The disappearance of the Lady Be Good, an American bomber, has been one of the enduring mysteries of World War II. From what I understand, this is a logical version of what happened to the plane and its crew, though it will take two blogs to explain it.
After the Allies, mainly the British and Americans, took North Africa from the Germans and Italians, preparations were made to invade Italy. Bases were established in North Africa for the purpose of bombing key Italian targets, one such being Benina in Libya, home of a squadron of the heavy American B-24, the largest bomber we had at the time (slightly larger and faster than the B-17). On April 5, 1943, a number of them took off in flights of three to bomb Naples. One of these in the last flight to take off was the Lady Be Good. The pilot, having the right to call his plane what he wished, had chosen a famous Broadway play he admired.
Despite one contact with its base well into the mission, the plane remained missing until 1958, when a British exploration team looking for oil chanced upon its wreckage 440 miles to the south of its base, well into the African interior. The plane was in almost pristine condition. When it came down it had made an almost perfect landing in the sands of the Sahara desert; the hull had broken behind the wings and was slightly skewed to the right. The radio worked, food and water were still aboard, the navigator’s instruments still in the box! No remains of crew members were found at the site. A number of questions were asked, some never answered:
When the campaign began in the spring of 1945, to burn out the major cities of Japan, starting with Tokyo on March 9, the real power of the B-29 became evident. Much had been ordered by the American Joint Chiefs to make it work.
First, we needed large land areas on which to base the great bombers with their amazing supplies, from gasoline to bombs to quarters for the hundreds of crewmen and supporting personal. The Asian land areas and the Philippines were too far away. While the usual tactic in our march across the Pacific was to “island hop,” that is to skip most islands, taking only the one in each island group we thought could support a B-24 landing strip, and then march to the next group. While Okinawa certainly had a large enough land area, it was too close to Japan for us to take at the time, and thus we took three islands on the Marianas group, Guam, Saipan and, the closest to Japan, Tinian. From the tip of Tinian it was said to be 1289 miles to the Japanese shoreline, and of course a good bit further to the large cities we were wishing to target. It seemed a planning nightmare because our next greatest bombers did not have the range to do more than reach Japan let alone return.
The B-29 could fly more than the distance across the United States, some 3,000, so could fly to Japan with a bombload and come all the back to Tinian. On the basis of this, the campaign began, but as the spring went on the campaign developed a serious flaw. If attacked, over Japan, it was the pilot’s choice to push the engines past a “red line,” if he thought he could not otherwise get away. The plane seemed to jump with the extra power and few Japanese fighter planes had enough speed to catch it. But with the extra gasoline consumption, such a plane could never make it back to Tinian. At a fantastic cost, dozens of undamaged or slightly damaged planes had to crash in the Pacific and the crews run the risk of being picked up by our submarines.
The Joint Chiefs had a plan for this scenario, to take the only island between Tinian and Japan on which the B-29s could possibly land, Iwo Jima. We knew that the enemy had spent much time fortifying the island and were waiting for us, but there was no other choice: lose valuable crews and planes we thought were indispensable to win the war, or send the Marines into a bloodbath. The result was the attack on the island in July of 1945, the most vicious combat in our history: some 26,000 American casualties and the deaths of 21,000 Japanese Imperial Marines (almost none surrendered). By the end of the campaign some 25,000 aircrews had set down on the island, and hundreds of the B-29s saved.
Credit to Bing: https://binged.it/36aRlAQ
The real weapon used in the atomic bomb attacks was not nuclear energy, which was in its infancy, but the plane that dropped the bombs, the Boeing B-29. It was the first weapon developed by mankind that could have destroyed the earth. It had twice the range of the other biggest bombers, twice the bombload, and much more speed. It was literally the only bomber in the world which could have carried atomic bombs over the distance and at the speed demanded.
Many persons have assumed that using atomic bombs (first on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and then on Nagasaki three days later) was inhumane, and of course that is true. But the U. S. was involved in a world war with an enemy who had acted in an inhuman manner in most everything they had done in the war: from their treatment of prisoners of war and civilians, and the complete disregard of the value of human life on a very large scale. They had attacked us at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and we felt we had to retaliate in kind to win.
Starting at the top of the list of the 50 largest cities in Japan, in the spring of 1945, the U.S. began by bombing (with conventional bombs, which we called “firebombing”) one of the world’s largest cities, Tokyo, on March 9. It resulted in the worst day in human history with the greatest number of people ever killed in a 24-hour period at 84,000. One hundred square miles of the heart of city were burned to the ground. (Hiroshima, even considering those dying of radiation sickness twenty years later does not overawe the Tokyo total).
By the spring of 1945, despite the total destruction of dozens of their cities by the Boeing plane, the Japanese were not still not willing to admit defeat. By that summer the atomic bombs were available and our government thought that the one million casualties we projected our forces would suffer in an invasion of home islands was too great of the sacrifice to ask of the American people, if an alternative were available. One was, the employment of B-29s using atomic bombs to force the enemy into submission, which it did.
The idea of what total war means has escalated from the time of Sherman’s march through Georgia in the Civil War, to the mass killings by way of the machine gun in World War I, to Tokyo. We cannot fathom what it would be like next time.
On an early mission against Singapore, one of the B-29s was damaged. It came down at a primitive airport at a place called Dum Dum in eastern India, which a friend of mine has actually recently seen. The runway, which my father never saw, was narrow enough that in trying to land, the great plane’s left wing was nearly knocked off when it hit the control tower.
Since the immensely valuable plane was in range of Japanese bases, forces both British and ours were galvanized to get it fixed and out of harm’s way. Part of the job fell to my father. Though he was in charge of one warehouse, he was ordered to take a truck with some of his men and pick up a wing assembly from a British warehouse. The place was guarded by a Kurkha soldier from Nepal. The British Empire, world-wide at the time, used many natives as troops in their armies. These men were renowned for their toughness, but spoke no English and perhaps had never seen an American uniform before. Assigned to guard the warehouse, as soon as my father approached, he aimed his rifle at my father’s chest. While he had a Thompson submachine gun in his Jeep and men in the truck, my Dad thought it was best to talk his way into the warehouse rather than shoot it out with an ally.
He soon gave up trying to talk to the Kurkha in English. As the disabled B-29 was in danger some miles away, there was no time to find a British solider who would tell the Kurkha he was on our side. Finally, in desperation, my father pointed to his wallet and the Kurkha nodded that he could get it out. The only thing he could find that looked at all official was his Chicago Motor Club card, (like a AAA card of today), which had a star on it. The soldier immediately put down his rifle, saluted, and laboriously shook my father’s hand.
My father believed that the Kurkha thought he was a general and would have let him have anything! They loaded up the 2 ½ ton truck with the wing assembly, headed off to meet other trucks with other parts, whereupon my father headed back to his base. But the bomber got off the next morning.
I first heard this story decades ago, and it is not hard to imagine the wonderment my father must have seen on the faces of his four little children!
As the war went on, the U.S. knew that bombing Japan would have to be done in order to win. Two possibilities were advanced, both using the most powerful bomber in the world, the brand- new Boeing 29:
In this process, my father was sent to India to run one of the dozens of warehouses containing the more than 100,000 parts for the Boeing plane. He spoke to us kids of landing on the west coast of India at Bombay, now Mumbai, and taking a very slow train all the way across the vast Indian peninsula to Calcutta. One of the very dark nights of the several-day trip, the train stopped at a station and he decided to get off to stretch his legs. The entire platform was covered with bodies of people trying to sleep on the concrete as it exuded warmth! He spent 18 months living in a tent near Calcutta and almost died of some parasite.
Next month, the damaged B-29 at Dum Dum.
The struggle for Guadalcanal, raging from August to November, 1942 resulted in the utter destruction of the veteran navies of both Japan and the United States. Vicious land, naval, and air battles took place at the remote island.
By November, each side was forced to put in their last reserves. For the Japanese this involved sending a mighty fleet of transports, destroyers, cruisers, and a battleship, Kirishima. The United States could only manage four destroyers and the two new battleships, South Dakota and Washington. In the resultant night battle all four of the American destroyers were sunk, but at the crucial moment in the battle as the Japanese were pummeling South Dakota, the unseen Washington, in seven minutes, opened fire and sank Kirishima. Though the enemy still had an overwhelming fleet with only one American warship still able to resist them, they immediately began their withdrawal, not only of their forces that night, but those engaged on the island as well.
The campaign was won and the United States, able to replace their loses in men and materials while the Japanese could not, began its inexorable march across the Pacific and the destruction of the Empire of Japan.
The flying scenes from three movies have impressed me the most.
For World War One it is 1931’s Flight Commander, remade in 1939 as Dawn Patrol, but using the same flying scenes, but with Errol Flynn and David Niven. The movie is about British flyers in France and they wound up using a nice replica of the Sopwith “Camel” airplane. The flying scenes are terrific, especially watching the fragile little plane fly down a railroad track sort of sideways in a crosswind. In truth, in that era, planes were more like motorized kites than airplanes. You could take a sharp pencil and poke right through the canvas wing surfaces.
For World War 2, God is My Co-Pilot, and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo both from books of the same names stand out. The aerial scenes in the first movie using the P-40 (not very successful for us) are spectacular.
In 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, the B-25 sequences are amazing. There is a story told to me by a family friend and former B-25 pilot that some of the scenes were done by Doolittle raiders themselves, pulled out of combat (the film was made late in the war). The plane flies dangerously close to the water, and our friend said that no stunt pilot was confident enough to make the scene.
It makes a great story, but I have come to think for a number of reasons that it is not true.
The Struggle for Guadalcanal, from August 1942 to the Japanese evacuation in January of 1943, was the Stalingrad of the Pacific war (for the Japanese). The air war was just as bitter as the land and naval battles.
The Japanese committed their very best pilots who had plenty of experience fighting in China, the Philippines and in New Guinea. Their aces had racked up amazing totals mostly against our inferior planes such as the Brewster Buffalo and Curtis P-40: Nishizawa with 104, Saburo Sakai 64, and Ota 34. They flew the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane with its great range and maneuverability.
Matched against this we had former farm boys like Marine Joe Foss from South Dakota with no combat experience. But he had a better plane than our earlier pilots, the first Grumman monoplane, the F4U “Wildcat.” It was not as quite as maneuverable as the Zero, slightly faster, but had tremendous fire power with six machine guns, and protected our pilots with the infamous 187-pound Jorgenson armor-plated seat, which almost nothing airborne in the world could pierce.
Foss put this toughness to the test. I believe he was shot down three times (although Wikipedia reports twice), a record for any of our top aces in the war. As the Japanese attacked our airfield on Guadalcanal, he was shot down and crashed on the field, then was forced to bail out and came down on the field, and later was shot down and crashed in the ocean.
In the end, Nishizawa escaped, but Sakai was crippled and Oro killed, while Foss’s victory total of 26 matched Edie Rickenbacker’s from World War I.
See Sakai’s very memorable autobiography “Zero.”
Since striking our Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941, the Japanese had taken over the largest empire in history, though it mostly consisted of islands. The United States felt powerless to do anything about the loss of much of the Chinese coastline, the British loss of Burma, or the dominance of the Indian Ocean and advance toward India. We did nothing when our own territory of the Philippine Islands was invaded and conquered. The best we could do was contest the enemy move into the central Pacific and pull off a miraculous defeat of a Japanese fleet heading for Midway island in May of 1942.
But the building of an airfield on the unknown and malaria-ridden island of Guadalcanal located within striking distance of Australia, which threatened to cut it off from the rest of the world, caused the U.S. to strike for the first time. On August 7, 1942, the First Marine Division was landed there and took over the airstrip. The result was an epic battle for the island which offered no material wealth to either side. But its strategic value made it a must win for each, and set up a titanic grudge match to the end, the prize being the Pacific Ocean.