The Real Last Mission of WWII - Clyde V.
The growl of 564 Wright engines, even at an idle, can surely be heard by
everyone on the island. It is an unmistakable prediction of the mission ahead.
There are 141 Boeing B-29B Superfortresses strung out along the taxiways and
parking areas of Northwest Field on the island of Guam on August 14, 1945, all
waiting for the signal to start tonight's long flight to Japan.
Guam, the southernmost island of the Mariana group, has become a major U.S.
base since its recapture. It is also the home base for the 315th Bomb Wing of
the Twentieth Air Force. Today's mission was scheduled for this morning,
then delayed We have been 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 Horrible Monster. We are
proud of these big birds. The Superfortresses represent the last word in
technology in World War II combat aircraft. This one has seen us safely through
13 long night-bombing missions, 10 of them flown 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 the
airplane got into service on a fast track. By the time we flew Horrible
Monster to Guam in the spring of 1945, it was a reasonably reliable and
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 toward the
parked airplanes ahead. It felt as though there was nothing between us and the
North Pole but the stubble of the wheatflelds that surrounded the air base.
"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!" Its unpainted aluminum skin was glowing in the
bright winter sum. 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 strange were the metal, wing-looking appendage between the bomb
bays and the dishlike gadget hanging from the tail guns. We were even more
astonished by these things when we got close enough to see that our first
impressions were correct.
The bigness of the B 29 was intimidating. The tail assembly looked to be
three stories high. The B-17 would nearly fit under one of its wings .The
fuselage was like a carefully crafted cigar wrapped in seamless tinfoil. The
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 permitted 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 were to he part of a
specialized bomb wing, flying only night missions. Our primary targets would be
Japan's oil refineries and oil-storage facilities. The "wing" on the belly
between the bomb bays was the phased array antenna for a new and secret
bombing/navigation radar designated AN/APQ-7 "Eagle". We would bomb from a
low altitude using the radar to track and and identify the target.
The guns, except for those in the tail turret, have been removed to increase
our speed and range. It as thought that Japan does not have a night fighter
that can make more than one pass at us because 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. It lets him 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. At my desk is the newly designed
transmitter, made by Collins Radio, that eliminates complicated tuning every
frequency change is required. That is a real blessing, because my job mostly
entails emergency communications, and getting on the correct frequency in a
hurry could save our lives. The knobs on the Collins unit whirl and turn to
the required settings automatically once the proper frequency is selected. It
is a technological wonder compared to the radio equipment we used in training.
A B-29 crewman sleeps. . .
The rear crew compartment contains the APU (auxiliary power unit), a DC
electric generator driven by a gasoline engine. It is capable of supplying the
power necessary to start the huge Wright Cyclone engines without any outside
ground support. We can deliver more than 20,000 pounds of bombs to most targets
in Japan. Reducing the bombload slightly will 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 15-16 hour missions ahead will not be so tiring
because we can get up and move around. We are 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 1940's.
I left the note there to remind me of that dear lady who understands and
cares that real people are going to fly her airplane. My confidence in Horrible
Monster never falters 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 nine-tenths 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 the flight engineer, said "Let's see how
high it will go". We did, and I remember that we were over 50,000 feet when the
engines quit. All four of them. The carburetors had frozen. No one panicked,
though I will admit that I was much relieved when a shallow dive to a much
lower altitude allowed the engines to be restarted with no trouble.
I wondered later if 50,000-plus 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-29's were first to encounter and identify the jet
stream. That high-altitude weather phenomenon probably confounded a lot of B-29
navigators before it was understood.
There is one more vivid memory of a lesson learned during transition
training. Crew compartments were pressurized and we could fly at high altitude
without wearing an oxygen mask. That was great, but it 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
quickly flushed out any liquid in the system. Then you closed the valve so
that higher pressure air from inside the plane could not escape. The proper
procedure was to hold the funnel in position, flush the tank with liquid
through the funnel, move the funnel, open the valve to flush, then close the
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 pressurized front and rear crew compartments were connected by a tunnel
over the unpressurized bomb bays so that it was possible, if not easy, to
move back and forth. Were it not for the connecting tunnel, the tail gunner
would have been isolated.
The possibility of explosive decompression was ever present. The Army Air
Forces required that all crew members' tooth fillings be replaced with airtight
ones so their teeth would not explode in the event of a rapid decompression.
I had a large number of fillings replaced by an AAF dentist. It was the most
painful price I had to pay for admission to the B-29 aircrew.
On Guam's Northwest Field this August evening, we are still waiting for the
signal to take off. It is 4:30 p.m. local time. At times like this after I
have checked everything for the umpteenth time, I do mental exercises like
adding up the number of spark plugs that are firing at a given moment. Let'
see...maybe 560 engines, 18 cylinders per engine, two plugs per cylinder....
Before I get this calculation worked out, the word comes to start
takeoffs....the mission is a go, but we are instructed to monitor the radio
a possible recall at any time. We are in about the first third of the
lineup, but it could still be an hour before we make it to the takeoff end of
runway and start our run.
The 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 everything
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 navigators 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 end and see the runway above us. The pilots and engineer are
tense as they attend to the critical task of getting the flaps up and 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 of having that 500-foot cliff at the end of the runway. Our
gross weight would have to be reduced cousiderably for the B-29 to lift off the
runway and immediately enter a climb. 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 No. I 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 by switching off one at a time. If
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 I engine checks out OK and the sound gets closer as No. 2 is run up
for its check. The roar switches to the other side as No. 3's rpm increases. I
hear a little roughness as the magnetos are switched. It is too much. I just
know it. Run up, then check it again. It still sounds too rough. I can't see
the tachometer, but the sound leaves no doubt. The rule is that we cannot go
if even one magneto on one engine causes excessive rpm drop.
The possibility that we may be left out of this August 14, 1945 mission,
probably the last and for sure the longest mission of the war, is just not
acceptable to the Horrible Monster crew. We are turning out of line now and
heading back to our hard stand.
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-29's is gone. We are the last airplane in the line, but we are going
to make the mission. All magnetos check out OK this time as we creep along
toward the takeoff end of the runway. None of the crew gives any thought to
the fact that those fouled plugs that put us in the tail-end takeoff position
will give our crew the dubious distinction of dropping the last bombs of World
War II on a primary Japanese target.
It is 7 p.m. when we dive over the cliff and head toward our target in
northern Japan. Our night bombing missions do not involve formation flying. The
departure interval of less than two minutes is theoretically maintained
throughout the entire trip.
The hope is that seven or eight hours later, over the target, there will
still be enough separation to prevent running into, or dropping your bombs on,
another B-29. It is amazing that it works at all, but it does, most of the
time. Usually we seldom see another airplane from shortly after takeoff until we
are over the target, in the light of the fires andsearchlights. Then you can
sometimes see other B-29's but not clearly or for long.
We were told back in Kansas that the Japanese did not have effective night
fighters. On other raids we had seen 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 stayed there, then disappeared. Perhaps he was a
decoy, and another fighter was in the dark hoping to make a pass at us if we
at the decoy 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 still 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 long way 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 planes.
A B-29 drops its bombload on a Japanese target.
It would be nearly 50 years before I would understand the significance of
the blackout out in Tokyo that evening. James B. Smith's book, The Last
Mission, includes a fascinating account of a palace coup executed that evening
prevent the emperor from making his surrender announcement. The coup was
thwarted by a series of events triggered by a blackout. It is an easy leap to
conclusion that the B-29 missions of the night of August 14 actually ended the
war by causing the coup to fail. Smith makes that leap in his book,
supporting it with abundant data from the long-classified files he researched.
course we we knew nothing of that as we moved 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 August 15 now. No message yet
and we are close enough to the target that I doubt we will be recalled. I'm not
even sure that 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 dropped by planes ahead of us.
"Bombs away!" The sudden upheaval of our B-29 as fufty-six 250-pound 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 during debriefing back on Guam. There is some cloud cover
that limits my view of the ground, but I see 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-29's,
they likely assume only a minimum defense is needed. Wrong again!
We head home now. 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 begin to unwind. We have a long way to go. The engines are
purring smoothly at a low power setting to conserve the remaining fuel. It
will be close. We may have to land on 100-octane fumes - we usually did. But
Iwo Jima with B-29 sized runways, is a couple of hours ahead if we need it.
The sunrise is beautiful. Things just seem better in the light of day. We
are returning from the longest, and probably the final, bombing mission of
World War II, and all is well. The crew is relaxed and sleepy. I have my
headphones on, listening for the surrender message.
My mind flashes back to the mission we flew the night of August 9, 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
The target was burning brightly as we proceeded along the bomb run. Search
lights were everywhere. Flak was thick, but still not close to us. It was
breath taking 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 12 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 followed. Finally it came. This time we unloaded forty
500-pound demolition bombs and Horrible Monster shuddered in relief. Darkness
returned as we lost the searchlights and turned our tail to the fireworks. A
deep breath, the first I'd taken 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 No. 4 engine was losing oil fast. It was shut down quickly and
the prop was feathered. The pilot verified that all the crew members were OK.
Losing an engine was not a major problem at that point inthe 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
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 was 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.
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. 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 cause of our engine problem on the 9th was a flak-damaged oil cooler
that was quickly repaired. We made it back to Guam the same day, thankful to our
Navy and Marine comrades for providing, at great human 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 ground battle that finally secured that island and
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 messsage. The war is over! Japan has accepted the terms of surrender.
Our spirits soar, but we are quickly overtaken by fatigue. Until now, we
have 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 nearly 3,300 miles by the time we start our
I have total confidence in our flight crew The pilots, engineer and
navigator are carrying the load now. The pressure is off the rest of us. They
get us back.... they always do. I make a note in my log: "War over! Going to
Seventeen hours after takeoff from Northwest Field the slight bump and
squeal of a perfect landing does not wake me. What does wake me is the coughing
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!
It is a few minutes after noon, August 15, 1945. This day is, at this very
moment, being celebrated all over the world as V-J Day, the end of the war
with Japan. It Is the last day of World War II.
We enter the Quonset hut used for debriefing, get our ration of whiskey (a
single jigger traditionally issued to returning aircrews to help them relax),
and tell the intelligence officer on duty about our mission. That done, we
head for the barracks and some real sleep
Random thoughts twist through my mind in a hazy tumble....thoughts of home,
family, thanks for my survival, 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 from
history by two giant mushroom clouds.
Clyde Hussey was a radio operator on a B29B of the 16th Bomb Group, 315th
Wing, Twentieth Air Force, during World War ll.