Share This Article

When the United States entered World War II on December 8, 1941, it possessed no aircraft capable of reaching the Japanese mainland from land bases. The nearest friendly territory (discounting Siberia, from which the Soviet Union had banned any flights) lay 1,600 miles away in central China, well beyond the operating radius of existing Boeing B-17s and Consolidated B-24s.

On April 18, 1942, an audacious raid on Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe and Yokohama was launched when Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle led a flight of 16 North American B-25s from the flight deck of the carrier Hornet. That sortie, a one-time effort that resulted in little damage to the widely dispersed targets, was intended primarily as a boost to sagging American morale and as an embarrassment to the Japanese general staff. Carrier-borne attacks against the Japanese Home Islands would not occur again for nearly three years.

Development of the B-29’s Mission

The original concept behind the Boeing B-29 was ‘hemispheric defense,’ that is, a very long-range bomber that could operate out of bases within U.S. territories. However, in 1940, amid fears that America would ultimately be drawn into the conflict then raging in Europe, the War Department drafted a contingency plan to use the proposed B-29 to bomb Germany from bases in either Britain or North Africa. Two events then intervened that irrevocably set the B-29 on a course for the Far East. First, after the dust from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor settled, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that America’s primary war effort would be focused on defeating Germany first. In terms of land-based heavy bombardment, this meant that most of the current production four-engine bombers, B-17s and B-24s, would be earmarked for combat missions in the European Theater of Operations. Second, the president believed it was imperative to make a gesture to assure the Chinese leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, that the United States was prepared to stop the Japanese from taking over all of China.

The first B-29 prototype, meanwhile, flew on September 21, 1942, and the type was anticipated to be combat-ready by late 1943. The airplane itself was a technological triumph, able to cruise at speeds near 300 mph and capable of carrying 5,000 pounds of bombs in the rarefied air above 30,000 feet (or twice that weight at lower altitudes) while conveying its bombload to a target more than 1,600 miles away. But the B-29 was also the most complex machine the American aircraft industry had ever tried to produce, and the giant plane had big problems, the most persistent and dangerous of which involved engine fires linked to the cooling of the new Wright R-3350 engines.

The die was cast during the Casablanca conference in January 1943, when Roosevelt, in spite of serious reservations expressed by the Joint Chiefs, informed Chiang Kai-shek that he would send a large force of bombers to strike at Japan from China. Although the president did not specifically mention B-29s, it was certainly the only type of U.S. aircraft then capable of such a mission.

Laying Plans for Matterhorn

Three issues were central to planning bomber operations out of China: command and control of the B-29s once they were deployed overseas, resupply and maintenance support for a large bomber force, and construction of bases for combat operations. Command of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater was essentially divided three ways. British Lord Louis Mountbatten commanded the India-Burma area, while Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell was the U.S. theater commander in China, also serving as Chiang’s chief of staff — and then there was Chiang Kai-shek himself. Added to that was Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, commander of the Fourteenth Air Force in China, who had his own ideas about the employment of the bomber force.

Logistics posed an enormous problem. The Japanese occupied Burma between China and India and controlled the entire Chinese coast, which precluded resupply by land or sea. Munitions, spares, fuel and everything else needed to support operations would have to be flown in from India over ‘the Hump,’ the Himalaya Mountains. And then there was the problem of airfields — the B-29s could not operate off hastily prepared airstrips covered with pierced-steel matting. The 120,000-pound bombers would need hard-surface runways more than a mile long.

At the Quadrant Conference at Quebec, Canada, in August 1943, U.S. Army Air Forces chief General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold submitted a detailed plan under which the newly activated 58th Bomb Wing (Very Heavy) would reach the CBI Theater by the end of 1943 and shortly after begin offensive operations against the Japanese Home Islands. Brigadier General Kenneth Wolfe, whom Arnold appointed to command the new unit and plan the operations, had earlier been responsible for B-29 development and production at Wright Field, then the center for U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft testing and evaluation. Arnold’s plan originally envisioned that the B-29s would be permanently based in south-central China and be resupplied by air from India. Although Roosevelt liked the plan, General Stilwell contended that maintaining all B-29 operations within China would not be practical because the supply lines were too long. He suggested instead that the China bases be used only as a forward staging area, while complex base facilities would remain in eastern India. Even though the Joint Chiefs were skeptical about the value of staging any B-29 operations out of China, Stilwell’s recommendations were reluctantly approved, and the Chengdu area, 175 miles west of Chunking, was selected as the site for the forward bases. The plan as approved would be dubbed ‘Matterhorn,’ the Allied code name for the strategic air offensive against Japan. Arnold and his field commanders would soon find themselves faced with an uphill struggle to resolve huge operational challenges with the ambitious offensive.

When it came to delineating who would control the B-29s, Arnold set up an unprecedented organizational structure that bypassed the operational authority of the theater commanders. The XX Bomber Command, to which the 58th Bomb Wing was attached, would take its combat orders from the Joint Chiefs, with executive control vested in Arnold himself — in effect, an independent air force within the Army Air Forces. Arnold had embraced the notion of an ‘independent strategic striking force’ as far back as the 1920s, when he worked with Brig. Gen. William L. ‘Billy’ Mitchell. But he was more immediately concerned with the rivalries within the CBI and also those between U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur and U.S. Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz in the southwest Pacific and Pacific theaters. Months later, this organization would evolve into the newly created Twentieth Air Force, which would direct B-29 combat operations throughout the war and serve as a template for the postwar independent U.S. Air Force.

In November 1943 the British agreed to provide operational bases around Calcutta, India, and Chiang Kai-shek started construction of five forward air bases around Chengdu. Incredibly, the runways on the Chinese bases would be built entirely with manual labor, with as many as 700,000 coolies working at a single site.

To further complicate matters, B-29 deliveries were falling drastically behind schedule due to production delays. While the 58th Bomb Wing existed on paper as consisting of five bomb groups allocated 30 planes apiece, in truth there weren’t even enough B-29s available to train the crews. By the end of 1943, of the 97 B-29s produced thus far, only 17 were actually airworthy. As a result, only 67 pilots had been checked out in the aircraft and virtually none of the combat crews had trained together as a team.

Arnold was being pressured by Roosevelt to start bombing Japan by January 1944, but production and training delays forced him to tell the president that the B-29s could not leave the States until mid-March, while combat operations would not start until mid-May at the earliest. Arnold’s decision at that juncture to take delivery of the planes ‘as is’ and modify them in the field was influenced in part by the urgency to get B-29s into the hands of aircrews for training. That move led to what became known as the ‘Battle of Kansas.’

The XX Bomber Command headquarters was established at Kharagpur, India, in late March under the command of Brig. Gen. Wolfe. Four bases near Calcutta were set up to receive the B-29s, and the first plane arrived on April 2, 1944, flown by Brig. Gen. LaVerne ‘Blondie’ Saunders, the new commander of the 58th Bomb Wing, after an 11,530-mile journey via Gander in Newfoundland, Marrakesh, Cairo and Karachi.

Over the next month, B-29s began to arrive in the CBI, but not without incident. After five B-29s crashed near Karachi due to overheated engines, the entire fleet was grounded. The problem was traced to high ground temperatures in India that exceeded the engines’ normal operating limits. Further modifications were made to the engine cooling baffles, oil lubrication tubes and cowl flaps, but those changes only lessened the difficulties rather than solving the problem. By May 8, 130 B-29s were in India. The forward bases in China were declared usable even if conditions there were far less than ideal. The B-29s, ready or not, were about to go to war.

The transition to combat marked the start of the logistical nightmare that would characterize Operation Matterhorn from beginning to end. Despite the Allies’ best efforts, the airlift capability to support all other operations in the CBI plus the B-29s did not actually exist. The Chinese army was in critical need of supplies because the Japanese had gone on the offensive in May 1944, pushing the battle lines 200 miles farther inland. General Chennault, defending a 1,000-mile frontier, insisted that the B-29s be attached to the Fourteenth Air Force for tactical operations, a request Arnold promptly denied. When B-29 operations resumed, instead of going into combat the bombers were forced to transport their own fuel, spare parts and munitions to the forward bases to stockpile what they would need for a mission. The first combat action actually took place during one of those trips, when a B-29 carrying a load of aviation gas was attacked by six Nakajima Ki.43 Hayabusa, or ‘Oscar,’ fighters. Its crew managed to beat off the attackers using the B-29’s defensive armament of 12 .50-caliber guns.

Combat Operations Begin

The first target would not be Japan but the Makasan rail facilities in Bangkok, Thailand. On June 5, 1944, 98 Superforts led by General Saunders took off on the 2,261-mile mission, the longest thus far attempted in the war. En route, 14 B-29s were forced to abort the mission due to overheated engines, and the remainder arrived to find the target obscured by weather. After a confused, radar-assisted bombing run, only 18 bombs hit the target. On the way back, 42 planes were forced to divert to other airfields due to low fuel, while five B-29s crashed on landing.

In the wake of that fiasco, Wolfe was ordered to attack Japan with a minimum of 70 B-29s by June 15. It was a tall order, especially considering that he had only 86 airplanes equipped with the bomb bay tanks that would enable them to reach Japan — and with an expected abort rate of 25 to 30 percent, getting that many planes over the target looked doubtful. Using the B-29s as transports again, it took another 10 days to move fuel, bombs and spares for the mission from India to the forward bases.

Since the B-29s, even with bomb bay tanks, were only capable of reaching Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese Home Island, the Joint Chiefs decided the primary target would be the Imperial Iron and Steel Works at Yawata, believed to produce 24 percent of Japan’s steel capacity. Despite the aircrews’ lack of night bombing experience, they were ordered to fly the mission at night in a stream rather than in formation. The weakness of this approach was that each plane would have to find and bomb the target individually.

On June 15, 68 B-29s, each carrying 2 tons of bombs, took off for the first raid against the Japanese mainland in more than two years. One airplane crashed on takeoff, and four more aborted with engine problems. Seven hours later, 47 B-29s found a blacked-out target almost completely obscured by smoke and haze. The other planes in the stream had either jettisoned their bomb loads en route because of mechanical problems, or tried to bomb targets of opportunity. Of those that found Yawata, 15 tried to make a visual approach, and the others depended on radar (the AN/APQ-13 mapping radar system that was still largely experimental). Poststrike photos revealed that only one bomb landed near the target — the steel mill was not even scratched. One B-29 was shot down by flak, and six more were lost in accidents. The mission was nevertheless hailed as a success by the American press — Japan had been attacked.

After that, when he was pressed to mount further attacks, Wolfe was resistant, telling Arnold that it would be impossible to stage new raids against Japan any time soon. Wolfe was summarily ordered to return to Washington, with Saunders put in temporary command. New mission orders came from the Joint Chiefs, and on July 7, 1944, 18 B-29s set out to attack four different industrial targets on Kyushu, causing negligible damage. The steel complex at Anshan, Manchuria, was bombed on July 9. Of 72 B-29s participating, one crashed on takeoff, 11 were forced to abort and four more were lost returning from the mission. Once again, bombing results were graded as poor. In August, 56 B-29s flew a 4,030-mile raid — the longest of the war — from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to bomb oil storage facilities in Palembang, Sumatra (Indonesia). Other B-29s laid mines in the Moesi River in Sumatra, and a third group attacked Nagasaki in western Kyushu. Again, damage to targets was minor.

The B-29 operations were a logistical mishmash compounded by a weird command structure, poor operational control and inadequate training. But not all the news was bad: The aircrews were learning to handle the B-29. They discovered, for example, that engine temperatures could be kept within tolerable limits if the takeoff run was extended and airspeed was allowed to build before beginning the climb.

Change of Command

On August 29, 1944, Curtis LeMay, the youngest major general in the U.S. Army Air Forces, arrived in India to take over XX Bomber Command. LeMay was not part of Hap Arnold’s inner circle as Wolfe had been, but had distinguished himself as a group commander, then as an air division commander with the Eighth Air Force in Europe, where he established the theater-wide pattern for heavy bombardment operations. After touring his new command, LeMay decided it needed to be reorganized: tactics, combat procedures, training, internal organization — everything. One of the first changes he made was to establish a school to train lead crews, who would find and mark the targets on missions. He discovered that many of the maintenance problems associated with combat operations stemmed from the way the groups were organized.

While XX Bomber Command was struggling in the CBI, a new development was unfolding in the Central Pacific. The island of Saipan, captured by U.S. Marines in July 1944, was within 1,600 miles of Honshu. More important, it could be resupplied by sea. The decision was made to send in the B-29s of the newly organized XXI Bomber Command as soon as the base could be readied. The 73rd Bomb Wing (Very Heavy), which had been training in the States since March, was slated to leave for Saipan in October.

The B-29s of the 58th Bomb Wing resumed combat operations in September, flying another raid against Anshan, in Manchuria. The results were mediocre. In mid-October, LeMay was ordered to attack various targets in Formosa in support of the planned invasion of the Philippines. On October 25, the B-29s attacked the Omura aircraft factory on Kyushu with the best results so far — due in part to the decision to use a 2-to-1 mix of incendiary and high-explosive bombs. Because of supply problems, however, particularly fuel shortages, further efforts to fly more missions against Japan were severely hampered. That caused LeMay to reduce the number of missions flown from the forward bases in China in favor of missions against Singapore, Borneo, Malaya and Sumatra, which could be staged out of India.

End of the Road

LeMay was fast discovering that to get anything approved he had to battle not only the complex logistical problems and command issues within the CBI, but also the headquarters staff in Washington. The Japanese were pressing the Chinese armies farther westward, threatening the China bases, and the relationship between Stilwell and Chiang Kai-shek was unraveling. On top of that, the 58th’s B-29s, the earliest production models, were beginning to wear out, in part because they had done double duty as transports. LeMay began to empathize more with Wolfe, realizing that many of the difficulties had not been under the former commander’s control.

By early November 1944, LeMay had gotten the unit to a much higher level of combat efficiency — the crews were better trained and the aircraft were better maintained — but it didn’t solve the overall problem. While B-29 missions continued against targets in Southeast Asia, Formosa and Kyushu, it was becoming apparent to LeMay, Arnold and the Joint Chiefs that sustained B-29 operations out of the CBI were of limited strategic value. The raids, averaging 50 to 60 B-29s, were delivering about 125 to 150 tons of bombs to the target, and not all the targets could be classified as strategic (i.e., war industries). During the same time period, the Eighth and Fifteenth air forces in Europe were putting 3,500 tons of bombs on a strategic target in a single day.

In December 1944, the Joint Chiefs decided that Matterhorn would be phased out and the aircraft and personnel of the 58th would be transferred to Tinian, one of the islands in the Marianas group near Saipan. Certain personnel and B-29s would be left behind in India under the command of Lord Mountbatten and would not join the others until March 1945. On January 6, 1945, Arnold announced that he was naming LeMay as new commander of XXI Bomber Command in the Marianas, replacing Brig. Gen. Haywood ‘Possum’ Hansell.

In all fairness, the attempt to operate the B-29s out of the CBI should be classified as an experiment. Even in a different combat theater with better logistical support, early B-29 operations would likely have proved difficult, given the teething problems associated with a complicated new aircraft. In fact, the XXI Bomber Command produced only marginal results during its first months of combat operations, resulting in General Hansell’s suffering the same fate as Kenneth Wolfe. It would not be until March 1945, with LeMay at the helm, that the B-29s started to inflict serious strategic damage on the Japanese Home Islands. By mid-1945, large segments of Japan’s major industrial cities had been reduced to rubble as a result of the Allied bombing effort. The Imperial Navy had been destroyed, and the Japanese army and air forces had been forced to move underground. Some military historians believe the Japanese would have surrendered by the end of 1945 even if the United States had not elected to use the atomic bomb.

In any case, Hap Arnold was on target in his prediction — a war can be fought and won through the right use of strategic air power.

For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!