B-29 in Korean War

Last revised April 17, 2000

The arrival of V-J Day in September of 1945 resulted in the cancellation of orders for 5092 B-29s. However, a limited number of B-29s still on the production lines at the end of the war were allowed to be completed. The last of 3627 B-29s was delivered on June 10, 1946.

At the end of the Second World War, vast numbers of B-29s were placed in storage. Unlike the B-17 and B-25, B-29s were not declared surplus and released to the commercial market. This is the primary reason why so few B-29s survive today.

The B-29s that remained flying after the end of World War 2 formed part of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). By 1947, as a result of postwar reductions, only six B-29 bomb groups remained in service with SAC, with only the 509th Group being equipped for the delivery of nuclear bombs.

By 1950, the B-29s had been reclassified as "medium" bombers, their long-range strategic mission having been taken over by the B-36 and B-50. At that time, the USAF inventory included 1787 B-29 bombers and 162 RB-29 reconnaissance aircraft, either in storage or in service with eight bombardment groups and with one strategic reconnaissance group.

However, the B-29s were soon to be in action again. On June 25, 1950, the armed forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) invaded South Korea. On June 27, the UN Security Council voted to assist the South Koreans in resisting the invasion. President Harry Truman authorized General Douglas MacArthur (commander of the US occupying forces in Japan) to commit units to the battle. MacArthur ordered General George E. Stratemeyer, CIC of the Far Eastern Air Force (FEAF) to attack attacking North Korean forces between the front lines and the 38th parallel. At that time, the 22 B-29s of the 19th Bomb Group stationed at Anderson Field on Guam were the only aircraft capable of hitting the Korean peninsula, and this unit was ordered to move to Kadena air base on Okinawa and begin attacks on North Korea. These raids began on June 28. On June 29, clearance was given for B-29 attacks on airfields in North Korea. The B-29s were frequently diverted into tactical attacks against advancing North Korean troops.

On July 8, a special FEAF Bomber Command was set up under the command of Major General Emmett O'Donnell. On July 13, the FEAF Bomber Command took over command of the 19th Bombardment Group and of the 22nd and 92nd Bombardment Groups which had been transferred from SAC bases in the USA. They continued to be used in tactical attacks which were not very successful. In late July, MacArthur agreed to divert the B-29s to interdiction raids against North Korean targets nearer the 38th Parallel in an attempt to interrupt supplies being delivered to North Korean troops in the south.

Later in July, the 98th and 307th Bombardment Groups were sent to Japan to join the FEAF. The 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Group completed the team. The 92nd and 98th BGs and the 31st SRG operated from bases in Japan, whereas the 19th, 22nd, and 307th BGs were based in Okinawa.

Most of the early B-29 attacks were against tactical targets such as tank concentrations, troops, truck traffic, arsenals, and supply dumps. There was little flak or air opposition, but the raids were not very effective since the B-29 was not well-suited for the tactical role. On August 4, approval was given for B-29 attacks against strategic targets in North Korea. Between August 4 and 10, the B-29s hit railroad marshaling yards in North Korea in an attempt to disrupt supplies, but the results were poor. 47 aircraft hit the Cho-Sen Nitrogen Explosives Plant at Konan, and 39 B-29s attacked the Bogun Chemical Plant. Between August 12 and 20, a series of strategic road and rail bridges were attacked and destroyed. The B-29s had to adopt new combat techniques during these raids. The B-29s of the 22nd and 92nd Bombardment Wings could only carry 500-pound bombs, which were not really big enough to do the job against strongly-constructed bridges. However, the 19th BG's B-29s could carry 1000-pound bombs. One particular bridge had to be hit every day for three weeks before it was destroyed. By the end of August, 37 of the 44 bridges targeted had been destroyed, with the remaining seven being so badly damaged that they were usable.

In the meantime, plans were made for B-29s to carry out a full strategic bombing role in Korea. Two more SAC Bomb Wings (the 98th and 307th) were ordered to Japan in mid-July to add to the strength of the FEAF. Five major industrial centers in North Korea were earmarked for attack. This sort of mission is what the B-29 had been designed for, and by early September, all known industrial facilities in North Korea had been destroyed except for some oil storage facilities at Rashin, which was considered too close to the Soviet border to risk an attack.

By late September, all 18 strategic targets in North Korea had been destroyed, and O'Donnell now turned to secondary targets. The first such raid took place on September 26 against the Fusen hydroelectric plant.

On September 14, a daring amphibious landing took place at Inchon and the North Korean attack was rapidly pushed back. On September 27, General MacArthur was given approval to advance into North Korea. UN forces crossed the 38th parallel on October 1, and Pyongyang fell on October 19. UN forces continued to advance northward toward the Yalu River. During this period, many of the B-29s were diverted to tactical strikes, since strategic bombing was no longer necessary because most of North Korea was now in UN hands. The UN forces were now so confident of victory that FEAF Bomber Command was disbanded on October 27, and the 22nd and 92nd Bombardment Wings were returned to SAC duties in the USA.

However, the war in Korea was soon to take a different and far more dangerous turn. China had repeatedly warned MacArthur against crossing the 38th Parallel, and in October, Chinese forces had begun to enter North Korea in response to the advancing UN forces. On November 1, Chinese MiG-15s appeared in battle for the first time. and Chinese forces were encountered in ground fighting in and around the Yalu. This forced FEAF Bomber Command to be hastily reactivated to face the new threat. Because of political considerations, B-29 attacks against strategic targets in China were forbidden, and B-29 raids had to be restricted to tactical targets on the Korean peninsula. Between November 8 and 25, B-29s hit the southern approaches to bridges across the Yalu (since attacks on the northern spans would have been an attack on Chinese territory). However, many of the broken spans were quickly replaced by pontoons which were only used at night. The bombs used in attacking these spans were too small to do the necessary damage, and the Chinese buildup of supplies and troops continued unchecked.

On November 25, Chinese troops intervened massively in the war, rapidly pushing the UN forces back below the 38th parallel. Any chance for the forced reunification of Korea had been lost. The B-29s flew close support missions in an attempt to slow the Chinese advance. It was not until the end of December that the line had stabilized. However, this time daylight bombing flights, which had previously been unopposed, now began to experience flak and air opposition. Lavochkin LA-7 and La-9 and Yakovlev Yak-9P fighters began to appear, later supplemented by large numbers of MiG-15 jet fighters.

In February 1951, a series of interdiction raids began against Chinese supply lines in the northwest of Korea. Up to early 1951, in the absence of organized defenses, B-29s had been able to make bombing runs at altitudes as low as 10,000 feet without any danger. However, on February 25, four B-29s on a raid against Sunchon were attacked by eight MiG-15s. Unescorted raids at low altitudes now became extremely dangerous. Consequently, the missions were now flown at 20,000 feet, defensive formations were used, and fighter escort was provided by F-80C and F-84E aircraft. These fighters were ineffective against the MiG-15, and coordination between the bombers and fighters was often poor. On February 25, four B-29s on a raid against Sunchon were attacked by eight MiG-15s. On March 1, a Superfortress formation was jumped by nine MiGs On April 12, a force of 48 B-29s attacking the railroad bridge linking Korea with Antung, Manchuria were attacked by dozens of MiGs, and three B-29s were shot down and seven were damaged. Because of these losses, General Stratemeyer called off these raids on April 12, and diverted the B-29s to close-support raids against Chinese targets further south around the 38th parallel.

Radio-controlled bombs known as "Razons" were tried out from B-29s against bridges in late 1950 and early 1951. They were released from the bomb bay and then guided onto the target by remote control from the bombardier. They were named "Razon" because the controller could alter RAnge and AZimuth ONly once they left the aircraft. They were moderately effective, but had the disadvantage of weighing only 1000 pounds. Their successors were known as "Tarzons", and weighed 12,000 pounds each. Tarzons were able to achieve a CEP of 273 feet, and were able to destroy the railroad bridge at Oesichondong. However, the Tarzon was so big and unwieldy that two-thirds of the weapon protruded outside the bomb bay of the B-29, and often proved more dangerous to the bomber crew than it was to the enemy. The Tarzons were full of unstable RDX explosive left over from the end of World War Two. 30 Tarzons were dropped over Korea, but only six bridges were destroyed. At least two B-29s were destroyed trying to ditch their bombs into the sea. The Tarzons were withdrawn from service in late April 1951.

In October of 1951, USAF planners decided to concentrate on the destruction of Chinese air power in northern Korea before trying a more vigorous bombing policy. The B-29s were to launch attacks on Chinese air bases in north Korea. They were acting as bait, hoping to lure MiG-15s into battle, where they could be destroyed by F-86 fighters. However, the MiG squadrons had been widely dispersed, making it difficult for USAF intelligence to find them, and B-29 losses were heavy. By October 27, five B-29s had been lost and 20 more heavily damaged.

These raids were suspended and replaced by night attacks using B-29s equipped with SHORAN (SHOrt RANge) navigation radar. This radar was able to pinpoint small targets with great accuracy. The 98th Wing was the first to be equipped with SHORAN, followed by the 19th and 307th. The first SHORAN-equipped nighttime raids began in November of 1952, and continued throughout the remainder of the Korean War. However, night fighters and radar-controlled defenses did cause some losses. For example, on June 10, 1952, four SHORAN-equipped B-29s suddenly found themselves illuminated by radar-guided searchlights over Sinuiju. Night fighters were directed in to attack, and two bombers were shot down.

In August and September of 1951, a decision was made to concentrate attacks on North Korean rail lines, with B-29s hitting bridges at Pyongyang, Sonchon, Sunchon, Sinanju, and Huichon. However, the damage was often quickly repaired or bypassed, and little disruption of the supply lines was achieved. For 44 days beginning on January 26, 1952, B-29s along with other aircraft attacked the village of Wadong where a potential choke-point was located.

In April of 1952, approval was given for raids against hydroelectricity facilities at Sui-Ho, Fusen, Chosin, and Kyosen. SHORAN-equipped B-29s were to attack during the night, and USAF and Navy fighter bombers were to attack during the day. These attacks began on June 24. By the 27th, it was estimated that 90 percent of North Korean power supplies had been destroyed.

Negotiations for an armistice had been going on for nearly eighteen months. It was thought that if a series of military targets could be located and then destroyed , the Communist side could be persuaded to agree to an armistice. The first of these raids took place on July 11 against 30 different targets in Pyongyang. Similar strikes took place against Sungho-Ri, Chosin, Sindok, and Sinuiju. The nighttime bombing techniques of the B-29 crews improved, and on September 30, 45 B-29s wiped out the chemical plant at Namsan-Ri. Enemy defenses continued to take a significant toll. Between November 1952 and January 1953, five B-29s were lost to enemy night fighters. Marine Corps F3D-2 Skyknight night fighters were deployed as a countermeasure.

By late spring of 1953, the emphasis was again on Chinese airfields and bridges in the north. The objective was to keep these fields unserviceable since tentative truce terms had allowed for a 12 hour free period between the signing of the truce agreement and the time it became effective, which could have given the Communist side enough time to move in massive numbers of aircraft to the ten major North Korean airfields.

When the Korean War ended on July 27, 1953, the B-29s had flown over 21,000 sorties, nearly 167,000 tons of bombs had been dropped, and 34 B-29s had been lost in combat (16 to fighters, four to flak, and fourteen to other causes). B-29 gunners had accounted for 34 Communist fighters (16 of these being MiG-15s) probably destroyed another 17 (all MiG-15s) and damaged 11 (all MiG-15s). Losses were less than 1 per 1000 sorties.


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