Old “Iron Pants” decreed that the B-29 bombers would fly firebomb raids over Tokyo at 7,000 feet after taking command of the 20th Air Force. The “Superfortress” crews had been flying raids at 25,000 feet, Bob Althoff, pilot of one of the bombers, recalled decades later.
“‘If you send those B-29s in at 7,000 feet to bomb Tokyo, you won’t have any B-29s and you won’t have any B-29 crews,’ a subordinate told Gen. Curtis LeMay, the new commander of the 20th Air Force. ‘Iron Pants,’ as he was called by his men, looked at him and replied, ‘Well, we’ll get more B-29s.’ He never said anything about getting more crews.
“We started flying firebomb raids over Japanese cities at 7,000 to 10,000 feet,” the 84-year-old resident of River Haven mobile home park, south of Punta Gorda, Fla. said. “We didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the Japanese had their anti-aircraft guns set for 25,000 feet.”
Flying off the island of Saipan, as a member of the 500th Bomber Group, 73 Wing of the 20th Air Force, Althoff and the 11-man crew of the “Sharon Sue,” named for his 6-month-old daughter, made 35 missions in a little over four months. Almost no B-29 crews completed that many missions in so short a time, he said.
“We wanted to get home,” the old bomber pilot recalled almost six decades later. “We had to listen to Tokyo Rose telling us, ‘Your wife back home is sleeping with another man. You’re out here risking your life and you can’t win this war.’”
The crew of “Sharon Sue” took on the enemy with a vengeance shortly after they reached Saipan. A couple of days after flying from the States to the Pacific island, located some 700 miles from Tokyo , they were in the air pounding the enemy’s capital city. They flew their first bombing raid over Tokyo on Feb. 25, 1945, and their last raid was flown on June 29.
On a firebomb raid over Tokyo , Althoff’s B-29 was attacked twice within a couple of minutes by Japanese “Baka Bombs.”
“You could look out there and see these ‘Baka Bombs’ coming after the B-29 formation as we flew over Tokyo ,” he said. “They were strapped to the bottom of a two-engine Japanese Betty Bomber. When the pilot of the Betty Bomber saw the B-29s, they would drop the rocket and the suicide pilot would make a beeline for a B-29. They had about 30 seconds worth of fuel to keep them flying. They would explode the bomb as close to our bombers as they could get.”
The “Baka Bomb” carried a warhead weighing 2,646 pounds. The suicide bomb could fly at 576 mph and had a maximum range of 23 miles.
“One of my gunners out of Chicago was kinda screwy,” Althoff recalled. “On one flight he took a camera with him. When we were over Tokyo dropping firebombs he said over the PA system, ‘Lieutenant, we have a ‘Baka Bomb’ coming in on our tail. Could you slow down a bit so I can get a picture of it?’
“‘Slow down, hell,’ I told him. I put the plane’s nose down and dove toward the ground. The flying suicide bomb could only follow me so far.”
Althoff said he doesn’t believe his gunner ever took the picture of the flying suicide bomb. He was too busy shooting it down a few seconds later. When the gunner hit the nose of the plane with .50-caliber machine-gun fire, it exploded and scared the hell out of the crew.
“A couple of minutes later, the same gunner shot down another “Baka Bomb” that was attacking the “Sharon Sue.”
“We got credit for shooting down two ‘Baka Bombs’ on that one flight. I think we may have been the only crew to have accomplished that,” he said. “The gunner was quite a guy. He had the attitude that nothing could happen to us. It was nice having him on board.”
1st Lt. Althoff wasn’t quite as sure as his gunner that the crew of “Sharon Sue” was invincible. The worst part of the 12-hour round-trip flight from Saipan to Tokyo was reaching the target.
“You had six or seven hours wondering whether you were coming back from a flight. That made the first half of the trip the longest part of the flight,” he recalled as he sat in his recliner talking about his exploits aboard the “Sharon Sue.”
During the final days of the war, the 20th Air Force had 800 B-29s in the air on a single mission. There was a giant flight of “Superfortresses” flying in formation like so many deadly metal ducks.
“I could see Tokyo below us. It was on fire for as far as you could see,” he said. “After the war I heard that the B-29s that flew the firebomb raids over Tokyo killed more people than Col. Paul Tibbets did when he dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was their own damn fault.”
In a two-day bombing mission over Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, some 279 B-29s dropped 1,667 tons of incendiary bombs killing more than 80,000 people, according to historical accounts.
Althoff recalled seeing a B-29 crew bail out over the Pacific Ocean and an American submarine below waiting to pick them up.
“This one B-29 was going down on fire. A wing fell off as it spiraled toward the sea below,” he said. “The sub skipper raced to pick up the crew that bailed out of the burning plane. The entire crew was machine gunned in their parachutes by the Japanese who were on nearby islands. The Japanese were a vicious bunch.”
Sitting close to him as he told his war tale, Betty, his wife of more than 60 years, said, “I always wished that if Bob was shot down he would die before the Japanese got him. Back home there would be headlines in the local paper: ‘Nine B-29s shot down.’ It would be a week or more before I would receive a letter from him and found out he was all right.
“When he arrived at Saipan, he was supposed to fly 20 missions over Japan and come back home. When he got to 20 missions they moved it to 25 and then to 30 and finally 35 missions before he could go home,” she said.
“We were bombing Tokyo one night. I lost an engine and couldn’t get back into formation,” Althoff said. “I was flying through fog that was so bad you could barely see your wing tip lights blinking. We noted the time we dropped our bombs. When we got back to base, we discovered that the formation above dropped its bombs at the same time we dropped ours. We didn’t realize the other bombers were releasing their bombs so close to us,” he said with a shrug.
After graduating from flight school at Lubbock, Texas, Althoff had a choice where he would take his bomber training. He could go to a base in North Carolina, South Carolina or one near Orlando. Orlando was his third choice. Of course he wound up there at Pine Castle Army Air Base to learn how to fly a B-24 “Liberator.” This was a big, awkward-looking four-engine bomber.
“I heard the B-29 was being built and I opened my big mouth,” he said. “I told them I wanted to fly it. They put me in the B-29 program and sent me to Pyote, Texas, for training. It was 250 miles west of Dallas. There was nothing out there but oil wells and rattlesnakes.”
Before he was allowed to fly a B-29, Althoff had to learn how to fly a B-17 “Flying Fortress.” Once he accomplished that, he was allowed to to pilot the largest American bomber used in World War II.
Looking back on his experience, flying the three major heavy U.S.-built bombers during World War II, Althoff had this assessment:
“The B-24 had a narrow wing. You had to fly that plane,” he explained. “The B-17 had a tremendously big wing and it would glide. It pretty much flew itself. The B-29′s wing was a little bit between the other two. It was a beautiful ship to fly. You couldn’t ask for a piece of equipment that operated better than the B-29 I flew .”
What made them different than the B-17 or the B-24 was that the B-29 had a pressurized cabin. You could fly it in your shirtsleeves instead of wearing sheep skin coat, pants and boots to stay warm. It also had remote-controlled gun turrets, periscopically sighted by gunners inside the bomber who could fire on an enemy fighter with devastating accuracy.
Althoff decided to buzz the airfield as he was flying back from his 35th mission over Japan. It was just something he had to do on his return flight from Tokyo on June 29, 1945.
The 24-year-old B-29 pilot made a pass over the field 100 feet or less above the ground. His crew loved every minute of the prank with the four-engine heavy bomber.
“Nothing came up about me buzzing the field until after our debriefing,” he said with a smile. “Then some lieutenant colonel talked to me about being court martialed for buzzing the field. Or maybe they would make the crew fly one last mission for punishment.
“I went to see our colonel (a bird colonel). I told him what the lieutenant colonel had told me. Then I said, ‘Colonel there ain’t no way.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Lieutenant, go back and take a nap. Don’t worry about it.’”
A few days later Althoff and his crew were put aboard a slow boat home. They sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge a couple of days after the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, and arrived at dockside in Oakland, Calif.
1st Lt. Robert Althoff had done his duty for God and country.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, July 2, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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