THE REVERSED BOMB RUN
An unusual malfunction in the automatic pilot system of my plane caused me to lead a formation of B-29 bombers on a bomb run heading that was the opposite of the one we were briefed to use. The mission was flown on January 17, 1945 against the Shinchiku Air Depot on the North-west coast of Formosa. Perhaps the following story will explain why I committed this gross deviation from our tactical doctrine.
During the previous mission, our B-29 #42-24579, named Eddie Allen, had an intermittent auto pilot malfunction that caused the plane to roll sharply into a steep left turn when the turn control knob was moved for a small left turn. Our veteran Crew Chief, T/Sgt. John Mahli, had electrical specialists and Boeing Service Engineer Ed Whitney work on the problem. Everything checked out all right during a short test hop at our home base at Chakulia, India, and on a five-hour flight over the Hump to our advanced base at Hsinching, China.
At dawn on the day of the mission, my crew departed in Eddie Allen and was trailed by 12 B-29s that joined us hours later at the rendezvous point. Our formation flew east over China to the Initial Point of the bomb run located on the coast of the China Sea. We departed the Initial Point in a tight formation flying in clear skies at 21,000 feet altitude. We could see the Formosa coast some ninety miles ahead. As briefed, we had a 100 mile per hour tailwind that would have us drop our bombs about 12 minutes later. Our auto pilot was working normally.
Just before we reached the point where I would turn control of the plane over to the Bombardier for the remainder of the bomb run, the Navigator called for a small left turn to correct for wind drift. When I turned the control knob, the plane rolled into a very steep left turn, the auto pilot flipped off, and we almost collided with our left wing man. By the time Copilot Captain Alvin Hills and I managed to level our plane, the other planes in the formation were spread far apart.
A couple of Pilots broke radio silence to ask me what had happened. I quickly explained that our auto pilot malfunctioned and that I was turning our plane manually back to the bomb run. Since I was no longer in the lead, the planes moved to form a new formation on the alternate leader. They were scattered so far apart that an effective bomb pattern on the target was impossible. All planes were barreling toward the target at more than 360 miles per hour with not enough time to reassemble into a proper bombing formation. My Bombardier was doing his best to guide our plane back to the target by giving me course corrections using his bombsight. I could see the target at least five miles to the right of our position. Two options came to mind. Both were undesirable.
I could take the formation against a stiff headwind 100 miles back to the Initial Point on the Chinese coast, and make another bomb run, or we could go from our present position to the secondary target. We had been briefed that the Air Depot at Shinchiku must be destroyed to prevent the Japanese from bombing U.S. forces in the Philippines, so I sought a third solution. After a short discussion with my Bombardier, and a cryptic radio conversation with Major William Kingsbury, the Mission Commander in another B-29, I decided to assemble a formation beyond the target and lead it on a bomb run heading that would be the reverse of the briefed heading. While assembling the formation and turning back to the target, I wondered what we should do if we met a sister B-29 formation flying on the briefed bomb run.
When we rolled out on the new bomb run heading, I engaged the rudder and elevator switches of the auto pilot, and left the aileron switch off. By using a combination of manual and auto pilot controls, I could make heading changes without the plane reacting violently. The visibility was good and we could see the target from 30 miles away. As we neared the bomb release point, another B-29 formation, flying in the opposite direction, swept across the target well below our altitude and a few hundred feet south of our planes. Its bombs were still exploding in the target area as its planes passed out of sight beneath our formation. I wondered what they were saying when they looked up to see B-29s flying in the opposite direction above them with bomb bay doors open. Fortunately, the other planes were behind us when we released our bombs. Our formation's cameras recorded strike photos of an excellent bomb pattern with most of the bombs landing in the target area.
After we landed at our base in China, there was considerable discussion during the mission debriefing between staff members of the XX Bomber Command and our 40th Bomb Group about the reversed bomb run. I described the auto pilot malfunction, and the reasons why we did not return to the Initial Point or go to the alternate target. I was sharply criticized for my decision. When the bomb strike photos were delivered from the lab, I was relieved to see that they showed hits on the Air Depot buildings and nearby ramps and runways. Nevertheless, I took verbal flak from my Group Commander, and a strong protest from the Lead Pilot of the formation that flew beneath my formation near the target. Officers of the XX Bomber Command Staff continued to criticize me for several days after we returned to India, but they retained me as a Lead Crew Pilot.
We flew the Eddie Allen manually over the Hump back to our home base in India where maintenance personnel found a loose wire in the auto pilot's turn control. The defect was corrected, and it worked so well on a future mission against the Rama VI Bridge, that our Bombardier became known for scoring one of World War II's classic bomb patterns. See story #76.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *