobs threw the switch to close the doors, eight to 10 tons of incendiary cluster bombs dropped right on the taxiway. I rushed down the nose hatch to check what happened. Some of the clusters had broken apart. Dozens of loose eight-pound incendiaries had tumbled beneath our B-29. But none had ignited—a very lucky break.” A faulty bomb bay door switch in the bombardier’s instrument panel had caused the mishap, compelling the crew to abort their mission. “Talk about God acting in mysterious ways,” said DeWitt. “Who knows, we very well could have been missing in action had we gone.”
On March 13-14, Good Deal took part in the third blitz mission, to Osaka. Dropping their incendiaries from 7,200 feet, Hardison’s crew contributed to the total destruction of more than eight square miles of Japan’s second largest city, a major manufacturing center.
A few nights later, on March 16, Good Deal was on its way to Kobe, target of the fourth blitz mission. “It seemed on every trip up to Japan and our rallying point, we had to fly through a weather front,” DeWitt recalled. “On this particular frontal penetration, the turbulence was unbelievably severe. As we were buffeted by extreme up- and downdrafts, the tips of all the propellers suddenly lit up. Next, the leading edges of the wings and the tail assembly. The intensity of this St. Elmo’s fire increased and the entire nose lit up. As the static electricity continued to build, a charge would jump from the outside air temperature gauge to the nearby bombsight with a loud crack!
“I tried to get Jake to put his hand on the gauge, assuring him he wouldn’t get electrocuted. But he leaned back from it as far as he could. I didn’t blame him. The weird display actually was beautiful. It lasted about 10 minutes, then abruptly disappeared.”
Flak was intense on the bomb run over Kobe. Looking back on that harrowing mission, DeWitt said: “Odd things go through your mind when someone is earnestly trying to kill you. Close flak bursts sounded like a big, ugly dog chasing me about a foot away from my butt. ‘Woof! Woof!’ A really ugly bark, representing death. Then after ‘bombs away,’ and a fast turn south, seeing the Pacific again was always a great relief—but one marred by calls for help to Air-Sea Rescue submarines stationed off the coast.”
March 18-19, the date of the final mission of the 10-day blitz, a return to Nagoya, brought a welcome rest day for Good Deal’s crew. By that time the blitz had gutted 32 square miles of four Japanese cities and resulted in the deaths of thousands. The Tokyo fire department estimated that 97,000 were killed during the raid of March 9-10 alone. That staggering death toll haunts some B-29 crewmen to this day.
Though all the blitz runs were flown at hazardously low levels, the 504th lost only one Superfort in that campaign: no. 42-65242, piloted by Major George W. Shaffer, which went down with all hands on a March 16 mission to Kobe. Overall the 504th lost 26 B-29s in Pacific combat, plus four more operational losses. In all, nearly 500 B-29s of the Twentieth Air Force were shot down. Of their 5,000 crewmen, fewer than 200 survived the war.
DeWitt flew a total of 27 missions, several of which—in addition to the blitz raids—remained vivid in his memory six decades later. One of those came on February 10, 1945, when the 504th made its first precision attack, on the Nakajima engine factory near Tokyo.
The usual elapsed time for a bomb run, from the initial point to the target, was eight to 10 minutes. During that stretch of straight and level flying, the bombers were extremely vulnerable to flak and fighters. But during the February 10 mission, “It took us 45 minutes flying straight and level in formation until ‘bombs away,’ DeWitt recalled. “We were under anti-aircraft bombardment, and when that was interrupted, the fighters moved in. I saw a Zero head straight for us, flashes and smoke pouring out of both wings. I braced myself for the bullets to hit. None did. But he kept coming straight at us, deliberately intending to ram. He missed by inches. I saw his face, goggles on, looking right at me. A split second, then he was gone.”
Because the B-29 was as fast or faster than Japanese fighters, head-on attacks and attempted ramming became standard practice. Of the 14 504th Bomb Group B-29s that participated in the February 10 mission, three aborted after takeoff and 11 hit the target. Despite heavy flak, a screen of at least 35 enemy fighters and the incredibly lengthy bomb run, just one of the 504th’s B-29s was shot down.
Why that agonizingly long bomb run? The explanation would be obvious to a modern-day pilot: At high altitude, the Superforts had flown head-on into the then-unknown jet stream.
On April 1, 1945, the 82-day battle for Okinawa began. Just 325 miles southwest of Japan’s southernmost home island, Kyushu, the Japanese slammed the U.S. invasion fleet on April 6 and 7 with 700 aircraft, half of them kamikaze planes. The 504th was assigned to attack airfields on Kyushu in support of the Okinawa invasion. “We would fly singly from our base in Tinian to a small island just south of Kyushu,” DeWitt said, “then climb to altitude and form with our bomb groups and squadrons at a prearranged rendezvous point.”
During one such mission, he recalled: “We spotted aircraft circling over the rendezvous island and headed toward them, assuming that was our squadron. To our amazement, they turned out to be a group of twin-engine Japanese [Mitsubishi G4M2] ‘Betty’ bombers, apparently getting their squadron together to head south and bomb our fleet or troops on Okinawa.
“We quickly turned north toward Kyushu, and our group got into formation to head for the IP for a bomb run on Izumi Airfield. No enemy fighters in sight, just light flak. ‘Bombs away,’ then out of the blue we were hit by what must have been 20mm cannon fire. The hit was outside number four engine, almost at the wingtip. That caused the aircraft to veer sharply right. Luckily we were on the outside of the formation, so no other aircraft were involved.
“The Japanese pilot, flying a [Mitsubishi J2M3] ‘Jack’ fighter, thought he had us, as now we were alone. We pushed all four throttles forward, put the nose down and headed for home, a 1,500-mile return trip. He tried to close in for the kill, but he just couldn’t catch up with us. [The B-29’s maximum speed at 20,000 feet was almost 360 mph; the Jack’s was 350]. Also our tail gunner with two .50s and a 20mm cannon aimed straight at him may have discouraged him.”
Ironically, the flight on which Good Deal’s crew came closest to buying the farm was a “Dumbo” mission, involving no combat. Rotated among the B-29 crews, these sorties involved circling off the Japanese coast while monitoring distress signal frequencies—to locate battle-damaged Superforts that had ditched or whose crews had bailed out—and coordinating rescue operations with U.S. subs and surface craft. The missions were judged safe enough for Hardison’s crew to take along a civilian passenger, a tech rep from Honeywell, on June 14. Hosting a passenger didn’t appeal to Hardison, but Colonel Glen W. Martin, the 504th’s commander, assured him the flight would be a good PR gesture. So in support of a B-29 mission to Osaka, the crew took off with their guest—but this time flying another Superfort, since Good Deal was down for maintenance.
During preflight inspection, bombardier Jacobs had reported that wooden blocks had been inserted in the bomb shackle releases as a safety measure, to prevent accidentally dropping the two 500-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks installed in the bomb bay. Since this setup would also prevent jettisoning the tanks in an emergency, Hardison ordered the blocks removed.
DeWitt remembered: “With full takeoff power on all four engines, we lifted into the air on a beautiful evening. A piece of cake mission with no one shooting at us. Yeah, sure! East of Saipan at about 1,200 feet, we were just turning north when the intercom burst out, ‘Fire in number two engine!’ Flight engineer Stokes immediately discharged the first of the engine’s two fire extinguishers.”
Flames still streamed from the engine, and Stokes discharged the second extinguisher, again with no effect. By now a long tongue of flame flared aft, all the way to the tail assembly. Hastily swinging back toward Tinian, Hardison ordered Jacobs to salvo the two auxiliary fuel tanks in the bomb bay. They fell free, leaving a strong stench of 100 octane in the cabin.
The trailing flames soon engulfed the tail surfaces. “Here we were,” DeWitt recalled, “now at about 700 feet in a pitch-black sky, a raging fire getting worse by the minute, nothing below us but the cold Pacific. We had no choice; we had to get the airplane on the ground before it blew up. I called the Tinian tower. They already had us in sight and approved a straight-in approach. Fire and emergency crews were standing by.
“When Hardtack called for gear down, I pulled the gear lever, but nothing happened. I worked the lever several times with negative results. The gear was not coming down.”
Final approach. No landing gear and only partial flaps. The fire now extended past the tail. “We both were on the controls,” DeWitt said. “The approach and landing seemed perfect. We were on the runway, sliding on the bottom of the fuselage making one helluva noise. The props dug in and bent backward. The whole bottom of the fuselage became a mass of sparks and smoke—red hot. We slid several thousand feet, then slowly ground to a halt.”
As the rest of the crew barreled out of their hatches, DeWitt tore open his side window and scrambled out. Then they discovered that radar operator Francis Blankner had exited the rear crew door while the wreck was still sliding. Fortunately, though he was the most injured crew member, his wounds were not serious.
As the flames reduced the B-29 to a smoldering pile of junk, the whole crew was accounted for—except the Honeywell rep, who was finally found on the runway. He had no idea how he had escaped from the burning bomber. Everyone was bundled into ambulances and dispatched to the infirmary, where the flight surgeon dispensed a most welcome prescription: a four-day grounding.
“After that Dumbo mission, we flew two more combat missions,” DeWitt recalled, “one on June 6 to hit Osaka with incendiaries and fragmentation bombs, the other two days later over Nagoya, specifically the Nagoya Aichi aircraft plant. There we encountered heavy flak: ‘Woof! Woof!’ That big, ugly dog again, about to bite my ass. Never got used to it. This was the first time we had used 4,000-pound general purpose bombs. The plant was 75 percent destroyed.
“After a few days’ rest, we were given really good news. Our crew had been chosen to attend Lead Crew School. The best part: The training school was located at Muroc Army Airfield—now Edwards Air Force Base—in California’s Mojave Desert. What a break! The Air Transport Command flew our entire crew to California. Through the whole month of July, we underwent rigorous training, but compared to combat, that was no hardship. The month went by quickly, and soon it was time to go back to war. But the excitement of returning to combat just wasn’t there. Back into the ATC’s DC-4, destination Tinian, with a stopover at John Rogers Army Air Field in Hawaii. Several days there suited us just fine; we were in no hurry to get back.
“We were still in Hawaii on August 6 when the radio came alive with the incredible news that the city of Hiroshima had been obliterated by a single B-29 dropping something called an atomic bomb! Now we knew what that top-secret 509th Composite Group had been up to.”
Three days later, the crew heard that Nagasaki had been wiped out by a second atomic bomb. “Now rumors were flying,” DeWitt said. “Japan was suing for peace. But on August 10 we were back on an ATC DC-4 heading for Tinian. The war was still going on. When we finally arrived at Tinian on the 12th, there was still no news of a surrender. We were reinstated on the combat roster. Three more days of sweating it out, then at last, on the 15th of August, Japan officially surrendered. Our nightmare was over. Or so we thought.”
The 504th’s efforts now centered on the many U.S. military personnel held in Japanese POW camps. The Army Air Forces and the Red Cross worked together to provide pallets of medical supplies, food, clothing, even some “medicinal” alcohol. Rigged with parachutes, these pallets were ready to be dropped at POW camp sites.
The camp assigned to Good Deal lay northwest of Tokyo. “On a murky day in the latter part of August,” DeWitt recalled, “we headed straight for Tokyo, then turned northwest through rain above a solid undercast. Unable to locate the camp after a series of passes, we made a guess and dropped our cargo, hoping it would be recovered and of some use. Our unsuccessful search had left us without enough fuel to reach Tinian. We landed at Iwo Jima and refueled. By now, the stars were out, so we decided to press on to Tinian. Two hours out, cruising peacefully at 10,000, we were jolted by number one engine blowing a cylinder. Stokes shut down the engine and feathered the prop. Not a big problem. Three engines left with only a couple hours to Tinian.”
But while Good Deal was cruising at 10,000, it flew into a towering thunderhead. DeWitt recounted: “We were abruptly flipped upside down—and number three engine burst into flames. Totally out of control, we were headed straight down, with one engine out and another engine burning. As Hardtack and I both wrestled with the controls, we reached an indicated airspeed close to 500 mph. A few hundred feet above the Pacific, we finally regained control. Stokes managed to extinguish the fire and feather the number three prop. But here we were, about 1,000 feet above the ocean, now in IFR conditions, two hours out of Tinian—and a B-29 just barely flew on two engines.” The crew began transmitting for homing bearings to Tinian or Saipan.
At this point they were glad they had a passenger aboard, Chaplain Earle Raitt, who had visited every 504th crew before a sortie and wanted to experience a B-29 mission. Raitt proved to be a morale booster while they waited for a response to their frantic calls. “He kept saying, ‘We’re going to make it. It’s in the cards.’ He remained positive all the way,” said DeWitt.
And he was right. “Finally a weak signal came through my headset,” DeWitt recalled, when they were 200 miles from Tinian. “We got our steer. We made it. But that was one real postwar sweat job.” Despite Raitt’s outward optimism, after the harrowing flight he remarked, “That was one time I really thought I was going to sprout wings.”
In the Pacific War’s aftermath, accounts of the decisive role played by B-29s have been largely dominated by the A-bomb attacks. But before those bombs were dropped, the Japanese empire had already been reduced to desperation by B-29s through mass incendiary raids, precision attacks on manufacturing facilities, mining operations against shipping and airfield strikes. Men like Dann Dewitt and the rest of the crew of Good Deal, who put their lives on the line during every mission, made a contribution to winning the war that should not be underestimated.
William Hallstead served in World War II as a B-24 radio operator with the 456th Bomb Group, Fifteenth Air Force, in Italy. Further reading: Superfortress: The Boeing B-29 and American Airpower in World War II, by Curtis LeMay and Bill Yenne; and Boeing B-29 Superfortress: The Ultimate Look—From Drawing Board to VJ-Day, by William Wolf.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.