If any single aircraft type could be said to have brought the Second World War to an end – it is the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Two aircraft of the type, a B-29, ’44-86292′, ‘Enola Gay’ and B-29, ’44-27297′, ‘Bock’s Car’ dropped atomic weapons – ‘Little Boy’ a Uranium 235 bomb, and ‘Fat Man’ a Plutonium 239 weapon - on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (August 6th, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9th, 1945) respectively.
This effectively brought the Second World War to an end, whilst causing immense suffering to the civilian population of these two cities. Despite the long, and worthy, arguments as to the use of these atomic weapons, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and the U.S. President, Harry Truman) undoubtedly had the projected Allied casualty lists for a seaborne invasion of the Japanese Home Islands in front of them – over one million casualties were projected for ‘Operation Downfall’, the two-stage invasion comprising ‘Operation Olympic’ and ‘Operation Coronet’.
In 1939, long before even the first of the USAAF’s Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers had been deployed to European bases, the Boeing company had recognised that a successor aircraft would have to have hemispherical reach if it were to provide crushing blows to enemies such as Germany and Japan (at this stage, the use of the projected aircraft from British bases had not been ruled out). The next Boeing bomber would have to be bigger and heavier, and fly further and faster and higher than any bomber before. It was to carry 20,000 lbs of bombs, have a maximum speed over 350 mph and a range in excess of 3,500 miles. To build this monster of an aircraft would take all the facilities of Boeing, and more. One of the first casualties was their own Boeing XPBB-1 Sea Ranger, a technically sophisticated flying boat (whose wing would resemble, in some respects, that of the B-29, and used the same type of Wright R-3350 radial engines, producing around 2,200 hp). The Boeing factory at Renton, Washington, which built the Sea Ranger was needed for B-29 production. The finalized bomber design included pressurized crew compartments, and remote-controlled gun turrets containing .50 calibre Browning heavy machine guns, which were sighted from small ‘astrodome-style’ bubbles (there was also a conventional tail turret, initially containing two Browning machine guns and a 20mm M2 cannon).
Here we can see a beautifully restored B-29A at the New England Air Museum, Windsor Locks, Connecticut. It is finished as ‘Jack’s Hack’, ’44-61566′, a B-29A of the 468th Bomb Group, 58th Bomber Wing (Very Heavy), based on Tinian, during the fire-bombing campaign which obliterated most of the larger Japanese urban areas. The 58th Bomb Wing Association has worked alongside the staff and volunteers at NEAM to produce the superb restoration you can see here, today. The aircraft is housed in its own facility, the ‘Helen and James Pattillo 58th Bombardment Wing Memorial Hall’, and is surrounded by other related exhibits telling the story of the 58th BW(VH); James L Pattillo flew B-29s with the 793th Squadron of the 468th Bomb Group, 58th Bomb Wing out of West Field, Tinian. He retired as a full Colonel in 1966.
The aircraft is actually a composite airframe consisting of most of ’44-61975′ and the rear fuselage of ’44-61739′, both of which came out of the US Army Proving Ground at Aberdeen, Maryland (most other existing B-29s were recovered from the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, California where they were used as targets).
There is one slight anomaly, in that the dorsal turrets are both missing, giving ‘Jack’s Hack’ the appearance of a ‘Silverplate’ aircraft; these were the nuclear-capable B-29s, specially prepared for their mission by removing the gun turrets, with the exception of the rear gunner’s station. This is a temporary omission, as ‘Jack’s Hack’ needs to have the complex turret well assemblies fabricated, before the turrets can be re-fitted to the airframe.
Whatever your thoughts on the bombing of Japan – either the fire-raids or the nuclear attacks – the B-29 was a remarkable technical feat. The initial operational use of the Superfortress - 'Operation Matterhorn', prior to the capture of the Marianas - was incorrect; the type flew from bases that were constructed BY HAND in eastern China, and all fuel and supplies had to be flown into China over the Himalayas. The supply lines were impossibly long, and the jetstream conditions were all wrong for the high-level precision bombing of Japan.
Once US forces captured Pacific islands which were within range of the Japanese Home Islands, the missions from China and India were phased out. There were many changes in tactics, mission profiles, command structure and even weapon loads, but, despite setbacks, the Superfortress won in the end – for everyone.