WPB Morrison Field and the B-29 'Superfortress'

Posted 6/15/21

On June 15, 1944, 51 B-29 "Superfortress" bombers dropped their payloads ...

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WPB Morrison Field and the B-29 'Superfortress'


On June 15, 1944, 51 B-29 "Superfortress" bombers dropped their payloads on the Imperial Iron and Steel Works located on the Japanese home island of Kyushu.

        The surprised and embarrassed military high command in Japan immediately sought the origin of America's new long-range, high-altitude bombers - the first to attack Japan's homeland since the Doolittle Raid launched a handful of B-25 medium bombers from the deck of the U.S.S Hornet in April 1942.

        The mission's origin: Chengdu, China, by way of  Morrison Field in Palm Beach County, Florida.

        The B-29 bombers that struck Japan were the first of 150 aircraft making the long journey from the U.S. Army Air Corps field in suburban Palm Beach County to China as part of the top secret "Operation Matterhorn" between June and November 1944.

        At the November 1943 Cairo Conference, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to support China's hard-pressed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek with direct U.S.  bombing missions on Japan. It became the objective of Operation Matterhorn.

        The only weapon available to fulfill Roosevelt's promise to the Chinese leader was the new Boeing B-29 Superfortress - a huge four-engine bomber measuring 99 feet in length, with a wingspan of 140 feet, and capable of carrying a bomb payload of 120,000 pounds of high explosives or napalm. The bomber had a range of 1,500 miles, with a pressurized cabin that allowed it to fly above 30,000 feet.

        Rushed into production at plants located in Reston, Washington, and Wichita, Kansas, at a cost of $3 billion in 1940 dollars, the first B-29s arrived at Morrison Field as part of the 20th Bomber Command.

        Morrison Field, the site of today's Palm Beach International Airport (PBI), was originally a county airstrip dedicated in 1936 west of West Palm Beach. It was acquired by the U.S. Army as a future air base in 1940. The military base was activated as an air transport and training facility at the end of 1941.

        The B-29s used in Operation Matterhorn flew from their assembly plants to Morrison Field, where they were fueled and fitted for the long journey to China.

        To reach their destination, the B-29 crews flew from Morrison Field to Puerto Rico, south to British Guiana and Brazil in South America, then to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, across the ocean to Liberia and Cairo, Egypt, in Africa, east to Tehran and Karachi in the Middle East, and the Kharagpur air base near Calcutta, India.

        The bombers completed their journey by flying over the Himalaya mountains to their airfields in Sichuan Province, China.

        Logistical support for the bombers had to follow the same extended supply lines. The B-29s were supported by the 3rd Combat Cargo Group at Morrison Field. 

        It required a herculean effort to supply the B-29s in China with fuel, bombs and spare parts. In his analysis of Operation Matterhorn, General Curtis LeMay later said it was "founded on an utterly absurd logistics basis... with a scheme of operations like something out of the Wizard of Oz."

        During its six months of operations, the 20th Bomber Command supported the allied war effort by flying missions over Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Korea, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, French Indo-China, Burma, Taiwan, Thailand and the Chinese coastal cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai. The B-29s also completed nine missions over Japan's southern islands.

        General Douglas MacArthur called these first B-29 bombing missions over Japan "a new type of offensive against the Japanese home islands" in one of his many communiques.

        To the Japanese people, the huge bombers were "the silver crosses" - as the unpainted metallic planes appeared at ground level when flying at 30,000 feet. With the arrival of the B-29s, Japan's military government could no longer deceive its citizens in 1944. The war was a lost cause.

        Following the capture of the Pacific's Mariana Islands between June and August 1944, the U.S. Army Air Corps began building B-29 bases on Tinian, Guam and Saipan for the bombing of Japan.

        Operation Matterhorn flights to China were phased out beginning in November 1944. The B-29 missions from China ended in January 1945. By March 1945, the last B-29s with their crews flew from India to the Mariana Islands. 

B-29 'Hurricane Hunters' at West Palm Beach

        Morrison Field officially opened on Jan. 19, 1942 as part of the Air Transit Command. During World War II, about 45,000 pilots and air support personnel were trained at the air field.

        After the war, the 308th Reconnaissance Group, also known as the "Long Range Weather Unit," began operations from suburban West Palm Beach in July 1946. Modified B-29 Superfortresses were called into service to collect data as part of the National Hurricane Research Project for the "U.S. Air Weather Service".

        The Military Air Transport Service (MATS) used the retitled "Palm Beach Air Force Base" as its hurricane research headquarters throughout the 1950s. The former B-29 bombers, designated as "WB-29 Superfortresses" from 1951-56, and modified as the "WB-50" from 1956-63, became part of the first generation of "Hurricane Hunter" aircraft.

        The former World War II bomber adapted well to its new role. It could fly above a tropical storm, and had the durability to pass through hurricane-force winds.

        The 9th Weather Group continued performing hurricane and climate research in West Palm Beach for the Air Weather Service until the National Hurricane Center was established in Miami. The joint use of Palm Beach International Airport as a military base ended in 1962.   

(c.) Davidsson. 2021.