First Combat Mission

Our busy schedule of flights over the Hump to China was suddenly interrupted. Orders received–strike Markasas railway shops at Bangkok, Thailand. First B-29 combat–a shakedown mission for 58th Bomb Wing.

Choice of target made sense. Although attacking Japan from forward bases in China was first priority, many strategic targets lay within range of home bases in India. Scheduling first shake down combat mission from India bases would accomplish objective without drawing upon fuel and supplies flown to China at great cost. Destruction of railway shops and facilities at Bangkok would seriously disrupt movement of Japanese troops and war supplies in region, while giving B-29 Groups a first exercise against enemy target. From four Groups, 98 B-29s were launched for this attack. Bomb bays loaded with 500 pound general purpose bombs. Fuel and bomb tonnage calculated for getting most bombs on target while allowing margin of safety for fuel.

Mission plan called for formation bombing–lead plane of first squadron following prescribed route–passing over initial point–then straight run to target. Other squadrons in formation close behind. Bomb loads to be released by Norden bomb sight, visibility permitting–if not, by radar. All aircraft to hold close formation positions and release bombs at same moment with leader.

Hellbird crews chosen to fly first mission were pleased–eager to go. Mission briefing completed–loaded aircraft carefully checked over–we climbed aboard. Aircraft of each squadron took off in sequence–joined in formation–on our way.

Col. Charmichael (Group Commander) was to lead mission. However his aircraft soon developed engine trouble–had to return to base. Alternate leader led first squadron–other squadrons following in line.

Pilots flying formation have little opportunity to view landscape–but knew we passed Calcutta area–across coastline–out over Bay of Bengal. Before long weather clouded up–became turbulent. Were passing through intercontinental front (intersection of continental air mass and tropical oceanic air mass)–always a rough and bumpy ride.

Long periods of formation flying are, at best, tiring work. Fighting dense clouds and turbulent air in formation–hour after hour–is not only difficult, but leads to much throttle jockeying–consumes more fuel. Bay of Bengal behind–passed over Burma–into Thailand–to initial point. Turbulence now eased, but still in heavy weather. Leader turned formation northward–straight line toward Bangkok and target. No chance of visual bombing–must rely on radar.

B-29s were equipped with new advanced radar equipment–the APQ 13–designed especially for hitting weather obscured targets. Radar operators had been sent to special school for qualification on this equipment.Schooling not completed by time Groups departed overseas–they later joined us in India. None had opportunity for training flights with crews–none had made a B-29 bomb run (my radar operator’s first flight in a B-29).

On bomb run over target, lead plane’s radar operator could not get target lined up properly–no bomb drop. Pilot turned and took formation all way back to initial point–circled–lined up again for Bangkok–second bomb run. Another unsatisfactory approach–back to initial point. Formation crews by now becoming irritated and anxious. A third bomb run–finally, bombs away. But we had flown many extra miles–depleting fuel reserves.

Crews relieved to now be headed homeward–formations could be loosened–everyone more relaxed. At least, bad weather had kept Japanese flack and fighters at bay.

Back again through turbulent front–easier now with formations spread out.

So far so good. But then number one engine suddenly quit–tried, but could not restart–engine feathered. Flight engineer concerned whether we had sufficient fuel to make it back to Piardoba. Watched gauges closely. Upon approaching India coast–fuel tanks low–knew we must land at nearest base–Dum Dum–near Calcutta. Shorter narrower runway than our own bases, but satisfactory for lightly loaded B-29.

Coming into base, instructed flight engineer to make sure number two fuel tank had a bit more fuel than others–could not afford to lose number two engine–both engines out on same side is hazardous situation, especially at low altitude. Also told him to ready controls for instant transfer of fuel from another tank to number two in case of pressure drop–keeping hand on switch, eyes glued to manifold pressure–start transfer at any hint of pressure drop.

All seemed well–closing in on runway–good engines carrying some power for landing just beyond lip of runway. Co-pilot calling out altitude as we neared ground–100 feet–75 feet–50 feet. Suddenly left wing dropped and nose of aircraft swerved left–number two engine had quit–out of gas! A difficult situation at such low altitude and low airspeed. (Flight engineer later told me that when co-pilot called off altitude 50 feet he felt certain all was safe–turned eyes away to watch out window–did not see pressure drop, nor activate fuel transfer switch).

Managed to level wings–but path of plane had shifted so that left wheels landed off edge of narrow landing strip. Wing cut through tops of encroaching brush like giant mowing machine. With extra drag and no power on left side, right brakes not enough to bring left wheels back onto landing strip.

Still, situation would not have been serious except that, beside landing strip, a small brick building (now abandoned) had been built within reach of B-29’s long wing. Striking this building crushed forward edge of wing–force broke main structure of fuselage. All crew OK, but our beautiful aircraft would not fly again. A sad day, indeed–my first aircraft accident (as it turned out, thankfully, the only one of my 27 years of military flying).

An aircraft was dispatched from Piardoba to return our crew home.

In all, five aircraft were lost on Bankok mission–none to enemy action. The shakedown mission revealed numerous flaws–important lessons learned. Perhaps most important–do not fly entire route in formation. On future missions we flew by individual aircraft–used rendezvous point at convenient, safe position not too far from target for joining into formation. Much improved procedure–easier, safer, more efficient.