The Firebomb Raid.
A Tower of Red Smoke.
When we rejoined the 40th Bomb Group on Tinian, we learned that General LeMay had changed tactics. On the majority of the missions that summer, the B-29's were going over the target individually and in the dark. The incendiary bombs we dropped destroyed whole cities rather than specific targets. These night raids were not as dangerous for the flyers as the daylight strikes but they were gloomy and weird.
Our very first mission from the Marianas was a night raid. In spite of being surrounded by old familiar faces and voices, I felt very alone flying over the ocean in the dark. I wondered how Dumbo could find us if we had to ditch the airplane in the sea. "Dumbo" was the code name for the Navy PBY flying boats that patrolled our route to Japan. There were also submarines and surface vessels stationed along the way but they seemed pitifully few on the blackboard in the briefing building.
About 3 hours into the flight, a surprising thing happened. The bright lights of a small city appeared in the blackness ahead of us. It was the island of Iwo Jima. In spite of being in an active combat zone, maintenance crews were working on airplanes all night long. It made me feel a lot better to know we were on course and there was help down there if we needed it. Iwo was 600 miles north of Tinian, exactly halfway to most of our targets. The Marines took it away from the Japanese in February 1945, suffering heavy casualties. Thanks to them, we could now use it as an emergency landing field.
On a typical night mission, we took off before dusk. Six to seven hours of flying would put us over the target in the middle of the night; then we would be able to land back home the next morning in daylight. To conserve precious fuel, we flew at a minimum altitude after taking off. After altering course slightly over Iwo, we began a slow climb to the 5 to
8 thousand foot bomb-run altitude. The Japanese did not prepare their defenses well for low altitude night attacks. They did not have very many night fighter planes and few trained pilots to fly them. Except for the largest cities, like Tokyo, their anti-aircraft guns were not effective in the dark. Once General Lemay found this strategy worked with a minimal loss of his crews, he used it again and again. In the end, the B-29's destroyed over 50 principal Japanese cities.
Since we went over the target one by one, there was no assembly point. We approached the coast at a landfall that would show up well on the radar. Then we proceeded on a heading to the Initial Point and finally to the target.
Now we were on the final run with the bomb bay doors open. This was the time the men in the back tossed out aluminum foil strips (called "rope") to confuse enemy radar. We looked for the fires the Pathfinders had started for us. They were the highly trained and experienced crews that would fly over the target area first and light it up with their bombs. Our bombers showed no navigation lights but we knew there was another B-29 close by because we could see the blue flame coming from his engine exhaust ports.
Although it was a very dark night without moonlight there was no question where our target was because a huge column of smoke loomed up before us. Searchlights from the ground reflected on the white smoke and turned night into day. Having no idea what to expect on my first mission, I shrugged into my flak jacket and pulled on a heavy steel helmet. Our run carried us into the smoke and immediately the plane shook violently in the unstable air. We couldn't see anything outside at all. The cabin filled with a familiar smell, the wood smoke of long-ago campfires. I wondered if it might overcome us and the A/C must have had the same idea. He yelled to his bombardier and navigator, "How about it guys, can we get out of here?" Ernie toggled the bombs away and I felt the plane leap up, relieved of its burden. Thousands of fires, burning on the ground two miles below us, colored the tower of smoke with a red glow on the inside.
Suddenly we were in the clear again. We knew this was a vulnerable position. Enemy night fighters waited for the bombers to come out of the smoke and then pounced on them. The aircrew was sometimes blinded for a moment. Sure enough, there was a plane flying at our altitude with his wing lights on but he did not attack. I noticed some automatic tracer fire far below us but saw nothing else. We turned on a new course and soon we were over the ocean again headed for Iwo.
We unpacked the food we had picked up at the mess hall. It was canned chicken meat and a grapefruit-pineapple juice that was delicious. I remembered the taste for years and tried to duplicate it with no luck. I guess completing a mission safely made it seem extra good. Now the fatigue caught up with us. We had been without sleep for over 24 hours and our eyelids grew heavy. The marvelous auto pilot device kept us on course and altitude with no help. We took turns taking catnaps and watching the instruments until they danced before our eyes.
Finally the dim shape of Iwo appeared in the gray dawn and with a modest course correction to the right, we began a gradual descent to home. A glorious sunrise over the ocean chased the gloom of the night away. Beautiful towering cumulus clouds lined our route and occasionally we changed course to miss one. After listening to the roar of the engines for such a long time, it sounded to me as if they were singing. It was first come, first served when we were coming in for a landing. Unless there was an emergency, we made a straight-in approach from the sea to West Field. If we had to go around for a second pass, we made a right-hand traffic pattern to keep out of the way of North Field planes.
After we landed, the ground crewman directed us into our hardstand from the taxi strip with hand signals. I saw his eyes searching the plane for battle damage and thought to myself, "None for you to worry about this time." The ground crews worked practically day and night getting the planes ready to go. I even noticed pup tents and blankets on the hardstand. When I saw the sweat gleaming on their bare bodies and their grimy hands and faces I thought, "Boy, I'm glad I don't have to work that hard." When they watched us take off into the sunset they probably thought, "Man, I'm glad I don't have to risk my neck doing that." Speaking of risk, a curious fact of the nighttime attacks was that we sometimes carried a passenger who was not a member of the crew. They were staff officers from our group headquarters who needed some flight time to qualify for their extra pay. They were called "sandbaggers" and I was surprised that they would volunteer to go in harmís way. It was probably more in the spirit of adventure than to pick up a few extra dollars.
The trucks picked us up and the crew rode together to the debriefing hut. This is where a puzzled intelligence officer listened to eleven different descriptions of the same events. We made one last stop at the Red Cross table. There we lined up and some attractive ladies offered us a snack and fruit juice plus a shot of whisky if we wanted it. It was good for winding down and getting to sleep. If I declined, one of the crew would nudge my elbow to accept for them. Then we were free from any duties for at least 24 hours. Some hit the sack for the next 12.
Note: This chapter is a composite view of all the nighttime missions we flew.
Doug has reminded me that when we flew from Tinian each plane no longer had its own "ground crew" to provide individual maintenance. This was provided by a production line schedule, one of LeMay's innovations that was very successful in increasing the efficiency of the bomber's operations.