Ever wonder what life was like working on the crew of the B-29 bombers during World War 2? Meet Karnig Thomasian, a WWII veteran who I had the pleasure of talking with recently. Thomasian celebrated his 21st birthday as a PoW after his B-29 bomber went down over Burma and he bailed out, eventually landing in a rice paddy and then captured by the Japanese. His stories about working on the B-29 from the base in India and operating from there up to China and Singapore are spectacular.
One major difference between the Air Force of today and the Army Air Force of WWII which struck me from our conversation is the level of experimentation which happened on the front lines. The aircraft were all essentially brand new to the military as were the men operating them. That required everyone to learn and adapt very quickly. Thomasian’s group was one of the first to take the B-29 to forward battle grounds and get the aircraft configured for bombing runs. As he explains:
When we first got there, the idea in India was to see and test the B-29 in battle conditions, to see how it does. At the same time if there were any bugs in it we tried to rectify it. The flight engineers there were VERY knowledgeable. …
We tested different gun configurations on the turrets, primarily on the tail gunner. There we tried the 20mm with two 50 calibers and we found that one or the other was useless because the trajectories were totally different. So we … put four 50 calibers in the back which was far more impactful. We only went on one or two missions a week because of [all the testing].
Beyond the testing the men flying the planes had other responsibilities as well. Ground support was minimal at best so each man on the aircraft was also trained in one of the specialties needed to maintain the aircraft.
Those of us that were in India, we each had a specialty because we didn’t have ground crews early when we first went over. … [I was an] Electrical Specialist; anything with electrical I would [fix] with the Flight Engineer’s counsel.
It was definitely a different world of aviation back then. And getting to speak with someone who lived it was a tremendous experience, one I will not soon forget.
A special thanks to the Commemorative Air Force for facilitating the meeting.
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