The Soviet Union’s B-29 Superfortresses

Although the Soviet Union requested that the United States provide strategic bombers as part of the Lend-Lease program, such requests were repeatedly denied by the Western Allies. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union did fly and operate a number of American and British strategic bombers that had made forced landings on Soviet territory. Among the numerous B-17s, B-25s, B-24s and Lockheed Venturas that ended up in Soviet hands were four B-29 Superfortress bombers which at the time were the most advanced aircraft the world had ever seen. These four airframes would eventually be used as a blueprint for the Tupolev Tu-4 strategic bomber, which was a direct copy of the B-29.

The Soviet Union obtained its first Superfortress in July of 1944 when a B-29-5-BW named Ramp Tramp (USAAF serial 42-6256) of the 462nd Bomb Group/770th Bomb Squad made an emergency landing at a Soviet Naval Air Arm base in Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, about 30 km east of Vladivostok. The B-29, which had been part of a 96-ship formation that had taken off from Chengtu, China to bomb the Showa Steel Works at Anshan in Manchuria, experienced engine problems while returning from the raid (some sources claim electrical problems, others say it was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire). While the damage was not severe, the aircraft, piloted by Captain Howard R. Jarrell, had been the last to take off from Chengtu on the 1,650-mile mission, and it took the crew two hours at a high-power setting to catch up with the rest of the formation. Consequently, despite the otherwise minor damage, Jarrell determined that the aircraft would not be able to make it back to base and opted to fly towards Soviet airspace, as US pilots had been ordered to do in such situations. While still over Japanese territory, the crew began destroying written manuals, orders codebooks and instructions. Upon crossing into Soviet airspace, the B-29 was intercepted by Yak-9 fighters and escorted to Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, where the damaged Superfortress made a successful emergency landing.

Though the US and the Soviet Union were allies in the war against Germany, the latter had signed a Pact of Neutrality with Japan in April of 1941, two months before the German military launched Operation Barbarossa. The pact, which was valid for a period of five years, stipulated that,  “Should one of the Contracting Parties become the object of hostilities on the part of one or several third powers, the other Contracting Party will observe neutrality throughout the duration of the conflict.”[1] Consequently, as the US public learned in the wake of the Doolittle Raid in April of 1942, US aircraft that made forced landings on Soviet territory and the USAAF crews who piloted those aircraft would be interned on legal grounds for the duration of the war. Moscow was strict in its observance of this pact; had a war broken out between the Soviet military and Japan prior to the defeat of Germany, the results would have been catastrophic for the Soviet Union, at least earlier in the war.

Another Superfortress, this time a B-29A-1-BN christened Cait Paomat II (serial number 42-93829) of the 440th Bomb Group/395th Bomb Squad, ended up in Soviet hands the following month (August 20th, 1944). This aircraft, which was piloted by Richard McGlinn and had taken off from Chengtu China as part of a 75-ship formation, was damaged during a raid against the Imperial Steel & Iron Works in Yawata in mainland Japan. The damage to the B-29, which had unknowingly strayed into Soviet airspace, was so severe that the crew opted to bail out of the aircraft. All eleven crew members parachuted to safety and the empty aircraft itself crashed into Sikhote-Alin mountain range near the city of Khabarovsk, just across the border from China. The crew, however, found themselves separated in the vast wilderness of Siberia. After several weeks in the wild, the USAAF airmen encountered a village, the members of which contacted the proper authorities. Despite minor injuries, all eleven crew members survived the ordeal in the Siberian wilderness and joined their fellow interned countrymen. The aircraft itself sustained significant damage in the crash. Nevertheless, the wreckage was collected and delivered to Moscow for examination. The wing section of this aircraft would later be used for the Tu-70 program (a passenger variant of the Tu-4).

General ArnoldThe third Superfortress to arrive in the Soviet Union was a B-29-15-BW (serial number 42-6365), named General H.H. Arnold Special of the 468th Bomb Group/794th Bomb Squadron. On November 11th, 1944, this particular B-29 was flying as a pathfinder aircraft for a 27-ship formation that took off from Pengshan, China that was tasked with bombing an aircraft factory in Omura on Kyushu Island, Japan. On the way to the target, the formation flew through the eye of a typhoon, which caused the General H.H. Arnold Special to lose one engine, its central fire control system and its radar. When it emerged from the storm, the crew found themselves far off course to the north, and they opted to fly to the Soviet Far East. Upon crossing into Soviet airspace, the B-29 was intercepted by Soviet fighters and escorted to Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, where the aircraft and crew were interned.

42-8358Ten days later, another B-29-15-BW (42-6358), named Ding Hao! of the same Bomb Group & Bomb Squadron as the General H.H. Arnold Special, was part of a 62-ship raid on the Omura aircraft factory. Over Japan, the Superfortresses encountered heavy opposition from Japanese fighter and from light bombers that dropped phosphorous explosives onto the formation. Consequently, only 27 B-29s reached the intended target and another 13 managed to bomb secondary targets. Eight of the Superfortresses failed to return from the mission, including Ding Hao!, which, during the attack, had been hit by machine gun fire from a Japanese fighter. 42-6358’s copilot, Jack Schaefer, had recently joined to rest of the crew overseas, and the raid on the Omura plant was his first combat mission. According to him, “Being hit by enemy fire was nothing new for the rest of the crew. They were on their ninth mission and this had happened before. It was new for me, but I was so busy doing my job that I didn’t realize we had been hit until the engineer shut down no. 3. He advised the pilot that no. 4 was doubtful as well. I had been on several training flights where we had lost an engine, so I was not all that concerned. The pilot conferred with the engineer and the navigator and made the decision that we would not have enough fuel to get back beyond enemy lines. After reviewing our options, we decided to head north to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union.” Upon crossing into Soviet airspace, Ding Hao! was intercepted by Yak-9s and escorted to Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya. All crew members survived.

The accounts of the US airmen who were interned in the Soviet Union tend to emphasize a less than warm reception upon setting foot on Soviet territory. Schaefer recalls that Ding Hao!, upon landing at Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, was surrounded by military vehicles and the crew were ordered out at gunpoint. Some sources indicate that the crew of Ramp Tramp, the first B-29 to make a forced landing in the Soviet Far East, were questioned by Soviet military police and were not allowed to speak to the American Consulate for more than a week. The US crews were undoubtedly treated with some degree of suspicion upon landing in Soviet territory, and the situation was almost certainly exacerbated by the language barrier, but their reception is somewhat understandable considering the security situation at the time.

The US crews were first interned in Khabarovsk, about 400 miles north of Vladivostok, and were later transported to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where they, along with the crew of other US bombers that were interned, were held in what had been a Russian nobleman’s estate prior to the 1917 revolution. Recollections of the interned servicemen paint a bleak picture that indicate the camp was little different from a POW prison. While the internees were undoubtedly prisoners held in a prison, the camp’s conditions were comfortable for the Soviet Union and were considered superior to the conditions of Soviet soldiers in Red Army reserve units. Rooms held 15-20 US servicemen, they were given decent food (by Soviet standards), they were allowed to play sports and play games. Nevertheless, the US airmen understandably felt only bitterness towards their jailers.

About 130 internees were held at the camp, and in January of 1945, they were allowed to “escape”, which served the purpose of freeing the US servicemen while allowing Moscow to appear innocent in the eyes of Tokyo. Following the blueprint for an NKVD orchestrated “escape” that had successfully been executed on two prior occasions, the airmen were transported to Ashkhabad on January 25th and then on to Kizil-Arvat via train, a three-day journey, and early on January 28th they were transported across the border into Iran aboard lend-lease Studebaker US6 trucks. From there, they were given fresh uniforms and returned to the United States. The formerly interned servicemen were given strict orders to remain silent, one of the conditions demanded by Moscow for the release of the airmen. A letter received by Schaeffer’s father by the US War Department stated, “Reference is made to the previous letter from this office informing you that your son, Second Lieutenant John K. Schaefer, 0771810, was safe and interned in a neutral country. A further report has been received that he was returned to duty. You are urgently requested not to publicize the fact that he was interned, for such publicity is not considered to be in the best interest of the country, and may jeopardize any chance of release of other Americans who may be interned.”

Ramp Tramp, General H.H. Arnold Special and Ding Hao! all sustained some damage but were nevertheless far from being written off. The surviving Superfortresses sat in storage at Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya where the USAAF insignia were replaced by Soviet red stars and Soviet-style serial numbers based on the aircraft’s originals (for example, 42-6256 was given the Soviet serial 256 Black, 42-6358 was given 358 Black and 52-6365 was given 365 Black). In early 1945, the Soviet Naval Aviation’s Vice Chief of Flight Inspection, Lieutenant Colonel Semyon Reidel, was tasked with ferrying Ramp Tramp (256 Black) to the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) in Zhukovskiy outside Moscow where it would be subject to close examination. Reidel spoke English and had the assistance of two A-20 pilots from the Black Sea fleet who were familiar with US-built aircraft as well as several engineers from the Pacific Fleet. Together, the team was able to repair 256 Black and carry out all necessary ground checks, despite the fact that they did not have the proper equipment to maintain such a sophisticated aircraft. Flight tests in the Vladivostok area were carried out until January 21, 1945 which allowed Reidel and his crew to get accustomed to the complex bomber. While the B-29 had enough range to fly from the Soviet Far East to Moscow non-stop, the crew wanted to err on the side of caution and opted to stop in Chita, Krasnoyarsk and Taincha.

In April of 1945, Moscow denounced the neutrality pact with Japan. By this point in the war, the threat of Japanese retaliation against the Soviet Union was non-existent. While Moscow had agreed to join the allies’ war against Japan shortly after Germany’s capitulation, the denunciation of the neutrality pact was not tantamount to a declaration of war, and international law specified that USAAF airmen who made emergency landings in Soviet territory should still be interned for the duration of the conflict.

All three B-29s were eventually repaired and transported to Moscow, where Andrei Tupolev and his OKB were tasked with accelerating the Soviet Union’s strategic bombing development program by reverse-engineering the Superfortress. While the story of the resulting Tupolev Tu-4 deserves a post of its own, the OKB and others bureaus in the Soviet defense industry were successful in their task, and the first “Bull” made its flight less than two years after the end of the war.

 

Bibliography

Yefim Gordon,  Dmitriy Komissarov, Vladimir Rigmant, Tupolev Tu-4: The First Soviet Strategic Bomber.

Otis Hays Jr. Home from Siberia: The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II.

Michael Heberling and Jack Schaefer. “Superfort Crew’s Siberian Odyssey”. https://www.historynet.com/superfort-crews-siberian-odyssey.htm

Vladimir Kotelnikov. Lend-Lease and Soviet Aviation in the Second World War.

Steve Pace. Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

Nikolai Yakubovych. Letayashchuie Superkreposti B-29 i Tu-4: Yadernii Otvet Stalina. 

 

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