THE SHAKEDOWN MISSION
Writing in comfortable surroundings, and being blessed with the advantage of hindsight, military historians have been uniformly imprecise when recording the bombing results of XX Bomber Command B-29 units in World War II. Four Bombardment Groups flew strategic bombing strikes from bases in the China-Burma-India Theater against the Japanese Empire, and historian's inaccurate accounts began with the first B-29 mission. On June 5, 1944, aircraft were launched from four bases in India and bombed the Makasan Railway Yards in Bangkok, Thailand. The results of the bombing may have been correctly reported, but the reason for the poor results was not properly described. These gentlemen did not clearly explain that the fearsome weather the aircrews encountered en route to the target, and upon return to India about 13 hours later, caused the poor bombing results.
Evidently, the mission was planned for this day, and the forecast bad weather was not considered reason enough to postpone the B-29's first combat mission. Unfortunately, the bad weather was the season's first cyclone, called a hurricane in the western hemisphere. The XX Bomber Command Operations Staff had no experience dealing with a cyclone, and could not possibly understand how vicious the approaching weather would be. At takeoff time, the eye of the storm was tracking north-northwest toward Calcutta, on a direct path to the four B-29 bases. The northeast quadrant of a cyclone has the most violent weather, and in this cyclone, the surface wind was estimated to be 150 miles an hour.
When the cyclone struck Chakulia, the home base of the 40th Bomb Group, a dark roll cloud spawned a fearsome series of tornadoes that marched across the base accompanied by almost continuous thunder and lightning. Our aircrew had been forced to abort takeoff due to an airplane mechanical failure, so we placed wheel chocks firmly against the tires, went inside the plane, set the brakes, checked the hydraulic pressure, and closed all windows and hatches. Some ground crew and extra aircrew members had erected a tent under the wing of our plane, and planned to stay there during the storm. We thought a normal thunderstorm was on the way.
As the first wind gusts struck, we could see three funnel clouds dancing under the purple-black roll cloud. Clouds of dust scudded ahead of the storm and engulfed all tents, buildings, and parked airplanes within sight. We were parked at the end of the ramp, and before the plane next to us disappeared in the dust, we saw it spin 90 degrees into the wind like a weather vane, and its propellers start to slowly rotate! Our plane was parked 45 degrees to the wind and was not moved, but the side load on our plane's tail surfaces was terrific.
Noise was the most frightening part of the storm. Crackling lightning and rumbling thunder accompanied the roar of the wind that sounded like a train speeding through the cockpit. The plane rocked back and forth as sheets of rain and scattered hail stones crashed against the metal fuselage. All this commotion made us feel like we were in an unreal, fantasy world.
When visibility improved, we could see that all tents on the flight line were flattened, and all buildings were destroyed or damaged. The tent under our plane had collapsed in a sodden mass of canvas, rope, poles, stakes, and our friends. Fortunately, no one was injured. They struggled out of the mess and climbed into the plane through the bomb bay. Two B-29s had been moved by the wind against each other, and sustained minor damage to their wing tips. Our greatest concern was the destruction of the control tower. Radio signals were being transmitted from the DF (direction finder) truck, but no matter -- aircraft would be diverted to alternate landing bases when they returned.
Soon after taking off from Chakulia Army Air Field, 40th Bomb Group's aircraft encountered a series of vicious line squalls over the northern section of the Bay of Bengal. The route of the bomber steam was through the dangerous northeast quadrant of the cyclone where the tops of the giant thunderheads were far above the altitude limits of the heavily laden planes. Each Pilot steered his plane around towering clouds as he came to them. This had a scattering effect that broke the timing and orderly sequence of the bomber stream, and caused some crews to miss their assembly point. Many aircrews made an individual bomb run simply because it could not find a formation to join. Bombing accuracy was doomed by the cyclone long before the task force arrived at the target.
A very high price was paid for this Shake Down Mission. Five bombers were destroyed, 15 crew members died, and many more were injured. Major Alex N. Zamry ditched his B-29 in the Bay of Bengal near the mouth of the Ganges River because the plane's fuel transfer system failed. Unfortunately, the plane ran out of fuel in the violent northeast quadrant of the cyclone. Surface winds in that area exceeded 100 miles an hour and whipped the water into giant waves estimated to be 20 to 30 feet high. Pilot Zamry and Radio Operator Joe Harvey died in the crash. All surviving crew members crawled from the wreckage and entered the waves of the agitated water.
Two life rafts were inflated, and all men, except Lt. Jesse C. Beal and Left Gunner S/Sgt. Wayne Wiseman, climbed on board. Lt. Beal and S/Sgt. Wiseman were carried away from the rafts by wind and waves, and though they were severely injured, they survived by clinging desperately to an oxygen bottle. While recuperating in a hospital, Sgt. Wiseman gave this description of the weather they experienced after they had exited the ditched plane. He said, " the waves began to get higher and the sky was the blackest I have ever seen. Lightning flashed and rain poured down in torrents. We tried opening our mouths to catch some water to drink, but big waves would roll over us and fill our mouths with salt water."
Late the next day, the two were picked up by their buddies in the big rafts. After much suffering from dehydration, wind, sunburn, and the troublesome waves, the two rafts were washed ashore on an island where kindly natives gave them food and water. They rested there until a British PBY seaplane took them to a hospital to recuperate. To the members of Major Alex N. Zambry's crew, the first B-29 combat strike was more than a Shake Down Mission.
The men of the 40th Bomb Group are keenly aware that a 1944 cyclone literally destroyed the first B-29 combat bombing mission. It was the worst weather the group ever encountered in almost four years of antisubmarine patrol duty in the Caribbean and Panama areas, many flights over the Hump (Himalaya Mountains), and hundreds of combat sorties. When one reviews the results of the Bangkok mission, and considers the effect the dreadful cyclone had on those results, it is clear that the valiant men of the XX Bomber Command deserve better recognition than they have been accorded to date. To a man, they did their best to make the mission a success -- some gave their lives in doing so.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eiqhty-one War Stories. *