Tag Archives: Twentieth Air Force

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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12 April 1945

Private First Class Henry Eugene Erwin, Air Corps, United States Army, circa 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

MEDAL OF HONOR

STAFF SERGEANT HENRY EUGENE ERWIN (Air Mission)

  • Rank and organization: Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 52d Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group, 20th Air Force
  • Place and date: Koriyama, Japan, 12 April 1945
  • Entered service at: Bessemer, Ala.
  • G.O. No.: 44, 6 June 1945

Citation: He was the radio operator of a B-29 airplane leading a group formation to attack Koriyama, Japan. He was charged with the additional duty of dropping phosphorus smoke bombs to aid in assembling the group when the launching point was reached. Upon entering the assembly area, aircraft fire and enemy fighter opposition was encountered. Among the phosphoresce bombs launched by S/Sgt. Erwin, 1 proved faulty, exploding in the launching chute, and shot back into the interior of the aircraft, striking him in the face. The burning phosphorus obliterated his nose and completely blinded him. Smoke filled the plane, obscuring the vision of the pilot. S/Sgt. Erwin realized that the aircraft and crew would be lost if the burning bomb remained in the plane. Without regard for his own safety, he picked it up and feeling his way, instinctively, crawled around the gun turret and headed for the copilot’s window. He found the navigator’s table obstructing his passage. Grasping the burning bomb between his forearm and body, he unleashed the spring lock and raised the table. Struggling through the narrow passage he stumbled forward into the smoke-filled pilot’s compartment. Groping with his burning hands, he located the window and threw the bomb out. Completely aflame, he fell back upon the floor. The smoke cleared, the pilot, at 300 feet, pulled the plane out of its dive. S/Sgt. Erwin’s gallantry and heroism above and beyond the call of duty saved the lives of his comrades.

Crew of the B-29 Superfortress “City of Los Angeles:” Front row, left to right: Vern W. Schiller, flight engineer; Henry E. Erwin, radio operator; Howard Stubstad, CFC gunner. Standing, Pershing Younkin, navigator; Roy Stables, pilot; William Loesch, bombardier; Leo D. Connors, radar bombardier; George A. Simeral, aircraft commander. (Alabama Department of Archives & History Q8799)

XXI Bomber Command’s Mission #65 for 12 April 1945 was an attack against the Hodogaya Chemical Plant (Target #2025) at Koriyama, a city on the island of Honshu, Japan. The chemical plant produced tetraethyl lead, a critical ingredient in high-octane aviation gasoline. Eighty-five B-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bombers took of from their base at North Field on the island of Guam, the largest and southernmost of the Marianas. Each bomber was loaded with 500-pound (227 kilogram) AN-M64 general purpose demolition bombs. The planned time over the target was 12:35–13:26, with the bombers attacking at altitudes of 7,000 to 9,000 feet (2,134–2,743 meters). The weather report for the target area was clear, with visibility of 15 miles (24 kilometers).

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

Koriyama was 1,506 miles (2,424 kilometers) from North Field. With a round-trip distance of 3,041 miles (4,894 kilometers), this was the longest bombing mission flown up to that time.

Navigation Track Chart, XXI Bomber Command Missions No. 64 and 65. (U.S. Air Force)

City of Los Angeles, a Martin-Omaha B-29-25-MO Superfortress, 42-65302, was the  lead ship of the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 29th Bombardment Group. The Superfortress was under the command of Captain George Anthony Simeral. The 52nd squadron’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene O. Strouse, was on board as co-pilot.

B-29 Superfortress very long range heavy bombers of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy), XXI Bomber Command. (U.S. Air Force)
Aogashima (Landsat)

The 52nd Squadron’s assembly point was over over Aogashima, a small volcanic island of the Izu archipelago in the Philippine Sea, 222 miles (357 kilometers) south of Tokyo.

It was near this island that City of Los Angeles‘s radio operator, Red Erwin, dropped white phosphorus signal flares to give the squadron a visual reference point.

When the faulty signal flare prematurely ignited, it burned at about 1,300 °F. (704 °C.) and filled the cockpit with dense smoke. The other crew members could not see the difficulty Erwin was having trying to drop the flare overboard.

Erwin was gravely injured. Phosphorus self-ignites in the presence of air. With particles of phosphorus all over, his body was still on fire. The phosphorus could not be extinguished.

A B-29 Superfortress circles Mount Suribachi, a 554-foot (169 meter) volcano at the southwestern end of Iwo Jima, circa 1945.

Captain Simeral aborted the mission and turned City of Los Angeles toward the island of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, where an emergency landing field for the B-29s had been built. Iwo was the closest point where Erwin could receive medical treatment.

Erwin’s injuries were so severe that he was not expected to survive. He was evacuated to Fleet Hospital 103 at Guam.

Fleet Hospital 103, Guam, 1945. (U.S. Navy)

Major General Curtis E. LeMay, commanding XXI Bomber Command, and Brigadier General Lauris Norstad, Chief of Staff, Twentieth Air Force, sent a recommendation for the Medal of Honor to Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Forces in Washington, D.C.

The nearest Medal of Honor was in a display case in Hawaii. Because Erwin was not expected to survive, that medal was obtained and flown to Guam so that it could be presented while he was still alive. In a ceremony held in Orthopedic Wards 3 and 4 of Fleet Hospital 103, Major General LeMay and Major General Willis H. Hale, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, Pacific Ocean Areas, and Deputy Commander, Twentieth Air Force, presented the Medal of of Honor to Staff Sergeant Henry Eugene Erwin, United States Army Air Forces.

Flight crew of B-29 City of Los Angeles and Staff Sergeant Henry E Erwin at his Medal of Honor presentation, 19 April 1945. Major General Willis H. Hale, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, Pacific Ocean Areas, is at right. (U.S. Air Force 170331-F-ZZ999-102)

General LeMay told Sergeant Erwin that, “Your effort to save the lives of your fellow airmen is the most extraordinary kind of heroism I know.”

General of the Army Henry H. Arnold, commanding the U.S. Army Air Forces, wrote to him, “I regard your act as one of the bravest in the records of the war.”

Red Erwin was the only crew member of a B-29 Superfortress to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II.

Red Erwin underwent 41 surgical procedures. The phosphorus particles in his body continued smoldering for months. Erwin was hospitalized for 2½ years before he was discharged from the U.S. Army Air Forces as a master sergeant, 8 October 1947.

Major General Willis H. Hale bestows the Medal of Honor on Staff Sergeant Henry E. Erwin at Fleet Hospital 103, Guam, 19 April 1945. (U.S. Navy)

Henry Eugene Erwin was born 8 May 1921, at Docena, a small mining village in Jefferson County, Alabama. He was the fourth of nine children of Walter Marshall Erwin, a weighman at a coal mine, and Pearl Landers Ervin.

Gene Erwin spent two years working with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a “New Deal” public work relief program. By 1940, he had found employment as a secretary with the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI RR).

On 27 January 1942, Erwin enlisted in the Army Reserve Corps. He had red hair, brown eyes and a “ruddy” complexion, was 5 feet, 10 inches (1.75 meters) tall and weighed 165 pounds (75 kilograms). He was appointed an aviation cadet, Air Corps, 3 February 1943. Because of “flight deficiencies,” Cadet Erwin did not complete flight training and in June 1943 was reassigned for training as a radio operator and technician.

In April 1944, Erwin was assigned to the 52nd Bombardment Squadron (Very Heavy), at Dalhart Army Airfield, Texas, for B-29 Superfortress combat crew training.

Sergeant Henry E. Erwin married Miss Martha Elizabeth Starnes, 6 December 1944, at Ensley, Alabama. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Daniel E. Draper. They would have four children, Hank, Bette, Nancy and Karen.

A B-29 Superfortress of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing, lands at North Field, Guam, in the Marianas. (U.S. Air Force)

The 52nd Squadron deployed to the Pacific in February 1945 as an element of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy), XXI Bomber Command, Twentieth Air Force, based at North Field, Guam.

Mission Number 65 was Erwin’s eleventh combat mission.

Henry Eugene Erwin

Gene Erwin never fully recovered. Although he had been blinded by the phosphorus burns, he eventually regained his sight. His right arm was disabled, and his body was covered in scars.

When he was able to return to work, Erwin was employed the Veterans Administration, and remained there for thirty-seven years before retiring.

Master Sergeant Henry Eugene Erwin, United States Army Air Forces (Retired), died 16 January 2002 at Leeds, Alabama. His body was buried at the Elmwood Cemetery, Birmingham, Alabama.

In his honor, the United States Air Force established the Henry E. Erwin Outstanding Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year Award. The library at the Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, is named the Red Erwin Library.

Mrs. Erwin, with the portrait of her husband, painted by artist John Witt, a long time contributor to the Air Force Art Program.

B-29-25-MO 42-65302 was one of 536 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses built by the Glenn L. Martin–Nebraska Company at Fort Crook, Omaha, Nebraska (now, Offutt Air Force Base). Fifty of those were the Block 25 variant. The new B-29 was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces on 11 January 1945.

Once assigned to the 314th Bombardment Wing (Very Heavy), the airplane was named City of Los Angeles, in keeping with the wing’s practice of naming the aircraft after cities in the United States. When it arrived at Guam, 42-65302 was identified with a large yellow letter “O” surrounded by a black square, painted on its vertical fin and rudder. The numeral “37” was painted on each side of the fuselage aft of the wings.

29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy), 314th Bombardment Wing (very Heavy), B-29 Superfortresses at North Field, Guam. Note the “Black Square O” identification symbols. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-29 was the most technologically advanced airplane built up to that time, and required an immense effort by American industry to produce.

The B-29 Superfortress was designed by the Boeing Airplane Company as its Model 345. Produced in three major versions, the B-29, B-29A and B-29B, it was built by Boeing at Wichita, Kansas, and Redmond, Washington; by the Bell Aircraft Corporation at Marietta, Georgia; and the Glenn L. Martin–Nebraska Company at Fort Crook (now Offutt Air Force Base), Omaha, Nebraska. A total of 3,943 Superfortresses were built.

B-29s were normally operated by an 11-man crew: Pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, radar bombardier, radio operator, flight engineer, a central fire control gunner, and right, left, and tail gunners.

The B-29 Superfortress was 99 feet, 0 inches (30.175 meters) long with a wingspan of 141 feet, 3 inches (43.053 meters) and an overall height of 27 feet, 9 inches (8.458 meters). It had a wing area of 1,736 square feet (167.28 square meters); The standard B-29 had an empty weight of 74,500 pounds (33,793 kilograms) and gross weight of 120,000 pounds (54,431 kilograms).

A newly-completed B-29 Superfortress at the Martin Bomber Plant. (Nebraska State Historical Society RG3715-2-11)

City of Los Angeles had four air-cooled, supercharged, 3,347.662-cubic-inch-displacement (54.858 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division R-3350-41 (Cyclone 18 787C18BA3) two-row 18-cylinder radial engines with direct fuel injection. The R-3350-41 had a compression ratio of 6.85:1 and required 100/130 aviation gasoline. It was rated at 2,000 horsepower at 2,400 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 2,200 horsepower at 2,800 r.p.m, for take-off. The engines drove four-bladed Curtiss Electric reversible-pitch propellers with a diameter of 16 feet, 7 inches (5.080 meters), through a 0.35:1 gear reduction. The R-3350-41 was 6 feet, 2.26 inches (1.937 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.78 inches (1.417 meters) in diameter and weighed 2,725 pounds (1,236 kilograms).

The B-29 had a cruise speed of 220 miles per hour (354 kilometers per hour) at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). Its maximum speed was 306 miles per hour (492 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and 357 miles per hour (575 kilometers per hour) at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). The bomber had a service ceiling of 33,600 feet (10,168 meters). The Superfortress had a fuel capacity of 9,438 gallons (35,727 liters), giving it a maximum range of 3,250 miles (5,230 kilometers) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) with 5,000 pound (2,268 kilograms) bomb load.

The B-29 could carry a maximum bomb load of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms). Defensive armament consisted of twelve air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns mounted in four remotely-operated powered turrets, and a tail turret. B-29 variants before Block 25 also had a single M2 20 mm autocannon mounted in the tail.

City of Los Angeles was damaged on a combat mission against Kobe, Japan, in July 1945. Captain Simeral was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

42-65302 survived the war and remained in service with the U.S. Air Force for several more years. It was “reclaimed” at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, 17 November 1943.

This B-29 Superfortress of the 29th Bombardment Group (Very Heavy) on fire over Kobe, Japan, 17 July 1945, MIGHT be City of Los Angeles. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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