The Other Bomber: The Bockscar

Introduction

The B-29 bomber has worked it's way into the annals of history through various means.  It was a B-29 that set dozens of flight length records between 1948 and 1952, and it was the B-29 to function as the first dedicated reconnaissance platform and the first airborne refueling platform.  However, most notorious of the B-29's are the frames design that were capable of delivering atomic ordnance to a target: the Saddletree's (originally known as the Silverplate's).  The most well known of these was the B-29 Enola Gay.  Piloted by COL Paul Tibbets, this B-29 made it into the history books on the morning of 6 August 1945 when it dropped an atomic payload on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.  However, less known is the aircraft that dropped the second atomic package three days later on Nagasaki (and even less so were the aircraft that flew in formation with both of them).

The Bockscar was one of the first fifteen modified B-29's that were delivered with the Enola Gay.  Unlike her sister, Bockscar had a bit more of a difficult time in her atomic mission.  Let's take a brief look at the origins, history, and record of this other iconic B-29.

The Crew

From left to right: MSG J. Kuharek, SGT A. Dehart, 2LT F. Olivi, SSG E. Buckley, CPT K. Beahan, MAJ C. Sweeny (Pilot), SSG R. Gallagher, CPT J. Van Pelt, 1LT C. Albury, CPL A. Spitz

"Victor 7-7"

Bockscar's story is a bit less pronounced than the Enola Gay.  Generally this is attributed to a number of different things, but many aviation historians simply refer to her as "the bomber that ended the war."  Bockscar's story begins when she was first delivered to the USAAF on 19 MAR 1945.  The aircraft entered service the following month running drills for the Manhattan Project - as all Block 36 Silverplate aircraft did.  Like the other fourteen B-29's in Block 36, Bockscar was hand selected by COL Tibbets off the Glen L. Martin assembly line outside of Omaha.

She was delivered to Wendover, Utah where the flight stick was handed to CPT Frederick C. Bock.  From Wendover, she flew to Tinian in June of 1945 in preparation for package delivery.  The original markings of the plane included a single arrowhead on the tail and her victor number of 77.  These were the only identifiers of the Bockscar until after the war ended, as she did not sport any nose art.  Just prior to her atomic mission on 9 AUG, the arrowhead on the tail was replaced with a triangle-N marking.  All aircraft in the 509th Composite Group (of which Enola Gay, Bockscar, and the other thirteen aircraft involved with the nuclear mission belonged), carried the arrowhead markings, but were changed prior to mission deployment for security reasons.

The only persistent identifier ever in place on the airframe, as a result is her victor number: 77.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress

Crew: 11
Dimensions: 99'0" L, 141'3" W, 27'9" H
Weight: 74,500 lbs (empty), 120,000 lbs (average), 135,000 lbs (atomic mission), 133,500 lbs (maximum)
Speed: 220 mph (cruise), 357 mph (maximum)
Range: 3,250 miles (combat), 5,600 miles (ferry)
Ceiling: ~32,000 feet
Variants: 28 (B-29), 23 (B-50)
Number Built: 3,970
First Flight: 21 September 1942
Service History: Production, 1943-1946
In Service, 1944-1960,
Retired, 1960
Limited Flight Status, 1962-present

9 August 1945

On the day that the Bockscar was scheduled to drop the bomb on the Japanese city of Kokura, she was instead piloted by a crew from one of her other sisters, The Great Artiste.  Throughout the month of August up to the date of the bombing, this crew had been piloting Victor 77 for dry-drops of atomic devices.  Meanwhile, Bockscar's crew piloted The Great Artiste.  This was largely due to the other crew having more training hours dropping test atomic devices.  The majority of these bombs were conventional versions of the Fat Man bomb that were dropped on industrial targets on mainland Japan.  Both aircraft flew the mission the day of the bombing.

On the morning of 9 August, Bockscar took to the skies with five additional aircraft: The Great Artiste, Enola Gay, Laggin' Dragon, Big Stink, and Full House.  Full House, The Great Artiste, and the Enola Gay had all flown the mission on 6 August as well.  The flight took off from Tinian at 0349 local time and made their way to their original target destination of Kokura.  Just prior to takeoff, some technical problems were noted aboard Bockscar, however they were noted to not be of the nature that'd cause the mission to fail.  Along with the fact that the bomb was already armed, it was decided that Full House, the alternative carrier, would not be tasked to carry the bomb to it's destination.

Bockscar made it to the destination of Kokura, but due to a delayed rendezvous with the other B-29's, lost their window to drop the bomb on the intended target.  Poor visibility due to weather made Kokura a poor or otherwise unpredictable target for the crew.  By this time, Bockscar had greatly exceeded their fuel capacity for the mission as well.  Holding patterns also gave Japanese anti-aircraft defenses time to wake up and begin a barrage.  As a result, the attack on Kokura was scrapped.

The flight to Nagasaki was only twenty minutes long, and due to the dwindling nature of fuel reserves it was decided that a bombing run on this secondary target would prove to be more beneficial than totally withdrawing.  Bockscar would not have been able to make it back to base with a full payload at this stage.  Poor visibility over Nagasaki resulted in the decision to be made to use radar to bomb the target, but last minute breaks in the clouds allowed for a visual tally-ho on the primary bombing site.  At 1058 local time, Bockscar dropped the Fat Man payload, which exploded forty-three seconds later less than two miles off target center.  The resulting 21 KT explosion destroyed approximately 44 percent of the city.

The original plan called for Bockscar to return to Tinian, but problems with fuel along with technical problems subsequently forced the plane to land at Yontan on Okinawa.  Emergency flares were used as the crew prepared for an undeclared emergency landing.  By the time Bockscar made it onto the landing strip, two engines had died from fuel starvation, and a third was failing.  Had the initial landing attempt failed, the aircraft would have been lost.

Destined for the Atomic Age

In November of 1945, Bockscar returned to the mainland U.S. from the Pacific Theater.  However, her atomic mission had not ended.  In subsequent years she was used in Operation Crossroads as an atomic observation aircraft.  By the end of 1946, Bockscar had been pulled from live combat status and put in reserve.  For a period of time she was on display as The Great Artiste.  She remained at Davis-Monthan for fifteen years before being moved to Wright-Patterson where she remains today.

As previously mentioned, the original livery for Bockscar did not have any nose-art.  When she was moved to Wright-Patterson for display at the Air Force Museum, proper nose art was applied for the first time in 1961.

Conclusion

Unlike her sister, the Bockscar is often overlooked in the history of World War II.  Despite that, the museum at Dayton, Ohio accurately describes her as "the bomber that ended the war."  Between 1961 and 2010, she underwent dozens of restorations to restore the aircraft inside and out.  It is now one of the primary anchor displays at the museum, along with a replica of a Fat Man bomb.

While a handful of documentaries do exist on the aircraft, it largely remains to be a niche piece of history.  However, Bockscar's display at the Dayton museum remains one of the most complete designs where the internals and external display are all restored.  Far more B-29's are hallowed out or are worse for wear.  Unfortunately, like all but two B-29's, Bockscar is permanently grounded and unable to fly.  Still, for carrying such a spectacular title as she does, one would say she has earned the rest.

As for the rest of the 509th Composite Group, many iterations in mission set have occurred over the years.  However, the 509th has retained it's nuclear mission set through to the present day.  The path of the lineage of the crews that ended the Pacific War finds itself today behind another iconic American legacy: the Stealth Bomber.  Today, the 509th Operations Group pilots all of the B-2 Spirit bombers out of Whiteman Air Force Base.  The legacy continues...

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Author: The Kid

A junior Military Historian. In 2018 I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History. I'm also a professional student, specializing in Cold War era military history and American aviation history. I have composed several publications over the last four years, and continue to publish writings and photos to various journals, publishers, and blogs - including this one.

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