The most advanced bomber of WWII? It was made in Fort Worth and is often overlooked
Fort Worth Star-Telegram March 11, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — World War II produced three legendary heavy bombers, the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator, and the B-29 Superfortress. Each was manufactured in the thousands to bomb Germany and Japan into submission.
Then there was the B-32 Dominator, which took to the skies in the last year of the war.
Like the B-24, it was manufactured at the Consolidated Vultee plant in Fort Worth, known officially as Air Force Plant No. 4. Fort Worth workers built 2,743 B-24s but only 124 B-32s before production was shut down in October 1945.
If the war had continued, the B-32 would have become the workhorse of the Army Air Force (AAF). It was more technologically advanced than either the B-17 or B-24 and not prone to engine fires like the B-29, wrongly called “the most advanced bomber of World War II.” That title rightly belongs to the B-32 with its four, 2,200-hp engines, pressurized crew cabin, seven remote-controlled guns, and the ability to carry a heavier bomb load than any of the others. It was also the first production aircraft to have reversible-pitch propellers, which allowed it to land on short runways.
Readers of the Star-Telegram learned on Aug. 12, 1944, that Air Force Plant No. 4 would be the manufacturing home for the B-32. The newspaper described it as a “superbomber that would blast the heart of Japan.” It was intended to replace the B-24 and complement the B-29.
For most of the next 12 months the plane went through rigorous testing, one completed aircraft at a time. The “bugs” were still being worked out even as the aircraft flew its first missions in the Pacific theater.
Tested at Fort Worth Army Airfield
Consolidated’s B-32s were tested next door at the Fort Worth Army Air Field. It was the first new aircraft to be tested by the AAF Training Command in World War II. The training crews were combat veterans with a thousand or more hours in B-24s. Each plane required eight crew members. With the war in Europe over, the War Department permitted the Star-Telegram to reveal details of the new bomber. With details of the size, bomb load, and air speed of the plane, the newspaper indulged in a little bragging about the superiority of Consolidated’s B-32 over Boeing’s B-29.
The newspaper’s unnamed source also shared a little secret. “It is hinted that the B-32 is due for a special and destructive role in the Pacific war.” In retrospect, it is clear that this is a thinly veiled reference to the atomic bomb, which was not dropped by a B-32 but by a B-29 on Aug. 6, 1945. Anyone familiar with the Manhattan Project at the time could have read between the lines of the newspaper story that the “secret may lie in the design of its [extra-large] bomb bays.” The first atomic bomb, dubbed “Fat Boy” was too large for either a B-17 or B-24 to carry.
The public got its first look at the plane on Air Forces Day, Aug. 1, 1945. The Army Air Field opened its gates for the 38th anniversary celebration of the AAF, showing off several current bomber and fighter aircraft on the ground plus flyovers by the B-32. The 10,000 visitors to the event even got a chance to get a “close-up view” of a B-32 parked on the tarmac near a battle-scarred B-24.
Visitors to the air show had no way of knowing that even as they admired the latest addition to the nation’s bomber fleet that it was already in action in the Pacific. Reporters had gotten the first sneak preview of the B-32 on May 11 but were sworn to secrecy. Three of Consolidated’s “sky giants” saw their first action on May 29, flying from Clark Field in the Philippines against undefended targets. One had to return to base because of mechanical problems, but the other two dropped 1,000-lb. bombs on a small, Japanese supply center on the island of Luzon. They flew without escort fighters because the Japanese air force had been driven from the skies over the Philippines.
The mission over Luzon was the first “operational test” of the plane. The commander of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, Philippines, pronounced it a “topnotch weapon.”
The first B-32s in combat were designated the 386th Bomb Squadron. They continued their shakedown flights over lightly defended targets on Luzon, Formosa, and the China coast. Correspondents, including the Star-Telegram’s Charles Boatner, were allowed to go along, with the understanding that they would report only human-interest stories, not mission details. Those stories included interviewing Texans among the flight crews. Two crewmen, Johnnie Thacker and George Davis, were Fort Worth residents.
In the next three weeks, newspapers reported the highest praise among military brass for the B-32. Consolidated’s official newsletter, “The Eagle,” quoted a veteran pilot of B-24s saying, “It’s just a dream ship for a heavy bomber.” The bombers carried out their first 12 missions without a loss. (The newspapers did not report what kind of opposition, if any, they met over their targets.)
Consolidated workers got into the spirit by taking up a collection of over $1,000 to send to crew members of the first B-32 squadron. This story was reported just one day after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9 by a B-29. The war was just three weeks from being over.
Flights over Japan
On Aug. 17, 10 Japanese fighters attacked a flight of B-32s flying a reconnaissance mission over Tokyo. In a brief round of aerial combat, the bombers shot down eight of the attacking fighters. All the bombers returned safely to their Okinawa base. One crew member, Sgt. Anthony Marchione, was killed in the action, the last American to die in air combat in World War II. One of the pilots on that flight was Lt. Joseph Elliott, well known to Fort Worthers because he played tackle on TCU’s 1940 football team before enlisting.
B-32s were on their first bombing mission over the Japanese mainland when they learned that peace negotiations were underway. They came back to base without dropping their bomb load, so by the time the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, no B-32 had flown an actual bombing mission over Japan. This is not to say they had not suffered losses. Two were lost in non-combat accidents on Aug. 28, killing 15 of 26 crewmen on board. B-32 crews did distinguish themselves, winning two campaign ribbons and five battle stars in less than a month in the war zone. The 386th stood down on Aug. 30, ending B-32 combat operations.
Demobilization at the end of the war came swiftly. The War Department canceled contracts, and production stopped on the Fort Worth assembly line. Before the end of September, most of the final production aircraft were being flown to a storage facility at Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. From there, most were sent to demolition facilities to be turned into scrap. The same fate awaited all the B-32s returning from the Pacific theater. The last surviving plane was destroyed in 1949 while the Air Force continued to fly its stablemate, the B-29, into the 1950s.
As for Air Force Plant No. 4, after the war it became known simply by its abbreviated name, Convair. The company’s next contribution to the American bomber fleet came during the Cold War with the B-36 Peacemaker, the largest bomber ever built. While vintage examples of Convair’s B-24 and B-36 exist today, the B-32 survives only in pictures.
What was once Air Force Plant No. 4 is known today as Lockheed Martin.
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.
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