When William J. Carter died of pneumonia in Decatur, Ga., on Nov. 3, 2011, the United States lost a World War II veteran who was on the scene for the most destructive bombing mission in history, the Tokyo firebomb mission carried out on the night of March 9-10, 1945.
“Reb,” as the northerners in his crew called Carter, was the left blister gunner on a four-engine B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber named God’s Will piloted by airplane commander Capt. Dean Fling. In that final year of the war, Carter was among American crewmembers on three islands in the Marianas – Guam, Saipan and Tinian – who were bombing the Japanese home islands. New Yorker magazine editor St. Clair McKelway, who was temporarily in uniform as public affairs officer for Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, called these crewmembers “the thousand kids” and wrote of the “wonderful urgency and exhilarating secrecy” of the long-range, high-altitude war they were waging.
Bugs and Bombing
LeMay is viewed today as the architect of the B-29 campaign against the Japan, but it took time for him to find his way.
By the time “Reb” Carter’s crew had flown their fourth mission on March 4, 1945, the campaign had had three commanders, the precision-bombing tactics that had worked brilliantly in Europe had failed over Japan and, as McKelway wrote, “Our kids were flying their hearts out on the longest missions in history and dropping the most bombs ever dropped and they weren’t hitting anything.”
Winds over Japan – the jetstream, newly discovered by meteorologists at the great heights where the B-29 flew and fought – were confounding the vaunted Norden bombsight and were scattering bombs like confetti. “There were other problems,” Carter recalled. “We had an accident-prone aircraft, a troubled command arrangement, and the wrong tactics.”
The B-29 was the most advanced warplane in the world. It had an elaborate system of remotely controlled defensive guns. It was pressurized, which meant that crews could work in shirtsleeves when everything was going right.
But the B-29 was one of the most cantankerous machines ever to attain mass production. Superfortresses were being rushed off factory lines and crews were training in Kansas and fighting in India and China before basic mechanical failings were addressed. Never fully resolved at any point in the B-29’s marathon career was the long roster of technical glitches with the troubled 2,200-horsepower Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone 18, twin-row turbocharged radial pistol engines.
The R-3350 leaked oil. It caught fire. It seized. Not for nothing was the B-29 the only large aircraft on which the flight engineer was usually an officer trained as a pilot – in effect, a third pilot for a plane that needed that many.
“B-29s had as many bugs as the entomological department of the Smithsonian Institution,” wrote LeMay. “Fast as they got the bugs licked, new ones crawled out from under the cowling.”
Because of the heat and the imperfections of the R-3350 and its carburetors, pilots could not follow the usual practice of keeping the engines running while waiting in a long line to take off. A pilot had to start, shut down, and restart the engines while waiting his turn to begin the takeoff roll. It made tempers flare. Carter was almost thankful that he’d been born with no sense of smell. The journey from parking revetment to runway’s end made some crewmembers sick.
The early B-29 bombing started under Brig. Gen. Kenneth Wolfe with aircraft based in India and staging from China; the first mission took place on June 5, 1944. With the seizure of the Marianas island chain, B-29s could be based in Guam, Saipan and Tinian, initially under Maj. Gen. Haywood “Possum” Hansell, who replaced Wolfe. But high-altitude precision bombing raids were missing Japanese military and industrial targets. Because Hansell wasn’t getting results, Army Air Forces commanding general Henry H. “Hap” Arnold fired him and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay on Jan. 20, 1945. At first, struggling against the jetstream, the R-3350, and Japanese flak and fighters during high-altitude missions, cigar chomping, unsmiling LeMay wasn’t getting good results, either.