The B-17 and B-29 in World War II

Adm. Nimitz signs Japanese surrender

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, signs the Instrument of Surrender as United States Representative, on board USS Missouri (BB-63), 2 September 1945. Standing directly behind him are (left-to-right): General of the Army Douglas MacArthur

Damaged B-29 fells

One wing gone, a B-29 falls in flames after a direct hit by enemy flak over Japan.

Crew of B-17 Memphis Belle

Crew of the Boeing B-17 Memphis Belle at an airbase in England during World War II.

B-17 bomber

Boeing B-17 bombers.

Flying Fortresses Under Fire painting

This image is the 25-foot by 75-foot mural in the World War II Gallery of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.. The B-17G, 42-38050, “Thunder Bird” of the 303rd Bomb Group, based at Molesworth, England, is seen at 11:45 AM, August 15, 1944, over Trier, Germany, on its return to base from a mission to Weisbaden. B-17Gs “Bonnie B,” “Special Delivery,” and “Marie” are seen below as a Messerschmitt 109G and Focke Wulf FW 190 attack “Thunder Bird’s” element.

B-17 Mary Alice

The original B-17 Mary Alice assigned to the 615th Bomb Squadron of the 401st Bomb Group flew from Deenethorpe Airfield.

B-17 sign at museum

This sign is part of a B-17 exhibit at the American Air Museum dedicated to the memory of the 30,000 American airmen who lost their lives flying from British bases in the Second World War.

B-29 Super Fortress

The Boeing B-29 “Super Fortress” of World War II.

Enola Gay

The Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber used in the atomic mission that destroyed Hiroshima, went on display June 28, 1995 at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The display commemorates the end of World War II, as well as the role of the Enola Gay in securing Japanese surrender.

8th Air Force sign at museum

This sign at the American Air Museum in England states that “the construction of bases for the 8th Air Force was part of the largest civil engineering programme ever undertaken in the UK.” B-17s and P-51 Mustangs were flown by the 355th Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force.

Article courtesy of Centennial of Flight

Throughout the 1930s, new bomber aircraft emerged in all countries. However, these older models were inadequate to carry out the theories of strategic bombing–they could neither travel far enough nor carry a heavy enough bomb load. Eventually, two American planes were designed that embodied the qualities of the perfect bomber–the Boeing B-17 and B-29. Both planes helped the Allies win the war and define the reality of air power.

In April 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps
requested bids for a multiengine bomber that could carry a bomb load of 2,000
pounds (907 kilograms) for at least 1,020 miles (1,642 kilometers) at a speed
of 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). Boeing proposed the
four-engine Model 299, with its all-metal construction and a bomb
bay that could hold 4,800 pounds (2,177 kilograms) of bombs. It was heavily
armed with a gun turret in the nose and three rounded windows (blisters) for
gunners on the sides and bottom of the plane. When it rolled out on July 28,
1935, a Seattle Times reporter
nicknamed it the “Flying Fortress” because of its heavy armament.

After three weeks of testing, the Flying
Fortress flew nonstop from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Wright Field, Ohio,
overshadowing the Douglas Aircraft entry, the
twin-engine B-18. But tragedy struck on the Fortress’s second air corps test,
when the plane crashed due to pilot error, killing two. The Flying Fortress
seemed to have no future as the air corps placed orders for the Douglas B-18.

Over the next winter, Boeing received only a
few orders for the Flying Fortress, then designated the YB-17. Twelve planes
were delivered to the 2nd Bomb Group in December 1936, where they
were used to make historic flights, including record-breaking goodwill tours to
South America. Despite their excellent safety record, however, Congress opposed
spending so much money on a large bomber.

Then Germany invaded Poland on
September 1, 1939, and President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the country for
war. Boeing received a contract for 38 B-17Cs (the blisters were replaced with
flat glass and self-sealing fuel tanks were added). Over the next six years,
Boeing built more than 12,000 B-17s for the USAAF. Production demands meant
that the government needed Douglas and Lockheed to build B-17s as well.

As the United States went to war, crews were
equipped with B-17Es and B-17Fs. (The B-17E added a Sperry ball turret in the
front and a remote turret in the belly; and redesigned the tail assembly to
include a tail gunner position; the B-17F made 300 further small changes,
including adding a one-piece, clear molded-plastic nose.) These planes arrived
in North Africa, the Pacific, and England, where they formed the nucleus of the
8th Air Force. The B-17s
proved essential to success in Europe, delivering half of all bombs dropped in
that theater.

The men who flew the Flying Fortress loved
their plane and felt it was good to them. The solid plane endured a lot of
punishment, often limping back to base when a lesser bomber would have crashed.
And for the military, it was an important symbol. General Henry “Hap” Arnold
called it “Air Power that you could put your hand on” and predicted that it was
only the first of many great American bombers.

That next great bomber was already being
built. In 1939, Arnold formed a special board, named the Kilner Board, to
produce a five-year plan for research and development in the Air Corps. Among
its findings was the need for a long-range bomber with twice the range of the
B-17. As the war in Europe began, the possibility that all air operations on
the continent would need to originate in the United States began to seem real.
Captain Donald Putt, a test pilot, was asked to write the requirements for such
a plane. He stipulated a four-engine airplane with a range of 5,333 miles
(8,583 kilometers) and a speed of 400 miles per hour (644 kilometers per hour)
carrying a one-ton bomb load.

By the time Boeing received these
requirements, it had already developed the plane. Because of the company’s
close relationship with the Air Corps, it had predicted that such a plane would
be required and had already been developing the Model 345 before Congress had
even approved the appropriation. Boeing won the contract to build 250 B-29s on
May 4, 1941, with the first plane scheduled for completion by August 1942. When
the United States declared war, that order was expanded to 500.

The plane that Boeing built, eventually
nicknamed the “Superfortress,” incorporated all the technological advances of
the previous decade. A special wing, the 117, was developed to reduce drag,
increase high-speed maneuverability, and allow low-speed takeoffs and landings.
It was the first bomber to be pressurized, with the front cabin connected to
the one in the rear by a pressurized tunnel that went over the bomb bays. There
was a remote-controlled gunnery system designed by General Electric that
controlled four turrets, and the tail turret was manned separately. Its
air-cooled Wright engines generated 2,200 horsepower (1,641 kilowatts), and it
could fly at 360 to 380 miles per hour (579 to 612 kilometers per hour) with a
range of approximately 5,725 miles (9,213 kilometers).

On September 21, 1942, the XB-29 made its
first flight. For the first two test flights, the plane flew satisfactorily,
and Donald Putt claimed it was easier to fly than the B-17. Problems soon
arose, however. Parts malfunctioned. Engines began to catch fire. Yet
adjustments were made and testing continued.

Then disaster hit. During a test flight on
February 18, 1943, an engine fire spread into the wings, forcing the plane to
crash into a meat packing plant, killing the crew of eleven and 20 on the
ground. Many, including President Roosevelt, wanted to end the B-29 program
right then. But Hap Arnold, for whom the B-29 had become a pet project, held
an investigation and found that the problem was with the manufacture of the
engines. The B-29 program was labeled a “special project,” which gave the USAAF
full control over all facets of the development–from flight tests, production,
and modifications to the training of crews. Based at the Boeing plant in
Kansas, the project was devoted to getting the plane ready for action with the
20th Air Force in China by January
1944. The deadline was met, and the first B-29 mission was flown from India on
June 5, 1944, against Japanese-held Bangkok. When the Marianas Islands were
recaptured in October, the 20th Air Force was relocated there. They
were given as many B-29s as possible, since Japan was within flying range of
the plane.

Under the leadership of its commander, General
Curtis LeMay, the 20th Air Force used B-29s in an
intensive bombing campaign against Japan that included traditional and
incendiary bombs. As many as 300 bombers were used for each mission, a number
that doubled the following summer. As the threat from enemy fighters decreased,
the armament was stripped from the planes to allow more weight for bombs. The
firestorms created by the incendiary bombs became so intense that the silver
planes returned to base black with soot. And on August 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped the first nuclear bomb
on the city of Hiroshima, followed three days later by a second bomb dropped by
the B-29 Bock’s Car on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered a week later.

Although many credited the nuclear bomb with
ending the war, the bomb never could have been dropped without the range and
carrying capacity of the B-29. When the earlier B-17s returned from the war,
they ended up in boneyards in the desert, whereas the number of B-29s in
service did not decrease. While Japan signed the surrender on the USS Missouri, 500 Superfortresses flew
overhead as a show of force. In the weeks after the war, it flew “Missions of
Mercy”–searching for and dropping supplies on prisoner of war camps.

In 1946, the plane was mobilized to
participate in nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. And on June 25, 1950, the day
the Korean War began, four B-29s from Guam were sent to drop bombs on the
invading North Koreans. But by then, they were already obsolete–no match
against jets–and they were used mainly for reconnaissance. The plane that had
delivered the first nuclear bomb and had formed the backbone of the United
States nuclear weapons delivery command was retired less than a decade after
its dramatic debut.

–Pamela Feltus


Dik Alan. Hap Arnold and the Evolution of
American Airpower. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

William N, et al. Great American Bombers
of WWII. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1998.

Williamson. War in the Air: 1914-1945. London:
Cassell, 1999.

Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air
Forces in World War II. New York: Random House, 1993.

John. B-29 Superfortress. London:
Bison Books, 1980.

Bill. Legends of Flight. Lincolnwood,
Ill.: Publications International, 1997.


Harry H. A Wing and a Prayer. Lincoln,
Neb.:, 1993.

Jeffrey L. How to Fly the B-29
Superfortress. London: Greenhill Press, 1995.

Edward. Flying Fortress. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Robert. The Man Who Flew the Memphis
Belle: A Memoir of a World War II Bomber Pilot. New York: Penguin Books,

O’Leary, Michael. Boeing
B-17 Flying Fortress: Production Line to Frontline. Botley, Oxford: Osprey
Publications, 1998.

Brian D. Half a Wing, Three Engines and a
Prayer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Paul W. Flight of the Enola Gay. Reynoldsburg,
Ohio: Buckeye Aviation Books, 1989.

Van der
Meulen, Jacob. Building the B-29. Washington,
D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.



Memphis Belle:

Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum:

401st Bomb Group Website:

Duxford Display: