20 June, 2020

Profile 144: Boeing B-29 Superfortress as crewed by F/O Seymour Landau, 40th BG, 44th BS

Time has come today.

It's a cool song, too.  Crank it up.

Anyway, the above is my hurry-up-artwork of "Wempy's Blitzburger," a B-29A Superfortress crewed by Seymour Landau, 40th BG, 44th BS.  There's about a dozen things I'd do differently, if I had the time, but situations involving talking to WWII veterans are a frustrating mix of urgency and savoring the moments.  Emotion wants to savor, Reason taps the watch as a cruel taskmaster...

This past week, I listened to Reason and obeyed, glossing over a few production details in order to meet the nagging voice, "Get this story out, soon."

Please notice that this post has two YouTube videos that feature moments from my conversations with Seymour.  Unfortunately, on these two occasions, the only means at my mercy for recording the interview were of poor quality.  For that, I am sorry.  I blame that cruel taskmaster tapping his watch.

One more comment before I start rambling - many thanks to the folk from a Facebook page "Fans of the B-29 Superfortress" for coming through on a few crucial details in order for me to meet my timeline.

But, if you're ever interested in learning about what it takes to wage war, all-things-B-29 is a fascinating portal.  The B-29 was an ambitious, complex and expensive project that resulted in delivering the most powerful weapon ever deployed in combat, the atomic bomb.  As an interesting aside, the B-29 project was even more expensive than the legendary "Manhattan Project" that ultimately resulted in the creation of said bombs!  In today's dollars, the B-29 project cost about $43 billion dollars.

* break break*

True story - the first interview I ever published was with "Morrie" Jeppson, Bomb Electronics Officer on the B-29 that dropped the first a-bomb on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.   Morrie died in March of 2010 — I remember him as a brilliant genius who could communicate the complexities of quantum mechanics seem as simple as making a sandwich.   I wish I spent more time with him...but at the time, I was young, dumb...

Morris Jeppson, c. September, 1945.  He said he knew (almost) immediately that the war would be over after looking out the observation window of "The Enola Gay," witnessing the boiling mushroom cloud rocketing upwards over Hiroshima.  I like to think the smile he's wearing is one of relief.
...anyways.  A few details to note.

Firstly, check out the very end of the airplane — see that long stinger?  That's a 20mm cannon.   The weapon was positioned slightly above and between two .50 caliber machine guns.  The logical assumption is that the three-gun punch would destroy any enemy that tried a 6-o'clock attack.  In the end, the Japanese (the B-29's only WWII enemy) had a very difficult time fielding fighters that could match the B-29's altitude and speed — "direct-6" attacks were not as effective as head-on or beam attacks.   To this reality, the 20mm cannon began to be removed from the vast majority of B-29s sometime in late 1944.

One of the first B-29s takes flight in 1942. 

Secondly, notice the tail art.  This marks the airplane as one of the first B-29s in combat, flying from bases in India and China against Japan.

See the scans below.  You can see how the units were distinguished using the giant tail as a billboard (it reached just about 28' into the air); notice the top line that indicates the 58th Bomb Wing (BW).  See "CBI" underneath?  That refers to the "China-Burma-India" theatre of operations and the clue that Seymour's Superfortress was one of the first in the war.

Now, look just underneath.  Notice that the 58th BW updated their tail markings when they located to the island of Tinian.  History nerds will immediately recognize that the island of Tinian was especially significant in that it was the launching base for the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan later in August of 1945.*

When the 58th moved to Tinian — leaving the CBI behind—the move was received with gratitude as living conditions greatly improved.  It's relevant to note that much of China and India at the time were considered 3rd world.  The fresh, American-made construction on the newly and dearly acquired islands was a luxury to those who knew different.

Thank you, www.cooksontributeb29.com for posting this cool reference.
Thank you, www.cooksontributeb29.com for posting this cool reference.

But, let's get to Seymour Landau.  And this thing called, "Time."

Seymour's service saw 26 combat missions.  Technically, his job was Flight Engineer — the man who managed the engines and other systems on the aircraft.   A valid argument can be made that his job was second only to the pilot's in terms of being critical to the mission as the Flight Engineer's performance related directly to fuel consumption. 

If you want a mental picture of a Flight Engineer at work, check out the picture below. 

Photo of B-29 Flight Engineer's position, donated to the National WWII Museum by WWII veteran, Dylan Utley
The USAF made a cool training film on what it took to perform an FE's job - click here

On a more abstract level, realize that fuel consumption of any aircraft is a result of a complex intersection of forces — aircraft weight (which continually changes due to fuel consumption), winds aloft, engine settings, altitude, ambient temperature, desired speed — making sure the B-29 could take off and return was a complicated job that required mental agility and discipline to an extreme degree.

Seymour and his crew, led by pilot Maj. Neil Wemple, were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for a mission on November 5, 1944 to bomb a particularly small target, a dry dock 'lock' in the port of Singapore.  It's best that you hear the story in the man's own words.

It'll take 4:36 seconds, if you have the time.

It's amazing to think of the intellectual and experiential power that the WWII generation wielded when they returned to peacetime.  Though there were indeed challenges of re-integrating back into 'normal' society**, there's no doubt that the technical, practical and managerial skills acquired during their military and civil service played a significant role in forwarding American power in the decades to follow.  

It cannot be forgotten that the Greatest Generation was minted by people in their 20s.   It makes you wonder if today's crop of 20-somethings have the same stuff as their great-grandparents.  Time will tell, I guess...

Seymour is kneeling, second from right.  Photo courtesy of the 40th BG website.
No idea how to specifically identify the rest - help me out if you know.  But, somewhere here are Neil Wemple, Richard Covey, Robert Swanson, Boleslo McIntyre, Manuel Greenberg, Glenn Price, Francis Wagner, Carl Westberg, Alect Paw and Bruce Houghton.
Anyways, back to Seymour's experience.

The man's first combat mission was flown on June 2, 1944 on mission to bomb Japanese targets in Bangkok, Thailand.  The second was over a month and a half later (a long time) on August 10, 1944 over Nagasaki*... the last two were on May 1 and May 7, 1945 to Osaka.  Over the whole of his service, including training, Seymour accumulated 1,009 flight hours.   This may seem like a lot but it's important to note that, after the war, Seymour was unable to get a job with the burgeoning airline industry on account of his inexperience!

Nevertheless, I have a number of stories that comprise Seymour's service including one that will surely make my upcoming book.  The most impactful is one about a moment where two Japanese fighters performed a head-on attack on his B-29, blowing holes into the bomber and revealing the strengths and weaknesses of character.  Interested?  Gimme time...books don't write themselves you know.


Today, Seymour Landau is 99 years old, articulate and pragmatic about his life's journey.  The only complaint he has is the frustration of having to give up tennis two years ago after suffering an ankle injury.  "Today, I use a walkuh," he states somewhat regretfully, his Brooklyn accent adding color to a black and white reality that he accepts.

Seymour on his wedding day with beloved bride "Ginnie"...and in 2017 ready for a ride in a Stearman PT-17.
Courtesy - the Landau family
I hope my interview is not over but if it ends up being so, Seymour Landau is yet another wonderful representation of The Greatest Generation.  Our conversations entailed a wide variety of topics, opinions, agreement and disagreement... it's immensely satisfying to look back on effort and think, "That was so worth my time!"

Yet, the real power in their stories is not their combat.  It's the context that comes from their age.  A few years ago, I was speaking to a group of Air Force Vietnam War pilots and had one of those lightning-bolt quotes that is so good I can't possibly claim credit for it.

"Remember when (Jack Weinberg) said don't trust anyone over 30?  I have learned I don't trust anyone under 65."

The room erupted in laughter and then applause.  I felt good.  And then not-so-good; we 'younger' generations have done a remarkable job of removing older, wiser generations out of our lives.  Today,  people to trust seem so damned hard to find...

I look forward to the day when we don't trust anyone under 90.  I probably won't see the day though.  The world's got a lot to figure out before anything like that can happen.

Until that day, why not have a listen to Seymour's life's wisdom?

It's 57 seconds long.  You have the time.

*Quirky factoid:  nearly one year to the date, the second atomic bomb would be dropped on the same city, August 9, 1945.   

**The movie, "The Best Years of Our Lives" remains one of the greatest films of all time.  It chronicles the challenges of combat veterans as they integrate back into mainstream life.  It remains jaw-droppingly awesome and you should watch it soon (if not now).