Aviation History

Almost nothing went right: the first, unsuccessful B-29 raid on Tokyo (led by former commander of Memphis Belle)

The first B-29 raid on Tokyo

On November 24, 1944, the Twentieth Air Force made its first attack on Tokyo, attacking Nakajima’s Aircraft Engine Factory at Musashino, 10 miles west of Tokyo. While 110 73rd Bombardment Wing B-29 Superfortress strategic bombers departed Saipan, by the time the aircraft reached the Mount Fuji landmark and turned to head to Musashino, only 87 were left.

According to the book Tokyo 1944–45 The destruction of Imperial Japan’s capital by Mark Lardas (Author) , Edouard A. Groult (Illustrator), almost nothing went right. Seventeen B-29s aborted before reaching Japan. Six others which reached Tokyo were unable to drop their bombs due to mechanical failure. Weather was uncooperative. Clouds between the ground and the B-29s obscured the target. The high-flying B-29s were caught in a 120mph tailwind. This pushed the bombers over their aim points at 450mph, too fast for accuracy. Crosswinds scattered the bombs dropped.

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Only 24 bombers attacked Musashi. Their accuracy was dismal. Only 48 of the 240 bombs dropped landed in the factory area. Three of those were duds. The 500lb general purpose bombs proved too light to cause serious damage to the reinforced concrete of the main factory buildings. The fires set by the incendiaries were quickly quenched by the factory’s bogodan. Postwar assessment indicated the bombs only damaged 2.4 percent of the machinery at Musashino and just 1 percent of its buildings. Worker casualties totaled 57 dead and 75 wounded.

Furious Japanese reaction

The Japanese reaction was furious. Every available 10th Air Division fighter was sent to intercept the B-29s. However, the attacks were made in an uncoordinated fashion. Japanese fighters were given the range and heading of the US formation on take-off. They had to seek them out without further guidance once airborne. Thus, they attacked the bomber formation in small groups upon spotting them. This illustration shows an attack occurring early in the air battle, before the B-29s reached Musashino.

Leading the B-29s was Dauntless Dotty, a plane commanded by Major Robert K. Morgan, who once commanded the B-17 Memphis Belle. He was in the co-pilot’s seat, while Brigadier General Emmett “Rosie” O’Donnell, Jr., commander of the 73rd Bombardment Wing, sat in the pilot’s seat. The aircraft is at 30,000ft, flying east-northeast. At the instant shown in the plate, it is being attacked by three Japanese aircraft, who are concentrating on the formation’s lead aircraft.

A Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate has just completed an overhead attack. It dived almost straight down on Dauntless Dotty, starting from ahead and 3,000ft above the bomber. While the maneuver minimizes the opportunity of being hit by defensive fire, it provides little time to aim and fire. Meanwhile, two Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien are approaching Dauntless Dotty from head-on and just below the bomber. Only the two .50cal machine guns of the B-29’s lower forward turret can reach the oncoming enemy aircraft. With a closing speed of 600+ mph, it offers little time to aim and fire.

Only one B-29 brought down

Nor were the Japanese successful. Flak failed to damage the bombers. Only one B-29 was brought down by enemy action. It was rammed by a damaged Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki, which ripped the Superfortress’s starboard horizontal stabilizer off. The Shoki was not a Hagakure-Tai aircraft. Rather, the pilot feared his fighter would not make it to base and decided to take a B-29 with him.

The bomber splashed into the Pacific 20 miles east of the coast, killing all aboard. The only other aircraft lost ran out of fuel returning to Saipan. Its crew was saved. Eleven other B-29s returned with bullet or cannon damage; eight from enemy fighter fire. Three others were hit by overeager B-29 gunners. In all, the 73rd Wing had one man killed, four injured, and 11 missing, presumed dead.

In turn, B-29 gunners claimed to have shot down seven Japanese fighters, probably downed 18 others, and damaged nine. Those claims were as exaggerated as the Japanese fighter numbers, with plenty of double- and triple-counting of claims. In reality, B-29 gunners had downed five fighters and damaged nine others.

The post-mission damage assessment was frustrated by weather. When the F-13 aircraft (the photoreconnaissance version of the B-29) arrived, the ground was almost completely obscured. Strike photos showed only 16 bomb bursts in the target area. Clouds hid the rest. What was clear was Musashi was still in business, turning out aircraft engines.

Setting the pattern for next B-29 raids on Tokyo

The raid set the pattern for the next three months – for both sides. Neither side could seriously hurt the other. US bombing was inaccurate. Japanese resistance was ineffective. Unescorted B-29s could survive over Tokyo. Mechanical problems and fuel management proved a bigger risk to B-29 survival than Japanese fighters or antiaircraft.

Tokyo 1944–45 The destruction of Imperial Japan’s capital is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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