Aviation History

The day 18 MiG-15s prevented a formation of TARZON-loaded B-29s to destroy two bridges over the Yalu River

The TARZON

First developed in 1946, the enormous VB-13 TARZON offered much greater destructive power than the VB-3 RAZON on which it was based.

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The VB-13 was essentially a British 12,000-pound Tall Boy bomb fitted with forward and rear shrouds having control surfaces to permit bomb control in both range and azimuth. It was tracked visually by means of a tail flare and was radio-controlled by the bombardier. The name “TARZON” came from a combination of Tall Boy and RAZON (RAnge and AZimuy ONly).

World War II ended while the bomb was still in the development stage and the program was halted, but the program was reorganized in 1950 for testing with B-29 and B-36 aircraft.

While the B-29’s bomb bay needed to be modified to carry one VB-13, some sources state that eighteen Convair B-36 Peacemaker heavy bombers were converted to carry two TARZONs each.

According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the first TARZON attack in Korea took place in December 1950, and by the end of January, 19th Bomb Group B-29s had cut spans out of four bridges.

However, bridges were never easy to destroy not only because they were difficult to hit but also because on their way to the target Superfortresses had to battle new adversaries, in the form of the Soviet built MiG-15 jet fighters as the beautiful artwork by Mads Bangsø of a head-on view of a B-29s (serial number 45-21745) of the 19th Bombardment Group at 15,000ft on a clear day over North Korea featured in this post shows.

MiG-15s Vs B-29s

As explained by Michael Napier in his book Korea 1950–53 B-29s, Thunderjets and Skyraiders fight the strategic bombing campaign, the bomber has just released a 12,000lb TARZON radio-guided bomb, aimed at the bridge across the Yalu River at Sinuiju and is itself under attack from a Soviet MiG-15 fighter. On Mar. 29, 1951, B-29 Superfortresses from the 19th and 307th BGs were tasked against the bridges over the Yalu River at Manpojin and Sinanju. While the main force headed for Manpojin, three TARZON-loaded B-29s from the 19th BG headed for the important Sinuiju bridges. The main force encountered poor weather in their target area and instead they bombed their alternate target at Pyongyang airfield.

Nevertheless, the TARZON formation pressed ahead, but one aircraft was forced to abort the mission and return to base with a broken engine oil pipe. Then, in the target area, the remaining two aircraft came under attack from 18 MiG-15s. These Soviet fighters were from 28th and 72nd GvIAP led by Lt Col N.L. Trofimov. During the engagement, the MiG-15s inflicted enough damage on the B-29 (45-21749) flown by the Group commander, Lt Col Payne Jennings, that two engines were shut down and the aircraft had to abort the mission; it subsequently crashed into the sea as it attempted to return to base, killing the entire crew. The remaining B-29, pictured here, released its TARZON but the weapon missed its target and the aircraft was itself so badly damaged by the MiG-15s that it had to divert to an alternative airfield.

TARZONs in short supply

TARZONs remained in short supply, however, and after a B-29 was believed lost attempting to jettison one, the Air Force canceled the TARZON in August 1951.
Of the 30 TARZONs dropped in Korea, 11 hit their targets, destroying six bridges and damaging another.

Korea 1950–53 B-29s, Thunderjets and Skyraiders fight the strategic bombing campaign is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Artwork: Mads Bangsø and Osprey Publishing

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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