“It was not the airplane I wanted to fly. I was horrified because of all the bad stories I had heard about the B-26 Marauder. I’d heard all kinds of things – for example, I’d heard you couldn’t fly it on one engine so if an engine went out on takeoff you would crash.”
James Vining, 87, of Oakton, Va., a retired Air Force captain, was talking in July 2012 about the largest twin-engined bomber built by the United States during World War II.
“The Widow Maker.” “The Flying Coffin.” “The Baltimore Whore.” These were names foisted on the B-26, built by the Glenn L. Martin Company in the Baltimore suburb of Middle River and also in Omaha. At a training base in Florida, the legend grew that the B-26 was so dangerous, crews were crashing “one a day in Tampa Bay.”
Martin built 5,288 of them. First used in the Pacific in 1942, they also fought in the Mediterranean Theater and in Northern Europe. Powerplant was two Pratt & Whitney R-2800s of 2,000 horsepower each – on an aircraft with a reputation as a crew killer, one of the most reliable reciprocating engines ever built.
The reputation of the B-26 for crashing right and left was mostly a myth, but the aircraft could be demanding: Its 150 mile per hour speed on a short final approach was intimidating to pilots who were accustomed to slower speeds, and whenever they slowed down below what the approach speed the manual stated, the aircraft would stall and crash.
Vining, born in 1925, “had an ambition to fly the biggest thing available” and was told that at 135 pounds he didn’t weigh enough to pilot the B-17 Flying Fortress. “You have to wonder what they were thinking, because it took ten times as much muscle to handle the B-26,” he said.
“I learned that in its early days the B-26 produced more than its share of problems, but the real reason for its poor reputation was inexperienced instructors. And, the B-26 may have gone to war prematurely. It did well in the Pacific. It had a few defects: the Curtiss Electric propeller would run away. They never changed the propeller. They just worked out the details. As for the instructors, they beefed up and expanded the training program – which was never as bad as people thought – and it improved.
“My first B-26 training base was Dodge City, Kan. I really was depressed going out to Dodge City. I got there and found the base closed for a week because of a blizzard. They were running low on aviation fuel. So we climbed aboard a Marauder and flew to Amarillo, Texas to pick up some fuel and that was my orientation flight in the B-26.
“The instructor showed me everything you’d heard the plane couldn’t do: You couldn’t stall it, you were doomed if you lost an engine (we landed on one engine with that load of gasoline). That experience was like a religious conversion.
“There were two transition bases: Dodge City and Del Rio (by then, MacDill Field in Tampa had transitioned to B-17 training). We practiced single-engine procedures while under the hood on an instrument flight; they didn’t do that at Del Rio.
“Real accident rates were far lower than the B-26’s reputation suggested. In fact, the B-26 performed well in the hands of a capable crew and became the backbone of Ninth Air Force’s campaign, operating from bases on the ground on the European continent.
“We got aboard the B-26 by climbing up through the nose wheel well. The guys in back climbed into waist windows. You had to be acrobatic: they didn’t have ladders for the waist openings. You could move back and forth inside the aircraft. The crew consisted of pilot, co-pilot, bombardier and three gunners, one a radioman, one an engineer, one an armorer.
“Starting engines we had a guy on the ground with a fire extinguisher staying on alert in case of fire. He would signal the pilot to start the prop. You started with the left engine, the no. 1 engine. We started each combat mission knowing exactly when we were expected to taxi out; you had to be in the right place at the right time because we took off in 20-second intervals. You got up and got into a formation and headed out.
“We had to fly with no heat because the heaters were built around the exhaust stacks and if those got hit you’d have carbon monoxide inside the plane. We were not pressurized. We did not have oxygen even though we sometimes flew at 12,000 or 13,000 feet. They simply figured we didn’t need it.
“We could fly a combat mission at around 315 miles per hour, which made us a difficult target for an enemy fighter. One name for the B-26 that wasn’t so derogatory was ‘The Flying Torpedo,’ based on its shape.”
Inside the B-26
Vining, who was wounded when shot down by a German jet, said that the interior of the Marauder “was a mix of ‘new car smell’ combined with ‘hot metal smell;’ it’s difficult to describe.”
Despite a superb war record, most Marauders were put out to pasture once the fighting ended. When the newly-independent Air Force changed some aircraft terms in June 1948, it took one step which has sown confusion ever since. With the last Marauder gone, the service re-assigned the B-26 appellation to a different plane, the Douglas A-26 Invader – which remained in service under the B-26 designation well into the 1960s. Both aircraft with the B-26 nomenclature enjoyed distinguished careers, but over the years the Marauder has become the less recognized of the two.
“The thing that’s easy to overlook is that we were relatively comfortable in an aircraft where we had enough room to turn around, stretch, and loosen up our bodies once in awhile. A full and robust crew was just what we needed in the challenging environment in Europe. And, yes, the Marauder was a grand old lady in another way. She could sustain damage and bring you home. The one time mine didn’t, it was shot to pieces from one end to the other.”