The B-29 Superfortress was a war ahead of other bombers. It could carry 20,000 pounds of bombs—about double the B-17’s load—to targets more than 2,000 miles away. Flying at 30,000 feet, it was as fast as most fighters. Its long, cylindrical fuselage contained pressurized stations for the flight crew, with a narrow tunnel connecting fore and aft cabins across the unpressurized double bomb bay. Former crewmen say the tunnel crawl favored the agile and non-claustrophobic. Instead of conventional gun turrets, the B-29’s weapons poked from sealed blisters on the fuselage, linked through a remote-control system that was a marvel in the 1940s. The weapons could be fired either by the command gunner or by individual gunners in the waist and tail.
By the time B-29s entered the war, in May 1944, an earlier generation of heavy bombers had leveled much of Germany. The Superforts deployed to Tinian, in the Marianas Islands, where legions of Seabees had built the war’s largest and busiest airfield. Tokyo was about 1,500 miles north, well within the bomber’s radius.
To everyone’s surprise, when the bombers flew over Japan, they encountered light opposition. Given the thin defenses and the generally poor results of high-altitude bombing, the bombers’ commander, Curtis LeMay, changed strategies. Daylight missions gave way to intensive, nighttime firebombing over Tokyo and other cities built largely of paper and bamboo. Years later, B-29 tail gunners would remember seeing, as they turned for home, Japanese cities reduced to beds of glowing embers.
The only aircraft then capable of delivering the world’s first nuclear bombs, newly modified Superforts joined their standard comrades on Tinian in the late summer of 1945. On August 6, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped a uranium bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; three days later, Bockscar destroyed Nagasaki with a plutonium bomb. Before the Japanese surrender on August 14, another 800 B-29s bombed Japan with conventional explosives, but the Atomic Age had begun.