The big, black, bold two-deck headline across the top of the front page of the Baltimore News-Post for Thursday, June 15,1944 read: U.S. B-29s BOMB JAPAN; GIANT PLANES’ 1st RAID
WASHINGTON (AP)–The Army announced today that B-29 Superfortresses of the Army Air Fore bombed Japan today.
“No further information was divulged and there was no indication which part of Japan was struck or where the new planes in combat for the first time were based.
“It was the first fighting assignment for the sky mammoths and the announcement also served to disclose for the first time the existence of the 20th Bomber Command, under the personal direction of Gen. H.H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, chief of Air Corps.”
A few days after the initial aerial attack on the Japanese home islands, Sgt. Bill Langley flew as a radio operator aboard a B-29 on his first flight over enemy territory on its way to bomb Tokyo.
“We flew out of Sula Air Base about 60 miles from Calcutta, India,” the 88-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla. man recalled. “When I first arrived at the air base there was nothing there but a runway.”
He was a member of the 894th Bomb Group, part of the 20th Air Force flying out of India during the China, Burma, India Campaign in World War II. The B-29s is bomb group flew from their base near Calcutta, over the 29,000-foot-tall Himalayan Mountains into China and refueled. Then they continued on to their target in Japan. On the return flight they repeated the run in reverse. It keep the flight crew in the air almost 20 hours.
“On my only flight over Tokyo, we got up about 2:30 a.m., ate breakfast and had our flight orientation. We were told where we we were going and our flying time,” he said. “We were sweating it.
“On those fist flights we were flying B-29s with Pratt & Whitney engines. These planes were underpowered and you never knew if you were gonna make it over ‘The Hump’ or not. Eventually they changed to Wright Cyclone engines that were larger and provided the B-29s with enough power to get over the mountains.
“I think there were 12 bombers in that first bombing raid,” he said. “We didn’t have many B-29s in those days.
“Just getting over ‘The Hump’ as a real struggle. You had to have a good pilot to make it. We had a good one named Jordan from Pittsburgh,” Langley said.
“We flew about 30,000 feet so anti-aircraft couldn’t reach us. And enemy fighter planes were very scarce, too. They couldn’t fly at that altitude either.”
Their target was Tokyo, nothing more specific. The Army Air Force’s high command wanted to let the Japanese know the B-29s were coming. This was before Gen. Curtis Lemay took command of the 20h Air Force and began incendiary bombing raids over the enemy capital on a daily basis.
Langley’s first and only raid over Japan was a rather uneventful experience. These heavy, four-engine bombers were pressurized. They didn’t have to wear oxygen masks unless the plane was damaged by flak and depressurized. His job as radio operator was to make sure he stayed in communications in case there was an emergency and they had to communicate with he outside world.
“I only made three flights, one over Tokyo and three over ‘The Hump,’ Langley said. “We had a lot of problems with the engines on our B-29. On two of our flights we hardly made it over the mountains and had to make an emergency landing in China. We didn’t fly on to Japan.”
Shortly after his third trip over the Himalayas, Langley injured his knee during a Japanese air raid on his air base. H never flew again.
“On one of these Japanese air raids on our base one night, Betty bombers bombed our barracks. We lost four of five of the the wooden buildings,” he said. “After it was all over, I picked up the tail fin of one of those small incendiary bombs they dropped. It was made out of Budweiser beer cans. You could still make out the Budweiser writing on the fins. I wish I’d kept it.”
On the way to war in early 1944, they took a slow boat to India by way of Naples, Italy; Oran, North Africa; the Suez Canal; Bombay and finally Calcutta, India.
“Shortly after we arrived in Naples, our ship was hit by German bombers in the harbor. They badly damaged the bridge of the transport, but we continued on in the transport to India,” he said. “Here and there in the harbor in Naples there were bombed-out ships everywhere.
“When we reached Oran, North Africa we swapped a bar of G.I. soap for a bottle of French cognac. American cigarettes were in big demand, too. We would swap cigarettes with the locals while going through the Suez Canal. Again there were sunken ships in all of the harbors along the canal that had been sunk by the German air force.”
Later in the war, Langley’s 894th Bomb Group relocated to Okinawa. They became part of the 8th Air Force flying B-29s out of the island. They were considerably closer to Japan there than Calcutta. His unit arrived in June 1945. The Marines deadly 82-day battle to capture Okinawa was just winding down.
A month or so later, Lt. Col. Paul Tibbetts, flying a B-29 named for his mother,”Enola Gay,” dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. A few days after that Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allies.
It would be February 1946 before Sgt. Bill Langley returned to Baltimore and his wife, Dolores, and went on with the rest of his life.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on May 22, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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