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Nemesis: 20th Air Force

The 20th AF differed in many ways from the organizations previously described, as it was formed for the specific task of taking a new and untried bomber, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, into battle over Japan. The 20th remained under the direct control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, but in practice, command was exercised by Gen. H. H. Arnold through two bomber commands, the 20th (India and China) and 21st (Marianas Islands).

Men at work: the co-pilot of a B-29 seen from the navigator's position, with the control wheel just visible. The officer is wearing the standard GI lifebelt and is 'grabbing a snack' - note the discarded paper cups in the central aisle.

The other air forces covered so far were responsible to the commander of the theatre of operations in which they operated. Most of their targets were of a tactical nature, and their operational directives reflected the need to assist other land or sea operations. However, the 20th AF was intended from the outset as a strategic organization which would move as directed from Washington against Japan's industry, rather than her armed forces. The 20th was activated in Washington in April 1944, by which time one combat wing of four Superfortress groups was on its way to India.

This move was not without its difficulties; the B-29 had been rushed into overseas deployment when a few more months of training and development would have been invaluable. The Superfortress was one of the largest aircraft then on operational status in any air force, and it had several novel features, including fully pressurized crew cabins and remote-controlled gun turrets. By early 1944 the only pan of Allied territory that was within Superfortress range of Japan was Allied-controlled China. Even here, the fact that all supplies to Chinese bases had to be air-lifted over the Mump proved exceedingly trouble-some. Special transport units were allocated to deal with this problem, and some B-29 bombers were modified to act as tankers as well.

The plan envisaged that the aircraft would be based in India, and would stage through airfields in the Cheng-tu region of China on their raids over Japan. The bombers flew out to India via North Africa between March and June 1944. Four groups, the 40th, 444th, 462nd and 468th, formed the 58th Wing, which was in turn under the control of the 20th Bomber Command, which was located at Kharagpur, India. Engine failures and operational problems such as take-off crashes with heavily loaded aircraft were all troubles which had to be solved.

Rarely photographed because of the special radar equipment they carried. B-29s of the 315th Wing carried a diamond device, in this case enclosing the letter 'B' to denote the 16th Bomb Group. Although lucking gun turrets, the machine retains tail defence and tail-warning radar, the spherical housing for which can just be discerned below the extreme rear fuselage.

The 20th BC flew its first combat mission on 5 June 1944, against Bangkok; ninety-eight aircraft took off from the Indian bases, one crashing shortly after take-off and seventy-seven bombed the railway yard at Bangkok, the primary target. Five aircraft were lost, and it took several days to round up stray bombers from various diversionary' airfields, where several had landed with assorted mechanical troubles.

The next Superfortress raid was the long-awaited first strike on Japan. The bombers staged through the Chinese bases to attack the steel works at Yawatta, although the Indian bases were barely completed in time and the advanced bases in China had been built by an army of peasant labourers. In the absence of airfield construction machinery, runways were laid by hand, the Chinese using picks and shovels and thousands of wheelbarrows brought from their family plots. Operating from these forward bases, which were able to provide only the most basic needs of a bomber unit, was to be a most difficult problem in the coming months. Added to this were the inevitable shortages caused by having to airlift all kinds of supplies, tools, spare parts and every drop of petrol over the Himalayas.

Each B-29 left its Bengal airfield with a full load of ammunition and bombs, and required only fuel from the Chinese staging airfield. Two heavily loaded take-offs per sortie proved taxing on both men and machinery, engine wear being a great problem on CBI-based Superfortresses.

The Yawatta raid was scheduled for 15 June 1944, to coincide with the landings on Saipan, it being hoped that the appearance of US bombers over the home islands would divert Japanese forces from the Marianas. Of the sixty-eight Superfortresses dispatched, forty-seven actually bombed the steel works in a night raid. Results were difficult to evaluate because of haze and smoke, but the raid was hailed as a milestone in America as the first raid on Japan since Doolittle's gallant effort in April 1942.

This raid had set the pattern for CBI-based Superfortress raids. Other targets attacked from China during the latter part of 1944 and early 1945 included Sasebo and Omura in Japan, Hankow and Aashan in China. Palem-bang, in Sumatra, was attacked on to August by Superfortresses staging through an airfield in Ceylon.

On 29 August Gen. Curtis E. LeMay assumed command of the 20th BC, replacing Gen. K. B. Wolfe, who had brought the command to India after overseeing the testing and development of the entire B-29 project. On 5 November, Superfortresses from India attacked the naval dockyards at Singapore. Primary target was the King George VI Graving Dock, which was hit by at least two 1,000lb bombs, causing it to flood. Bombing from a height of 20,000ft, this attack was a landmark in 20th BC operations. Another outstanding operation was the incendiary raid on Hankow on 18 December, in which riverside dock and warehouse facilities were badly damaged in a crippling attack on the Japanese Army supply base.

However, events elsewhere had overtaken the CBI-based 20th BC. The invasion of Saipan, Guam and Tinian in the Marianas had provided Allied-held territory from which Superfortress attacks could be mounted. Moreover, they were much closer to the USA than the CBI, and there would be no need for an effort-sapping Hump supply operation. Accordingly, the next Superfortress wing due for overseas movement, the 73rd, was diverted to Saipan.

An enormous airfield construction programme was initiated, and existing Japanese airstrips were rapidly enlarged. At least two giant runways were to be built at each airfield, along with hardstands, servicing areas and headquarters buildings.

The incoming personnel from the four bomb groups lived in tents until they could build their own living quarters. By 28 October, the new 21st BC sent the first of its B-29s on one of several shakedown missions against Japanese islands. General Hansell, the 21st's commander, had intended to fly on the operation, but his aircraft was one of the four to abort. By the end of November, the 73rd's four groups, the 497th, 498th, 499th and 500th, were in position on Isley Field; they were all based at one airfield, setting a pattern for all future Very Heavy Bomber Groups, as B-29 units were designated.

Men at work: B-29 ground crew probe the innards of a Superfort's starboard engines while a refuelling crew top up the tanks. The vehicle in the foreground is the ubiquitous GMC 2½-ton tanker.

On 24 November, the Marianas-based Superfortresses attacked the Musashino aero-engine plant near Tokyo, in the first attack on Japan from the Marianas. B-29s from all four groups of the 73rd Wing took pan, 111 machines being led by 'Dauntless Dotty' of the 497th Group. Bad weather had forced at least two postponements of the mission, but when at last it was dispatched, an army of soldiers, marines, airfield construction workers and ground crews lined the runways to watch the giant bombers lift off.

In 'Dauntless Dotty' was Brig.-Gen. 'Rosy' O'Donnell, Commanding General of the 73rd Wing, whilst in the right-hand or co-pilot's seat sat Maj. Robert K. Morgan, better known as the one-time pilot of the 8th AF's famous B-17F 'Memphis Belle'. The 20th AF had a number of airmen throughout its organization with experience of operations with other air forces.

Men at work: bomb casings were unloaded from trucks onto small trollies for the fins to be fitted prior to being pushed under the bomb bay and hoisted up into the racks. This type of trackage was not 'GI' and was a good example of the improvisation in which ground crews indulged.

There were seventeen aborts, and only twenty-four aircraft unloaded on the primary target, another sixty-four dropping their bombs on dock and urban areas. But although the first B-29 operation from the Marianas could hardly be termed a success, it set the pattern for the first three months of operations by the 21st BC. By the first week of March 1945, Musashino had been hit eight times, and still stood. Every possible difficulty had been encountered, varying from high winds at the altitudes at which the bombers flew to undercast that made visual bombing very difficult. The tactics used were those which had proved so successful elsewhere - high-altitude, close-formation daylight bombing Other targets which had been attacked during this period included Nagoya, Akashi and Kobe.

In January 1945, Gen. Arnold had reshuffled his 20th AF commanders. General LeMay came from the 20th BC in China to the Marianas to take over the 21st BC, while Hansell returned to the USA to head an expanded B-29 training organization. Brigadier-General Roger Ramey went from the 21st BC to the CBI to become the Commanding General of the 20th BC.

A second wing of Superfortress groups had arrived in the Marianas by this time and had begun operations in February 1945. This was the 313th Wing, also with four groups; the 6th. 9th, 504th and 505th. This wing was based on Tinian Island, adjacent to Saipan, and, like the 73rd Wing, occupied one large airfield.

On assuming command, LeMay launched several more high-altitude formation attacks, with varying results. A programme of lead crew training, similar to that used in the CBI, was then started and ditching drills and air-sea rescue procedures, the cause of a number of personnel losses, were tightened up.

Tragedy - No. 192 of the 345th's 498th 'Falcon' Sqn. on fire during a low-level raid on the Byoritsu oil refinery, Formosa, on 26 May 1945. Immediately to the rear of the stricken Mitchell are parachute bombs, probably dropped by the aircraft from which this photograph was taken. No. 192 crashed a few seconds later, killing the pilot, Lt. Robert Kanuf, and all four other crew members. With its aircraft rigged as strafers by the fitment of extra nose guns the 345th Group conducted numerous missions at ultra low level; there was little chance for the crew if their aircraft look a vital hit.

Lying half-way between Saipan and Japan, Iwo Jima became a haven for damaged Superfortresses. Eventually, a complete service organization was established on the island, along with fighter groups to escort the Superfortresses over their targets.

Montage of 5th Air Force Liberator nose art. Included in the 23 pictures arc aircraft of the 20th CMS and 90th and 43rd BGs.

Meanwhile, at Arnold's request, LeMay dispatched several incendiary raids against Japanese cities. Results indicated that such strikes resulted in greater destruction than normal high-explosive loads. After carefully weighing the arguments for and against, a plan was devised to fire bomb the major Japanese cities from an altitude of 10,000ft, instead of the usual 20 to 30,000ft. LeMay was of the opinion that the Japanese had no viable defence against night attack, and an experimental nocturnal raid was scheduled. One of the advantages of bombing from lower down was that there would be no petrol-consuming close formation flights, and more fuel would be saved because there would be no need to climb to a great altitude. Furthermore, in this initial raid, it was decided to save weight by leaving out the ammunition for the guns of the bombers, which resulted in a big increase in bomb load, an average of about six tons per Superfortress.

Briefing for the mission planned for the night of 9-10 March 1945 was a traumatic affair; the instructions were heard in stunned silence by the majority of crews. The entire doctrine and theory around which the Superfortress was conceived was being disregarded, based as it was on the established concept of daylight formation precision bombing of specific targets.

Much of the reason for this radical departure from accepted practice by in the nature of the targets. Tokyo, for example, was crammed with small industries, many of them modest family businesses, all feeding the Japanese war machine and located in the heart of the teeming city-centre. The structure of these buildings was such that they were far more vulnerable to fire than any comparable Western city. A few airmen conceded that the precision attacks of the Superforts so far made on Japanese industry were somewhat disappointing, and realized that LeMay's bold plan was an attempt to get the campaign back on the rails. Grudgingly, they decided that it might work. Most pilots expressed worry over the possibility of collisions and thoroughly briefed their gunners, who, without weapons, were to act as 'scanners', to maintain an alert lookout for other bombers. Other airmen doubted the wisdom of carrying no weapons - if the Japanese did possess a night- fighter force, the 21st BC could lose many aircraft. The comparatively low altitude over the target concerned others, and they felt that the Japanese flak would cause many losses. LeMay, however, was a veteran of the European theatre and had personally led many attacks on some of the roughest targets in north-west Europe. He considered Japanese flak far less dangerous than the German variety. In the end, it was LeMay's personal decision to launch the raid. If it failed, the losses could be very heavy, and his career as a bomber commander would be over.

A maximum effort was ordered for the operation, involving 334 aircraft, a record number at that time. Apart from the 73rd and 313th Wings, the newly arrived 314th Wing provided some aircraft from its 19th and 29th Bomb Groups. Two other groups, the 39th and 330th, were not yet ready for operations.

More of Al Merkling's handiwork on the nose of a 20th CMS F-7, the cleverly composed 'American Beauty'.

Aircraft of the 314th Wing took off first at 1735hrs on 9 March. They were some forty minutes earlier than the Saipan- and Tinian-based 73rd and 313th Wings because the 314th's base at Guam was farther from Japan than Saipan or Tinian. Nearly three hours were required to get the whole force airborne. The first bomb actually fell on Tokyo shortly after midnight, and within a few minutes the fires raged out of control. The raid was highly concentrated, as the intervalometers in most bombers were set to release the incendiary clusters every 50ft on the target run. Before long, the many conflagrations fused together to form a huge fire storm, which swept unchecked through the city. Destruction was enormous, and over sixteen square miles of the Japanese capital was devastated. Violent thermal updraughts threw some of the 60-ton bombers thousands of feet in the air; crews were choked by- smoke and acrid fumes which entered the cabins, and the airmen were forced to use their oxygen masks, although the flight was below oxygen height.

On the ground, horror piled on horror as the fire storm, previously seen only in Hamburg and Dresden, swept over the city. Many listed targets were in the burned-out area, and Japanese accounts listed 83,000 dead and at least 40,000 injured. The US losses were fourteen aircraft, but five crews were picked up by air-sea rescue units.

On their return, crews were elated at the success of the raid, and airmen left off the roster for the first one clamoured to go on the next, which was not long in coming. On 11 March, less than twenty-nine hours after the last B-29 had returned from Tokyo, the first of 313 aircraft began to take off for Nagoya.

A latecomer to the Pacific war was the B-32 Dominator, developed as an insurance against the failure of the B-29. Several engineering problems delayed the type's combat debut and only one unit, the 386th BS of the 312th BG, formerly equipped with A-20 Havocs, received Dominium before VJ Day. In this photograph, 42-108529, named 'The Lady is Fresh', stands at Florida Blanca airfield in the Philippines. One of the first B-32s to arrive in the area, the machine flew several missions before an engine fire grounded it. Shortage of parts kept the 'lady' on the ground until VJ Day and she arrived on Okinawa on 20 August.

A force of 285 Superfortresses reached Nagoya and dumped its incendiaries over a part of the city which included several aircraft plants, but the attack did not repeat the vast devastation seen two nights before in Tokyo. As well as being a more modern city with fire breaks in the streets, Nagoya had a more efficient fire department, and there was a lack of surface wind to spread the fires, factors which combined to limit the damage to a total of slightly over two square miles. Even so, to the citizens of Nagoya, the attack must have been a shattering experience. A US submarine reported wood smoke 150 miles offshore. By the late afternoon of 13 March, 301 bombers had been again readied for take-off, their target this time being Osaka. As a precaution on the Nagoya raid, each bomber had carried 200 rounds of ammunition for the tail guns, as it was thought that the Japanese would have stepped up their defences after finding that B-29s that had crashed after the Tokyo raid had been unarmed. For the Osaka strike, the aircraft flying in the lowest height band also had ammunition for their two lower turrets, as there may have been an opportunity to knock out searchlights in the target area. The 274 Superfortresses which got over the target bombed by radar through cloud and burned out over eight square miles of the city. The chief commercial district and 119 major war factories were utterly destroyed.

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