Combat Missions from A-5

A-5, our forward base at Kiunglai, China–one thousand miles west of Shanghai, in the Chengtu Valley. From here our B-29s could reach strategic targets in southern Japan, Manchuria, Formosa–as well as anywhere in Japanese held China. But, because of remote location, it was difficult and costly to provide fuel, bombs, ammunition, spare parts and other materials needed to support combat missions. Many air crews and aircraft were lost in this effort. We did, however, launch twenty-three missions from this forward base–focused, with few exceptions, on steel mills, aircraft factories, air depots and airfields.

Most missions kept crews airborne fourteen to seventeen hours–passing over rugged mountains–maps inaccurate–scanty and unreliable weather information. A large percentage of those hours over enemy territory. Flight Surgeons provided aircrews “pick up” pills for missions and shot of whisky on return. I always declined both.

When a combat mission went smoothly and successfully–no major mechanical or weather problems–no life-threatening emergencies–little or no damage from flak or attacking enemy aircraft, it would be remembered as “routine”–without elements of a war story worthy of telling and re-telling. But, of course, those were the missions we most wished for–made every effort to achieve.

While I experienced my share of “routine” missions, some others left special memories.

NAGASAKI

In mid-August, 1944, the Hellbird Group participated in a double mission. Some crews deployed to China Bay, a major British air and sea base in Ceylon. From there they flew the war’s longest combat mission–over four thousand miles–to lay mines in the Moesi River which ran from Palembang, Sumatra, with its oil refineries, to the sea.

Our crew, along with others from three Hellbird squadrons, deployed to A-5–from there flew mission to Nagasaki, Japan.

It was a pre-dawn take off. Awakened at 2:00 AM–some Chinese style breakfast–assembled at War Room for mission briefing. After briefing, gathered gear–headed for our B-29, sitting on hardstand beside taxiway. Completed pilot’s pre-mission ground inspection of aircraft–everything found satisfactory.

Waited in dark under wing until scheduled boarding time. These moments of waiting to climb aboard–usually 10 to 20 minutes–were always sober ones. Ready to head off to confront the elements and the enemy–well aware of hazards, perils, dangers. Thoughts of close friends and buddies who had flown off and not returned. Visions of attacking enemy fighters–flak filled skies–B-29s being hit, some going down. If able to bail out, would they be injured–captured–tortured–imprisoned? This was worry time for those so inclined–some would tremble. But when Aircraft Commander (Pilot) announced boarding time, all would swing into action–now plenty of activities to occupy the mind.

With aircrew all aboard, ground crew manually pulled propellers through–two complete revolutions for each engine–clearing out cylinders. Flight Engineer started engines–all running smoothly. On instructions from control tower, began taxi roll–joining in line with other B-29s ahead. Tower cleared aircraft for take off at 30 second intervals.

Light mist was in the air. After our plane left ground–passed last runway light—we were in pitch darkness. Clouds above–ground a sea of black–no horizon–not a light to be seen–farmers and villagers asleep.

Takeoffs were a time of hazard. Loaded with bombs and high octane fuel–engines dare not fail under high power stress of takeoff–or crash, horrendous fire and explosion must be expected. Engines had serious faults. Could not get off ground without cylinder head temperatures exceeding specified limits. Had to keep low over ground for several minutes–seemed much longer–picking up speed, tucking in cowl flaps–engine temperatures slowly edging down. Then could start climb.

 While skimming over ground in total darkness–only glow of instrument panel to be seen–air speed approaching 180 mph–pilot must be wary that any distraction which would draw eyes momentarily away from flight instruments–even a sneeze, or glance down to view a control or switch–could be fatal. These kinds of fatalities occurred.

Our engines running well–gained altitude–cleared mountain ranges–daylight came. Passed about 100 miles north of Shanghai. Could see heavy cloud banks stretching south–weather fairly clear to north. Crossed coastline–out over China sea toward Japanese island of Kyushu.

Time to start climb to bombing altitude–pushed throttles forward. Number two engine sputtered–then quit–had to feather propeller. Could not climb on three engines–reluctantly turned back.

Secondary target was Japanese docks at Shanghai. But earlier fly-by had shown Shanghai cloud covered–bombing would have to be by radar–far from precise–densely populated Chinese areas close by. Elected to seek target of opportunity.

Remembered seeing rail line to our north, running eastward toward coast–must terminate at some harbor–weather favorable up that way. Took route to check it out.

Approaching coast could see harbor ahead where rail line terminated. A port being used by Japanese to move goods and supplies to its armies in China. Could see a long dock with warehouses–train sitting with locomotive at end of last warehouse building. Told bombardier to get ready–would make run over line of warehouses which would be our target.

We were at 10 thousand feet, an easy bombing altitude. As we swung in wide arc to line up with target, a medium sized Japanese ship was pulling away from port at highest speed–fleeing expected bombing. We passed over ship, opened bomb bays and dropped string of 500 pound bombs on warehouses.

Our B-29s carried cameras for photographing bombing results. Later, pictures revealed direct hits on warehouses–last bomb landing directly on locomotive.

We headed west on direct route to A-5–flew for some distance over mostly flat, cultivated countryside–maintaining 10,000 feet–mountains yet to cross.

Then I noticed ahead, off to our right, an airfield. Could make out lines of fighter planes parked along runway–a juicy target. Could catch them cold–wipe out as many planes as possible–sweep building areas with heavy 50 caliber machine gun fire. Told gunners to get ready–would dive down, make low level strafing run on track between runway and building area–blast aircraft on left side–buildings on right.

But sober judgement quickly took over from emotion. In my hands, relying on my decisions, ten other lives at risk, as well as valuable B-29. Attacking airbase, even with parked fighters, was not our mission. Impossible to wipe out all aircraft in one pass–surviving planes could scramble–climb, fly, maneuver much faster than we–especially with one of our engines out. Remembered Skedsvold, Livingston, Fischer, others. Called off strafing run–turned to by-pass base–saw no fighters take to air–apparently, Japanese had never spotted us.

On to A-5–to fly and fight another day.

An observation. This is but one instance in which I experienced–or witnessed in others during combat–the inner tug-of-war between impulse and emotion vs. sound judgement and thoughtful decision. Battle is an arena evoking extremes of emotion–a caldron of fears–an incubator of heroes. In the movie “Patton” the General, addressing his troops before battle, used short colorful words to convey an important perspective, “You are not here to give your life for your country. You are here to make that other poor SOB give his life for his country.”

OMURA

Mid November, 1944. Target was a major aircraft factory at Omura, Japan–not far from Nagasaki. Secondary target was Shanghai–tertiary Nanking. I was flying lead aircraft for our squadron.

All was going well. Had passed north of Shanghai. Solid undercast stretched southward covering the city–it would be a radar target.

We were flying individually–would often catch sight of another plane or two of our squadron–expected later to gather into formation for attack on target.

Weather thickened as we cruised across China Sea. Hoped it would clear over Japan for visual bombing.

Radio Operator’s voice came over intercom, saying one of our B-29s had called to report message from A-5 instructing all planes to abandon primary target–unfavorable weather. Asked RO to call A-5 to confirm. He tried–but we were well over 1,000 miles from base –unable to make contact. Other squadron planes tried as well–without success. Several had heard message claiming to be from A-5. (Our RO had not heard–was busy sending out homing signal for all squadron aircraft to rendezvous on us and take up formation positions).

Was message valid–or a Japanese ruse to divert us from target? Unable to confirm, and knowing secondary (Shanghai docks) would require radar bombing, best decision seemed continuing on to primary regardless of weather.

Advised all squadron aircraft to proceed to primary target–gave each Aircraft Commander permission to decide, should weather seriously worsen, whether to turn back–to Nanking, not Shanghai.

Weather did worsen–continued on–climbed to bombing altitude. Turbulence–picking up clear wing ice. As we approached Initial Point (where bomb run commenced) we saw through thick cloud the ghostly outline of another B-29 directly below–watched it start turn toward target, apparently never seeing us–raised our plane to avoid other’s upraised wing. Other plane faded into cloud, unseen. For safety, waited a few seconds before making our turn toward target.

Now our Radar Operator was in control of the plane’s direction. Pilot’s role–maintain level altitude, constant airspeed, apply course corrections called for by Radar Operator.

The first course correction was larger than expected, but ok–soon a second correction called for in same direction even larger–then another still larger. How could this be? Terrific cross-wind must be blowing us off course. Had corrected more than 45 degrees by time for “bombs away”–unbelievable! No chance for bombing accuracy–surmised our costly bomb load had likely scattered over rice paddies.

Swung plane to turn homeward. Passing over Nagasaki–but in heavy clouds, so what? Japanese did not have radar controlled ack ack. Then suddenly heard explosions–plane bounced–ack ack shells bursting around us. Had broken out of clouds–Nagasaki directly below–heavy bank of clouds encircling city from ground to high above our altitude. We were crossing through the eye of a typhoon–except for ack ack puffs, air clear–blue sky above! Fortunately, were soon back into clouds and safe from further attack. Crew reported no damage to plane.

Had accumulated heavy wing ice from clouds. Began early let down to reach warmer air. Leveled off at 8,000 feet over China Sea. Temperature now well above freezing–cruised onward toward China coast and A-5.

Were surprised how long it took heavy, solid wing ice to melt away. Could see from cockpit windows huge expanse of ice rounding leading edge–covering under-side surface of wings. As we flew, hour after hour, could see crevices form–growing deeper and deeper. Some appeared at least a foot deep–a miniature glacier. Finally, as we cruised westward over China mainland, volume and thickness noticeably diminished. Last of ice did not disappear until we were approaching mountains within few hundred miles of Chengtu.

Ice must have been tremendously heavy. Difficult to understand how wings retained their lift and brought us home. But we made it safely. Thank you, “Rosie” (here meaning all who helped produce this mighty aircraft), you did a great job.

After arriving back at A-5, we learned that a U. S. submarine off southern tip of Japan had sent typhoon alert. Bomber Command received the info–relayed it to forward China bases. By time it was put over air to outbound aircraft, we were too far away for effective communication. About half the force continued on to Omura. Because of heavy weather and typhoon winds, aircraft factory was not hit–two B-29s were damaged by flak while passing through typhoon’s eye over Nagasaki.

A most unusual experience–bombing (or trying to bomb) an enemy target at typhoon center! Have often wondered how Japanese below must have felt–bombs bursting around them while being deluged and buffeted by a raging typhoon. What a way to go!

OMURA OVERVIEW

According to records the “General H. H. Arnold Special” (plane selected and signed by General “Hap” Arnold on his first visit to B-29 assembly line), assigned to 468th Bomb Group, had radar failure on this mission–could not bomb target–turned back. After flying some distance through heavy clouds–no radar for navigation–finally broke into better weather –found themselves far off course.

Crew decided fuel insufficient to make it back to China base–decided instead to land at nearer, friendly (they thought) Russian base, Vladivostok. Upon landing they were interned–not released till months later–after heavy U. S. diplomatic pressure.

In all, three B29’s made emergency landings in Russia–other two, “Ding How” (from same Squadron as “General H. H. Arnold Special”) and “Ramp Tramp” from Hellbird Group, piloted by Captain Jarrell.

“General H.H. Arnold Special” was totally dismantled and, on Stalin’s order, each of its more than 450,000 parts scrutinized, analyzed, exactly copied–new identical items machined–manufactured–assembled into exact Russian version of B-29–put into production as their own long range, heavy bomber. “Ding How” was kept intact as a true reference aircraft–“Ramp Tramp” utilized as trainer for Russian crews.

It was a massive, secret national effort–1000 key aircraft engineers–105,000 workers toiling around the clock–under eyes of KGB. It was successful–full-scale production ordered.

At the 1947 May Day Parade fly-over at Moscow, with high level western diplomats present, the world found out. Formation after formation of what appeared to be B-29s, but with Soviet markings, passed overhead.

Western nations were shocked. The balance of power had shifted. Stealing, copying and reproducing the B-29 had given Stalin a fleet of sophisticated long-range bombers capable of reaching the American homeland with nuclear weapons. Parity!

During the time we were flying those early B-29 missions out of China–pilots often talked about possible use of Russian airfields as emergency landing sites. Many of us vowed to never, under any circumstances, let a B-29 fall into the hands of another nation–especially not a Communist nation.

I remember Col. Kalberer expressing strong views on this–which I fully shared. America was collaborating with and assisting Russia in the defeat of Nazism. Communism remained the evil it had always been–would have to be faced one way or another after Hitler’s forces and the Japanese Empire defeated.

But at the time, it was politically correct to represent Russia as a “friendly” ally. Not all young B-29 pilots understood the sinister dangers of letting one of their planes fall into Communist hands.

It was a sad fact that no caution was given by higher authority on importance of keeping the B-29 from Communists–an error which impacted history–a major factor leading to long stand-off years of cold war–a terrible price to America and the free world.

The full story is dramatically told in a remarkable and informative documentary “Stealing The B-29”–shown on The History Channel. For those who might not have seen this eye-opening documentary, it is available from The History Channel in VCR format.