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Illusive Target (4)

The bombers were bound for Chengtu one of the bases the Chinese had specially prepared for B-17 heavy bombers in 1941. From there they would fly to forward bases in Chekiang Province for their actual attack missions against Japan. There was a sense of urgency since a Japanese ground offensive threatened to overrun some of the advanced bases the B-24s were expected to use.

Meanwhile a crisis had arisen in the Middle East where forces commanded by German General Erwin Rommel were threatening to take Tobruk and invade Egypt. The HALPRO B-24s were "temporarily" diverted to Egypt from where on June 11-12 thirteen of them took off to bomb Axis oil installations at Ploesti, Romania. A few days later several of the B-24s bombed elements of the Italian fleet. Some of Halvorson's B-24s were lost on operations and others might go unserviceable given the lack of adequate maintenance and spares. Halvorson requested to continue with his mission. Halvorson's bombers remained in the Middle East. There they were joined by most of the serviceable heavy bombers (reportedly 11 B-17Es, 6 B-24Ds, and an LB-30) in India. Together they formed the nucleus of the Ninth Air Force.

There were no attacks on Japan from China in 1942. In fact B-24s flew only one mission from China in 1942. In October six B-24s of the 436th Bombardment Squadron flew 1,100 miles from Chengtu to strike the power plant that kept the Linsi coal mines in north China in operation. Had this strike been fully successful the Japanese would have lost a major source of their coking coal used to produce high quality steel.

The Japanese fully understood the implications of such a long range strike. Flown from eastern China, a 1,100 mile mission could hit many important cities and strategic targets in Japan. Japanese apprehension was raised higher when B-24s of the 308th Bombardment Group began flying regular missions from China in May 1943. A raid by escorted B-25s against Shinchiku on Formosa in November 1943 made it clear the Americans were prepared to extend their attacks beyond the interior of China. Japanese anxiety about a possible attack on Japan continued to rise through 1943 and into early 1944.

In order to operate heavy bombers from China stores of supplies had to be accumulated. The only way to do this was to fly fuel and other supplies to China from India over the mountainous "Hump." The bombers themselves often had to act as transports before they could carry out their bombing attacks. This necessarily reduced the number of bombing missions they could accomplish. Moreover, Japanese fighters operating in Burma periodically harassed the transport route and sometimes were successful in destroying transports or heavy bombers. Occasionally the Japanese bombed the terminus of the transport route at Kunming, China, or the jumping off point at Dinjan, India.

Within China the Japanese response to the bomber threat was to repeatedly attack Chienou and other airfields from which attacks on Japan might be launched. As often as the Japanese holed these undefended airfields they found them repaired in short order. When Japanese intelligence suggested something unusual might be brewing, Japanese reconnaissance planes flew patrols along the Chinese coast as a kind of early warning system for the home islands.

Something unusual was brewing! The United States planned to debut its super bomber, the B-29, by attacking Japan from China.

IV. Super Bomber, Mediocre results

The question of using heavy bombers in China came up repeatedly. In May 1942 Dr. T.V. Soong pointed out that considerable production valuable to the Japanese war machine was going on at Shanghai. He suggested bombing Shanghai's power plants to disrupt this production. One suspects this might have been a "camel's nose under the tent" approach to introducing heavy bombers into China for eventual attacks on Japan. General Henry H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, promised to have his staff study the feasibility of staging bombers from India through China to bomb Shanghai. The Middle East crisis discussed above undoubtedly put an end to this idea.

At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, President Roosevelt overruled the objections of his military advisors and told Chiang Kai-shek that efforts would be made to bomb the Japanese homeland from China. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, General Arnold submitted a tentative plan to send a wing of B-29 bombers to the CBI by the end of 1943 to begin an air offensive against the Japanese home islands. By the time of the Cairo Conference in November 1943 it was clear that the B-29s would not be ready for employment by the end of 1943. The basic commitment to operate B-29s from China (as well as from the Marianas once they were captured) was, however, confirmed at Cairo. The British agreed to build a complex of bases capable of supporting B-29s near Calcutta. The Chinese made a similar commitment to build and improve bases near Chengtu. Chinese construction would rely on manpower (coolies in the thousands) and primitive tools.

The B-29 Superfortress first flew in September 1942 and was a technological marvel. It could cruise at over 300 m.p.h. and its pressurized crew compartment allowed it to operate for extended periods at 30,000 feet. With a 5,000 pound bomb load it had an operational radius of 1,600 miles. Unfortunately its powerful turbo-supercharged R-3350 engines encountered problems that delayed the bomber's operational deployment and later plagued it during early operations.

By the end of 1943 the original date projected for B-29 operations, nearly 100 B-29s had left the production line but less than twenty were operational. Lack of available aircraft for training also delayed the qualification of crews to man the new bombers. In January 1944 General Arnold had to inform President Roosevelt that the first B-29s would not be ready to leave the United States for China until mid-March 1944 and would not be ready for combat until mid-May.

B-29 training flight

In April 1944 General Arnold informed the President that the big bombers would not begin combat operations until June 1944. President Roosevelt expressed his frustration in a memo complaining that the U.S. had not made good on a single promise to China and wondering why attacks on Japan had to wait on the B-29s. We have other types of heavy bombers, FDR noted. Given that Roosevelt had heard of plans for, and at least tacitly agreed to, the bombing of Japan as early as 1941, his frustration is hardly surprising.

The first B-29 arrived in India early in April 1944 and five weeks later there were 130 B-29s in the CBI. Planning for the first shake down mission against Bangkok began in mid-April but did not actually take place until June 5th. Ninety-eight B-29s took off from Calcutta for the 2,260 mile mission. Over a dozen of the Superfortresses aborted en route to the target. Weather over the Bangkok was bad and few bombs hit the target. Five of the returning bombers crashed landed.

continued in part 5