Jets Shoot Down Crippled B-29 in China Sea after Crew Jumps

This story provided courtesy of William F. (Bill) Welch

Official USAF News Release

HQ.TWENTIETH AF, Okinawa. A flight of F-80 jet-propelled fighter-interceptor aircraft shot down a B-29 aircraft of the 31st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron 15 miles out in the China Sea at sunset Friday night after a 12-man crew had bailed out over Kadena Air Base in a tense drama witnessed by hundreds of spectators.

THE B-29 had been practicing GCA approaches, After a pass over the field in which the gear had been let down, the gear jammed as it was being retracted. All efforts to fully lower or retract the gear failed. Operations officers in the Kadena tower noted that the gear was fouled in such a way that any attempt to land the aircraft would result in a major accident and serious if not fatal injuries to many of the crew aboard.

The decision was made to have the crew abandon the aircraft and for the pilot to put the plane on automatic pilot, head it out to sea, and then jump.

ORDERS WERE also issued to the Headquarters 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing to assemble fighters to destroy the disabled plane. Five F-80 jets took off immediately and were soon in contact.

Meanwhile, the flight surgeon, together with his assistants, fanned out on the flight line to be ready to assist any crewman in the event of injury on landing. A helicopter of the 2nd Air Rescue Squadron also hovered about to spot any man who might drift too far after bail-out.

THIS ACTIVITY, together with the low flying B-29 which was obviously in trouble, made airmen engaged in softball and other after-supper games, abandon their play and rush to points of vantage.

At 7:35 p.m. the plane made its first bail-out run over the airfield and four jumped from the escape hatches. A second pass was made five minutes later and four more men jumped. Three chutes opened almost immediately but the fourth seemed to be in trouble. Hearts seemed to stop beating as all eyes watched the body gather speed and come closer to the runway. Suddenly, when it seemed almost too late, the silk was seen to billow and the man landed safely.

HE WAS SGT. Arley Russell of Richmond, Va. who had made a combat jump during the war. When asked what had happened, Russell nonchalantly replied, "Nothing. I was just trying to get my feet together so I wouldn't lose my new boots."
Lt. William W. Kastilahn, pilot, and two men then bailed out and at 8:04 Lt. Wesley F. Butler, aircraft commander, of Tulsa, Okla., sent the plane on its course out to sea and bailed out. Eleven minutes later the F-80s watched the bullet-ridden airplane explode in the sea, spreading debris for a hundred yards in all directions.

The plane, which was affectionately know as the "The Heap" was a 1942 model and the oldest in point of service on Okinawa.

TWO MEN WERE injured. Sgt Paul V. White of Dallas, Texas, suffered a compound leg fracture when he landed on the runway and Lieutenant Kastilahn had a laceration of the ear and a possible injury to his ankle.

All men were members of the 31st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. Their names and home towns are as follows:

1st Lt. Wesley F. Butler, Tulsa, Okla. 1st Lt. William Kastilahn, Chicago, Ill.; 1st Lt. Howard G. Glover, Harrison, Ark.; 1st Lt. Theodore Stern, New York, N.Y.; M/Sgt. James S. Jones, Little Rock Ark.; T/Sgt. Jack R. Nichols, Fort Worth, Texas; S/Sgt. Howard L. Carroll, Sumner, Iowa; S/Sgt. Harold R. Rhodes, Lexington, Texas; Sgt. Arley Russell, Richmond Va.; Sgt Paul White, Dallas, Texas; Cpl. Curtis C. Franks, Bunkie, La.; Cpl. Wayland Mayo, Washington, N.C


Editor's notes from Bill Welch.

RB-29 Aircraft 42-0903. "The Heap"

Paul White ended up losing his leg after developing gangrene.

When I arrived on Okinawa after a seventeen day voyage in the bowels of a Liberty Ship, I was assigned to the 31st Reconnaissance Squadron (Photo) based at Kadena Air Base. My duty assignment was as a camera repair technician, maintaining the aerial cameras used in the planes of our squadron.

Across the flight line ramp from the Quonset hut housing Camera Repair, sat an RB-29. It had no propellers or engines. The empty engine nacelles stared, like four black eyes, out at the world. When I asked a ground crewman about it, he said, "Shhhh. That's our newest secret weapon. It's a jet B-29." ————Yeah sure.

One day I walked over to look at the forlorn airplane without engines. I noticed that just ahead of the scanners blisters there were wrinkles in the aluminum skin of the fuselage. And when I walked back across the ramp, I turned and took one more look. The horizontal stabilizer did not match up with the wings! It was several degrees off horizontal. When I looked closely, I could see that the vertical stabilizer and rudder was also a couple degrees out of kilter. I was very curious about this cockeyed airplane and asked several people until I finally found a crew-chief who had been on Oki for a while. "Yeah," he said. "About a year or so ago, they were jacking it up to work on a landing gear, and someone goofed. It actually twisted the fuselage out of whack. Nobody thought it would fly like that so the engines were cannibalized for other planes."

I thought no more about the plane, it was just a permanent landmark on the ramp. Over the next several months I tried, and finally succeeded, in cross-training as an aerial-photographer-gunner. I had been trained as a photographer, photo lab technician, and camera repair technician. Since getting out of school nearly a year earlier, I had worked in camera repair at Forbes Air Force Base, in Topeka Kansas, before going to Okinawa. My NCIOC in the 31st was SSgt Tom DeHaven, and with his help I was finally put on flying status and began OJT (on-the-job-training). I already knew aerial camera operation thoroughly but had to learn the in-flight procedures, plus learning a lot about the B-29. To be a qualified scanner-gunner I did a lot of flying that had nothing to do with photography, including firing the fifty-caliber guns at an air-to-ground range on an island off shore.

In early May, 1950, our squadron prepared to run an ORT - Operations Readiness Test - later in the month. As part of the “Maximum Effort” to put as many planes as possible into the air, aircraft 903, the cock-eyed engineless ramp queen, was to have engines and props hung and put in flyable condition. I helped out some on the effort. There was a lot of unskilled corrosion-control work to be done. Mainly scrubbing salt-air corroded parts of the aircraft with steel wool and painting the spots with zinc-chromate paint.

It was during this time that the ground crew started calling 903 “The Heap” after a comic book character that became a super-hero after being resurrected from a pile of junk. Using the readily available zinc-chromate paint, I painted the name on the nose.
“The Heap” flew during the ORT and Lieutenant Ambrose, our A/C said it flew as well or better than most B-29s.

903 had been built in 1942, one of the original B-29 models. It was different from later versions in that many things, the landing gear included, were electrically operated, as opposed to hydraulic. The emergency procedure for lowering the gear, if the primary system failed, was to plug in a portable electric motor into each landing gear and run it down. There was no procedure for manually cranking the gear down, as was the case in later B-29 models. This proved to be the fatal flaw in 903.

During the mission that resulted in the bail-out and shoot-down, the main gear motor burned out as the gear was being lowered for an approach. The emergency motor was hooked up and one main landing gear fully lowered successfully. Then the motor was moved to the other side and started lowering it. When the gear was half-way down, the emergency motor burned out!

The plane now had one main gear fully down and the other stuck half-way with no possible way of moving either.

The crew tried everything they could from repairing the motor to short-circuiting them, but nothing worked.

So, this is what I remember about RB-29 #903, “The Heap”, prior to its flaming end far out over the East China Sea.


Hi guys.

In a recent e-mail, Stadille mentioned an incident with a cocked nose wheel on Okinawa, and did I remember it. I sure do! I was on Lt. Ambrose's crew. If I remember correctly, this happened not long after the bail-out incident and I was thinking "Oh no, not again."

I have attached a transcript of an article out of Stars and Stripes about it. (I'm beginning to feel like a re-write editor)

Left: Bill Welch, Right: Wayland Mayo
Standing at entrance of camera repair shop, Kadena AB, Okinawa. Both men were Photo/Gunners on RB-29s

Another Stars and Stripes Article, this one from Okinawa.

"Crippled B-29 Landed Safely By Lt. Ambrose"


HQ, 20th AF - A highly deserved "well done" is in order for 1st Lt Earle H. Ambrose of the 31st Photo Reconnaisance Squadron for bringing in his RB-29 for an emergency landing with no damage or injury to aircraft or crew.

The RB-29 developed trouble in the form of a cocked nose wheel while shooting transition landings. The ship took off at 8:45 a.m. on a 12 hour training flight. At approximately 5:30 p.m. the trouble began when the the nose wheel became cocked.

For an hour and a half Lieutenant Ambrose circled the field attempting all emergency means of correcting this trouble. His attempts were not successful, so Lieutenant Ambrose advised (sic) to make an emergency landing.

His touchdown was on the aircraft main gear and just as smooth as glass. The damaged nose wheel was held off the ground as long as possible and then lowered very gently to the runway. Fortunately for all concerned the wheel straightened out immediately upon contact and a normal landing roll was the result.


Home Page