HOLD YOUR BOMBS!
When Major General Curtis E. LeMay assumed command of B-29 combat operations in the China-Burma-India Theater in September 1944, he changed our existing tactical doctrine to one much like the one he helped develop in the 8th Air Force in England. One item in the new doctrine impressed all of us. Since most Japanese fighter attacks came from out of the sun, B-29s were to fly in four-plane, diamond-shaped flights, with the four planes in each flight stacked facing the sun to obtain maximum defensive fire power. Multiple flights in a large formation were also stacked facing the sun.
After the new tactical doctrine was adopted, our crew departed the advanced base at Hsinching, China, for a dawn rendezvous with planes of our 45th Bomb Squadron over Hungtze Lake, near the east coast of China. The target for this mission was a large aircraft/engine factory at Omura, Japan. When we arrived a bit late at the rendezvous point, we spotted a B-29 formation that had already departed on course at 21,000 feet, several miles ahead of us. There were no other formations in sight, so we increased speed to overtake it. We caught up to the B-29s over the Yellow Sea, and were surprised to see tail markings of a sister Bomb Group -- the 462nd -- and not the markings of our 40th Bomb Group.
The briefing for this mission stressed General LeMay's new doctrine that prohibited a single B-29 from bombing a mission's primary target. For this mission, single planes were supposed to bomb a secondary target near Shanghai. We had the choice to bomb the secondary target as a single plane without mutual protection of other B-29s, or join the 462nd Bomb Group's aircraft and bomb the primary target. The formation had a four-ship lead flight, a four-ship low flight, and a three-ship high flight. We decided to bomb the primary target so we filled the vacancy in the high flight.
Many 462nd Bomb Group crew members had been in the 40th Bomb Group when the 40th was flying antisubmarine patrol in the Caribbean Theater earlier in World War II. Captain Erwin "Shorty' Hull was an excellent Pilot during that operation. We were unaware that Captain Hull was leading the high flight.
While the formation was flying above a thick cloud layer, our Navigator told me that we were several miles south of the briefed Initial Point (the last navigation check point before the target). Soon after that, the leader's bomb bay doors opened, and, since radio silence prevailed, someone in the leader's astrodome used an Aldis lamp to flash a Morse code message at us. Our Radio Operator tried to copy the message, but all he could copy was: RADAR OUT. All other signals were transmitted too fast for him to copy. We expected to see the #2 plane in the lead flight move forward to take over, but instead, the lead Pilot banked sharply to the right and released his bombs. Planes in his lead flight and in the low flight dropped their bombs. Amazingly, no bombs were dropped from the four planes in our high flight.
I quickly broke radio silence by announcing, "HOLD YOUR BOMBS. CLOSE YOUR BOMB BAY DOORS. WE'RE GOING BACK TO THE IP FOR A SECOND RUN!" All Pilots in our high flight closed their bomb bay doors and formed a diamond-shaped formation with our plane as the leader. I led our four-ship element away from the main formation, and turned toward the Initial Point.
In less than 15 minutes, our four ships were inbound from the correct Initial Point for a second bomb run. No fighters were in sight. Light, inaccurate flak in the target area proved to be ineffective. Fortunately, our crew's Bombardier, 1st Lt. Marshall "Shorty" Norton, spotted the target visually through a break in the clouds, made a small course correction, and released his bombs using his Norden bombsight. The other Bombardiers released their bombs when they saw our bombs drop.
The break in the clouds allowed each plane's cameras to record the bombs hitting the target. After turning toward friendly China, we encountered only a few fighter attacks on the way to the Yellow Sea where the Japanese Pilots turned back toward the mainland. Our four B-29s remained in a loose formation until we reached the point in China where we had to separate -- our plane landed at our forward base at Hsinching, and the 462nd planes landed at their forward base.
Our Commander, Colonel William "Butch" Blanchard, did not fly on the mission, but he watched as the Group Intelligence staff debriefed each strike aircrew immediately after they landed. He was especially interested in our crew's participation in the mission, and criticized us for not joining the 40th Bomb Group's formation. But after studying our strike photos, he seemed satisfied with our decision to make a second bomb run. Colonel Blanchard reviewed our logs and studied our strike photos carefully until he had a very good understanding of our part in the mission.
Then we learned why he was so interested in our performance. During the debriefing, our crew was told that we were to attend General LeMay's mission critique that would be conducted at his XX Bomber Command Headquarters in India. We were told to take our mission logs and strike photos to the meeting. Colonel Blanchard would be there, and evidently was preparing himself to defend our actions.
General LeMay conducted the critique a few days later in India. Colonel William "Butch " Blanchard, Commander, 40th Bomb Group, Colonel Al Kalberer, Commander, 462nd Bomb Group, and our crew attended the critique. General LeMay knew all the mission details. He was very critical of the 462nd Lead Crew for missing the Initial Point, for making a bomb run over a cloud cover with faulty radar, and for releasing its bombs while in a turn. He said the bombs of eight planes were wasted due to that poor performance.
Colonel Al Kalberer responded by blaming the 40th Bomb Group Lead Crew (our crew) for not taking the lead when requested to do so by means of the Aldis lamp signals. General LeMay then turned to General Blanchard for his explanation. Colonel Blanchard had not flown on the mission, but had prepared himself for the critique by reviewing details of the 462nd Lead Crew's performance, and by thoroughly studying our crew's performance. I was surprised when he said, "Sir, Major Matthews will respond to Colonel Kalberer's comments."
Our Bombardier, Lt. Norton, handed me a copy of the bomb impact photo as I stood to speak. I fastened the photo on the target wall map, and stated simply, "This is a photo showing our formation's bombs hitting the primary target." General LeMay had a copy of the photo on his desk, and examined it as I spoke. I explained that the reason we did not take over the formation lead, was that our Radio Operator copied only the words Radar Out in the extremely fast stream of unintelligible Morse code signals. The message was transmitted only a couple of minutes before the steep turn and wild bomb releases by the eight planes of the lead and low flights. I added my opinion that the Lead Navigator missed the Initial Point, and was far off the briefed bomb run course.
Colonel Kalberer attempted to defend his Lead Crew's actions, then directed more criticism toward our crew. General LeMay stopped the critique and delivered a stern lecture that all Groups must fly future missions according to the new XX Bomber Command Tactical Doctrine. Then he picked up his copy of the strike photo, ordered the two Colonels into his office, and dismissed our crew. We quickly departed the room and went to the flight line where we preflighted our plane and flew back to our home base at Chakulia.
Bombardier "Shorty" Norton's strike photo provided sufficient justification for our crew's actions during the Omura mission. After all, General LeMay's battle cry was: Bombs on the target! Later, we learned that all the 462nd Pilots of our small formation, including myself, had served in the 40th Bomb Group in the Caribbean Theater.
NOTE. Captain Erwin Hull and his crew were lost over Japan in late 1945, while flying their 35th and final combat mission.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *