BENGAL AIR DEPOT ENGINES
When four B-29 groups of the XX Bomber Command arrived in India in April 1944, they brought with them many logistics problems. The largest problem was caused by an alarming failure rate of aircraft engines. Each aircraft had four Wright R-3350 Cyclone, 18-cylinder, radial engines that often failed due to cooling and lubrication deficiencies. The accumulation of engines waiting to be transported back to the States for overhaul, far exceeded the capability of the Air Transport Command to move the engines. One hard-pressed logistics officer recommended to the Theater Commander that overhaul of the engines be accomplished in the Bengal Air Depot located near Calcutta. The staggering task was heaped upon the depot currently swamped by the job of overhauling smaller engines used by transport aircraft flying cargo over the Hump.
An R-3350 overhaul line was established in the depot, and when the first Bengal engines were installed on B-29s, terrible things began to happen. The engines failed during ground testing or before a flight test was completed. Our crew had three Bengal engines fail in succession. The first two never completed ground testing. The third engine managed to last through its flight test, and a four-hour flight over the Hump to our forward base at Hsinching, China. Then at the end of the second hour of a combat mission, the oil temperature soared above the red line, the engine ran rough, and increased oil consumption forced us to abort the mission and turn back toward Hsinching. We sent a radio message that we were returning due to an engine failure.
It was past midnight when we landed at the base. As we taxied to the flight line, our landing lights illuminated a collection of several vehicles around our parking spot. We thought that was strange because we expected to see only our Crew Chief and his assistants. Our radio message had alerted XX Bomber Command Headquarters that we were aborting, and the word was passed to Col. Rosenblatt who was visiting Hsinching at the time. After the plane was parked, the Colonel waited at the bottom of the entrance ladder when Copilot Lt. Bob Winters climbed down from the cockpit. The Colonel, without identifying himself, rudely demanded to know why the engine had been shut down.
Our flight crew worked long hours for five days in India to get ready for this combat mission, and we departed on the combat mission from Hsinching with only the sleep we got by dozing during the Hump flight. Lt. Winters was tired and irritable as he described the engine's symptoms and instrument readings that justified shutting it down. Then he volunteered in blunt terms, "That damned engine was overhauled by the Bengal Air Depot. None of those engines are reliable."
I was climbing down the ladder when Colonel Rosenblatt's voice rose in anger as he said to Lt. Winters, "Lieutenant, I will have you know the Bengal Air Depot engines are just as good as the factory new engines from the Wright plant." I heard Lt. Winters coolly reply, "That's a bunch of baloney. Most of them don't last through their test flight." I had no idea who was having the heated discussion until I stepped out from under the airplane, and saw a Colonel I did not recognize standing next to my Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Oscar Schaaf.
Lt. Col. Schaaf interrupted the conversation, introduced me to Colonel Rosenblatt, and asked me to describe what happened to the engine. My version of the engine failure was the same as Lt. Winters', and I closed by telling Colonel Rosenblatt my opinion of the sorry job the Bengal Air Depot was doing for the B-29 war effort. That made matters worse. Colonel Rosenblatt increased his decibels, and told me in a very loud voice that I was mistaken. I suggested that the engine sump plugs be pulled to determine the truth. He went back to his jeep, and all the vehicles drove off into the night.
A short time later, our Commander came back and told the Crew Chief to pull the sump plugs from the engine in question, and take them to his quarters. He told us to go to the hostel and get some sleep. Before our crew finished taking showers, the Crew Chief arrived with the plugs that he had just shown to Lt. Col. Schaaf. Both magnetic plugs were covered with metal fragments and filings that indicated the engine had failed internally. Colonel Rosenblatt and XX Bomber Command Operations were notified that the abort was justified. Our crew was absolved from all suspicion. We slept well that morning.
Several B-29s were involved in aborts and accidents caused by failure of engines overhauled at the Bengal Air Depot. Before long, the Air Transport Command was provided with enough planes to airlift B-29 engines to the States for repair, and the Bengal Air Depot R-3350 overhaul line was shut down. Our crew was glad that we never again had to fly with a Bengal Air Depot engine, or have another encounter with Colonel Rosenblatt.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *