If you measured the importance of a warplane’s legacy based on its longevity, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress doesn’t even make the top 10. But if you were to use a different yardstick—its impact—or yet another one—its technological advancement over the hardware it replaced—it’s arguably the most important plane to ever go to war.
It’s also the subject, in a roundabout way, of four episodes of best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, in which he profiles General Curtis LeMay, again, in a roundabout way. LeMay headed the United States Strategic Air Command for three decades and was the principal architect of the bombing campaigns in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, including the firebombing attack of Tokyo in 1945, which really is the subject of the podcasts.
If you know anything about the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, it’s likely the fact that two of these planes, the first called Enola Gay, the second, Bockscar, were used to drop one atomic bomb each on two Japanese cities in 1945, Hiroshima on August 6, and three days later, Nagasaki on August 9. Estimates on the number of Japanese people killed in the two raids vary from just over 125,000 to 225,000. The two nuclear attacks remain the only two uses of nuclear munitions in time of war.
As the United States took the advantage against Japan in the Pacific theater, American planners knew that the key to bringing the war to Japan while avoiding getting caught up in a long and bloody land, sea and air war was twofold. The first was getting a bomber with a much greater reach than the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-25 Mitchell Bomber, neither of which had enough range to get to Japan, conduct a bombing mission and then return safely to a U.S.-forward airfield.
The B-25 had been used in an attack against Tokyo in 1942. The strike, informally known as the Doolittle Raid (after Jimmy Doolittle, the mission commander), was more propaganda than strategy, and the attack was close to a suicide mission. Of the 16 B-25s that launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, 15 were lost, and the surviving plane was captured by Soviet forces. Out of 80 airmen aboard the 16 planes, 69 survived, and even then only by their ingenuity and determination.
By August of 1945 the game had changed, as a new bomber was ready to fly. The B-29, which had been used from distant bases in China, was a quantum leap in bomber capabilities. The fruit of a $3 billion development project, the B-29 had range of 3,250 miles. And after the United States captured the Mariana Islands from Japanese forces, the U.S. quickly built four forward air bases, on Tinian, Saipan, and two airfields on Guam. In all, hundreds of B-29s were stationed at the four bases, which were just 1,500 miles south of Japan, meaning a B-29 could take off from one of the bases, conduct its bombing mission and then return home with some fuel in reserve.
Though it was tagged “Superfortress,” nod to another game changer, the B-17, which was used in heavy bombing against Germany in the war in Europe, the B-29 was an altogether better airplane. It featured a pressurized cockpit and rear crew area, four Wright Duplex-Cyclone 18-cylinder turbo-supercharged engines and the power to carry far greater payloads than the B-17 and carry them much farther, enabling crews to strike targets that were previously unreachable, such as Tokyo.
The attack that is the focus of Gladwell’s podcast is the March 9-10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, known as Operation Meetinghouse, which destroyed more than 15 square miles of the city, killing an estimated 100,000-125,000 people and injuring a hundred thousand more while destroying the homes of more than a million people. It was the first widespread use of a new weapon called Napalm, developed by scientists at MIT. The raid could not have been conducted without the B-29. The same is true for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In his podcast, Gladwell takes a subtly critical view of the development of weapons and delivery systems for them, which caused mass casualties. LeMay is said to have worried that he would have been tried as a war criminal had the United States lost the war. At the same time, Gladwell gives the arguments for such attacks much attention. There were two main arguments in favor of attacking cities. Civilians, proponents of chemical and atomic warfare argued, are part of the war effort of the enemy nation, so they are valid targets of bombing. Perhaps more persuasive was the argument that such bombings prevent an even greater loss of life. Without these twin rationales, there would have been no B-29, no Manhattan Project and no napalm–the jellied gasoline-based agent used in hundreds of attacks in Japan and later in Korea and Vietnam.
Even by 1950, which saw the beginning of the United States’ involvement in the Korean War, the B-29 was a front-line bomber, though its days were numbered. The introduction of jet fighters, chiefly the MiG-15, made the big piston engine bomber too vulnerable, and mounting losses sealed the deal. The United States lost nearly 100 B-29s during the Korean conflict, most of those from shootdowns by MiGs. Only one MiG, conversely, was downed by a B-29 crew. Within a few years the B-29 would be relegated to secondary roles such as search-and-rescue, as more powerful and long-range bombers starting with the B-36 and culminating with the B-52, took over the Superfortress’ front-line bombing role.
A few years later, the B-29 also played a role in another, much happier story. It was the mothership for the first supersonic plane when it dropped the Bell X-1 piloted by Chuck Yeager from its modified bomb bay on October 14, 1947.
So while the B-29 was a technological marvel that pushed the limits of aerospace design, it was quickly overtaken by new technologies (all of which were enabled by the development of the turbojet engine) that led to aircraft of then-unimaginable capability. Two of the B-29’s missions, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could only have been flown by that one aircraft, the B-29. Those two missions are hopefully the last such attacks that we will ever see.