Washington, D.C. December 31, 1943

By this date in 1943 Boeing delivered its 92nd B‑29 Super­for­tress to the U.S. govern­ment after the giant bomber began rolling off the assem­bly line the pre­vious Septem­ber. Even before the coun­try was at war and govern­ment funds had been allo­cated, Boeing had produced a proto­type of the long-range heavy bomber and had sub­mitted it to the U.S. Army for eval­ua­tion. The XB‑29 made its maiden flight on Septem­ber 21, 1942. In all, Boeing built 2,766 B‑29s in Wich­ita, Kan­sas and Ren­ton, Wash­ing­ton—the biggest and most tech­no­log­i­cally advanced plane any air­craft manu­fac­turer ever built up to that time. Under con­tract from Boeing, the Glenn L. Martin Co. built 536 in Nebraska and the Bell Air­craft Co. built 668 in Georgia—two a day in May 1945. As a wea­pons project, the B‑29 exceeded the nearly $2 bil­lion cost of developing the atomic bomb (about $34.1 bil­lion in 2023 dollars) by between 1 and 1.7 billion wartime dollars.

Early plans to use B-29s against Germany were scrapped when Boeing’s own B‑17 Flying Fortresses, intro­duced in 1938, and Consoli­dated Air­craft’s B‑24 Liber­a­tors, intro­duced in 1941, were found capable of operating from neigh­boring Britain and Italy. Hence, B‑29 Super­for­tresses were primarily used in the Pacific Theater. As many as 1,000 B‑29s at a time bombed Tokyo in 1945, destroying large parts of the Japa­nese capital. In March 1945 alone, more than 80,000 Japa­nese died in an incen­di­ary raid on the city’s cen­ter—the highest loss of life of any aerial bom­bard­ment of the war. Finally, on August 6, 1945, a modified, or Silver­plate, B‑29 named Enola Gay dropped Amer­ica’s ulti­mate bomb, the world’s first atomic bomb, on Hiro­shi­ma. Three days later, on August 9, another Silver­plate B‑29, Bockscar, immolated Nagasaki in a second effort to bring an end to the war.

On August 14, the last day of combat in World War II, B‑29s laid waste to the Japa­nese naval arsenal at Hikari on the south­ern tip of Japan’s main island, Honshū. The next day, August 15, 1945, Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) spoke to his nation by radio, acknow­ledging the B‑29’s pivotal role in the last half year when he said: “I have care­fully assessed the situ­a­tion of the world and con­di­tions within Japan, and I think it is impos­sible to con­tinue the war. . . If we con­tinue the war, the whole country will be reduced to ashes, and I can­not endure the thought of letting my people suffer any longer. . . [Con­tinuing the war] would lead to Japan’s anni­hi­lation” (recti­fied trans­la­tion of imperial rescript by Noriko Kawa­mura). In lives alone the tally of Japa­nese dead or missing is estimated at 1,740,000, with 94,000 mili­tary wounded and 41,000 pri­soners of war; 393,400 civil­ians were killed and 275,000 were wounded or went missing. By com­pari­son 108,504 Amer­i­cans who served in the Pacific Theater were killed, and 248,316 were wounded or listed as missing.

The B-29 Superfortress: Japanese Surrender Motivator

B-29 assault: Charred remains of Tokyo civiliansB-29 assault: Virtually destroyed Tokyo residential section

Left: The charred remains of Japanese civil­ians after the car­nage and destruc­tion wrought by Oper­a­tion Meeting­house, the March 9/10, 1945, night­time fire­bombing of Tokyo. Toward the end of May, Tokyo was devas­tated two more times, leaving three million residents homeless.

Right: A virtually destroyed Tokyo residen­tial section. Over 50 per­cent of Japan’s capi­tal was reduced to ashes by the end of the war. After one bombing run, one B‑29 flier quipped, “Tokyo just isn’t what it used to be.”

Four-engine B-29 SuperfortressTokyo burns during May 26, 1945, B-29 firebomb assault

Left: Boeing, Bell Aircraft Co., and Glenn L. Martin Co. built 3,970 of these four-engine, propeller-driven B‑29 Super­for­tress heavy bombers between 1943 and 1946. With a wing­span of 142.25 ft/­43.36 m and a length of 99 ft/­30 m, the monster plane weighed in at 71,500 lb/­32,432 kg empty to 140,000 lb/63,503 kg fully loaded. It had a range of 4,000 miles/­6,437 km with 5,000 lb/­2,268 kg bomb load. Normal bomb load ranged from 5,000 to 12,000 lb/­2,268 to 5,443 kg, with a max­i­mum of 20,000 lb/­9,072 kg. Bombs had to be released alter­nately from the heavy bomber’s bomb bays to balance the air­craft during bombing runs. The B‑29 had a top speed of 399 mph/­642 km/h at 30,000 ft/­9,144 m. The alu­mi­num-clad air­craft were left unpainted to save each one several thou­sand pounds of weight. “Silver­plate” B‑29s—Super­for­tresses specially modi­fied for atomic bombing mis­sions—carried out the destruc­tion of Hiro­shima and Naga­saki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.

Right: Tokyo burns under a B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945. B‑29 raids on Tokyo began on Novem­ber 24, 1944, and lasted until August 15, 1945, the day Japan capi­tulated. Addi­tional attacks on Tokyo were carried out by twin-engine bombers and fighter-bombers.

"Enola Gay" landing on Tinian after bombing Hiroshima, August 6, 1945Hiroshima after atomic bombing, August 1945

Left: Piloted by Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the Enola Gay, a Silver­plate version of the Boeing B‑29 Super­fortress, lands at Tinian’s North Field in the Mariana Islands at 2:58 p.m., August 6, 1945, after delivering “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, Japan.

Right: Hiroshima, Japan, after the atomic bombing of August 6, 1945. The area around ground zero in 1,000‑ft circles shows barely any struc­tures standing. The bomb deto­nated in the air and the blast was directed more down­ward than side­ways. Some 70,000–80,000 peo­ple, or roughly 30 per­cent of the popu­la­tion of Hiro­shima, were killed by the blast and resul­tant fire­storm, and another 70,000 injured. It is esti­mated that 4.7 sq. miles (12 sq. km) of the city were destroyed. In terms of buildings, 69 per­cent were destroyed and another 6–7 percent damaged.

Inside a Boeing B-29 Superfortress Aircraft Factory