Seattle, Washington State September 21, 1942

On this date Boeing’s largest-to-date, four-engine heavy bomber lifted off on its maiden flight from its name­sake’s air­field in Seattle, Washing­ton. Three years earlier the fore­runner of the U.S. Army Air Forces had expressed its interest in a replace­ment bomber for the com­pany’s first four-engine heavy bomber, the B‑17 Flying For­tress, which had just entered full-scale pro­duc­tion. In Decem­ber 1939 four air­craft manu­fac­turers had sub­mitted designs for a “super­bomber” to the Army Air Corps. Boeing nudged out its compet­i­tor, Cali­for­nia-based Consol­i­dated Air­craft Cor­por­a­tion, manu­fac­turer of what would enter Allied bomber ser­vices as the B‑24 Libe­ra­tor. In August 1940 the Seattle com­pany received an order for two flying proto­types, desig­nated XB‑29. (Consol­i­dated con­tinued in the design and manu­fac­turing race as a back­up to Boeing, working on its Model 33, later to become the B‑32 Domi­na­tor.) In May 1941 Boeing received an order for 250 pro­duc­tion Super­for­tresses, the name con­tin­uing the pattern Boeing had started with its predecessor, the B‑17 Flying Fortress. The B‑29 pro­duc­tion order was increased to 500, shifting into full gear the month following Japan’s Decem­ber 7, 1941, attack on U.S. naval and air facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Boeing successfully produced a long-range, high-flying wea­pons deliv­ery plat­form with capa­bil­ities so advanced that it required a national revo­lut­ion in engi­neering, aero­dy­na­mics, manu­fac­turing, elec­tro­nics, mate­rial, and oper­a­tion. The manu­fac­turing task itself was immense, involving four main-assembly facil­ities at Renton, Washing­ton; Wichita, Kansas (both Boeing plants); Mari­etta, Georgia (Bell Air­craft); and Omaha, Nebraska (Glenn L. Martin). Boeing built 2,766 B‑29s at its plants, Bell 668 B‑29s in Georgia, and Martin 536 B‑29s in Nebraska, including the Silver­plate ver­sions. Hurried develop­ment and all sorts of chal­lenging pro­duc­tion-line changes required the air­frame manu­fac­turers to fly their air­craft directly to modi­fi­ca­tion depots for exten­sive rebuilds to incor­porate the most recent hard­ware and ana­log soft­ware releases before the planes entered service. Thou­sands of sub­con­tractors were integrated into the supply chain.

Boeing’s state-of-the-art Superfortresses never saw service over Europe, as orig­i­nally intended, but only in the Asia Pacific Thea­ter. (Thai­land felt the first B‑29 stings followed by Japan 10 days later.) When flying at high alti­tude, Japa­nese fighter planes could barely reach U.S. B‑29 bomber streams, and at lower alti­tudes com­pu­ters allowed a single gunner to oper­ate two or more defen­sive turrets simul­ta­neously. Defying com­mon practice, Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, hard-driving com­mander of XXI Bomber Com­mand, ordered the removal of most of the defen­sive equip­ment on his air­craft and flew his fleet of Superforts at low alti­tudes for greater dis­tances and often at night, unloading incendiary instead of heavier high-explosive bombs.

In August 1944 five B-29 launch sites were relocated to the Mari­ana Islands in the West­ern Paci­fic Ocean, less than 1,500 miles from the Japa­nese capi­tal of Tokyo. LeMay swiftly moved his plan to bomb all of Japan’s major popu­la­tion centers and oblit­erate its indus­trial, rail, port, and shipping assets to another, scarcely imag­in­able level. The high point was reached on August 6 and 9, 1945, when, just as U.S. President Harry S. Tru­man had fore­warned, two Japa­nese cities suffered “prompt and utter destruc­tion” by the most horrifying bomb ever devised for use against a foe. Hiro­shima’s and Naga­saki’s awful fate, together with the appear­ance of Soviet soldiers across the Sea of Japan that sepa­rated the Home Islands from the Chi­nese main­land, per­suaded a reluctant Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) to order his armed forces to stand down. A 7‑year Amer­i­can mil­itary occu­pa­tion under Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur enacted wide­spread mil­itary, polit­ical, eco­nomic, and social reforms, setting the former warrior nation on a demo­cratic path to prosperity and peace with its neighbors.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress Heavy Bomber

Boeing B-29 Superfortress long-range heavy bomber

Above: By standards of its time, the Boeing B‑29 Super­fortress was a mon­strous war­bird: 99 ft (30m) long, with a wing­span of 141 ft (43m), it rose nearly 28 ft (8.46m) off the ground. It weighed over 32 tons empty and nearly 63 tons fully loaded. It carried a crew of eleven. Four-bladed pro­pel­lers, each 16.56 ft (5.05m) in dia­meter, were powered by four Curtis-Wright R‑3350‑23 or ‑57 Duplex-Cyclone 8‑cylinder air-cooled turbo­super­charged radial piston engines providing 2,200 hp each. Cruising speed was 220 mph (350 km/h) and max­i­mum speed was 357 mph (575 km/h). Depending on bomb pay­load and fly­ing alti­tude, the air­craft could carry between 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) (high alti­tude) and 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) (medium alti­tude). The B‑29 Silver­plate ver­sion delivered the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japa­nese cities of Hiro­shima (Little Boy at 9,700 lb/­4,400 kg) and Naga­saki (Fat Man at 10,800 lb/­4,900 kg) on August 6 and 9, 1945, respec­tively. A tech­no­logical marvel for its day, the three sepa­rate crew areas were pres­surized, allowing for a ser­vice ceiling of 31,850 ft (9,710m). Instead of manning tra­di­tional bulky turrets, gun­ners used remote control to fire their twelve 12.7mm machine guns and the single 20mm can­non located in the tail. The tail gun­ner’s pres­surized area could only be exited during unpressurized flight. Gunners sat in the back of the plane, where there were bunks for resting during long missions. Two enormous weapons bays carried the B‑29’s bomb­load. Some B‑29s were fitted with pneu­ma­tically operated bomb bay doors that could be snapped shut in less than a second.

B-29 spot welder at work, Marietta, Georgia, n.d.B-29 draftsperson at work, Marietta, Georgia, n.d.

Left: The biggest and most technologically advanced air­plane ever built during World War II cost $3 billion to design and pro­duce (equi­va­lent to over $45 bil­lion today), exceeding by more than $1 bil­lion the Man­hat­tan (atomic bomb) project. The B‑29 pro­gram required an im­mense work­force, not only in the four B‑29 main-assem­bly facil­i­ties but in the thou­sands of sub­con­tractor plants and work­shops spread across the nation. In the case of Bell Air­craft’s B‑29 plant in Mari­etta, Georgia (now operated by Lock­heed Martin), the U.S. govern­ment paid $72 mil­lion to build the 3.2‑mil­lion‑square‑foot plant in farm­land Bell chose 15 miles from the state capi­tal, Atlanta. Most of Bell’s 28,000 em­ployees had not finished high school; many had only an 8th grade edu­ca­tion. More than a few workers signed their time cards with an “X.” Although ex-farm­hands might be mecha­ni­cally inclined, special training schools were needed to teach rudi­men­tary and advanced skills in engi­neering, mathe­ma­tics, aero­dy­namics, welding, elec­tro­nics, oper­a­ting lathes and cutting sheet metal, and the like. Huge new employ­ment oppor­tun­i­ties thus opened up at the Mari­etta B‑29 plant, espe­cially for women who com­prised 37 per­cent of the Mari­etta work­force owing to so many men in the armed ser­vices. Mari­etta’s African Amer­i­cans, too (2,000 in January 1945), reaped rewards, though “Jim Crow” laws were en­forced, among them requiring segre­gated rest­rooms and water foun­tains. Con­trary to popu­lar myth the typi­cal female air­craft worker did not rivet, though one 81‑year-old woman did just that as she handled rivet guns that weighed as much as 15 lb (6.8 kg). The woman in this photo is operating a spot-welding machine.

Right: Aside from secretarial/cafeteria jobs, women at all the four B‑29 main-assem­bly plants worked as engi­neers, tool designers, drafts­women like the one shown in this photo, esti­ma­tors, pro­duc­tion illus­tra­tors, bicycle or roller-skating cou­riers, chauf­feurs, qual­ity assu­rance inspec­tors, nurses, radio dis­patchers, die makers, sheet-metal fabri­ca­tors, tool­makers, crane oper­a­tors, and armed secu­rity guards. Because they could squeeze into tight spaces, such as planes’ nose cones, midgets and dwarfs found employ­ment at all four B‑29 main plants and modi­fi­ca­tion depots, as did 1,750 dis­abled Bell workers such as the blind worker who sorted rivets by hand. Average hourly wage was 60 cents.

Crew working on B-29 pressurized cockpit sectionSoviet Tupolev Tu-4 Bull

Left: A mixed crew of men and women work on the pres­sur­ized cock­pit sec­tion of a B‑29 at the Bell plant in Mari­etta, Georgia. More than 600 of the 3,970 B‑29s were pro­duced at the Mari­etta fac­tory which, now owned by Lock­heed Martin, still pro­duces air­craft for the U.S. Air Force. B‑29s were retired from service in 1960. Two restored and fly­able B‑29s, FIFI and Doc, have avoided the scrap­yard to make the rounds of American airshows and museums.

Right: During 1944 and 1945 four B‑29s made emer­gency landings in the Soviet Union after bombing raids on Japa­nese-occupied Man­churia (Man­chu­kwo) and Japan. The Soviets, in view of their then non­aggres­sion treaty with Japan, facili­tated the Amer­i­can air­crews’ “escape” to Iran while keeping their air­craft and turning down per­sis­tent U.S. requests for the B‑29s’ return. Soviet engi­neers exam­ined the seized bombers from head to foot and with­in 2 years had pro­duced fly­able repli­cas using reverse-engi­neering. The Soviets called their un­licensed car­bon copy the Tupolev Tu‑4. NATO code­named it “Bull.” By 1950 the Soviets had deployed more than 270 Tu‑4s in long-range avi­ation regi­ments. A total of 847 Tu‑4s were built when pro­duc­tion ended in 1952. This photo shows a lineup of Tu‑4s at a Soviet base.

Inside a Boeing B-29 Superfortress Aircraft Factory

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