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They were formed as a combat unit in the spring of 1941. From all parts of the United States they came — young, fearless and thirsty for adventure. Well-trained and highly qualified, they fiew the powerful Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the biggest and deadliest bomber of World War II. With it, they bombed the Japanese from their base on Tinian Island in the Marianas. They were the crews of the 40th Bomb Group.

In the realm of World War II historical accounts, the 40th Bomb Group’s accomplishments might seem rather small, for they did not receive the headlines accorded to Paul Tibbet’s 509th Composite Group, which dropped the first atomic bomb. However, like many other groups that fiew out of the three Mariana bases on Tinian, Guam and Saipan in the months before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb attacks, the 40th helped to lay the groundwork for ending the war.

The 40th Bomb Group was activated April 1, 1941, at Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico. Consisting of four squadrons (the 25th, 44th, 45th and 395th), it engaged in anti-submarine duty over the Caribbean, using Douglas B-18 Bolo bombers (derivatives of the DC-3/C-47). In May 1942, the group was transferred to the Panama Canal Zone, where it received Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators for further sub-patrol operations.

In the spring and summer of 1943, the 40th Bomb Group was assigned to the United States to become part of the new 58th Bomb Wing — and they would fiy a new global bomber. Intensive training began at an air base near Pratt, Kan. The crews received classroom instruction on the new airplane covering maintenance, navigation, fiying, bombing and gunnery. Other 40th members were among the first sent to schools around the country to be taught the technical aspects of the bomber, which was being rushed into production. It was the beginning of a love-hate relationship between crew and airplane.

The airmen gawked in awe at their first glimpse of the B-29. It was the largest and heaviest mass-produced airplane up to that time. Its wingspan was a seemingly endless 141 feet. It had pressurized compartments for its crew of 11, remotely controlled gun turrets, four 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone engines (capable of producing more than 2,000 hp each, the most powerful in aviation), and carried the largest propellers of any aircraft at more than 16 1/2 feet in diameter. The B-29 could carry up to 20,000 pounds of bombs and, supposedly, could hit targets from an altitude of 31,000 feet.

The new, unproven bomber was not without certain fiaws, however. Major and minor modifications to the engines held up the production schedule to such a degree that the crews were forced to take their training on B-17s and Martin B-26 Marauders. Most aircrews were lucky to get in one B-29 fiight a month. Meanwhile, the ground crews, with the help of civilian technicians, labored long hours for the next several months to correct the mechanical problems.

Jim O’Keefe of Larkspur, Calif., remembers those days at Pratt with the 40th Bomb Group. In 1943 he graduated from navigation school in San Marcos, Texas, and was told to report to Pratt in a week’s time. ‘I borrowed a road map of Kansas and searched for Pratt,’ recalls O’Keefe. ‘It took a long while to locate it. It appeared on the map as a small dot. The closest city was Wichita, about 80 miles away.’

‘Those of us who were second lieutenants fresh from training schools were surprised to find so many high-ranking officers at Pratt. We learned the reason. The 40th Group and three other B-29 groups comprising the 58th Wing had a special mission. We would be the first units to take B-29s into combat.

‘The B-29s came off the production lines slowly, and as soon as one was delivered to Pratt it was swarmed over by fiight engineers, crew chiefs and civilian technicians. The modifications and adjustments were endless. At the time of our departure for India, few of us had accumulated more than a few hours in B-29s, and it was then that the experience of the older pilots, fiight engineers and crew chiefs paid off and saved the B-29 program from disaster.’

Red Carmichael, from Alamogordo, N.M., was one of those hard-working 40th Bomb Group technicians. ‘I was stationed in Pratt, where I was the crew chief of a B-17 that was being used for training purposes,’ he remembers. ‘When the B-29 Superfortresses arrived, I became a crew chief on them. My first maintenance crew consisted of one man who had finished tech school on the B-29 but hadn’t worked on it, an ex-fighter plane crew chief, one B-17 mechanic and one ex-farmer. The first technical orders for maintenance that I saw were parts manual breakdowns; no writing, just parts and part numbers. Progress from a maintenance view was very discouraging. My average day was about 20 hours on the fiight line with maybe four hours’ sleep on the hangar fioor because I was too tired to walk to the barracks.’

April 1944 saw the first of 38 B-29s and 60 40th Group fiight crews land at Chakulia, India, where the heat was unbearable for both the men and the planes. The 100-degree-plus temperatures made work impossible during the period between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

‘The B-29 at the close of the war was a very good airplane,’ Carmichael says, ‘but when we first received it in 1943 and took it to the China-Burma-India [CBI] theater, it was a very poor aircraft. Nearly everything on that airplane was changed or modified before the end of the war.

‘When we were in India, the Wright engine representative told me that they had made 1,800-plus modifications to the engine alone. The engines were the prime factor in our operational losses because they were of damn poor design, and we didn’t have the proper maintenance people to maintain them.

‘The allowable engine cylinder head temperature was 265 degrees. I never saw a temperature on the early B-29s that was under 300 degrees on takeoff. As a result, we were losing engines and aircraft even before they left the runway. It wasn’t uncommon to replace all top cylinders four or five times to try to reach the 400-hour overhaul limit on the engines. We also had a tremendous problem with exhaust stacks and exhaust collector rings. These would blow out, and you either feathered the engine or risked the danger of a fire in the engine or nacelle.’

Tennessee resident Ivan Potts, a pilot with the 40th Bomb Group’s 25th Squadron, recalls: ‘The first time I saw a B-29 up close I couldn’t believe something that big could actually get off the ground and fiy. Structurally they were very strong. [No U.S. Army Air Force plane made] was more challenging or exciting to fiy. We hated it on occasion but loved it most of the time. It was completely efficient, with no wasted space anywhere. The visibility was great, due to the plexiglass nose. One pilot once said that fiying the B-29 was like fiying a three-bedroom house from the front porch.

‘Many problems became apparent during the plane’s first couple years of existence. The Wright engines were sometimes nicknamed ‘Wrong’ engines, or ‘fiamethrowers.’ They were known to conk out or catch fire in the air. They’d overheat constantly, cylinder heads would blow off, and they also acquired many leaks. The engines even ran too hot on the ground. But as time progressed we had more and more respect for the Superfortress. Its only shortcoming was that it was needed before it was ready.’

As the engine quirks were being worked out, men from the 40th Bomb Group, along with other groups from the 58th Wing based in India, were the first to deploy the Superfortress in combat. Ninety-four planes took part in a June 5, 1944, mission, whose target was the Makasan railroad yard at Bangkok, Thailand. Fourteen planes in the wing aborted before reaching Bangkok 1,000 miles away, most because of engine malfunctions. The target was overcast, forcing the bombardiers to use radar. Only 18 bombs landed inside the target area. To make matters worse, a tropical storm hit as the bombers returned. Five of the planes crashed on landing, and 42 pilots put down at other bases before their fuel ran out.

Although it was a disastrous first strategic mission, it was a learning experience. The targets soon became places in Japan itself, in addition to others in Thailand, Japanese-occupied portions of China, Burma, Manchuria and Formosa. One of the group’s most prestigious achievements in the Pacific war effort was its aerial support for General Douglas MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines in September 1944. On the 14th and 17th, the B-29s hit key Japanese airfields and installations on Formosa. During the ensuing months, more 40th Bomb Group raids followed from bases at Chakulia as well as at Hsinching, China.

One of the missions from China made a special mark in the news media. On December 7, 1944, O’Keefe’s crew was in a formation heading to bomb Japanese-occupied Mukden (now Shenyang), China, when it encountered heavy fighter opposition. Enemy shells punctured the plane’s nose, destroying O’Keefe’s gun sight and causing the cabin to lose pressure. O’Keefe and the others plugged every hole they could find with rags, but they were still losing pressure. After a thorough search, they finally found more holes on the deck but, alas, were out of rags. Crewman Edwin Mann then eyed his in-fiight meal, which contained a small package of K-ration cheese. ‘Whatever they used to preserve the cheese gave it properties of remarkable toughness and rubbery resilience,’ O’Keefe says jokingly. Mann opened two of the packs and pushed the bits of cheese into the holes. The cabin pressure returned to normal levels and held until they returned safely to base.

‘Several months later,’ O’Keefe recalls,’someone in the 40th received a magazine from home and in it found an article on the B-29s operating out of China. Tucked away in a long paragraph were a couple of lines describing the use of K-ration cheese in effecting in-fiight repairs of a battle-damaged B-29.’

In April 1945, the 40th was ordered to its new base on Tinian, where year-round temperatures held steady in the low 80s — a welcome relief from the searing heat of India and the bitter cold of China. By now the 40th was part of the Twentieth Air Force, which was composed of five combat wings spread around several airfields and using 8,500-foot runways on the three tropical islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian.

The long fiights from the Mariana Islands to Japan were tests of endurance — a round trip of 3,000 miles over the Pacific took about 15 hours. The crews often found it difficult to stay alert. If it had not been for coffee and Benzedrine they might not have accomplished their task. There was still some beauty to behold in a time of war, though. The Pacific was a glorious sight from the air in the early morning and late evening.

Tinian was a unique tropical island. Twelve miles long and six miles wide, it was virtually the largest operational airfield in the world, containing four runways on North Field and two on West Field. After its capture from the Japanese in the summer of 1944, Tinian was referred to as ‘the Manhattan of the Pacific.’ The moniker emerged when a New York City member of the Engineering Corps laying out the roadways observed that the island shape resembled that of Manhattan.

The 40th’s base at West Field posed a problem at first for those B-29 airmen fiying night missions. Pilots complained that when they were taking off, the height of the hill near the east end of the runway was difficult to judge in the dark. Subsequently, fioodlights were installed to illuminate the hill. At the beginning of the next mission, the planes thundered down the runway just as the lights were switched on. To the shock of the Americans, 20 uncaptured Japanese soldiers (who had been hiding out since the island was invaded the previous summer) were sitting on the hill watching the show.

Shortly before the 40th’s arrival in the Marianas, Twentieth Air Force commander General Curtis E. LeMay changed the B-29s’ bombing game plan. Hitherto, the numerous high-level bombing missions on the Japanese homeland had not accomplished the desired results. It turned out that the bombardiers were helpless against the effects of the newly discovered jet stream. Once dropped, the bombs were affected by the strong air currents. LeMay decided that if his planes could not hit the factories with pinpoint precision, then he would area bomb the neighborhoods that supported the industries.

LeMay’s new tactic was tested against Tokyo on February 25, 1945. Dropping 450 tons of incendiaries from high altitude, 172 B-29s gutted 28,000 buildings in the Japanese capital. On March 4, another raid resulted in similar destruction over the city. At the end of the month, LeMay examined the results and came to some monumental conclusions, speculating that if his bombers could get under the jet stream and cloud cover, the destruction would be even greater. The high-level daylight attacks would be replaced by low-level night incendiary raids from altitudes of 5,000-9,000 feet. No longer would they be at the mercy of the jet stream. Also, the bombers would not feel the strain on the engines and the fuel supply while climbing to their bombing height.

On the night of March 9, LeMay dispatched more than 300 Superfortresses on the 3,000-mile round trip to Tokyo. For the first time, crews of pathfinder aircraft led the force to the target by marking the aiming point with fiares. Within minutes after the first bombs fell, 16 square miles were engulfed by a 30-mph firestorm whipping through the center of the city, killing 84,000 people. Although 14 bombers were lost, LeMay got the results he deemed necessary. Throughout the month the pattern was repeated — in Nagoya on March 11-12, where two square miles disappeared for the loss of one bomber lost out of 285; in Osaka two nights later, where eight square miles were engulfed; in Kobe three nights after that, where three square miles disappeared; and in Nagoya again on March 19-20, where another three square miles disappeared. In less than two weeks, more than 120,000 civilians perished, while LeMay lost only 20 B-29s. The Superfortress had finally shown what it was capable of doing. LeMay’s decision changed the momentum of the Pacific bombing campaign. Had the Twentieth Air Force not run out of incendiary bombs, the devastation would have continued.

As LeMay waited for his incendiary stock to be replenished, he diverted the B-29s back to strategic bombing in support of the Marine invasion of Okinawa. They bombed Japanese airstrips at Tachiari and Oita, and a factory at Omura on Kyushu.

In the meantime, the 40th Bomb Group entered the Mariana scene and hit the Hiro naval aircraft factory at Kure on May 5 for its first Tinian-based mission, a strategic high-level attack. When the tactic of low-level incendiary raids resumed, the 40th participated in a 500-bomber raid on the neighborhood surrounding the Mitsubishi engine factory at Nagoya on the night of May 14. Four square miles of the city were destroyed.

Tokyo’s number came up again on May 23 and 25, and the 40th was there. Ivan Potts remembers the second raid: ‘Our altitude was only 10,000 feet, and when we went over Tokyo the searchlights were everywhere. We went in single file and we could look out over the yellow-fiamed sky and see the other B-29s stretched out on our right and left. Our plane was quite fortunate not to be caught in any searchlights on both Tokyo raids. But every now and then we would see a B-29 picked up in the cone of the lights and [then] catch hell from the anti-aircraft fire.

‘On the second night, we were one of the last going through, and we were caught in the middle of the firestorm. Our plane moved into the smoke clouds of the fires created by the incendiaries. Our plane was blown from 10,000 feet to 15,000 feet in a matter of seconds! We ended up on our side, and every red light in the aircraft came on! Then we went into a dive where we approached speeds of 500 miles per hour. We finally leveled it out with very little altitude to spare. We just couldn’t believe the power of that firestorm. We were tossed like a leaf in a wind storm.’

Also on the second Tokyo night raid, bombardier O’Keefe, along with many others in the 40th Group, witnessed a strange sight. Prior to the mission, all B-29 crews were warned of the dangers of pilotless, jet-propelled Baka (suicide) bombs. The Japanese strategy was for a twin-engine plane like the Mitsubishi ‘Betty,’ carrying a Baka under its belly, to illuminate a B-29 with a searchlight and then fire its Baka at the American bomber.

That night, O’Keefe’s pilot, Rod Wriston, experienced some violent thermal updrafts from the firestorm below. He held on and banked his B-29 away from the target after O’Keefe dropped his incendiaries. ‘We caught our collective breaths, only to gasp in sudden shock at a bright light that appeared above and in front of us.’ O’Keefe says. ‘I swung my gun sight to cover the light, and brought four .50-caliber machine guns to bear on it. We staggered on, the light neither gaining on us nor fading away. We banked again, and this brought us onto a south heading, the way to our base at Tinian. The great bright light was now to the east of us, and it stayed there and was visible until the sun came up.”

The great light, as O’Keefe and the others discovered in the early morning hours, was the bright planet Venus.

Forty-three other B-29 crews were not so fortunate as the crews of Wriston and Potts those two nights. O’Keefe recalls seeing a number of burning B-29s heading to earth all along the initial run into the city on the morning of the 26th. ‘The cruelest and most sickening of all sights was the B-29 with one engine on fire, which had been turned into fiaming wreckage by the guns of hysterical gunners on another B-29,” he says.

The life of Eddie Allen, one of the most famous B-29s, came to an abrupt halt on the second Tokyo mission. Named after the Boeing test pilot who died in the crash of a B-29 prototype, Eddie Allen had bombed targets in seven countries before meeting its demise.

By the end of the month, 56 square miles of the Japanese capital had ceased to exist. Because the losses were so heavy that month, LeMay ordered another change of tactics. It was back to daylight high-level attacks. The first of these raids was against Yokohama on May 29. A large force of 459 B-29s was escorted by P-51 Mustangs. In a series of grueling dogfights, the Mustangs shot down 26 Japanese fighters. Three Mustangs and four B-29s were lost.

‘We were fiying number one in our formation,” Potts recalls of that mission. ‘Number three plane, which was the plane on the right, was deliberately rammed in the back by one of the Kamikaze Jap fighters. This was a horrible experience for our crew to see, especially the gunners, right off our wing. I don’t think our gunners completely recovered from that for the balance of our missions.

In total, the 40th fiew nine missions in May, five in daylight, four at night. Seven B-29s were destroyed, six received major damage and 20 more had minor damage. In June the group hit more Japanese targets as part of LeMay’s overall plan. It participated in 10 raids, 300 sorties, dropping a total of 2,000 tons of bombs without losing a B-29 or any aircrew due to enemy action. The only plane scrapped was Ivan Potts’ Rankless Wreck. Following a frightening June 5 attack on Kobe, his crew was forced to make an emergency landing on Iwo Jima after being shot up by enemy fighters.

The weather in that part of the world was unpredictable at best, as many crews discovered. ‘I never understood how, with so many of our ships and planes in the area, we never got better forecasts,” O’Keefe states. ‘On a Nagoya mission in May we had to land at Iwo Jima on the return fiight. A few minutes after we landed, they shut down the field because a typhoon had come in.’

On June 1, the weather intervened when 521 B-29s of the 40th and other groups were involved in a daylight incendiary attack on warehouses and military installations around Osaka Bay. En route to a rendezvous with 148 Iwo Jima-based P-51 Mustangs, the B-29s encountered a storm front extending from sea level to above 20,000 feet. The fighters headed through the front. Although the tougher B-29s withstood the turbulence, 27 fighter planes and 24 pilots were lost, some due to collisions. Ninety-four fighters headed back to Iwo Jima, leaving only 27 P-51s to face heavy opposition over the target.

In mid-June, on the one-year anniversary of the B-29s as well as the anniversary of 58th Bomb Wing’s first combat mission, General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff committee visited Tinian and awarded each group in the 58th Wing the Distinguished Unit Citation.

The 40th Bomb Group fiew nine missions in July, eight of them night incendiary attacks on Japanese urban areas. Not one B-29 plane or crew member was lost, and only two men suffered minor wounds. The group went through the second consecutive month, the 20th straight mission and the 649th sortie without a casualty or a loss of a B-29 from enemy action — a record thought to be untouched by any other B-29 group.

Then came August 1945. A force based on Tinian’s North Field, called the 509th Composite Group, dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 40th crews heard the news of the first blast after returning from a raid on Imbari.

It seemed only fitting that the 40th fiy in the first B-29 raid of the war and the last one. On August 14, it helped bomb the naval arsenal at Hikari. That same day Japan capitulated. The 40th had made an impressive showing in the Pacific fight, joining in 70 combat missions, dropping 9,200 tons of bombs on enemy targets, and losing 32 B-29s to enemy action. Fifty-three crew members were killed, 26 were wounded and 134 were reported missing. The group’s gunners were credited with 46 1/2 enemy planes shot down, 92 probably destroyed and 64 others damaged.

How did the 40th veterans feel about their participation in the war effort, especially the aerial destruction of Japan?

‘All of us who fiew the firestorm raids knew that we created a hell on earth for the people in the cities, and after many years it is still not an easy thing to look back and refiect upon,’ says Jim O’Keefe. ‘But we also have chilling memories of a ruthless, brutal enemy at Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, the thousands of British soldiers who died building the Kwai railroad, the bombing of Chungking, the execution of our captured B-29 crews, and the gunning of comrades descending in parachutes.”

Bill Rooney of Wilmette, Ill., worked for the S-2 Division (Intelligence Branch) of the 40th Group. ‘There are two ways in which you win wars,” he says. ‘Either you kill people and/or you take ground. In the Pacific, the major element that we could take the fight to the enemy with was air power. So we used it….to quote President Harry Truman, ‘I haven’t yet heard anybody apologize for Pearl Harbor.’ I would say that sums up the sentiments of the guys who bombed Japan.”

Years after the war ended, O’Keefe went back to the place where it all began for the World War II B-29 program and the 40th Bomb Group. ‘I did not see Pratt again until the summer of 1977,’ says O’Keefe, ‘I walked over to the runway and, like Dean Jagger in the opening scenes of the movie Twelve O’Clock High, I saw once again the great bombers in their camoufiage war paint thunder down the runway and I imagined I heard the roar of the powerful engines.”

Today, the 40th Bomb Association is an energetic organization that has yearly reunions.

This article was written by Daniel Wyatt and originally published in the September 1994 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!