The B-29 Superfortress: Dodge plays a major role

Some time ago, I beheld an apparition from a bygone age: a genuine B-29 Superfortress! Her gleaming flanks, huge engines, 16 and 1/2-foot propellers, towering tail, and proud stance drew me in... and then, one by one, her engines turned, coughed, and roared to life. That lucky pilot opened those throttles and she moved regally into takeoff position. Thundering Wright Cyclone engines and all, this beautiful creation accelerated down the long runway, lifted magically, and soared out of sight.

B29 Superfortress

The famous B-29 was engaged in the same duties as the 12,726 work-horse B-17 “heavies” (optimistically called Flying Fortresses) or the more numerous B–24 Liberators (18,188) during World War II. The B-29s were bigger and faster, well-balanced, efficiently armed, and tough. All 3,628 had pressurized cabins.

The B-29 last flew an armed combat mission nearly 46 years ago, on July 27, 1953. The giant plane’s largest single day of operations was on August 1, 1945, when 836 four-engined giants attacked twelve key targets in Japan and Korea; 784 aircraft returned.

This was achieved just over about four years after the United States Army Air Corps order of May 17, 1941 for 14 service test YB-29s and 250 production B-29s (LeMay and Yenne, p. 201) — high stakes gambling beyond the imagination of Las Vegas, since not a single such radical design had been built yet.

Chrysler Corporation Requested To Participate

On December 7, 1941, Army Air Corps planners determined that the large-scale B-29 program would require a major new source of Wright Cyclone engines. In early 1942, Chrysler Corporation was asked to undertake the incredible task, with the first engines to be built in March, 1943, ramping up to an output of 1,000 per month by January, 1944. There was no designated plant, no machines, not even a factory design (Stout, p. 10-13).

tex colbertFuture president L. L. “Tex” Colbert was named General Manager of the project; future president William C. Newberg became Chief Engineer; C. J. Synder was Master Mechanic; W. H. Eddy was Production Manager; and H. J. Laidlaw was Plant Engineer (Stout, p. 8-9).

Chrysler engineers and factory people journeyed quickly to Wright's plant near Paterson, New Jersey. The 18-cylinder engine was just 37 running hours into its initial test program of 150 hours. The big radial had to be brought under drawing control before there was any chance for successful mass production. The first XB-29 airframe was still nine months from completion.

War Production Board Designates Chicago: Factory Complex Begun

Within days, a site (“Dodge-Chicago”) was selected; given the shortage of steel, architect Albert Kahn and Chrysler people designed a pioneering reinforced arched-rib concrete setup that used half the steel per square foot of a conventional design, saving about 9,200 tons of steel for other uses.

Construction (George A. Fuller Company, prime contractor) started in June 1942 and proceeded day and night, resulting in 6,300,000 square feet of floor space in a 19-building complex. Sixteen buildings were brought in by March, 1943, ready to receive more than 9,000 metal-working and fabrication machines seven months before tooling would be available. The main machining and assembly building was 82 acres in size, with 22 acres air-conditioned (for the precision assembly processes). Dodge-Chicago was the only aircraft engine factory that took in pigs of aluminum and magnesium at one end and pushed out finished engines at the other. Occupying 30 city blocks, the buildings and infrastructure cost $173,000,000 of 1942 money (Stout, pp.12-15), roughly $2.4 billion of 2012 money.

Mr. Newberg had newly-completed engines hooked up directly to induction motors operated above their synchronous speed to generate electricity. The arrangement yielded 91,106,000 kilowatt hours, about 25% of the total electrical consumption for the entire project (Stout, p. 48), while performing the required internal tests. Meanwhile, Boeing's operations in the Seattle area throbbed with action as Airframe Job One neared completion.

September 21, 1942: Experimental B-29 Goes Airborne

The first experimental plane, designated XB-29-BO, lifted off the Boeing runway on September 21, 1942 at 1540 with 46-year- old Edmund T. Allen at the controls. Landing 65 minutes later, Mr. Allen, regarded as the world's foremost test pilot of the day, declared his grinning "She flew!" verdict (LeMay and Yenne, p. 60).

Wingspan 141 feet, 3 inches
Tail height 29 feet, 7 inches
Length 99 feet
Range 5,418 miles
Maximum speed 399 mph
Service ceiling 36,150 feet
Gross weight 140,000 pounds
(courtesy LeMay and Yenne, pp. 49 and 179).

As testing continued, reaching nearly 18 flight hours by December 2, 1942, the Wright-built Cyclone engines began to give trouble. Eddie Allen experienced failure of two engines at 6,800 feet and landed safely. A week later, another engine failed in flight. These events were disturbing but not unexpected in a radical new design being rushed forward. It takes little imagination to reflect back to the tensions that permeated this top secret project.

The second experimental plane was ready for its first flight on December 30, and again, trouble, with one engine catching fire at 3,000 feet. Allen successfully landed the flaming aircraft, where ground crew managed to extinguish the fire. On January 31, 1943, another engine failed at 20,000 feet, followed by a serious fuel leak, developing aft of the number four engine on February 17.

Tragically, February 18 saw the loss of the second experimental craft due to an engine-linked fire spreading to the major wing spar. Despite rapid moves by the always composed and cool Eddie Allen, the XB-29 lost altitude too rapidly to make the end of the Boeing runway and crash-landed on top of the five-story Frye Packing Company meat-packing building in Seattle. All eleven professional experts aboard, including Allen, were killed, as were several Frye employees and city firemen (LeMay and Venne, pp. 62-4). Officials braced themselves for a security breach of this secret project, but none occurred. By this time, orders had been placed for 1,664 of the giant planes. Yes, but what about those engines?

B-29 Power: Four Wright Cyclone 18- Cylinder 2,200 Horsepower Engines

The era of the Wright Cyclone engine actually began in 1927, as a nine-cylinder, hemispherical combustion chamber, air-cooled unit of 525 horsepower. About every two years thereafter, the engine was increased in output, including a doubling of its cylinders to 18, (Note: some sources, including Dammann, p. 247, and Flammang, p. 98, state, in error, that the B-29 engines were nine-cylinder units) but with no increase in bore and stroke, or, significantly, any enlargement of frontal area.

wright cyclone engine

Cowling was tighter than on the B-17 Heavy Bomber, with its engines rated at 1,200 horsepower each at takeoff power setting (Ethell and Price, p. 10). Higher compression ratios and effective supercharging applied to those 3,350 cubic inches of displacement were the principal routes to the eventual 2,200 horsepower unit that Dodge was to learn to build under urgent, emergency conditions. The horespower to weight ratio of the engine were fifteen times higher than that of the railroads’ crack Superchief diesel locomotive.

Dodge-Chicago Production Meets Challenges

As 1944 opened, manufacturing started at last, with 60 engines promised by the end of January. The additional tooling needed to raise production to a newly-requested, increased rate of 1,600 per month was in progress. In June, 344 engines were delivered versus a schedule of 225. On July 13th, the 1,000th engine was shipped. In October, 957 engines were delivered, nicely exceeding the schedule of 850. Momentum was building and engine storage became a new, but very happy, problem.

In eleven months, beginning in January, 1944, Dodge-Chicago completed 5,000 engines. As January, 1945 closed, the pace quickened: More than 7,500 engines had now been delivered. By July 15,1945, Dodge-Chicago output passed 16,000 engines, reaching contract closure with Japan's surrender at a total of 18,413 engines (Stout, pp. 41-45).

Given wartime conditions, bringing the Cyclone to full flying status as a mass-produced engine required continuing revisions and re-designs following initial release to Dodge-Chicago. Amazingly, 6,427 design changes (Note: Stout states two figures, 6,427, p.46; 6,274, p. 23--either total is stunning) were issued, usually involving groups of parts--some with as many as 150 separate items. In turn, these design changes generated 48,500 engineering releases and change notices--almost always resulting in methods, materials, or tooling changes.


The press of events forced unusual steps throughout the entire program. The engine had to be virtually re-engineered while in production. Dodge assigned 120 graduate engineers, well supplied with assistants, in support. They were occupied fully with 26 major improvements--including pre-stressed pistons, shot-peened connecting rods, high-pressure polishing using powdered stone in water, fuel injection at 2,500 psi with tolerances often-millionths of an inch, increased oil pressure to help with cooling, and supercharging--to name only a few. Many parts exceeded the dimensioning and finishing of the best watch manufacturing of the time. Industrial diamonds were used in the boring of piston pin holes. Chrysler's Superfinish was used and magnetic inspection blossomed.

Cooling problems remained a problem with the Wright engines. The rear cylinders tended to overheat because there was not enough clearance between cylinder baffles and the cowl; changes made to increase low-speed cooling worked against the engine on high-temperature airfields in the Pacific, especially coupled with the practice of loading the aircraft to their maximum carrying capacity. The engines often “ate” their own valves, causing fires worsened by the use of hot-burning magnesium in the crankcase and supercharger housings. The magnesium content also caused the crankcases to expand at a different rate than the rest of the components, causing oil leaks which were another cause of fire and failure; the crankcase material was never changed during the B-29’s life.

Another issue was backfiring through the carburetor, which could also cause gasoline fires. The solution for this was using fuel injection. Pilots were also trained to lift slowly, using as much of the runway as they could to cool the engines before slowly climbing — so they could build speed before going into thinner air.

Cooling was a principal vexation that no simple solution could clear. Wright engineers wrestled with cooling challenges that included increasing the aluminum fins on each cylinder barrel from 40 to 54, thus enlarging cooling area to 325 square feet per cylinder head and barrel--for a total of 5,850 square feet per engine. Exhaust valve design was improved continuously throughout the program. Dodge-Chicago designed the ignition harness that went into production. Steadily, the problems began to yield. Engine life was gradually extended, from 200 hours before overhaul was needed, to about 400 in the early spring of 1945.

B-29 Combat Deployment Begins

On their way to initial deployment in India/China, the B-29s were subjected to ground temperatures in the sun that were regularly well over 120 degrees F. Temperatures reached nearly 200 degrees inside planes--with some engines only about 20 degrees from overheating even before firing up. Detonation was a severe problem directly affecting valve life. Parts change kits were rushed out to numerous locations to speed the planes to their destination. Teams fanned out to wherever B-29s were in the pipeline--to make the necessary alterations and keep the program momentum alive!

Conditions in China were so primitive that fuel had to be flown in over the Himalayas, slowly building up enough gasoline and bombs to eventually launch the first group of strikes. These missions were flown at high altitudes, dropping high-explosive bombs. A number of the trips were actually regarded as training of the most serious kind. The professionalism of the Americans dedicated to those early moves is awesome to contemplate. Moreover, airfields in China were constructed by thousands of Chinese people using hand labor and tools of the most rudimentary kind. (See the Dodge “China truck” section.)

Dodge-built B-29 Engines Enter Combat

Wright itself built R-3350 engines, converting their entire Cincinatti plant to that purpose and dedicating a new facility in Woodbridge, New Jersey, to these engines. Wright managed to make 13,800 engines, versus Chrysler’s 18,400.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to Dodge-Chicago performance was that, at the outset, their engines were used interchangeably with Wright's production. As the program progressed, Dodge provided the vast majority of the engines: 18,413 for 3,628 B- 29s, or just over five engines per plane.

After General LeMay took command in January, 1945, he re-structured the maintenance program, based on his European experience. Soon, flying reached a tremendous 120 hours per plane per month and mission action swung into high gear. During their 1944 and 1945 service against Japan, they dropped 169,676 tons of bombs, adding another 167,000 tons during the three years of the Korean War (by which time they normally required a heavy fighter escort due to the advent of jet fighters). Actual bombing runs after arrival at the target were carried out at 210 mph (LeMay and Yenne, p. 150).

On a per unit basis, Dodge-Chicago was able to reduce the cost of producing each engine from $25,314 plus a fee of $1,519 to $11,537 (fee, $580) and $12,954 for the fuel-injected version, all while incorporating 6,427 engineering changes! Overall, Dodge brought to completion 18,413 engines at about half of the estimated program costs, very much the same pattern achieved by Chrysler Corporation in all its war efforts. Seldom have the economic benefits of complete tooling, accurate drawings, dedicated leadership, well-trained employees, and a clear set of goals done as well. For perspective, consider that a brand-new Dodge 1942 D22 Custom four-door sedan delivered for $1,048 (Lee, p. 262).

Big Blue Fleet Provides Support

As Admiral Chester Nimitz's forces advanced across the vast Central Pacific, they attacked and occupied the Marianas Islands. The islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian were within effective B-29 range of war-production targets in Japan proper. Bases were prepared rapidly and the Twenty-First Bomber Command moved in, all at the same furious pace and pressure that marked the entire saga of the Pacific War. Space limitations here permit only the barest outline of that amazing story. General Douglas MacArthur's forces had reached Leyte via the jungle hell of New Guinea while Admiral Nimitz took island after island in a drive that moved steadily West. Since command was divided between these two, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to retain control of the B-29s in a separate organization, reporting directly to General H. H. Arnold in Washington, D. C. All base construction, fuel movement, munitions, food, spare parts, et al were provided by a fully-committed Pacific Fleet. Without the sacrifice of thousands of lives and billions spent on other armed forces to wrest bases away from the enemy there would have been no B-29 campaign against the Japanese home islands.

Overwhelming Victory

Taken in total, the B-29 program was the most expensive of the war, and it proved decisive against the Japanese home islands. The program was successful because of the nation's total war effort, including clear goals, intelligent leadership, and a strong industrial base (one hopes that the national leaders of the present day recognize the continuing importance of such a base). America's industrial accomplishment exceeded anything ever done in history, given the whole of what was accomplished by the array of companies that participated. Without torrents of equipment produced by millions of “Home Front” men and women for use by the 11+% of the population in the uniforms of the Armed Forces, the results would have been quite different.

Other company divisions supported Dodge-Chicago in important ways, as well as producing a long list of other equipment and materials that were aircraft-related. A portion of the items furnished included:

By DeSoto:

  • 568 pressurized B-29 nose sections
  • 559 sets of B-29 wing leading edges
  • Nearly 5,000 sets of B-29 engine cowlings
  • Martin B-26 medium bomber noses (1,593)
  • B-26 center sections (1,585)
  • B-26 wing flaps (1,895 sets)
  • Helldiver wings, 11,000 by joint Chrysler and DeSoto efforts

By Plymouth and Dodge

  • Corsair landing gears and arresters for deck landings, 10,000 sets (Plymouth
  • Dodge produced 12,000,000 pounds of aluminum forgings for Chrysler aircraft contracts plus 13 other airplane builders.

Chrysler Corporation's achievements were enormous and vital to victory. The leadership and people of the Chrysler Corporation of that generation proved essential and critical to the energy applied to thwarting fanatical aggressors at a terribly dangerous time in world history. Let us not forget.

Sources and Related Additional Reading

Breer, Carl. (1995). [Yanick, A. J., Editor] The Birth of Chrysler Corporation and Its Engineering Legacy. Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc.

Brokaw, Tom. (1998). The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, Inc..

Dammann, George H. (1974). 70 Years of Chrysler. Sarasota, FL: Crestline Publishing Co., Inc.

Ethell, Jeffrey L. And Price, Alfred. (1989). Target Berlin, Mission 250: 6 March 1944. London: Arms and Armour Press.

Flammang, James M. and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide. (1998). Chrysler Chronicle. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, Ltd.

Lee, John. (1990). Standard Catalog of Chrysler - l924-1990. lola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, Inc.

LeMay, Curtis E. and Venne, Bill. (1988). Superfortress: the story of the B-29 and American Airpower. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Matras, John. (1994, April). "Substance Over Style, The Keller Era." Automobile Quarterly, pp. 43.

Stout, Wesley W. (1947). Great Engines and Great Planes. Detroit, MI: Chrysler Corporation.

Also see: US Air Force Museum, FlightGlobal

Not-quite-related Plymouth ad

They came smashing through the Japanese lines and there it was -- a 1941 Plymouth DeLuxe sedan in the heart of the New Guinea jungle!

On its side was painted the enemy's rising sun insignia. American bullets had drilled the machine so full of holes that the entire top had to be removed. But the motor, according to Staff Sgt. Kenneth B. Schooley, who described the incident, was "in excellent condition, despite having a few, large caliber bullets bounced off it."

After the usual rough jungle travel, he writes, "it's like riding on air." At last report, the sedan was no longer "De Luxe" but it was doing a real job on New Guinea. The medical detachment requisitioned it, took out the back seat, put in a floor, and was using the Plymouth to transport wounded troops from the front.

Plymouth records show that this historic car went from the factory to a dealer on Guam. Probably the Japanese seized it there and took it with them to New Guinea. The full story won't be known until after the war - if then.

But there's no mystery about the reason why Plymouth is a great car on New Guinea or on Main Street. Plymouths were designed and manufactured to do their job under the worst conditions and the best. That quality is now going into Bofors anti-aircraft guns, assemblies for Helldivers, many other war needs. Meanwhile, three million Plymouths are proving their stamina on the roads. They may have to last a long time. They're built to do that when serviced by experienced Plymouth dealers.

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