The unsung plains of Kansas

Blinding searchlights wavered through the skies of Japan that had been filled nightly for the past fourteen months with American B-29 Superfortresses. Thinly scattered volleys of anti-aircraft shells burst around the Saipan based group that was unloading what was to be their last tonnage of destruction in the war with Japan. Last, but not least, on the final leg of the mission, was the aircraft Slim, named in honor of the movie starlet Lauren Bacall. The boys on the ship were flying their third mission as replacements for the Saipan Wing that had undergone a terrific loss of manpower.

“Navigator to pilot, navigator to pilot, we are coming in on the target.” “Pilot to Bombardier, she’s all yours, Schreck.” “ROGER!” “Just ease her over a degree to the left…bomb bay doors coming open.” “Bomb bay doors opened,” confirmed the checking crewman.

A split second of silence prevailed as the whiskerless Flight Officer Bombardier Schreck huddled over his sight, finally flicked the toggle switch and said, “Bombs Away!”. And away Lt. John Fry’s B-29 went, two bomb bays full of destruction. “I laid that load right on Tojo’s lap.” came the young Bombardier’s voice over the interphone. Laughter erupted from the crew at the Bombardier’s comment.

“You guys are just jealous,” joked Schreck. “If you guys want a recount, I’ll swing back over the target”, said Lt. Fry. “Hell no!”, agreed Schreck and Fisher simultaneously. “Just pour the coals to her and keep going, even Pratt, Kansas wold look good to me now” said the young Schreck.

Pratt, Kansas…that is where this aircrew first met the B-29. Their arrival to the Pratt Army AirField came with the arrival of the 346th Bomb Group in September 1944. Pratt, Kansas and the B-29 Superfortress were far different at this stage of the war than the town and ship I came upon December 30th, 1943.

Two days prior to this date I was stationed in Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma, awaiting overseas shipping orders as a Fighter Plane Crew Chief. On this particular night we were lulling around the confines of the barracks catching up on some letter writing, sack time, and having a bull session on the P-38 we left dismantled on the hangar floor. Sergeant Hamilton “Ham” Winslow, a radio technician, was disturbing the grease-monkeys with some high classed opera coming from his portable. “Turn that chicken static off, Marconi,” bellowed Sergeant McLaughlin. “Go blow it out your footlocker you half baked wrench jockies,” snapped back Winslow. “How many of you guys know the old Reading PA national anthem,” asked Sergeant Gray, who was determined to drown out the messy soprano coming from Winslow’s corner. This parody the boys sang to the tune of ‘I was Working on the Railroad’ even got Winslow to give in and listen as the boys, back-grounded by the strains of Gray’s guitar, gave out:

I enlisted in the Air Corps,
To fly the live long day
I enlisted in the Air Corps,
Just to pass the time of day,
You find me sweeping out the hangar,
Swabbing down a ship or two,
I enlisted in the Air Corps,
Don’t you be a sucker too!

“That was pretty good,” chimed in the Charge of Quarters who had entered the room unnoticed. Sorry to break up the songfest, but the old man wants to see all you guys at eight sharp tomorrow morning…with your barracks bags packed…orders just arrived, marked important and all they say is your transferred to Pratt Army Air Field, Kansas. “Where the hell is Kansas,” asked one. “Where the hell is Pratt,” piped another. “I’ve been in this moth eaten Air Force for two years and never heard of that joint. Must be another fighter base,” said Gray.

We arrived in the town of Pratt at high noon on December 31, 1944 and what an arrival. There was nary a soul on the street! One of the boys raised his hand to the side of his mouth and shouted, “Anybody home!?” Whether this call brought results or not, a Pratt native popped out of a nearby Java joint and gave out with the information. We learned through this gent that the Air Base was two miles up the road by the yellow water tower. It didn’t take too long for the GI two tonner to arrive and haul us off to the base. We stopped at the main gate that was manned by more MP’s than there were men in fighter flight. Our special orders were checked and off we sent up the old dirt road catching a glimpse of the chilly surroundings.

Brown tarpaper barracks, single story type, were numerous as the eye could see. Two huge hangars easily towered over the low slung quarters and two skeleton frames of two new hangers were in line with the others. Our bumpy ride came to the usually abrupt GI stop in front of another brown tarpaper building whose sign read Classification. With our barracks bag slung over our shoulder, we entered the building, which proved to have plenty of hustle and bustle about. Coverall cladded GI’s were walking around the place as if they were in Grand Central Station. There was a line of men that spiraled around one section of the room all awaiting their turn to get at the head of the table that was manned by two Shavetails who were tabbed ‘Censors’. We later found out that a military project of high importance was going on at this base and every letter outgoing had to be censored.

Once again, we were whisked off in the GI two tonner and headed off to our barracks. My first impression upon entering was that privacy would never be found here. Double bunks jammed the one story abode and the head to foot style recommended for sleeping didn’t give the occupants any more oxygen than a ball turret. After mess, I joined the other new arrivals in a briefing before the squadron executive officer who finally shed a little light on matters. We were told that we were now members of a Very Heavy Bomber Base that was one of the four set up by the Air Force for preparing units for overseas combat with a new secret bomber. Everything we were to see or hear from this moment on was confidential. The Captain said there were to be no leaves or passes and all men had to live on the base whether married or not.

After our short briefing, we had to be fingerprinted and mugged. We were then issued a toolbox and told to report for line duty at the hanger the next day for twelve-hour shifts. That evening around the barracks was not exactly like a usual New Year’s Eve Party as everyone seemed god tired. Mechanics, with greasy coveralls and facial smudges, lay upon their bunks falling asleep before they could even undress for bed. My lower bunkmate, a cook oriented me till well after the New Year came in on what seemed like the most fouled up situation in the Army.

What the Executive Officer mentioned about being part of secret bomb group was true for the cookie said we were now attached to the 40th Group which was one of four in the state of Kansas training on a new monstrous four engine bomber called the B-29 Superfortress. Other bases were in Salina, Walker and Great Bend, Kansas. After a limited amount of training, the four bases would form a Wing and journey over Tokyo way as the 20th Air Force. After a poor night’s rest and poorer breakfast, I reported to the hangar for duty.

My entrance to the hangar via the rear door was stopped in its tracks…. For there standing before me was the unbelievable sight of the hugest airplane my life had ever witnessed. This enormous hangar that could normally house dozens of liaison ships had barely enough room to shelter this man made miracle, that was over 90 feet long. The huge wings had a slight dihedral pitching the 146-foot wing tips skyward cleared the walls with little to spare. Special space had to be improvised in the center of the hangar door to allow the vertical stabilizing tail section enough room for the 28 feet of height.

My first assignment on the ship was assisting in the removal of one of the huge 18 cylinder engines. A side panel on each engine allows enough room for a mechanic to crawl inside the rear section of an engine that he can comfortably work on the accessory section. The oil drenched engine we were removing had a short lived life of 31 hours, which was extremely poor compared to the normal engine life of most aircraft which usually goes into the two and three hundred hour bracket. It didn’t take long to find that the air and ground crews cursed the day the ship was born. They called it a Gremlin Hotel, Cootie Garage and a sick Cow, because of all the bugs (trouble) it contained. Combat training crews didn’t fear flying newborn monster but they never did expect to return from a training flight with all four-prop fans turning.

Going from fighters and liaison ships to bombers was rough sledding and our qualifications were hardly worthy of the chevrons we wore. Our over-ranked complex was soon shattered after working with Master Sergeant Miller who kept us on our toes and sent us back to the barracks with just enough energy to crawl into the sack. A few months went by fast and working on the B-29 was now growing interesting. Our waistlines were dwindling despite the fact that we were now eating better in the base PX. The mess in the mess hall was still considered poor by the hungry GI’s who flocked to the visiting Inspector General seeking transfers. The main gripes that were consistent to the General, beside the food problem was the long hours, no days off and congested sleeping quarters.

By the end of March 1944, the performance of the Superfort was improved although it was far from being free of long list of engine discrepancies. Rumors that had the 40th Group on its way for the past three months finally came true. The boys were awakened from a three in the morning sleep and hauled away to the gangplank. I was transferred to an incoming group labeled the 497th. While awaiting the arrival of this new group, I was given a three-day pass, which I spent in the GI paradise of Wichita, Kansas. This city was over-crowded with wine, women, and song. Nightlife was like that of Times Square in New York City. The newly built Boeing Aircraft plant that supplied our B-29’s was paying enormous wages and every GI met up with his Rosie the Riveter. Kansas of course at that time was dry…but liquor flowed free as the Danube River.

As members of the 497th Group we found conditions repetitious to those of the 40th, as passes became unheard of, the long hours started again and lectures, schooling, gas drills and plenty of chicken dinners prevailed. The group in my estimation turned out to be the outstanding B-29ers to ever hit Pratt, Kansas.

Day by day, Superforts hot from the production lines of Boeing Aircraft in Seattle and Wichita were added to the Squadrons. The performance of the ships improved rapidly although the engine bugs were still plentiful. The Wright Engine Cooperation was quick in making modifications and their field representatives moved onto the base to aid the trouble shooting. Runaway engine propellers caused a few new accidents, cracked cylinders and the nacelles were covered with oil after every engine turnover. The engines leaked much oil.

It soon became no oddity to see a top ranking Air Force wheel walking about the ramp asking questions. Hap Arnold, the well liked Air Force Commander was a frequent visitor who actually crawled under a greasy oil pump to show the ground crew a short cut or new method. Brigadier General Myers, who was later given a Court-Martial, grew to be a regular guy among the enlistees after bucking down to some helpful assistance. When the B-29 engines had trouble starting in cold weather, it was General Myers who personally showed the boys how to install a new type hopper tank that acted as a reservoir of warm oil. Oil from the previous run up would fill a cylinder within the oil tank: this oil would remain warm enough so as to facilitate easy starting when the next starting operation took place.

Another engine problem that the top brass assisted in conquering was improper engine lubrication. Of the 18 large cylinders that formed the engine, the two at the six thirty position were causing engine failure due to lack of lubrication. This was overcome by freezing oil to a solid pastelike form using hot ice. The grease was then inserted into the cylinder rocker covers with a spatula and bolted back to its ports. The engine heat melted the grease soon enough to supply the correct amount of lubrication.

An unexpected breather came to me during the top momentum of hard work at Pratt. It happened in June, and you might say right out of a dream, as I was awakened from a sound sleep one evening and told to pack that old barracks bag for Seattle, Washington. The other two squadrons of the group were sending a man each and I was fortunate enough to get the nod from mine.

The school was set up on the edge of Boeing Airport, with one storey wooden barracks housing hundreds of men. The educational setup was superb, probably because all civilian employees ran it. The large number of students eventually made it necessary to have a day and night session. The course ran ten weeks and the amount of knowledge derived from it was remarkable. It was a sight to see the expressions on the face of many when they first caught a glimpse of the Superfort, that underwent more assembling and disassembling from the thousands of students that went through the course. Rank was no factor among students, who ran from Privates to full Colonels.

It was during our chow hour one day that the public address blast forth with the report that a new type of long range bomber, the B-29, had bombed Tokyo. The lunchroom broke into a bedlam and it was heartwarming to hear the cheers resound through the mess hall. To us from Pratt, it struck a bit closer home, as we know some of the boys on that raid were of the 40th from Pratt.

The ten weeks of school were every bit enjoyable; especially the last day when the graduation exercises were held, diplomas issued and a trip to the nearby city of Renton was made. Boeing Aircraft had another Superfort plant started at this city with production going smooth as clockwork. It was at this plant that I learned of the origin of the B-29 from a civilian employee who had been with the company for years.

It seemed that the Air Force was seeking a long-range bomber of the B-29 type for years prior to Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until 1939 that the US asked several aircraft makers to submit plans and bid for this type airplane. During this period the Boeing Company had been completing plans for this very such type bomber so naturally they submitted what they had and with war nerves, Uncle Sam desperately accepted after revising the plans for combat. Boeing set up a gigantic tooling and production program that was never attempted in such a large scale. The battleship of the air, as General Arnold described it, went into production with a prayer. Tests upon tests were made. More than once the Air Force was on the verge of calling off the whole plan, but each time a new hope arose, hope through ideas and inventions of common men.

One of the major problems that continued plagued the B-29 was the engine oil leaks. The pilots, engineers and ground crews were very frustrated by the amount of oil lost during each flight. The loss of engine oil was decreasing the life of the engine to as little as 20 hours! Back in Pratt, Kansas in the two weeks before the arrival of the new group from Dalhart, Texas, I worked on an idea for overcoming this problem. First issue was trying to find where the oil leak was located since no crack could ever be found.

Each Wright R3350 engine had 18 cylinders which had two push rod housings attached to each cylinder base by two hose fittings. After many flights, I would check the massive oil leaks, since the engines were hot. All four engines always showed heavy oil leaks at the rubber hose fittings. I noticed that after a few hours of cooling off, the rubber fittings would harden and close back to their shape and hide the leak. The rubber hose fittings were softened from the heat of the exhaust manifold stacks. I discovered as they softened, the hoses flared open and oil would escape under engine pressure.

My suggestion was to wrap the 36 hose fittings on each engine with metallic inserted asbestos. This piece of asbestos would act as a heat baffle. The cost per cylinder would be about 50 cents. I experimented with one cylinder to see if this 50 cents would save a very expensive engine. The engineering officers and officials from Wright Engine Company were ecstatic when the cylinder was found to be bone dry after the test flight. My idea worked! This was an improvement that would affect the whole B-29 force around the world.

Everyday during the next five months I did one engine test at a time with close scrutiny by the high command. I was ordered to Command Headquarters one day and told by the excited officers that my idea had been accepted. A military telegram (TWX) was immediately issued to all B-29 worldwide. The TWX grounded all B-29 bombers until my ‘Ventura’ asbestos shield was applied. My friends joked that I had single handedly done what the enemy was unable to do, keep the B-29s from flying. However, when the modification was made, the B-29s could fly harder and longer to the joy of all, except our enemy!

Day by day, elements of the new group arrived. The majority was raw recruits with nothing under their belts but basic training. The first glimpse of the ship made them swallow; some didn’t know the tail from the nose. By the first week in September 1944, the third B-29 group was ready for their extensive training on the Superfortress. The group was tabbed the 29th Bomb Group with a Colonel Carl Story Commanding. The kids in the group proved to be a swell bunch of Joes despite their lack of plane sense. It was nothing unusual to tell a mechanic to remove a carburetor from an engine and have him return later with half the accessory section…which included the carburetor.

After three swift months, the 29th Group was clicking as a whole, but they did need more flying time and better weather than Kansas would provide in the coming months. Long distance overwater flights were part of the required training so the Air Force decided to set up shuttle bases between Kansas and the Caribbean Islands. The Pratt group was sent to Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico, while the other Kansas groups set up in the British owned islands of Jamaica and Kingston. Batista Field in Cuba was the fourth base selected. Transports of every description transported the men. Work shifts were set up for three eight-hour shifts that found the satisfied men giving out with non-sparing effort. Skeleton crews remained to face the cold winds of the Kansas plains to service the ships that shuttled back and forth. The Puerto Rico deal wasn’t all peaches and cream as it had its share of tragic accidents. A number of men were lost, mostly in crackups caused by engine failure. More than one run-away propeller carried a ship into Puerto Rico Bay. I was on one of the everyday shuttle flights that my friend and Boeing classmate Chet Matkins lost his life. Chet was one a crew of 19 flying toward Borinquen in a three-ship formation. The weather was extremely bad this day and all three ships lost contact with each other. Two ships made the base safely but the one Chet was on never did.

The true pattern that I was use to at Pratt prevailed when the 29th Group shoved off. The usual three-day pass plus the dribbling in of another group. I was now a member of the fourth B-29 group to take overseas training on the Superfort. The new organization was labeled the 346th Bomb Group; General Doolittle, commanding.

The men that filtered in seemed to have plenty of rank and service. Texas boots lined the footwear display under many a bunk as a good portion of the outfit was from Texas. It was a sin for me to hail from Boston as the Texans put it. They were true sons of the big state and voiced it. The Pratt winter of ’45 was a lulu. Snow fell thickly and it was no cinch for the ground crew to shovel their way to get to a frozen ship. The Puerto Rico cruise was put into operation the same as before, and naturally the men fell in love with the plan.

New bases at this time sprung up in neighborly Nebraska. Several Pratt based men were transferred to these new bases in McCook and Grand Island. Montgomery, Alabama and Marietta, Georgia became modification centers for the Superfort while Alamgardo, called ‘Alamagoo-goo’ by the doggies, became the first New Mexican field to have training on this ship. Letters from fellows in the 497th and 29th indicated that the ships were pounding the heck out of the Japs. The outfits were both in the Marianis Islands, the 497th at Saipan and the 29th at Guam. Some of the 40th that went from India and China were now on Saipan and Tinian.

The 346th tried Production Line Maintenance but later gave way to assigning a specific crew to a ship. Coincidentally, I drew Lt. Fry and crew. Our entire training period was excellent with the long trips to Caribbean Islands, making time go by quickly. The custom inspectors at Orlando, Florida necessitated our stop over on these trips where we went through a physical examination before leaving the continental limits of the United States.

The engine performance about this stage of the game had increased in the 200-hour category, which was far better than the 30 hours, the original 40th Group received. Minor troubles popped up now and then modifications were numerous. The modifying of the bomb bay doors was a big improvement at this time. The doors were first designed to open by the slow tedious operation of electric motors. The motors sometimes froze or failed in flight, which made it imperative to use a manual cable device, which wasn’t too well appreciated, over a bomb run in combat. The new system installed was a compressed air device that closed and opened the doors in a split second. The system was operated by three toggle switches located between the pilot and bombardier. It was risky for anyone to walk through the bomb bays when the ship was packed on the ground. More than once a careless hand tinkering around the cockpit threw the SHUT switch and had those two razor like doors slam shut. I can’t recall a fatal accident from this system although a squadron on the Island of Tinian had an armorer badly injured this way. Safety iron braces were built to overcome this discrepancy, but sheer laziness found many crews disregarded them, usually winding up with an accident.

Lt. Fry’s crew was summoned the first of June by the Marinas Wing and I drew another crew. By the 17th of June, the entire group was back at Pratt completely readied for the overseas journey. A complete change was installed in the ship’s armament. Originally, the total ship’s armament consisted of twin 50 caliber machine guns at four positions forward of the tail section which that had twin 50’s balancing a mm cannon. The new setup called for the elimination of the cannon in the tail. The 20mm cannon was removed after the gunners complained that the tail section almost fell off from the vibration that the big guns gave when fired.

Like the departure of the previous 29th Group, our sendoff was no hush-hush affair. On the 3rd of July, the ground echelon marched to the railroad siding with the base brass band leading the parade. Our long train ride ended at the docks of Seattle, Washington where we boarded a Navy transport that cruised the Pacific waters for 27 days. On August 6th, our dull boatride was enlivened when the public address system announced that a B-29 had dropped an Atomic Bomb on Japan. The bomb was dropped by a Tinian based ship named the Enola Gay. Pilot of the ship was Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr. of Miami, Florida and the crew chief was a former classmate of mine at Boeing B-29 school, Master Sergeant McLellan. On August 9th, the PA system again came on with good news that the 2nd Atomic Bomb had found its mark on Nagasaki. Two nights later, we entered Okinawa Bay and the Japs were still unloading shells. On August 14th, Hirohito told his people the sad score so our B-29 Wing based on Kadena Field was grounded. All the ships all underwent checks and new modifications. Two of the most improving modifications was the installation of fuel injection engines and reversible pitch propellers. The fuel injection system eliminated carburetors that were replaced by injection pumps that fed fuel more evenly and directly. Results from this new system gave the engine cooler and smoother performance and less fuel consumption. At this stage of the game, B-29 engines were living the normal life of a good proven engine with an average three hundred flying hours.

The other progressive modification installed was the reversible pitch propeller that made it possible for a ship to go into reverse speed on the ground. It was quite an ordeal to see the first performance of a ship equipped this was back into a handstand packing lot just like a Mack Truck.

Operation got the ships into the air after our short period of reconditioning and photographic, transportation and flying home projects were underway. One of the most observing spectacles to see was on September 2nd at 9:20am aboard the Battleship Missouri. The peace treaty between Japan and the Allies was just about to receive the signature of General MacArthur when fifty Superforts came from out of the blue yonder tilting their wings in salute.

The B-29 Superfortress was a success, all that the blueprints said it was came true. It was far from the same ship that I came upon my first day in Pratt, Kansas. The final boxscore shows that B-29s flew 325 missions, losing 437 ships, and 297 crewmembers. 600 men were rescued from crackups at sea.

History tales will always tell of the great deeds of the Superfort in its heroic feats over Mandalay, Singapore, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the long line of pummeled targets, but the unsung victory on the vast plains of Kansas will go along with Pratt, Salina, Great Bend and Walker as just another bunch of hick towns in our great United States.


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