Memorial Day Special: To Nagasaki With Pappy - One Year Before the Bomb (Part 1)
'Before we could reach the Yellow Sea we had to fly across all of China east of the Himalayas with much of this space occupied at critical points by Japanese anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft.'
This is Part 1 of my father’s account of a B-29 bombing mission over Nagasaki that he took part in as the flight engineer during WWII.
By Robert W. Earl (1920 - 2015)
We climbed into the trucks to ride to the briefing room at 10:30 in the morning of August 10, 1944. The day was sunny and clear enough to see the Himalayas of western China rising 18,000 feet about 70 miles to the west. On the way to briefing, Kit, our navigator, and I argued whether they were real mountains or clouds. When we arrived at briefing many of the other B-29 flight crews were already entering the main room.
Pushing through the crowd inside the room, we looked for the benches marked for Captain “Pappy” Miller's crew. The seating was arranged according to the rank of the pilot so we found our seats in the last row of the room. This troubled Pappy who had started looking for his seat in the very front of the room. After all, he had seniority in age and possibly hours. We watched him work his way toward us, his cigar drooping lower the closer he came to where we were.
I turned to Jack, our copilot. “Well, it's a good start, Jack,” I said. “Pappy's right in there pitching.”
“Hello boys. Everyone here,” Pappy asked.
“I guess so, Pappy,” I replied over the noise of the crowd.
“Yeah, Pappy. I think everyone’s in the crowd somewhere.”
Pappy turned to me. “I don’t like this raid.”
“You mean the incendiary bombing of civilians?”
“That's what I mean. But I guess wah is wah,” Pappy replied in his soft southern accent.
“Well Pappy, they’d do the same to us if they had a chance. In fact, they've already done it to the Chinese many times.”
Colonel Bain stepped up on the platform and called the room to attention. “We're going to bomb Nagasaki tonight with incendiaries. Our aiming point is the workers' housing section to the east of the dockyards. We will take off at 16:30 this afternoon at 30 second intervals and bomb the primary target at midnight.
After the briefing ended we took the trucks back to the living area and ate a good lunch of fried chicken. Then the rest of our crew went back to the tents to rest until time to leave for the flight line. But I gathered my equipment and caught a ride to our B-29 parked in a hard stand at the airfield.
Thousands of Chinese men and women built this new airfield in the province of Szechwen, China, solely to serve the B-29s of our bombardment group of the 20th Air Force. Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese government had conscripted over 200,000 Chinese men and women to build the four separate B-29 airbases in the vicinity of Chengdu, China. And many of these Chinese were still at work on parts of the airfield weeks after we arrived in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater with our B-29s in April 1944.
The 8800 foot runway, taxi strip, and hard stands were paved in naturally rounded, fist-sized stones carried in baskets to the airstrip from the banks of the adjoining river by individual workers. The workers first laid the stones by hand upon a base of sticky mud and sand. They then pressed the stones firmly into place beneath the weight of a ten-ton roller pulled and pushed by other hundreds of coolies. These four airfields amounted to man made miracles achieved in almost no time by the coordinated human endeavor of individual Chinese.
When I arrived at our hardstand on this pleasantly warm afternoon a crew from the airbase was guarding our B-29 Princess Eileen II (The first Eileen had crashed two months ago in a dry river bed in India with an engine fire). I asked the sergeant if all the last minute mechanical details were taken care of. He assured me, “Everything's already to go, Lieutenant.”
In line with my crew responsibility as the flight engineer, I spent the next hour making a final check of the huge bomber and preparing my forms for the first mission our crew was about to fly against the Japanese home island of Kyushu. Several other crews in our squadron had already bombed the island twice. The first raid hit the steel mills at Yawata on June 15; the second bomber the naval base at Sasebo on July 7, 1944. So tonight, August 10, 1944, would be the third bombing raid against Japan proper since Doolittle bombed it from the carrier Hornet on April 18, 1942.
After completing my preparations, I visited the B-29 parked next to ours and joined my friend and roommate Blackie, another flight engineering officer, for a short walk to the banks of the nearby river. Once there we were tempted to try our strength against the weight of a pair of apparently unattended baskets of stones someone had left near the water. The two baskets were slung from ropes attached to both ends of a hardwood pole designed to be balanced on the worker's shoulder.
So we each tried balancing the pole on our right shoulder while lifting the baskets off the ground. But the baskets were so heavy we were unable to budge them. Our complete failure at the task provoked friendly laughter from a Chinese worker, presumably the owner of the baskets, eating his lunch beneath the canopy of a sampan anchored in the river several yards off shore. We replied with equally friendly waves and smiles before returning to our B-29s to await the arrival of our crews.
At 3 pm, the trucks brought the crews out to the flight lines. Kit jumped off a truck while carrying his precious coffee without which he seemed unable to survive. Pappy walked up to me, “Is she all set, Bob?”
“As far as I can possibly tell, Pappy.”
“How are the bombs? Are they all fused?”
“I don't know much about fuses, Pappy. Tucker will have to check that.”
“Yes, they're all set, Pappy. Don't worry,” Tucker, our bombardier, replied.
A photographer drove up in a jeep and wanted to take the crew's picture. So we lined up in front of the airplane in our best hot pilot poses. Then Pappy had the photographer promise a print of the picture for each of us before he left.
For several minutes while awaiting the time to climb aboard a couple of us discussed the ethics involved in fire bombing Japanese civilians even if the Japanese army had behaved brutally toward Chines civilians at Nanjing and elsewhere.
Actually, fire bombing civilian populations for a strictly military purpose did not bother some of us as much as the present raid where any chance of a successful outcome actually furthering the war effort was unclear. More personally, there was also the thought that a successful raid against civilians would inspire less acceptance than hatred among the Japanese citizenry toward any airmen shot down and parachuted into their hands.
By contrast to our mission today from China, on this same evening, 58 other B-29s consisting of half of our own bombardment group, along with the three other B-29 bombardment groups that had accompanied us to the CBI theater, were scheduled to take of from a British airbase at China Bay near Trincomalee, Ceylon. From there they were to fly over 4,000 statute miles round trip across the Indian Ocean to bomb the Pladjoe Oil Refinery at Palembang, Sumatra. In the case of this raid, the enemy oil refineries were obviously self-validating military objectives. But due to the size of that mission to Palembang, our squadron was left with only seven B-29s to bomb Nagasaki.
Or present mission had actually already already begun with our flight yesterday from our main base in India across the “hump”, i.e. the Himalayas, to our airfield in China where we refueled and slept over night . Then this afternoon we were about to continue the mission by taking off from this airfield to fly across China and the Yellow Sea to fire bomb a few homes around the Nagasaki dockyards before flying all the way back to spend another night here in China.
The day after tomorrow we would finally complete the mission by returning across the hump to our home base near Calcutta – for a total of 7300 statute miles of flight and 17,220 gallons of 120 octane gasoline burned for each B-29 involved. To this must be added all the gasoline used by our B-29s in their many preliminary round trips across the hump from India carrying gasoline and bombs to China to accumulate enough fuel and bombs for this particular raid on Japan. Could there be any better illustration of Veblen's concept of “conspicuous consumption”?
As a final point in evaluating the effectiveness of this mission, any military advantage gained from the damage that could be done to Nagasaki by seven B-29s, each bomber carrying 85 incendiary, 20 frags, and three photo-flash bombs – only a fraction of the capacity of the two huge bomb bays – would be negligible judged from almost any point of view.
Nonetheless, as in the case of the Doolittle raid, the sole justification for tonight's raid on Nagasaki, an argument that more than outweighed every other consideration, was in reminding Japan and assuring Americans back home that Japan, itself, was no longer invulnerable. And indeed, these first three B-29 raids on Kyushu presaged the complete destruction of Japan by hundreds of B-29s over the course of the next twelve months.
Ten minutes before take off we walked over to the engines and pushed each of our four-bladed propellers through a full turn to check for any oil that unknown to us might have leaked into a cylinder and blocked the movement of the piston. Today, however, every engine worked smoothly.
So Pappy ordered us to our stations aboard the plane where we began reviewing our check lists. That task completed, Pappy checked by interphone with every crew member aboard while I used the regular engine starters to turn each of the engines over once again, this time to rid the cylinders of any accumulated volatile gases.
“How many more minutes, Pappy,” I asked.
“About three minutes we'll start our engines, Bob. How's everything? Are you all set?”
“Everything's OK, Pappy.”
I could hear the engines start on our squadron commander's B-29 at the far end of the taxi strip from our position. The loud sounds were immediately followed by the sounds of other engines starting up one after another while the ever increasing engine noise worked its way down the line of parked B-29s toward ours. As the B-29 in the hard stand next to us poured black smoke from its engines, Pappy turned to me and said, “OK Bob, start 'em up.”
All four engines started perfectly. I closely surveyed my instrument panel to check each engine for proper oil pressure and acceptable cylinder-head temperature, the two critical indices of impending engine fires in these inherently fire prone engines. All readings checked out perfectly. So I reported, “All set Pappy.”
“OK, Jack,” Pappy said to our copilot. “Ready to taxi.”
Pappy then informed the crew to stand by to taxi, and we moved out of the hard stand onto the taxi strip, our fragile engines roaring impressively. The gusts of wind from the whirling propellers of the B-29 located in line just ahead of us on the taxi strip created clouds of dust arising from the sand that all the other B-29s had blown back along the taxi strip toward our position.
The sandy particles swirled past my escape window nearly blocking my view of our number-three engine. This engine was located on the right wing slightly to the left and rear of my position inside the plane where I sat back-to-back with the copilot. However quixotic its true nature, every number-three engine, whether sick or healthy, had become my personal concern. It was the only closely observable engine out of the four and, therefore, the one engine with which I could fully interact and even identify (as when, through no fault of its own, Japanese bullets from a fighter plane put it, instead of Jack and me, out of commission.
Now while watching the dust fly past number-three engine, I worried whether the particles of sand would enter its cylinders and upon take-off provide the straw to break our “camel's” back. For all B-29 engines possessed a volatile temperament and with the least aggravation caught fire, the immediate power loss critically impeding airspeed and wing lift. And even the slightest engine malfunction on heavy take-offs could dump us in flames beyond the end of the runway. During the past four months since we arrived in the CBI theater, our four bombardment groups had already lost at least 89 out of a total of 146 available B-29s owning mainly to engine fire. Only an additional 13 had been lost in combat.
Steering our B-29 with the brake pedals, Pappy worked our way fitfully down the taxi strip toward the airfield runway where one after another of the B-29s in the line ahead of us were taking off. At last we we turned onto the final short leg of the taxi strip where we tested each engine separately in preparation for our own take off. Surprisingly, the cylinder-head temperatures, engine oil pressures, and each of the two rows of spark plugs on every engine checked out perfectly. Nevertheless, a deep foreboding over the future behavior of these engines remained.
Pappy informed me, “We're next, Bob.”
“Kit, keep the time for me now,” he advised our navigator.
“Thirty seconds,” Kit called as the B-29 bomber in front of us roared down the runway with its huge flaps half extended.
“How's everything, Bob,” Pappy asked.
“Oil pressure and cylinder-head temperature are OK, Pappy.”
“What's the hottest engine, Bob?”
“Number two, but it's OK, Pappy. It's only 230 degrees.”
“Fine, Bob. Keep 'em cool,” he said, as he pushed the throttles full forward.
Pappy's, as well as my own, persistent concern for our engines was fully warranted. The Wright and Pratt Whitney aircraft engines used in the two smaller B-17 and B-24 bombers throughout WWII were normally good for at least 1200 hours flight time before routine replacement with new or rebuilt engines. This was not the case with our much larger Wright engines.
For on May 1944, with our number-three engine and the wing behind it in flames, Pappy, Jack, three mechanics, the squadron flight engineer, and I had crashed our B-29 on a tree rimmed, brush-topped hill that luckily arose in front of us a less lethal option than the dry adobe-walled rice paddies of pre-monsoon India. Immediately following our crash, many of our remaining B-29s also crashed on fire as soon as their engines, like ours, had barely exceeded 50 hours flight time. We escaped our crash alive. From engine fires alone, 126 group crew members did not.
The eventual solution to this continuing catastrophe was to change all engines at 50 hours. However, that crucial decision was not made until September 1944 with the arrival of Major General Curtis E. LeMay. Long before that, however, one squadron commander had already found his personal solution when, in accordance with the Armed Services' time-honored indulgence of rank (“has its privileges”), he ordered the engines on his own B-29 changed after every flight.
This August afternoon as our B-29 thundered down the runway on take off, the instrument panel in front of me danced in time with the reverberations from the six huge tires pounding against the stone-surfaced pavement. Out of the corner of my left eye I could see the airfield control tower flashing past my escape-hatch window as I repeatedly checked the readings of engine performance appearing on the vibrating instruments. Contrary to all my expectations, the four engines were behaving magnificently.
Jack called out our air speed as we rolled down the runway, “100, 103, 105, … “ (miles per hour).
Great, I thought. We're doing over 100 mph past the tower.
“130, 135, Pappy,” Jack continued. Our airspeed was now more than enough for take off.
However, Pappy held the plane down to near the end of the 8800 foot runway before lifting the enormous bomber into the air. “Wheels up, Jack,” he ordered.
Jack snapped a switch and the landing gear groaned as the spinning nose wheels entered the wheel well located beneath the entrance-exit trap-door installed in the floor beside my seat.
“Flaps up slowly, Hack” Pappy ordered.
We were only 150 feet off the ground as we crossed above the houses of the Chinese village.
“How's the airspeed, Jack?”
“180, 185, 195, 200, Pappy.”
“The engine, Bob. How are the engines,” Pappy asked.
“Perfect, Pappy. Just as cool as they can be. The oil pressure is fine, and we're doing great.”
“Fine. Keep your eye on them, Bob. Watch out for planes, Jack.”
“There's a B-29 at three o'clock going in the opposite direction, Pappy,” Jack replied. “It's time to turn now.”
We took a new heading supplied by Kit, our navigator, and climbed over the low mountains to the east of our airfield on our ascent to the designated flight altitude of 12,000 feet. At last we were on our way to Japan. But before we could reach the Yellow Sea we had to fly across all of China east of the Himalayas with much of this space occupied at critical points by Japanese anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft.
It was still daylight after we had completed our climb and leveled off in the smooth clear air. The engines were working perfectly with appropriate cylinder-head temperatures and oil pressures. Looking out my window, I watched the 6000-foot high mountains pass by a mile below us. Their steep southern slopes appeared barren and dark brown in the late afternoon sunlight with no visible signs of habitation in the deep canyons. If we were forced to bail out over this inhospitable looking terrain, would we find any Chinese living there? I was relieved when we left this region behind and flew above terraced hills and valleys.
We were still flying over friendly territory when the sun went down. So far, the sky had been cloudless with only a slight evening haze scattering the light from the setting sun. Our continuing flight through the dark night above China reminded me of our nighttime flights across Oklahoma and Texas in the old B-17s we used for training. Here above China, as before over Oklahoma, small lights far below us reflected from the land, lakes, and rivers revealing lonely spots of human presence and endurance.
I called back to Kit and asked him when we would pass over the enemy corridor. He said he would let me know – probably in about fifteen minutes. Then he crawled past me to speak to Pappy. When he finished he turned to me and said, “Pappy keeps edging over to the north of the course I've given him.”
“Did you tell him?”
“That's what I was just talking about with him. He says he's trying to keep us on course but something's wrong with the automatic pilot.”
“Well, I guess you'll just have to keep reminding him.”
“It's all right now. I'm checking our position by comparing the bends in the rivers we cross with those on my maps. But when we get out over the water this continual flying off course doesn't help much in making landfall in the right place in Japan.”
Kit went back to his desk and started working again on his maps. After passing the advance line into enemy territory, we flew peacefully for another hour before we entered a bad storm. The rain pounded against the cabin windows, and the radio crackled with static. Blue St. Elmo fire skipped along the window frames.
Our radio operator called over the interphone from his station located slightly aft of the read gunners' compartment. He advised Pappy to turn a few degrees to the left to avoid a dense thunder cloud rising directly ahead of us. Pappy followed his advice as we dodged around other dense updrafts in the storm.
Radar called again to report a plane at nine o'clock level about a mile away and heading across our path. Kit cupped his hands over his scope to check on it. “It's disappeared from the scope,” Radar told him.
As Kit peered out his window into the black night, I watched him with mild interest. For I felt secure in the warmth and seeming remoteness from danger offered by the cabin. Pappy was dozing while Jack had control of the plane through the autopilot.
Kit suddenly jerked his head way from the window and shouted at Jack. “Dive, Jack! Dive the plane! There's another plane coming toward us too fast to dodge!”
Immediately the lighted cabin of another B-29 passed above us seemingly between the tail of our ship and our propellers. The top gunner called over the interphone, “Lieutenant! Did you see that ship just go by? I can't see how it missed us.”
Kit was so frightened he sat at his navigation table white faced, his hands slightly trembling. “Jack,” he demanded, “why didn't you dive this airplane?”
Jack turned his head back toward Kit to reply. “By the time I turned to see the lights coming at us, the plane had practically gone by.”
Pappy woke up with a start at all the shouting and called, “Whassat? Whassat? What's wrong? What's wrong?”
Jack explained that we had nearly collided with another B-29. Pappy didn't say anything, but looked out his rain-soaked window while chewing leisurely on his cigar.
According to Kit's predictions, we were now approaching the China coast. He brought his map over to me and pointed to a spot on it where we were supposed to leave the coast. From that spot we were to head across the Yellow Sea for the island of Cheju off the southern tip of Korea.
“Bob,” he said, “If you can see through any break in the clouds, try to tell whether we are over land or ocean. There's something wrong with this radar. It's not working properly.”
Radar called on the interphone that he was trying to find out what had happened to the scope which had suddenly stopped working. When we finally broke out of the storm well beyond the unseen coastline the sky above us was still heavily overcast so that Kit was as yet unable to use either stars or radar to determine our position.
An hour passed by. We had seen no lights from our other B-29s or from any ships on the sea below. Kit had crawled up beside Tucker, our bombardier, to search for any sign of the island of Cheju. The island had a large lighthouse that might still be in operation if our arrival remained a surprise. We were supposed to use a position just south of Cheju as the initial point for taking a southeast heading toward Japan. That heading would bring us over the coast of Japan at the exact spot to commence our bomb run on Nagasaki.
Tucker pointed ahead to a circling gleam of light on the far horizon. “There it is, Kit”, he shouted.
Kit crawled up next to Tucker to confirm the sighting. As he crawled back again past me he said, “Thank God for that. I was afraid we'd be far north of the island the way Pappy was constantly steering off course to the north. But the winds must be different than those they gave us because the lighthouse is right up ahead.” (Unknown to us, this island as Tsushima, 1 degree north and 150 miles farther east of Cheju.)
“How's the radar working, Kit,” I asked. “Can you see the island in it yet?”
Kit went back to his desk and called Radar who said he still had not found the trouble. “Keep trying,” Kit replied. “I think we're OK now, but we still need the radar over Japan.”
There were as yet no stars above us although the air was now smooth and clear below the high overcast. We left the revolving light behind us as we headed in our new direction toward the coast of Kyushu about three-quarters of an hour ahead of us. So we started our climb to the designated bombing altitude of 18,000 feet.
In the meantime, I pulled my flak helmet, vest, and knee pads out from behind my seat to have them handy when needed. I was already wearing a .38 caliber pistol and holster, canteen, trench knife, and a parachute with a jungle escape kit attached, all but the parachute useless in a bailout over Japan.
“There it is!” Tucker called. “We're coming onto Japan.”
I pressed my face against my window, trying to see ahead, but nothing was visible as far as I could see. I turned to Kit, “Can you see the coastline?”
“Yes. Get up and take a look.”
I crawled up to where Tucker sat and looked over his shoulder. In the distance I could see the mountains of Kyushu rising above a sea of fog.
“With all that fog, we won't be able to see the target, Kit,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “and they won't be able to see us either.”
I returned to my position and put the flak knee pads on my seat and sat down on them. I had seen an illustration posted on our squadron bulletin board showing Japanese anti-aircraft shells exploding primarily with an upward trajectory so that the flak was most dangerous when the shell either burst below you or scored a direct hit.
True or not, I felt much safer with the knee pads beneath me to supplement the seat cushion. I wore the helmet as it was designed to be used but kept the vest as a shield that I moved between me and any flak bursts visible through my escape-hatch window. Actually, this flak armor was essentially worthless against almost anything more penetrating than the proboscus of a mosquito, but the psychological support was wonderful.
“How are we doing, Kit”, Pappy asked. “Are we doing all right?”
“This doesn't look like what I have on my map, Pappy. I wish the radar would get working.”
Pappy called to Radar to check his scope. But it was still out of order. “Can you see any stars, Tuck?”
“Not yet, Pappy. They're all covered by the clouds.”
Kit was still sweating out our position while Pappy nagged him. “Haven't you any idea where we are, Kit?”
“I can't see anything I recognize, Pappy.”
“You think we're over Nagasaki?
“Pappy, there isn't a thing below except mountains.”
“All right, Kit. All right, Kit. We can't go flying all over Japan all night.”
“I'm trying, Pappy. But it just doesn't make sense by this map.”
“Tucker does this look like your photographs of the target area?”
“No it doesn't, Pappy.”
Jack called, “What's that up ahead? Hey Tuck, do you see that light up ahead?”
A searchlight shined upward from a clearing in the fog as the beam played on the overcast above us.
“I think that's the target,” Pappy said. “I'm heading for it. Try to identify it for us, Kit. Tucker, get your bombsight ready.”
In an instant we were caught in the beams of several searchlights. I looked out my window and directly downward into a brilliant reflector whose light had caught the windows of our airplane. The source of the light appeared huge and near enough to touch. By comparison the surrounding blackness was more dense than before. And in my imagination I could visualize Japanese soldiers crowding around the light, busily directing it straight at us.
A second searchlight had just caught the engine and wing outside my window. Nevertheless, I felt very safe at this moment although in similar situations later on I never did. Here I suspected that we were the first plane over this particular spot this midnight and that the surprised anti-aircraft gunners might be stumbling all over each other uncovering guns, loading, determining our altitude, aiming, and otherwise preparing to fire the shells at us before we disappeared from sight. In fact, no shells accompanied the searchlights.
Pappy shouted to Jack, “They've got us, Jack. They've got us in the lights! We've gotta get out of the lights. 2400 rpms, Jack!”