A Friend of Ours.
I regret to report the passing of former B-29 crewman Arthur Holmes, among those featured on our “Stories Page.” Mr. Holmes' picture tops the menu to the left.
He died February 19, 2017 at 93 after a long bout with cancer and was buried in Narrowsburg, New York.
Mr. Holmes is survived by son Edward, daughter-in-law Christie, and granddaughter Angela, as well as daughter Arlene, son-in-law Erik Murray, my brother, and grandson Calum.
Arthur Holmes flew 36 missions as a blister gunner aboard the “Star Duster,” a B-29 based on Saipan.
Aside from keeping in touch with his former crewmembers at veterans’ functions, Art enjoyed deep-sea fishing with friends and family, especially after retirement from an underwriting career with St. Paul Insurance.
I am thankful for the privilege of his friendship, generosity and good humor, in addition to his sharing of many B-29 stories, by turns funny and terrifying, life as lived by those we’ll never forget.
Arthur Holmes, was a B-29 right blister gunner on the Star Duster out of Saipan -- 878 Squadron, 499th Bomb Group.
An avid follower of "FIFI," he and crew mates were recognized at a "FIFI" mission briefing reenactment at the 2011 Reading PA Air Show.
In 2012 , I joined Mr. Holmes and family at Reading for a second rendezvous with "FIFI" and a gracious welcome from her Commemorative Air Force crew.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Arthur worked at the Middleton PA Air Depot, repairing sheet metal on P-40 Warhawk wings before his enlistment.
He recalled playing his harmonica in the back of the plane returning from missions, listening to Tokyo Rose on the intercom, while the Star Duster's bombardier played his own harmonica up front. Neither played Wabash Cannonball, Art recalled, because the tune was repeatedly broadcast over loudspeakers back at base almost to the point of cruel and unusual punishment.
Art's attitude can be summed up by his reply to my observation that I selected his picture for the heading of this page because back in the day he was a typical all-American good-looking kid. "Still am!" he snapped.
With granddaughter Angela at the 2012 Reading Air Show
THE REAL LAST MISSION: Radio Men Remember
Editor's Note: Sadly, Clyde Hussey passed away December 31st, 2016. For more information, please see a brief announcement on our home page.
by Operator Clyde V. Hussey, KM4RC, S.K.
The growl of 564 Wright Cyclone R-3350 engines, even at idle, can surely be heard by everyone on the island and is an unmistakable prediction of the mission ahead. One hundred forty one Boeing B-29B Superfortresses are strung out along the taxiways and parking areas of Northwest Field on Guam, waiting for the signal to start tonight's long flight to Japan. Guam, the southernmost island of the Mariana group, is a major US base since it's recapture and is also the home base for the 315th Bomb Wing of the 20th Air Force.
Today's mission was scheduled for this morning, then canceled. Not really canceled. We were told to shut down our engines and wait for further orders. The rumor is that the Japanese might make a surrender announcement. If they do, this mission will not be flown.
It is hot and humid, as usual, as we try to get a little air to circulate through the interior of our airplane, lovingly called the "Horrible Monster." We are proud of these big birds. They represent the last word in technology in WWII combat aircraft and this one has seen us safely through 13 long night bombing missions, 10 of them over the mainland of Japan.
Designed to be a high-altitude, long-range bomber, the B-29 was rushed into production before the prototypes were finished. There were problems, but it got into service on a fast track and by the time we flew "Horrible Monster" to Guam in the spring of 1945, it was a reasonably reliable and trustworthy aircraft.
We got our B-29B in Kansas, fresh off the assembly line, in the dead of winter. Our first reactions were, in exactly this order:
"Wow, that north wind is cold!" We were walking across the ramp towards the parked airplanes ahead. It felt as though there was nothing between us and the North Pole but the stubble of the wheat fields that surrounded the airbase.
"Wow, that is a big bird!" We first saw it parked alongside a B-17. The B-17 looked like a toy.
"Wow, it looks brand new!" It's unpainted aluminum skin was glowing in the bright winter sun. It was beautiful!
"Whoa . . . wait a minute . . . where are the guns?"
There were no guns . . . as we came a little closer we could see what looked like .50 caliber guns in the tail, but the dorsal and belly turrets were not there. Equally as strange was the metal wing-looking appendage between the bomb bays and the dish-looking gadget hanging from the tail guns. We were even more astonished by these things as we got close enough to see that our first impressions were correct.
The bigness of it was intimidating. The tail assembly looked to be three stories high. That B-17 would nearly fit under one wing. The fuselage was like a carefully crafted cigar wrapped in seamless tinfoil. The wings and tail assembly flowed from the fuselage as if the whole airplane had been formed in one giant mold. The tricycle landing gear allowed it to sit level and caused the huge four-bladed propellers to nearly touch the ground. Incredibly beautiful in spite of its size . . . but . . . NO GUNS!
Later, piece by piece, it all came together. We are to be part of a specialized bomb wing, flying only night missions. Our primary targets will be Japan's oil refineries and oil storage facilities. The "wing" on the belly between the bomb bays is the phased array antenna for a new and secret bombing/navigation radar, designated APQ-7 "EAGLE." We will bomb from a relatively low altitude using the radar to track into and identify the target. The guns, except for the tail turret, have been removed to increase our speed and range. It is thought that Japan does not have a night fighter that can make more than one pass at us, as they cannot match our speed. The tail guns have a new radar aiming sight (ARG-15) that allows the gunner to "see" a target at night and to know when it is in range so he can fire, with a good chance of a hit, even in total darkness.
My crew position is radio operator and at my desk I found the newly designed transmitter, by Collins Radio, that eliminates complicated tuning every time a frequency change is required. That is a real blessing, as my job mostly entails emergency communications, and getting on the correct frequency in a hurry could save our lives under some conditions. The knobs on the Collins unit whirled and turned to the required settings automatically once the proper frequency was selected. It is a technological wonder compared to the radio equipment we used in training.
The rear crew compartment contained the APU (auxiliary power unit), a DC generator driven by a gasoline engine. It was capable of supplying the power necessary to start the huge Wright Cyclone engines without any outside ground support. We could deliver over 20,000 lbs of bombs to most targets in Japan. Reducing the bomb load slightly would allow us to reach any target in Japan from our base on Guam. With the extra room inside resulting from the removal of gun turrets, the 15 to 16 hour missions ahead would not be so tiring, as we could get up and move around. It all sounded great and we were excited and proud to have been selected to crew this remarkable airplane.
I was touched to the point of tears when we first climbed aboard. There, on the bulkhead just above the radio table, was a note written with a soft pencil. It said "God bless you, son" and was signed "Rosie," the universal name for the women factory workers who assembled America's aircraft in the 1940s. I left the note there and never forgot that dear lady who understood and cared that real people were going to fly her airplane. My confidence in "Horrible Monster" never faltered, knowing it was put together by "Rosie" and her co-workers.
I don't remember much about our brief transition training, but a few memories are still vivid. First, the picture the secret radar painted as we flew over the St Louis airport one night. There was about 9/10 cloud cover over the city but the radar picture of the airport was perfect. I could see the runways and taxiways clearly. We should have no trouble finding our target in any weather with this fantastic "Eagle" system.
We were returning to our base in Kansas after one training flight to the Caribbean and someone, the pilot or flight engineer, said "Let's see how high it will go." We did, and I remember that the altimeter said we were about 50,000 feet when the engines quit. All four of them. The carburetors froze up. No one panicked, though I will admit that I was much relieved when the shallow dive to a much lower altitude allowed the engines to be restarted with no trouble.
I wondered later if 50,000+ feet was some kind of a record for the time, but of course, we told no one about it. We did not discover it that day, but other high flying B-29s were first to encounter and identify the jet stream. That high altitude weather phenomena probably confounded a lot of B-29 navigators and bombardiers before it was understood.
There is one more vivid memory of a lesson learned during transition training. The airplane crew compartments were pressurized, and we could fly at high altitude without wearing an oxygen mask. That was great, but had some interesting consequences. The urinal was a funnel connected to a small holding tank, then through a valve and a tube to the outside. Open the valve and a rush of inside air quickly flushed out any liquid in the system. Then, you closed the valve so that higher pressure inside air could not escape. Proper procedure was to hold the funnel in position, fill the tank with liquid through the funnel, move the funnel, open the valve to flush, then close the valve. You were not likely to forget this sequence more than once. If you opened the valve before moving the funnel, the outrush of air could do real damage to any body part that was close enough to get caught. That device had some real suction at 20,000 feet!
The front and rear crew compartments were connected by a tunnel over the bomb bays so that it was possible, if not easy, to move back and forth when pressurized. The tail gunner had his own compartment which was totally isolated from the rear crew compartment by a non-pressurized area of the tail section. He could not get out of his sealed compartment when the plane was pressurized.
The possibility of explosive decompression was ever present, and to prepare for this hi-tech airplane, the Air Corps required that all tooth fillings must be replaced with airtight ones so, in the event of a rapid decompression, your teeth would not explode. I had a large number of fillings replaced by an Air Corps dentist who did not have to worry
about my repeat business. It was the most painful price I had to pay for admission to the B-29 aircrew.
We are still waiting for the signal to takeoff. It is 4:30 PM Guam time. At times like this, after I checked everything for the umpteenth time, I did mental exercises like adding up the number of spark plugs that were firing at a given moment. Let's see . . maybe 560 engines, 18 cylinders per engine, two plugs per cylinder ....
Before I got this calculation worked out, the word came to start takeoffs . . . the mission is a GO, but we are instructed to monitor the radio closely for a possible recall at any time. We are in about the first third of the line up, but it could still be an hour before we make it to the end of the runway and start our takeoff run.
Takeoff of a fully loaded B-29 from Northwest Field on Guam is simple in theory. The Aircraft Commander (the left-seat pilot) and the Pilot (right seat) stand on the brakes and bring the engines up to full power. If all looks OK, and the Flight Engineer agrees, they release the brakes and start the takeoff roll. When the runway is all used up, the landing gear is raised and the airplane does what, to an outside observer, looks like a swan dive off the 500 foot cliff at the end of the runway. I usually watch from the navigator's dome in the top of the tunnel entrance as the airplane sinks below the level of the runway. It is eerie to look back over the tail and see the runway above us. The pilots and engineer are tense as they attend to the critical tasks of getting the flaps up, the engine cowl flaps properly adjusted, and achieving climb airspeed before the engines overheat or the blue Pacific comes up to meet us.
Someday, I plan to calculate how many extra tons of bombs were dropped on Japan as a result having that 500-foot cliff at the end of the runway. Our gross weight would have to be reduced considerably for the B-29 to lift off the runway and enter a climb immediately. That calculation is not so easy but my guess is that thousands of extra tons of bombs were carried to Japan due to the "free" 500 feet of altitude the cliff provided.
The roar of our number one engine brings me back to the business at hand. Just prior to takeoff, magnetos must be checked. There are two per engine, and they provide the high voltage for the spark plugs. The engine is run up to a prescribed RPM and each magneto is checked. If the RPM drops more than the specification allows, no takeoff. Usually, a few seconds of maximum RPM will clear the problem if the drop is due to a fouled spark plug. In that case a repeat check will be OK.
Number one engine checks OK and the sound gets closer as number two is run up for it's check. The roar switches to the other side as number three RPM increases. I hear a little roughness as the mags are switched. It is too much. I just know it. Run up, then check it again. It still sounds too rough. I could not see the tachometer, but the sound left no doubt. The rule is that we could not go if even one magneto on one engine caused excessive RPM drop.
The possibility that we might be left out of this mission, probably the last and for sure the longest mission (from the Marianas) of the war, is just not acceptable to any of the "Horrible Monster" crew.
We are turning out of line now and heading back to our hard stand. I wonder if my calculation about the spark plugs is somehow responsible. After all, that is a lot of plugs, and out of that many some are bound to foul . . . but why ours?
A couple of hours later a devoted ground crew has "Horrible Monster" ready to go again, and a determined aircrew gets her back in line well before the last of the B-29s are gone. We are the last airplane in the line, but we are going to make the mission. All mags check OK this time, as we creep along towards the takeoff end of the runway.
None of the crew gives any thought to the fact that those fouled plugs detected during the first round of mag checks, resulting in our tail-end takeoff position, will possibly give our crew the dubious distinction of dropping the last bombs of WWII on a designated primary Japanese target.
It is 7 PM on the 14th of August, 1945, when we dive over the cliff and head toward our target in northern Japan.
Night bombing missions do not, for obvious reasons, involve formation flying. The departure interval of less than two minutes was theoretically maintained throughout the entire trip and the hope was that seven or eight hours later, over the target, there would still be enough separation to prevent running into, or dropping your bombs on, another B-29. It is amazing that it worked at all, but it did, most of the time.
We seldom see another airplane from shortly after takeoff until we are over the target and in the light of the fires and searchlights. Then you could sometime see other B-29s, but not clearly or for long.
As we were told back in Kansas, the Japanese did not have effective night fighters. We saw one occasionally, but they were not a serious threat. One night, near a target, a Japanese fighter pilot was flying pretty close alongside us with his cockpit lights on. We could not shoot at him at that angle. He just sat there, then disappeared. We never knew what he had in mind. Perhaps he was a decoy, and another was in the dark hoping to make a pass at us if we shot so he could see the tracers. Who knows? We were told later that some Japanese pilots thought our radar "wing" was a small fighter plane we carried for protection.
Tonight, everything is going great. We could get a message canceling the mission, so I am paying very close attention to the radio. No message as we pass over Iwo Jima. No message as the coast of Japan shows up on the radar. Tokyo is a few miles off our course but I look that direction anyway to see if I can see the light of fires from the daylight bombing. I see nothing. If rumors are correct, every available B-29 is bombing
targets in Japan during this 24 hour period. That could be a thousand or more.
We had no way of knowing it at the time, and it was nearly fifty years later that I read of the possible significance of a Tokyo blackout resulting from all the B-29s passing nearby that night.
Research done by Jim B. Smith for his book, "The Last Mission," reveals a fascinating account of a palace coup executed this evening to prevent the Emperor from making his surrender announcement. The coup was thwarted by a series of events triggered by a blackout and the confusion that resulted. It is an easy leap to the conclusion that the B-29 missions of the night of August 14th actually ended the war by causing the failure of the coup plotters to stop the surrender message. Jim Smith makes that leap in his book and supports it with abundant data from the long classified files he researched.
Of course, we know nothing of that as we move closer to our target, the Nippon Oil Refinery at Tsuchizaki, high on the northwest coast of Honshu, near Akita.
Everything is still OK. It is early morning of August 15th now. No message yet, and we are close enough to the target that I doubt we will be recalled. I'm not even sure I would hear the message if it were sent. We are a long way from Guam. We push on across Japan and finally see our target, already burning from the bombs of planes ahead of us.
"Bombs Away!" The sudden up heaving of our B-29 as nearly 20,000 pounds of bombs are released makes that announcement by the bombardier unnecessary. We have encountered neither flak nor searchlights, the location of which I am supposed to note and report at debriefing back on Guam. There is some cloud cover which limited my view of the ground, but I saw nothing worth reporting. The fact that we are able to bomb this target is probably a surprise to the Japanese. Considering its distance from the Mariana Islands, base to all the B-29s, they likely assume only a minimum defense is needed. Wrong again!
We head home now, probably for the last time. Wishful thinking, supported by the instructions prior to takeoff, leads us to believe this will be the last mission. As the coast of Japan slips behind, we all begin to unwind a little. We still have a long way to go. The engines are purring along smoothly at a low power setting to conserve the remaining fuel. It will be close . . . we might have to land on 100 octane fumes . . . we usually did . . . but Iwo Jima, with a B-29 sized runway, is a couple of hours ahead if we need it.
Sunrise is beautiful and tensions are somewhat relieved. Things just seem better in the light of day. We are returning from one of the longest and probably the last bombing mission of WWII, and all is well. The crew is relaxed and sleepy. I have my headphones on, listening for the surrender message.
As Iwo Jima slips behind us, my mind flashes back to the mission we flew the night of August 9th, just a few days ago. Actually, it was the night of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Our target that night was a Nippon Oil Refinery at Amagasaki. It was a well defended target. We had bombed it before, with less than the desired results.
The target was burning brightly as we proceeded along the bomb run. Searchlights were everywhere! Flak was thick but still not close to us. It was breathtaking . . . and frightening. We lumbered steadily through the darkness toward the lights and the flak bursts. Suddenly, the inside of the airplane was as bright as day. At least twelve searchlights caught us and locked on. They stayed with us as we moved closer and closer to the bomb release point. The flak was brighter and thicker and much too close, now.
Every crew member waited breathlessly for the "bombs away" and the steep diving turn that always follows. Finally it came. This time we unloaded 40 - 500lb demolition bombs and "Horrible Monster" shuddered in relief. Like turning off a switch, darkness returned as we lost the searchlights and turned our tail to the fireworks. A deep breath, the first since we started the bomb run, cleared my mind and restored my composure . . but not for long. One of the crew in the rear reported that number four engine was losing oil fast. It was shut down quickly and the prop was feathered. The pilot made a quick check to verify that all the crew was OK.
Losing an engine was not a major problem at that point in the mission, if there was no more damage. We could make Iwo Jima easily on three engines. Of course we had no way of knowing if that was all the damage. We assumed we had been hit by flak, and that there might be more trouble just waiting to show itself. Preparing for the worst, we took a course that would bring us to the coast of Japan as quickly as possible. It was simply not an option to bail out over Japan. We believed the stories that came to us about the Japanese practice of beheading B-29 crews. The preferred procedure is to get a few miles offshore and try for a safe ditching. Allied submarines and airplanes were on rescue duty off the coast of Japan during every mission. That was comforting. I contacted Air Sea Rescue and alerted them to our possible ditching. Luck was with us, however, and we made a safe landing at Iwo Jima. It was still not over. We got out of the airplane to the sound of an air raid siren. We ran for shelter and found it in a hole, partly filled with water. The raid turned out to be a single airplane, perhaps flown by a less than totally committed kamikaze pilot. He made a low pass, then disappeared over Mount Suribachi.
The flak-damaged oil cooler on "Horrible Monster" was repaired and we made it back to Guam the same day, thankful to our Navy and Marine comrades for providing, at great expense, that safe place to land.
Iwo Jima is about an hour behind us, now. My flashback ends with a mental picture of the bloody battle that finally secured that island and its airstrip. Our job is a piece of cake by comparison.
I start as the silence of my headphones is suddenly broken by Morse code. It is THE MESSAGE. The war is OVER! Japan has accepted the terms of surrender. Our spirits soar, but are quickly overtaken by fatigue. Until now, we had been kept awake by the anticipation of the surrender. Now, we sweat over the remaining fuel and watch the horizon for a speck in the mist that will grow to be Guam. We will have covered almost 3800 miles by the time we start our final approach.
I have total confidence in our crew. The pilots, engineer and navigator are carrying the load now. The pressure is off the rest of us. They will get us back . . . they always do. I make a note in my log, "War over! Going to sleep!"
Seventeen hours after takeoff, the slight bump and squeal of a perfect landing does not wake me from the sleep I could not hold off. What does is the coughing of the engines as they inhale the last of the 100 octane they can reach. We brake to a stop and my mind fog begins to dissipate. We made it! I climb out of the airplane, much too tired to put it all together, yet.
It is a few minutes after noon of August 15, 1945. This day is, at this very moment, being celebrated all over the world as VJ Day, the end of the war with Japan and the last day of WWII.
We enter the Quonset hut used for debriefing, get our ration of whiskey (a single jigger traditionally issued to returning aircrews for relaxation) and relate the events of this mission to the Intelligence Officer on duty. That done, we head for the barracks and some real sleep. Random thoughts twist through my mind in a hazy tumble . . . home, family, thanks for my survival, home, home . . . but never a glimpse of the fact that the crew of "Horrible Monster" and hundreds of other B-29 crews like us, who fought this war up to and past the last minute, are already forgotten . . . hidden from history by two giant mushroom clouds.
The “Horrible Monster” was a part of the 315th Bomb Wing, 16th Bomb Group operating out of Northwest Field on Guam. The crew members were:
Aircraft Commander - Perry Hickerson *
Pilot - Rodger Jensen
Navigator - John Davenport *
Bombardier - Arthur Rittman *
Radar Operator - Harris Rubin
Flight Engineer - Boyd Ludewig *
Radio Operator - Clyde Hussey
Scanner - Cleon Bauman *
Scanner - Jim Robbeloth *
Tail Gunner - John Zimmerman * * Deceased as of Aug 2013
NOTES and ADDENDUM
This article was written in response to an article that appeared in AVIATION HISTORY magazine in the 1990’s titled “Nagasaki, the Last Mission of WWII.” As it was not the last mission of WWII, by a long shot, I wrote the magazine and after they did some checking, they agreed to publish this article, “The REAL Last Mission of WWII.”
There is still some question as to whether this mission and our plane actually dropped the last bomb on Japan. Some Navy and other military airplanes were conducting raids that night and might have dropped some ordinance after we did, but that is unlikely and hard to pin down.
We claimed this also to be the longest mission of the war but there are some who claim longer flight times. It is safe to say this was at least within minutes of the longest combat mission flown from the Marianas during WWII.
The article, as published in AVIATION HISTORY magazine, had an error introduced by the editor, relating to the tail gunner compartment in the B-29. The attached copy has that error corrected.
Further information, even since the publication of the Jim Smith/Malcolm McConnell book THE LAST MISSION, verifies the coup in the Emperor’s palace the night of this mission and the disruption caused by the B-29’s and the blackout of Tokyo resulting in the failure of the coup. This truly brought about the surrender on Aug 15th and ended the war. Read all about that in Jim and Malcolm’s great book.
Even newer revelations show that this last mission was launched after word had been received that the Japanese surrender was eminent. The reason given for this was to try to bring the war to an immediate end before Russian troops, already on the way, reached Japanese territory. Speculation was that Russia would invade and capture the oil refinery at Akita, which was the target for this mission. It seems Russia was making a last minute attempt to be a part of the occupation of Japan and share in the Pacific territories and the peace process.. . . . shades of a divided Berlin and Germany..
This is an interesting addition to the story, as it makes the Last Mission of WWII also the first incident in the cold war with Russia. If true, it is interesting to guess as to why it has been kept quiet for over 60 years and is further evidence that one cannot always look to written history for truth.
Clyde Hussey (added 2008)
Jim B. Smith - with permission, J.A. Hitchcock
B-29 radio men were typically trained on the BC-375 -- a much taller unit requiring a cumbersome manual operation for frequency changes -- and never saw an ART-13 until they stepped aboard their first B-29.
Radio operator and historian Jim B. Smith remembered this experience:
"I sat down in my swivel seat, and studied the equipment. It was all familiar to me except the new Collins' transmitter. Instead of having to change coils for certain frequencies as we did in radio school (the radio operators had to change frequency coils on B-17's and some early B-29's), these B-29's featured the new Collins' transmitter which gave the radio operator the capability of presetting 10 frequencies. Thankfully the Collins made the changing of coils a thing of the past. This new sophisticated transmitter was made in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the radio guys were calling it the "Maytag". (I liked the idea that it was made in my home state where quality had always been the hallmark.) As you punched in one frequency after another, all the dials spun one way, and then the other until the selected frequency was set up and the antenna loading was completed. That was the "Maytag" part. It was a wonderful, time-saving, innovative piece of equipment and featured 75 watts of power. It transmitted carrier wave (CW), and of course modulated carrier wave for voice transmissions. There was a trailing antenna that could be let out when low frequency, long distance communication was required."
Another WWII story, albeit one I regret was never made into a book, was that of my late father, Don Murray.
He was a Flying Fortress radio operator/gunner whose B-17 was shot down and ditched the day after he won the barracks poker game. His Mae West kept him afloat long enough for rescue by Italian fishermen before his luck all but snuffed out. My father and his fellows were captured and sent to a German prison camp for the duration, until food disappeared for guards and prisoners alike and starving POWs were force-marched into the countryside in the charge of all but equally hard-pressed old men and children. I owe my life to British soliders and Italian fishermen, who saved my dad's.
Operating FIFI's "New" Radios on The Fly
By Rod Blocksome, KØDAS, July 2, 2012
In 2004 and 2005 I was part of a project to build a working replica of the radio operator’s position on the Boeing B-29 – the World War II bomber that was instrumental in bringing the war with Japan to an end. A key piece of equipment was the AN/ART-13 transmitter designed and built by the Collins Radio Company. Our interest in the history and technology of this Collins transmitter was what initially drew us into the project.
But this was just the beginning. The ART-13 led us to the whole radio communications system on the B-29 which in turn led us to numerous WWII B-29 Radio Operator Veterans and then ultimately to FIFI – the only flying B-29 in existence today.
In the fall of 2011, our team of radio amateurs and engineers from Rockwell Collins as well as other interested individuals began donating our vintage radio equipment, time, talent, and yes, dollars in an effort to restore the radio operator position on FIFI back to operation as it was in WWII. The completion of this initial project goal was celebrated with a dedication ceremony at Addison Airport (Texas) on June 30, 2012.
Two days before the ceremony, I was privileged to fly on FIFI in the radio operator position to test out the system. This is what it was like.
We were a bit tardy arriving at the hangar at Addison that morning. The pre-flight briefing had already started as I rushed in. Someone handed me two flight suits and said, “Here, pick one that fits”. I took the first one and thought, “If I can get in it – it fits by definition”. I already knew it would be very hot inside FIFI and this extra layer of clothing, though required, was not going to help one bit.
The flight was to be the final check ride to certify a new FIFI pilot joining the organization – a retired American Airlines Captain with 27,000 hours in his log. An FAA inspector, a Flight Engineer, David Oliver (FIFI’s chief pilot), another crewman, and I were the “up-front crew”. Several others took up positions in the aft bomb bay to receive refresher training for “revenue flights”.
David Oliver conducted the briefing. Safety features and procedures were briefed: escape hatches, fire extinguishers, etc. – where they were located; how to get out; axes – if all else fails and you can’t get out any other way, grab an ax and chop your way out through the aluminum fuselage.
“Any Questions? Good. Let’s load up and go”.
But first, I have to read, fill out emergency notification info, and sign a release form. The form states that I’m fully aware of the danger (they used that word) and risks involved and that my flying on FIFI is entirely voluntary.
I signed the paperwork and head out to the plane waiting on the ramp. I climb aboard and take my seat as the radio operator. Loney Duncan and Paul Veenstra, both modern day veterans of FIFI flights as radio operators, are there and quickly brief me on details of the radio set up and experiments we want to conduct on the flight. Loney explained about a troublesome circuit breaker on the transmitter dynamotor and showed me where it was located in the forward bomb bay.
“You can’t go into the bomb bay during flight to re-set it.” He cautioned. I could understand that as you could see daylight all around the bomb bay doors and the mechanism to manually open them was right there by my shoulder. Paul gave me a small flashlight. Should I get the opportunity to go into the bomb bay, I would need it to find the circuit breaker.
“Any restrictions on using the radio during the flight?” I ask.
“Nope – None – Have at it and good luck.” And with that they departed the plane.
While the pilots conducted their pre-flight checklists, I surveyed the radio equipment, which was already turned on and warmed up. In fact, everything and everybody was “warmed up”. There is no air conditioning and no air movement inside the plane while we sat on the ramp beneath the hot Texas sun. Outside air temperature was 108-degrees that day. Inside, we were rapidly becoming “medium well done”.
I fiddled with the receiver, checked several things and started a log of events. Sweat dripped onto the note pad wrinkling the paper. I’m not on the intercom so I can’t hear what the rest of the crew is saying to one another. But I’m seeing some of the hand signals and soon the crew chief sticks his head up the floor hatch and hands up his headset and cord. They close the belly hatch and I know the next step will be engine start.
They always start No. 3 first as it has the 28 volt DC generator. Before starting an engine, they turn it over 2 or 3 revolutions to distribute oil around all the parts. Then ignition and you initially hear what sounds like an old farm tractor starting up. But that lasts only a second and then the engine rumbles alive – all 18 cylinders firing at idle and blowing a huge cloud of blue exhaust smoke as the cylinder oil burns off.
The flight engineer rides “backwards” so he is facing me but his instrument panel is between him and the radio position. I can see him but can’t see his instruments or what he is doing. He has a window and looks over the engine. Satisfied, he cranks up No. 2 on the other side. Same routine follows for engines 1 and 4. Now all four engines are running – a total of 72 cylinders rumbling and gurgling at idle. From the sound you just know there is a lot of power waiting to be unleashed.
After the engineer is satisfied with engine temperatures, oil pressure, manifold pressures, etc. the signal is given and the engines are run up and we roll out onto the taxiway. The noise is very loud but my radio headset cuts out most of it. On the taxiway I hear, K0CXX, Bill Carnes calling me. That’s a very good sign. “No restriction of radio operations” they said but.... I’m just not comfortable keying that old transmitter until after we are airborne. So I don’t.Besides, I want to experience the take-off without any distractions from the radio.
We turn onto the runway. Pilots and flight engineer check a few things. Throttles go up and now we have some real sound – the loud roar plus the shriller howl as the prop tips go supersonic. I lift the headset and it’s so loud there is no way a person could shout loud enough to be heard by another person standing close.
With brakes on, I feel the prop pitch change as the props now furiously “bite” the air and the B-29 “wiggles” for a couple seconds until the pilot releases the brakes and FIFI starts accelerating down the runway. My eyes are glued to the view out the Plexiglas nose as we roar down the runway with the trees and tall buildings at the end coming closer.
Suddenly it’s 1945 and instantly Addison becomes North Field on Guam. The runway is very long and the plane that took off just ahead of us has barely lifted off at the end of the runway because of its heavy load of bombs and fuel. This has to be the first of many critical moments of the mission. There can be no failure or faltering of an engine at this point.
Flash back to 2012 – We are perhaps only half way down Addison’s shorter runway when the pilot pulls back on the yoke and FIFI’s nose gently lifts up a bit and then.... hey! .... we’re airborne! FIFI just floated up off the runway. There was no “clunk” as the landing gear extended. No noise of the landing gear retraction (at least that could be heard over the engines). It was just a smooth lift off. Of course, we are very light – no bomb load or fuel for an 18 hour trip to Japan and back.
I fire up the transmitter and call K0CXX whom I heard calling me when we were on the taxiway just prior to take-off. We establish contact. Bill is elated at working FIFI while airborne.
Then, in a moment, I phase back to 1945. We made it off North Field and are heading for Japan. The radio operator does a “radio check” at this point to make sure everything is working properly. He uses CW (Morse code) – no voice operation is allowed unless it’s an emergency. The radio operator and his equipment are critical to the crew’s survival should the aircraft have to ditch at sea for any reason. Only then is voice communications used when communicating with Air/Sea Rescue Ships stationed along the route between Guam and Japan.
In 2012, it is a beautiful clear sky over Texas with great visibility. The four great Wright Cyclone engines are roaring at a constant drone – each cranking out 2,200 horsepower to pull us smoothly into the sky. We are getting a little airflow through the aircraft and it has cooled off to perhaps the outside air temperature. It’s still hot since we are not climbing up into high altitude. We are operating between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. This is a final check ride for the pilot, so there are lots of maneuvers.
The first is a very tight turn to the left. I was working the radio when I was pressed into the chair. Looking up and out the nose, I observed the horizon was tilted perhaps 45-degrees relative to the plane. We were in a very tight turn with the airplane banked accordingly.
Poof! It’s 1945 again and the plane is dodging flak – anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The sky is full of flying bits of steel. Each shell explodes at a different altitude with a dark black cloud that spews high-speed steel in all directions. It can easily bring down a B-29, so we are twisting and turning through the sky as we attempt to avoid the flak.
Back in 2012 – Wow! This is real flying. It is nothing like the usual airline flight of “take-off, climb, fly, decent, and land” routine. I do have my seat belt fastened but the B-29 radio operator chair is not even close to the comfort of a modern airline seat. I’m trying to do the first CW QSO from FIFI and my sending is not too good with all the flying maneuvers. Occasionally there is an extra “dit” as a result.
I finished the contact – There is one happy Bill Carnes now as he has the first ever CW contact with FIFI. Now another station is calling me on CW. I answer him and we just complete the contact when I sense we are on final approach. I look up and sure enough we are landing. As we decelerate on the runway, I hear a third station calling me on CW but I can’t get his complete call and I don’t want to transmit until we are off the runway. I never did get this station worked.
The radios are working reasonably well, so I go back on AM phone. I’m aware there are several stations calling me but I’m unable to copy their call signs due to the aircraft electrical noise in the receiver. So I made a rather lengthy transmission describing what it was like to operate aboard FIFI, what we were doing, and what I was experiencing. I was just about finished when the transmitter suddenly went dead.
I checked things and found that the troublesome circuit breaker had popped. Fortunately, a few minutes later they landed the plane again at Alliance Airport (Ft. Worth, Texas). When they stopped on the taxi-way, I unbuckled my seat belt, grabbed the flashlight, and opened the pressure bulkhead hatch leading to the forward bomb bay. I quickly crawled in, found the circuit breaker, reset it, and was back in my chair in about 30 seconds flat. I think the young fellow sitting across from me in the Navigator position was surprised to see this old “geezer” agile enough to do all that so quickly. But I didn’t want to take a chance on upsetting the real reason and event schedule for this flight.
Back to 1945 – The B-29 radio operator had many other duties besides communications. One told me his B-29 once had a bomb that did not release and he had to crawl back in the bomb bay (with the doors open) during flight to un-jam the mechanism and release the bomb manually. I suppose that’s why the crews were composed of 20-year olds and not us geezers!
2012 – About an hour later we land back at Addison. I secured the radio position and de-plane to friends anxious to hear about my grand adventure.
Later, I met my friend, Clyde Hussey, who is 20 years older than me and was a real B-29 radio operator in WWII. I’m thankful for my short ride in FIFI which allowed me only a glimpse into what he experienced 67years earlier. And to be reminded of the real purpose of FIFI and the restored radio position – to show people today a small part of what the “Greatest Generation” did to preserve our freedom and restore peace in the world so many years ago
One of a WWII cartoon series by A.W.Birch -- possibly based on Tinian -- celebrating unguarded moments of B-29 crewmen at every position aboard the aircraft. We added what notation we could here because this reproduction blurs some of the fantastic and funny detail. In the tradition of combat cartoonist Bill Mauldin, in a style that's more burlesque, Birch does his bit to "keep it real in the field." For the entire unredacted series, click Florida Memory, a division of Library and Infomation Services of Florida Department of State, whose photographs helped us present this image. Guaranteed, if you've never seen this stuff you ain't seen nothin' yet. And if have any info about A.W Birch, please contact us, so we may fully credit the creator of this nose-to-tail gunner tour de farce.