Tag Archives: Browning Machine Gun Caliber .50 AN-M2

24–25 April 1945

First Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight, United States Army Air Corps, (U.S. Air Force)
Aviation Cadet Raymond L. Knight, United States Army Air Corps. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

RAYMOND L. KNIGHT

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps.

Place and date: In Northern Po Valley, Italy, 24-25 April 1945.

Entered service at: Houston, Texas. Born: Texas.

G.O. No.: 81, 24 September 1945.

Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor

Citation: First Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight on 24 and 25 April 1945 in the northern Po Valley, Italy, piloted a fighter-bomber aircraft in a series of low-level strafing missions, destroying 14 grounded enemy aircraft and leading attacks which wrecked 10 others during a critical period of the Allied drive in northern Italy. On the morning of 24 April, he volunteered to lead two other aircraft against the strongly defended enemy airdrome at Ghedi. Ordering his fellow pilots to remain aloft, he skimmed the ground through a deadly curtain of antiaircraft fire to reconnoiter the field, locating eight German aircraft hidden beneath heavy camouflage. He rejoined his flight, briefed them by radio, and then led them with consummate skill through the hail of enemy fire in a low-level attack, destroying five aircraft, while his flight accounted for two others. Returning to his base, he volunteered to lead three other aircraft in reconnaissance of Bergamo Airfield, an enemy base near Ghedi and one known to be equally well defended. Again ordering his flight to remain out of range of antiaircraft fire, Lieutenant Knight flew through an exceptionally intense barrage, which heavily damaged his Thunderbolt, to observe the field at minimum altitude. He discovered a squadron of enemy aircraft under heavy camouflage and led his flight to the assault. Returning alone after this strafing, he made 10 deliberate passes against the field despite being hit twice more by antiaircraft fire, destroying six fully loaded enemy twin-engine aircraft and two fighters. His skillfully led attack enabled his flight to destroy four other twin-engine aircraft and a fighter airplane. He then returned to his base in his seriously damaged airplane. Early the next morning, when he again attacked Bergamo, he sighted an enemy plane on the runway. Again he led three other American pilots in a blistering low-level sweep through vicious antiaircraft fire that damaged his airplane so severely that it was virtually nonflyable. Three of the few remaining enemy twin-engine aircraft at that base were destroyed. Realizing the critical need for aircraft in his unit, he declined to parachute to safety over friendly territory and unhesitatingly attempted to return his shattered airplane to his home field. With great skill and strength, he flew homeward until caught by treacherous air conditions in the Apennine Mountains, where he crashed and was killed. The gallant action of Lieutenant Knight eliminated the German aircraft which were poised to wreak havoc on Allied forces pressing to establish the first firm bridgehead across the Po River. His fearless daring and voluntary self-sacrifice averted possible heavy casualties among ground forces and the resultant slowing of the drive which culminated in the collapse of German resistance in Italy.

1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight with a battle-damaged Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter bomber. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight with a battle-damaged Republic P-47D Thunderbolt fighter bomber. (U.S. Air Force)

Raymond Larry Knight was born 15 June 1922 in Houston, Texas. He was the third child of John Franklin Knight, a clerk, and Sarah Francis Kelly Knight. He attended John H. Reagan Senior High School in Houston, graduating in 1940.

Knight married Miss Johnnie Lee Kinchloe, also a 1940 graduate of Reagan High School, 5 June 1942. They had one son, Raymond Jr.

Knight enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Corps, 10 Oct 1942, and trained as a fighter pilot at various airfields in Texas. He graduated from flight school and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, May 1944. After advanced training, Knight was assigned to the 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th Air Force, at Tarquinia Airfield, Italy, in November 1944. He was promoted to first lieutenant in March 1945.

Lieutenant Knight flew 82 combat missions. He is credited with 14 enemy aircraft destroyed.

The Medal of Honor was presented to Mrs. Knight by Major General James Pratt Hodges at a ceremony at John H. Reagan Senior High School, 23 October 1945.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Lieutenant Knight was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters (six awards).

The remains of 1st Lieutenant Raymond Larry Knight, United States Army Air Corps, are interred at the Houston National Cemetery, Houston, Texas.

1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight and crew chief Sergeant Marvin Childers, with Republic P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 42-26785. This is the fighter bomber that he flew on the final mission. (U.S. Air Force)
1st Lieutenant Raymond L. Knight (at right) and crew chief Sergeant Marvin Childers, with Republic P-47D-27-RE Thunderbolt 42-26785, marked 6D5. This is the fighter bomber that he flew on the final mission. It was named “OH JOHNNIE” after his wife. (U.S. Air Force)

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was the largest single-engine fighter that had yet been built. The first P-47D variant was very similar to the preceding P-47C. The Thunderbolt which Raymond Knight flew on his final mission was a P-47D-27-RE, serial number 42-26785. He had named it OH JOHNNIE after his wife. The Thunderbolt’s bubble canopy had been introduced with the Block 25 series, and Block 27 added a dorsal fillet to improve longitudinal stability which had been diminished with the new aft fuselage configuration.

The P-47D-27-RE was 36 feet, 1¾ inches (11.017 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 9-3/8 inches (12.430 meters) The overall height was 14 feet, 7 inches (4.445 meters). The fighter’s empty weight was 10,700 pounds (4,853 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 17,500 pounds (7,938 kilograms).

The P-47D-27-RE was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged and turbocharged 2,804.4-cubic-inch-displacement (45.956 liter) Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp TSB1-G (R-2800-59) two-row, 18-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The R-2800-59 had a Normal Power rating of 1,625 horsepower at 2,550 r.p.m. to 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) and a Takeoff/Military Power rating of  2,000 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m. to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).¹ A large General Electric turbosupercharger was mounted in the rear of the fuselage. Internal ducts carried exhaust gases from the engine to drive the turbocharger. This supercharged air was then carried forward through an intercooler and then on to the carburetor to supply the engine. The engine’s mechanical supercharger further pressurized the air-fuel charge. The engine drove a 13 foot, 0 inch (3.962 meter) diameter four-bladed Curtiss Electric or Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The R-2800-59 was 6 feet, 3.72 inches (1.923 meters) long, 4 feet, 4.50 inches (1.340 meters) in diameter, and weighed 2,290 pounds (1,039 kilograms).

A flight of three Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. (U.S. Air Force)

The P-47D had a maximum speed in level flight of 444 miles per hour (715 kilometers per hour) at 23,200 feet (7,071 meters) with 70 inches Hg manifold pressure (2.37 Bar), using water injection. The service ceiling was 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). It had a maximum range of 950 miles (1,529 kilometers) with internal fuel, and 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers) with external tanks.

The Thunderbolt was armed with eight Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, four in each wing, with 3,400 rounds of ammunition. It could also carry external fuel tanks, rockets and bombs. The structure of the P-47 could be described as “robust” and it was heavily armored. The amount of damage that the airplane could absorb and still return was remarkable.

A total of 15,683 Thunderbolts were built; more than any other Allied fighter type. In aerial combat, it had a kill-to-loss ratio of 4.6:1. The P-47, though, really made its name as a ground attack fighter, destroying aircraft, locomotives, rail cars, and tanks by the many thousands. It was one of the most successful aircraft of World War II.

¹  A rebuilt R-2800-63 was run at War Emergency Power (2,600 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m.) for 7½ hours on a test stand, and was in running condition when the test was completed.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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23 April 1941

North American Aviation Mustang Mk.I AG345, c/n 73-3098, prior to camouflage paint. Note the short carburetor air intake compared to the photograph of the camouflaged airplane, below. The RAF serial number, barely visible, is stenciled on the rudder just beneath the trim tab. (North American Aviation Inc. 73-0-6)

23 April 1941: At North American Aviation’s Inglewood, California factory, test pilot Louis Sanford Wait takes the very first production Mustang Mk.I, AG345, (c/n 73-3098) for its first flight.

The Royal Air Force had contracted with NAA to design and build a new fighter with a 1,200 horsepower Allison V-1710 supercharged 12-cylinder engine. The first order from the British Purchasing Commission was for 320 airplanes, and a second order for another 300 soon followed.

Mustang Mk.I AG345. (North American Aviation, Inc. 73-0-5)

The Mustang Mk.I (NAA Model NA-73) was a single-place, single-engine fighter primarily of metal construction with fabric control surfaces. It was 32 feet, 3 inches (9.830 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 5/16-inches (11.373 meters) and height of 12 feet, 2½ inches (3.721 meters). The airplane’s empty weight was 6,280 pounds (2,849 kilograms) and loaded weight was 8,400 pounds (3,810 kilograms).

North American Aviation Mustang Mk.I AG345 (North American Aviation Inc.)
North American Aviation Mustang Mk.I AG345 (North American Aviation Inc.)

The Mustang Mk.I was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged 1,710.597-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Company V-1710-F3R (V-1710-39) single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The -F3R had a Maximum Continuous Power rating of 880 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at Sea level, and 1,000 horsepower at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters). It was rated at 1,150 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. for Take Off and Military Power. The Allison V-12 drove a 10 foot, 9 inch (3.277 meter) diameter, three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2.00:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-F3R was 7 feet, 4.38 inches (2.245 meters) long, 3 feet, 0.54 inches (0.928 meters) high, and 2 feet, 5.29 inches (0.734 meters) wide. It weighed 1,310 pounds (594 kilograms).

North American Aviation Mustang Mk.I AG345 (North American Aviation Inc.)

The Mustang Mk.I had a cruise speed of 311 miles per hour (500.5 kilometers per hour) at 75% power, and a maximum speed of 384 miles per hour (618 kilometers per hour) at 19,000 feet (5,791 meters). The airplane could reach 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in 8.80 minutes. The service ceiling was 32,000 feet (9,754 meters) and its range was 640 miles (1,030 kilometers).

The Mk.I was equipped with four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns, with one in each wing and two mounted in the nose under the engine. Four Browning .303 Mk.II machine guns were also installed, with two in each wing.

North American Aviation Mustang Mk.I AG345 (c/n 73-3098), front. (North American Aviation Inc.)
North American Aviation Mustang Mk.I AG345 (c/n 73-3098), front. (North American Aviation Inc.)

The Mk.I was 30 m.p.h. (48 kilometers per hour) faster than its contemporary, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, though both used the same engine. Below 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), the Mustang was also 30–35 m.p.h (48–56 kilometers per hour) faster than a Supermarine Spitfire, which had the more powerful Roll-Royce Merlin V-12.

Two Mustang Mk.Is, AG348 and AG354, were taken from the first RAF production order and sent to Wright Field for testing by the U.S. Army Air Force. These airplanes, assigned serial numbers 41-038 and 41-039, were designated XP-51. They would be developed into the legendary P-51 Mustang. In production from 1941 to 1945, a total of 16,766 Mustangs of all variants were built.

The first production Mustang Mk.I, AG345, first flight, 23 April 1941. (North American Aviation, Inc.)

Louis Sanford Wait was born 28 June 1908 at Superior, Nebraska. He was the first of two children of Dr. James Enos Wait, a dentist, and Alice Caroline Harrington Wait.

Wait enlisted in the Air Corps, United States Army, as an aviation cadet, in 1929. He trained as a pilot at March Field, near Riverside, California, and at Kelly Field, Bexar, Texas. Wait graduated 27 June 1930 and received his pilot’s wings and a commission as a second lieutenant, Air Corps Reserve. (O274973) Lieutenant Wait trained as an attack pilot and was assigned to Fort Crockett, Galveston, Texas.

From 1932 to 1935, Wait, having been released from active duty, was employed as a test pilot for the Boeing Airplane Company, Seattle, Washington.

By 1937, Lieutenant Wait was assigned to Headquarters Squadron, 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia, under the command of Brigadier General Robert Olds. While on 18 days leave, on 3 December 1937, Second Lieutenant Wait married Mrs. Elsie O. Callow (née Elsie Oliver) at Amityville, New York.

Wait married Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Croxen (née Mary Elizabeth Musser), 2 November 1944, in Los Angeles, California.

In August 1946, Louis Wait entered a P-51C Mustang, NX28388, in the Bendix Trophy Race. The airplane had been purchased by Jackie Cochran. She flew it in the race and finished in second place behind Paul Mantz.

In 1951, Wait was appointed general administrator of a new North American Aviation plant at the Fresno Air Terminal, Fresno, California. The plant, which employed about 400 people, manufactured and repaired parts for the T-6/SNJ Texan flight trainers, and performed modifications to F-86 Sabre jet fighters.

Louis Sanford Wait died 3 July 1963, at the age of 55 years.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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4 April 1940

Chief test Pilot H. Lloyd Child (left, wearing goggles and flight suit) with a P-40 Warhawk. (LIFE Magazine)
Chief Test Pilot H. Lloyd Child (left, wearing goggles and flight suit) and Herbert O. Fisher, Chief Production Test Pilot, look at a Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk. (Dmitri Kessel, LIFE Magazine)

4 April 1940: Curtiss-Wright’s Chief Test Pilot H. Lloyd Child took the first production P-40 Warhawk into the air for the first time at Buffalo, New York. The airplane carried the company serial number 13033, and had been assigned Air Corps serial number 39-156.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk 39-156. (U.S. Air Force)

The Curtiss-Wright Corporation Hawk 81 (P-40 Warhawk) was a single-seat, single-engine pursuit. It was a low-wing monoplane with an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear (including the tail wheel). The airplane was of all-metal construction and used flush riveting to reduce aerodynamic drag. Extensive wind tunnel testing at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory refined the airplane’s design, resulting in a significantly increased top speed.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk 39-156. (U.S. Air Force)
Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk 39-156. (U.S. Air Force)

The new fighter was 31 feet, 8-9/16 inches (9.666 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, 3½ inches (11.366 meters) and overall height of 9 feet, 7 inches (2.921 meters). The P-40’s empty weight was 5,376 pounds (2,438.5 kilograms) and gross weight was 6,787 pounds (3,078.5 kilograms).

Curtiss Model 81, P-40 Warhawk 39-156. (San Diego Air & Space Museum Archive)

The P-40 was powered by a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 1,710.597-cubic-inch-displacement (28.032 liter) Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-C15 (V-1710-33), a single overhead cam (SOHC) 60° V-12 engine with a compression ratio of 6.65:1. The V-1710-33 had a continuous power rating of 930 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at 12,800 feet (3,901 meters), and 1,040 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. for takeoff, burning 100-octane gasoline. It turned a three-bladed Curtiss Electric constant-speed propeller through a 2:1 gear reduction. The V-1710-33 was 8 feet, 2.54 inches (2.503 meters) long, 3 feet, 5.88 inches (1.064 meters) high, and 2 feet, 5.29 inches (0.744 meters) wide. It weighed 1,340 pounds (607.8 kilograms).

A 1939 Allison Engine Company V-1710-33 liquid-cooled, supercharged SOHC 60° V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. This engine weighs 1,340 pounds (607.8 kilograms) and produced 1,040 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. During World War II, this engine cost $19,000. (NASM)
Allison Engineering Co. V-1710-33 V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. (NASM)

The cruising speed of the P-40 was 272 miles per hour (438 kilometers per hour) and the maximum speed was 357 miles per hour (575 kilometers per hour) at 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). The Warhawk had a service ceiling of 30,600 feet (9,327 meters) and the absolute ceiling was 31,600 feet (9,632 meters). The range was 950 miles (1,529 kilometers) at 250 miles per hour (402 kilometers per hour).

Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk 39-156.

The fighter (at the time, the Air Corps designated this type as a “pursuit”) was armed with two air-cooled Browning AN-M2.50-caliber machine guns on the engine cowl, synchronized to fire through the propeller arc, with 380 rounds of ammunition per gun. Provisions were included for one Browning M2 .30-caliber aircraft machine gun in each wing, with 500 rounds per gun.

Captain Charles W. Stark, Jr., 35th Pursuit Squadron, climbing from the cocpit of Curtis P-40 Warhawk 39-188, at Langley, Field, Virginia, 1941.
Captain Charles W. Stark, Jr., 35th Pursuit Squadron, 8th Pursuit Group, climbing from the cockpit of Curtis-Wright P-40 Warhawk 39-188, at Langley, Field, Virginia, 1941. (Rudy Arnold Collection/NASM))

On 26 April 1939, the U.S. Army Air Corps ordered 524 P-40 Warhawks, the largest single aircraft order up to that time. Only 200 of these aircraft were produced in the P-40 configuration. The Army deferred its order to allow Curtiss-Wright to produce Hawk 81A fighters for France, however that nation fell to enemy forces before any could be delivered. 140 of these French contract fighters were taken over by Britain’s Royal Air Force, which designated them as the Tomahawk Mk.I. Another 16 P-40s were delivered to the Soviet Air Force, having been purchased with gold.

A newly-built P-40 Warhawk is transported from the Buffalo, New York, assembly plant to the airfield, circa 1940. (Unattributed)

The 8th Pursuit Group at Langley Field, Virginia, was the first Army Air Corps unit to be equipped with the P-40.

Curtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawks of the 8th Pursuit Group at Langley Field, Virginia, 1940.

On 30 May 1942, P-40 39-156 was being flown by 2nd Lieutenant Leon Marcel Zele, 55th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group, based at Morris Field, North Carolina. At approximately 11:00 a.m., the P-40 crashed near Iron Station, North Carolina. Lieutenant Zele was killed when the airplane exploded.

Chief Test Pilot H. Lloyd Child in the cockpit of aCurtiss-Wright P-40 Warhawk, circa 1940. (Rudy Arnold Collection/NASM)

Henry Lloyd Child was born at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 25 May 1904, the second of two children of Edward Taggart Child, a consulting engineer in shipbuilding, and Lillian Rushmore Cornell Child. He was baptised at the Church of the  Good Shepherd, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, 22 December 1913. Child graduated from Flushing High School in Flushing, New York, then attended the Haverford School in Philadelphia.

“Skipper” Child majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania where he was a member of the Hexagon Senior Engineering Society and the Phi Sigma Kappa (ΦΣΚ) and Sigma Tau (ΣΤ) fraternities. He was a member of the varsity and all-state soccer team (left halfback), and also played football and tennis. Child graduated with a bachelor of science degree, 15 June 1926.

After graduation from college, Child went to work for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation as an engineer.

Child joined the United States Navy, 23 November 1927. He was trained as a pilot at Naval Air Station Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Virginia, and was commissioned as an Ensign. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade), 7 November 1932, and to lieutenant, 11 November 1935.

While maintaining his commission in the Navy, Child returned to Curtiss-Wright as a test pilot. He made the first flight of the P-36 Hawk.

Child became famous as the “World’s Fastest Human” when he put a Hawk 75A demonstrator into a vertical dive from 22,000 feet (6,706 meters) over Buffalo Airport, 24 January 1939. It was believed at the time that he had reached a speed in excess of 575 miles per hour (925 kilometers per hour). A contemporary news report said that the needle of the recording instrument had gone off the edge of the graph paper, and that the actual speed may have been faster than 600 miles per hour (966 kilometers per hour).

H. Lloyd Child worked for Lockheed from 1958 to 1968, when he retired. He died at Palmdale, California, 5 August 1970 at the age of 66 years.

H. Lloyd Child, Curtiss-Wright Corporation chief test pilot. (Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 March 1945

Tony LeVier and the first prototype Lockheed XP-80A, 44-83021, in flight over southern California’s high desert, 1945. (Lockheed Martin)
Anthony W. (“Tony”) LeVier

20 March 1945: Tony LeVier was conducting a test flight of the first prototype Lockheed XP-80A, 44-83021, near Muroc Army Air Field (now known as Edwards Air Force Base).

The XP-80A was developed from the original XP-80 prototype, but was larger to incorporate a more powerful General Electric I-40 turbojet engine in place of the original Allis-Chalmers J36 (a license-built version of the British Halford H.1B).

The I-40 was a single-shaft turbojet which used a double-inlet, single-stage, centrifugal-flow compressor, fourteen straight-through combustors and a single-stage axial-flow turbine. The engine had a maximum speed of 11,500 r.p.m. and produced 4,000 pounds of thrust (17.79 kilonewtons). The I-40 was 48 inches (1.22 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,820 pounds (826 kilograms). The I-40 would be produced by Allison Division of General Motors as the J33 series.

General Electric I-40 turbojet engine cross section. (NASA)

At 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), LeVier put the XP-80A into a dive, intending to level off at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) for a high-speed run. However, at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), the single-stage turbine inside the jet engine failed and fragments tore through the prototype’s fuselage. The tail section of the airplane was cut off and the XP-80A went out of control.

An example of a turbine failure in a Lockheed P-80. (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

The XP-80A was not equipped with an ejection seat and LeVier had difficulty getting out, but finally escaped at about 4,000 feet (1,219 meters).

44-83021 crashed near the town of Rosamond and was completely destroyed. Tony LeVier’s parachute was swinging and he was severely injured when he hit the ground. His injuries kept him from flying for the next six months.

Lockheed XP-80A 44-83021 (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed XP-80A 44-83021 (U.S. Air Force)

The Lockheed XP-80A was a single-place, single engine prototype fighter. It was 34 feet, 6 inches (10.516 meters) long with a wingspan of 39 feet, 0 inches (11.887 meters) and overall height of 11 feet, 4 inches (3.454 meters). It had an empty weight of 7,225 pounds (3,277 kilograms) and gross weight of 9,600 pounds (4,354 kilograms).

Armament consisted of six Browning .50-caliber AN-M2 machine guns with 300 rounds of ammunition per gun.

Two XP-80As were built. These were followed by twelve YP-80A Shooting Star service test aircraft. The Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star was ordered into production with an initial contract for 500 aircraft. This was soon followed by a second order for 2,500 fighters.

Wreckage of XP-80A 44-83021 loaded on a flat bed trailer. (U.S. Air Force)
Wreckage of XP-80A 44-83021 loaded on a flat bed trailer. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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9–10 March 1945: Operation Meetinghouse

29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy), B-29 Superfortresses at North Field, Guam, 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

9–10 March 1945: at 17:35 local time, 9 March 1945, the XXI Bomber Command, Twentieth Air Force, began launching 325 Boeing B-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bombers from airfields on Guam and Saipan. This was Operation Meetinghouse, a night incendiary attack on the Tokyo Metropolis, the capital city of the Empire of Japan, and the most populous city on Earth.

Operation Meetinghouse was the single deadliest and most destructive air attack in history.¹

XXI Bomber Command was led by Major General General Curtis Emerson LeMay. The B-29 Superfortress bombers had been engaged in the U.S. Army Air Forces doctrine of precision daylight bombardment, but with limited success. Only a few days a month was the weather over Japan good enough for precision bombing, but the very high winds encountered dispersed the falling bombs, limiting the attackers’ accuracy. Also, though Japan did have major industrial centers, a large part of its war production was dispersed to small shops throughout the cities.

Major General Curtis LeMay, commanding XXI Bomber Command, Twentieth Air Force.

The B-29s had been designed to operated at high altitudes, bombing from 30,000 feet, but the long climb to altitude with a heavy load of bombs and gasoline strained the engines. Engine fires were common. The Wright “Duplex Cyclone” engines’ crankcases were made of magnesium alloy, and once burning, the engine fires could not be put out, and the bomber would be lost.

Further, bombing during daylight increased the vulnerability of the B-29s to Japanese air defenses.

General LeMay decided to change tactics. Under the new plan, the Superfortresses would bomb at night, at low altitude. As the construction of Japanese cities made them vulnerable to fires, the bombers would carry incendiary bombs rather than high explosives. The lower altitude would reduce the strain on the R-3350 engines.

LeMay did not expect much reaction from  enemy fighters during hours of darkness, so he ordered that, except for the tail guns, all defensive guns on the B-29s, along with their gunners and ammunition, be left behind. This reduced weight allowed him to order double the normal bomb load.

General LeMay also ordered that rather than attack in formations, the bombers would attack as individuals.

A Boeing B-29 Superfortress of the 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy). (U.S. Air Force)

Brigadier General Thomas Sarsfield Power, commanding the 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) based on the island of Guam, was in command of the air attack. The 314th dispatched 56 B-29s. The 73rd Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) and the 313th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy) took off from Saipan in the Marianas Islands, putting up 169 and 121 Superfortresses, respectively.

The B-29s began to arrive over Tokyo at 12:08 a.m., 10 March. The weather was clear with visibility 10 miles (16 kilometers). It was very windy, with surface winds blowing at 45–67 miles per hour (20–30 meters per second) from the southwest. The target was designated as a 3 mile × 4 mile (4.8 × 6.4 kilometers) rectangle in the northwest quadrant of the city. More than one million people lived inside the boundaries. It was one the densest population centers on Earth.

Armorers fuse 500lb incendiary bombs that have been loaded into a 500th Bomb Group B-29 Superfortress. (National Archives)

Flying at altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet (1,524–2,134 meters), the B-29s dropped their 7-ton bomb loads. As the cluster bombs fell they broke apart and the 38 6-pound (2.7 kilogram) AN-M69 bomblets in each cluster spread. These were filled with napalm and ignited by a white phosphorous charge. A total of 1,665 tons (1,510 Metric tons) of the incendiaries fell on the northeast section of Tokyo.

Incendiary cluster bomb.

The resulting firestorm burned out 15.8 square miles (40.9 square kilometers) of Tokyo, with only brick structures still standing.

Tokyo on fire during a XXI Bomber Command attack. (U.S. Air Force)

There can only be estimates of the casualties inflicted on the ground. It is known that 79,466 bodies were recovered. Following the War, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people had been killed, and 40,918 injured. Other estimates are much higher.

B-29 Superfortress bombers releasing incendiary cluster bombs.

Of the bomber force, 279 airplanes reached Tokyo. 12 were shot down and 42 damaged. 96 crewmen were either killed or missing in action.

Target Assessment Map, Tokyo Metropolis. The areas burned on the night of 9–10 March 1945 are shown in black. (United States Strategic Bombing Survey)
Tokyo burning, 10 March 1945. (U.S. Air Force 56542 A.C.)
Tokyo after Operation Meetinghouse. Only brick structures remain. (USSBS)
Boeing B-29 Superfortresses at Wichita, Kansas, 1944. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-29 Superfortress was the most technologically advanced—and complex—aircraft of World War II. It required the manufacturing capabilities of the entire nation to produce. Over 1,400,000 engineering man-hours had been required to design the prototypes.

The Superfortress was manufactured by Boeing at Seattle and Renton, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas; by the Glenn L. Martin Company at Omaha, Nebraska; and by Bell Aircraft Corporation, Marietta, Georgia.

There were three XB-29 prototypes, 14 YB-29 pre-production test aircraft, 2,513 B-29 Superfortresses, 1,119 B-29A, and 311 B-29B aircraft. The bomber served during World War II and the Korean War and continued in active U.S. service until 1960. In addition to its primary mission as a long range heavy bomber, the Superfortress also served as a photographic reconnaissance airplane, designated F-13, a weather recon airplane (WB-29), and a tanker (KB-29).

Boeing B-29-1-BN Superfortress 42-93843, the final Block 1 Superfortress, circa 1944.

The B-29 was operated by a crew of 11 to 13 men. It was 99 feet, 0 inches (30.175 meters) long with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.068 meters). The vertical fin was 27 feet, 9 inches (8.305 meters) high. The airplanes’s empty weight was 71,500 pounds (32,432 kilograms). Its maximum takeoff weight of 140,000 pounds (63,503 kilograms).

The B-29s wings had a total area of 1,720 square feet (159.8 square meters).  They had an angle of incidence of 4° and 4° 29′ 23″ dihedral. The leading edges were swept aft to 7° 1′ 26″.

The B-29 was powered by four air-cooled, turbocharged and supercharged, 3,347.66-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 18 (also known as the Duplex-Cyclone) 670C18BA4 (R-3350-23A) two-row 18-cylinder radial engines, which had a Normal Power rating of 2,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m., and 2,200 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m. for takeoff. They drove 16 foot, 7 inch (5.055 meter) diameter, four-bladed, Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 0.35:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-23A was 6 feet, 4.26 inches (1.937 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.78 inches (1.417 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,646 pounds (1,200 kilograms).

Boeing B-29A-30-BN Superfortress 42-94106, circa 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

The maximum speed of the B-29 was 353 knots (406 miles per hour/654 kilometers per hour) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters), though its normal cruising speed was 216 knots (249 miles per hour/400 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The bomber’s service ceiling was 40,600 feet ( meters) and the  maximum ferry range was 4,492 nautical miles (5,169 statute miles/8,319 kilometers).

The Superfortress could carry a maximum of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) of bombs in two bomb bays. For defense, it was armed 12 Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns in four remote, computer-controlled gun turrets and a manned tail position. The bomber carried 500 rounds of ammunition per gun. (Some B-29s were also armed with a 20 mm autocannon at the tail.)

B-29-40

A number of B-29 Superfortresses are on display at locations around the world, but only two, the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29A-60-BN 44-62070, Fifi, and B-29-70-BW 44-69972, Doc, are airworthy. (After a lengthy restoration, Doc received its Federal Aviation Administration Special Airworthiness Certificate, 19 May 2016.)

A B-29 of the 9th Bomb Group landing at Iwo Jima 10 March 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ (a.) Hiroshima: A single B-29 dropped a 16-kiloton atomic bomb on the city. Approximately 5 square miles (12.9 square kilometers) of the city were destroyed by the detonation and resulting firestorm. Estimates are that approximately 70,000–80,000 people were killed immediately, and about the same number injured by the detonation and resulting firestorm. (b.) Nagasaki: A single B-29 dropped a 21-kiloton atomic bomb on the city. 60% of the structures were destroyed. An estimated 35,000 people were killed immediately by the detonation and resulting firestorm.  (c.) Dresden: The raids of 13–15 February 1945 included 1,296 RAF and USAAF heavy bombers, dropping high explosive and incendiary bombs. The resulting firestorm destroyed approximately 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) of the center of the city. Afterwards, 20,204 bodies were recovered. The most recent estimates are that approximately 25,000 people were killed.    .

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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