The Airplane that Ended a War

Remembering the B-29 bomber and crew that flew the last major combat mission of World War II.

_Enola Gay. FIFI. The Great Artiste. Kee Bird. The Big Stink.
_

It was an airplane dubbed “Superfortress.” Yet many of the most famous Boeing B-29 bombers that plied the skies during the latter days of World War II carried strangely meek-sounding individual names. Perhaps that’s of benefit to our collective psyche since the airplanes in question were capable of raining such unfathomable destruction from above. After all, attaching a name to a killing machine is merely an attempt to humanize the brutality of war, isn’t it?

Virtually all combat B-29s had distinctive names, bestowed upon them by their crews. This is somewhat unusual since other bombers of the day, including the B-17 and B-24, were less likely to carry an individual name (although a great many did, Memphis Belle being perhaps the most famous example among many, many thousands).

My interest in Superfortress naming arises from a familial link with the most famous (or second most famous, depending on how you rank them) B-29 mission of all. My grandfather’s first cousin (and my first cousin twice removed) was SSgt. Raymond Gallagher, a gunner on the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb “Fat Man” on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. It was the mission that broke the will of the Japanese, and, as we all know, it marked only the second time an atomic weapon had been used in war after the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima three days earlier.

The oddest part of the Nagasaki mission, for me, was that cousin Ray was a crewmember aboard a B-29 called The Great Artiste and not Bockscar, the airplane that the history books tell us flew the Aug. 9 bombing run. Even stranger, the first news reporter to write about that mission referred to the airplane as The Great Artiste. And when Bockscar was first enshrined in an aviation museum, The Great Artiste and not Bockscar was painted on its nose.

What gives? As Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story:

Bockscar, named after its aircraft commander, Capt. Frederick Bock, was indeed the B-29 that bombed Nagasaki – but it was flown on that day by a different crew. The mission had been assigned to the crew of The Great Artiste, commanded by Maj. Charles Sweeny. But his crew couldn’t fly their own airplane, which had been outfitted with observation gear for the Hiroshima bombing run, in which they participated. Rather than take the time to refit The Great Artiste for bombing duty_,_ its crew, which had practiced the dropping of Fat Man in Bockscar, commandeered that airplane for its mission.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. On the morning of the mission, Bockscar was found to have a faulty fuel transfer pump that made it impossible to use 625 gallons of fuel in the tail. As a result, Sweeny was warned to spend a maximum of 15 minutes at the rendezvous point, where Bockscar was to meet up with The Great Artiste and another B-29, The Big Stink.

That 15-minute window stretched to 45 minutes after the third B-29__ failed to reach the meeting point. Undeterred,__ Sweeny__ proceeded to the primary target, the Japanese city of Kokura, where Bockscar made three bombing runs – but each time thick cloud cover prevented the crew from dropping its ordnance. By the end of the third run, Japanese fighters were climbing through the overcast. Sweeny made the decision to head for the secondary target, Nagasaki.

But the cloud cover over Nagasaki was no better. With fuel running critically low, the crew decided to bomb the city anyway, using radar. At the last moment, Kermit Beahan, the crew’s highly skilled bombardier (from whom the The Great Artiste takes its name) spotted a break in the cloud that allowed him to confirm they were over Nagasaki (more or less) and drop their ordnance. (Even though the bomb missed its target zone, more than 70,000 were killed in the detonation. Japan surrendered six days later.)

Now 30,000 feet over Nagasaki, the crew of Bockscar faced a new problem. They didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to base on Iwo Jima. Sweeny decided to fly to Okinawa instead, knowing he’d have enough fuel for only one landing attempt. As Bockscar began its final approach, a faster than normal descent, the number 2 engine quit due to fuel starvation. On touchdown, another engine quit as the fast moving B-29 lurched violently on the runway, nearly taking out a row of B-24s.

There isn’t much written in the historical record about Gunner Ray Gallagher, although some interesting letters, including this one, have been preserved. Commander Sweeny is another story. He was reamed out by General Curtis LaMay, chief of staff for the Strategic Air Forces, upon arriving in Guam days later. Col. Paul Tibbets, commander of the Enola Gay, wanted Sweeny disciplined for failure to command. But when the Japanese surrendered and the war abruptly ended less than a week later, the matter was quietly dropped.

Today Bockscar is on permanent display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The display includes a replica of the “Fat Man” bomb and a simple sign bearing a concise and wholly accurate description: “The aircraft that ended WWII.”

View our Bockscar B-29 Superfortress Photo Gallery.

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