Part 2 - A case study in modernization: Challenge #1 production

  • Published
  • By Dr. Jeremy Prichard
  • 20th Air Force History Office


Challenge #1: Production

The B-29 project was rushed from the beginning.

Arnold, dutifully following the White House’s request to accelerate production, placed an order for the aircraft before a prototype had been designed and tested, an unconventional and risky step, both then and now.

And because the B-29 was an immensely complex system, the expedited timeframe of the aircraft’s operational use challenged production schedules. Workers faced a steep learning curve assembling the sophisticated aircraft, even when they weren’t repeatedly hindered by slow delivery of key parts.

The most demanding upgrade was development of the Curtis-Wright R-3350 engine. It constantly caught fire during assembly, resulting in one civilian test crew crashing into a Seattle building that resulted in 17 lives lost.

Consistent program delays raised the ire of the White House, so much that Roosevelt lamented when informed that Arnold “could not get the B-29s operating” until months later than projected. “Everything seems to go wrong,” Roosevelt continued sharing with the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George Marshall.

With fewer flyable B-29s assembled than was scheduled, Arnold personally visited manufacturing plants in Kansas in January and March 1944.

Army Air Forces commander Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold inspecting a B-29 Superfortress at an aircraft manufacturing facility. (Date and photo source unknown)

Following his second visit, wherein he’d hoped to observe significant progress since his tour two months earlier, Arnold instead “found conditions so chaotic” and a program “void of organization, management and leadership.” Contrary to the project’s intended purpose of highlighting the accomplishments of the Army’s air component, “the situation as I found it was a disgrace to the Army Air Forces,” he noted in a memo dated March 20, 1944, and “that such a condition will not be tolerated.”

Now a four-star general, Arnold’s engagement generated considerable activity within the program. What some have affectionately referred to as “The Battle of Kansas” was the immediate congregation of senior Army officers and more than 600 contractors and subcontractors into the state with one objective: get planes en route to the Pacific.

Reiterating that the B-29 project was the Army Air Force’s top priority, Arnold’s directive to individuals arriving in Kansas was acquiring missing aircraft parts from around the country and conveying them to the state’s aircraft facilities.

Results were immediate. In the span of roughly one month, between late-March and late-April 1944, 150 B-29s departed for the China-Burma-India theater – including the very first Superfortress ­– a complete turnaround from the moment Arnold directly intervened just a few months earlier.


This is part 2 of 5 of an article that was adapted from Dr. Prichard's briefing at the Fall 2022 Twentieth Air Force Senior Leader Conference held at F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo. The following resources were used in the development of both that presentation and this article:

Maj Gen (ret) John W. Huston, ed., American Airpower Comes of Age: General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold’s World War II Diaries, vol. 2 (Maxwell AFB, AUP 2002)

Maj James M. Boyle, “How the Superfortress Paced the Attack Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (December 1964): 63-69

Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2021)

Herman S. Volk, “The Twentieth Against Japan,” Air Force Magazine (April 2004): 68-73

Charles Griffith, The Quest: Haywood Hansell and American Strategic Bombing in World War II (Maxwell AFB, AUP 1999)

William W. Ralph, “Improvised Destruction: Arnold, LeMay, and the Firebombing of Japan,” War in History 13, no. 4 (2006): 495-522