Laggin' Dragon
A tribute to Crew A-2
The Tale of the Laggin' Dragon

The Laggin’ Dragon, Serial No.  44-86347, V-95, was one of the fifteen “Silverplate” B-29 bombers assigned to the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, 509th Composite Group and flown by Crew A-2.  The 509th Composite Group was activated at Wendover Army Air Field, Utah on December 17, 1944 and tasked with delivering the atomic bombs which ultimately brought the end to hostilities in the Second World War.

 

Leading up to the formation of the 509th, in mid-summer, 1944, newly graduated as well as combat experienced air crew members of all ranks and MOS’s (Military Occupational Skill) arrived at Fairmont Army Air Base, in Fairmont, Nebraska.  They were brought together to form the 504th Bombardment Group (H), consisting of the 393rd, 398th and 421st Bomb Squadrons.

 

Under the command of Pacific Theatre veteran Lt. Col. Thomas J. Classen, fifteen individual air crews were formed in the 393rd.  These crews flew familiarization and orientation missions in Boeing B-17’s, gaining experience working as a unit while individual airmen were familiarized with other crew members jobs in order to substitute competently should the need arise.

 

After being adjudged combat ready, on the day the 504th Group was under orders to ship out, the orders pertaining to the 393rd Bomb Squadron were rescinded and new orders issued.  The 393rd was directed to proceed without delay to Wendover Army Air Base, Wendover, Utah to become the only bomb squadron of the 509th Composite Group (VH), equipped with B-29 aircraft.

 

At Wendover, specialized mission training was conducted with the B-29 involving high altitude bombing, extremely long range flights carrying heavy loads and aggressive post “bombs away” evasive maneuvers.  A phase of this training was completed at Batista Field, Cuba, for over water flights.

 

Bombardier John L. Downey recalls, “As time went by, the 509th started receiving factory new, specially modified “Silverplate” B-29’s, each crew in turn picking up their airplane at the factory and returning to Wendover.  At last we were to put our long and difficult training to use.  The crews who received their new airplanes soon flew from Wendover in small groups to the Pacific Theatre, and those left behind, waiting impatiently, continued to refine weapon delivery techniques and procedures.”

 

Before taking delivery of 44-86347, Crew A-2, commanded by Capt. Edward M. Costello, West Point Class of 1943, performed several missions that directly supported the successful deployment of the atomic bombs to Japan.

 

The crew flew a test section B-29 in excess of 125 hours while detached to Eglin Field, Florida.  Their mission was to develop fuel charts and power settings for the Silverplate configured B-29’s while working with engineers from Boeing and Wright Cyclone.

 

A second detached mission was to “Destination “I”, Navel Ordinance Test Station, Inyokern, California, where the crew dropped dummy bombs in conjunction with camera equipped Navy aircraft to record the ballistic characteristics for the bombs to be dropped by the 509th.  A precise flight and bomb release plan had to be executed.  In addition, drops were made to test special fusing.

 

In addition, Capt. Costello, Lt. Harry B. Davis and Lt. Downey flew to White Sands, New Mexico in mid-July to observe the Trinity Test on behalf of Colonel Paul Tibbets, 509th Composite Group commander, who was already on Tinian.  The data was collected and delivered to Col. Tibbets on July 31st.

 

By this time, only two crews, Capt. Costello’s, A-2, and Capt. Herman S. Zahn’s, C-12, remained at Wendover, neither having received their Silverplate airplanes.  Both crews were greatly disappointed and somewhat bitter about being the last despite having high proficiency ratings.

 

 

Finally, crew A-2 was sent to the factory to take delivery of what was to be the last of the Silverplate bombers completed at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company in Omaha, Nebraska, designated for the 509th Composite Group.  With only 2 hours of flight time on the airframe, the gleaming new B-29 was flown from adjoining Offutt Army Air Field in July, 1945 enroute to Wendover Army Air Field.

 

There was only time for several short shake down flights, calibrating the air speed, altimeter, swinging the compass and checking out all the systems before the ship left Wendover, final destination, Tinian, an island in the Mariannas Group in the South Pacific.  At this time the airframe had only 11 hours on its flight log.

 

 

The Laggin’ Dragon name and nose art were the work of John Downey, who sketched the weary looking dragon shortly before departing Wendover.  In light of being the last crew to leave for Tinian, it seemed that a parody of the 393rd Bomb Squadron insignia of a vicious, raging, fire breathing, bomb carrying dragon would be appropriate.  The aircraft commander and crew gave their approval and the Laggin’ Dragon was born, “Laggin’” signifying being the last aircraft in the squadron to fly to Tinian.  The actual nose art, a somewhat censored version of the original drawing, was painted on the aircraft on Tinian following the atomic bomb missions.

 

The Laggin’ Dragon departed Wendover on July 24, 1945 under sealed CONFIDENTIAL orders, fully loaded and ready for overseas duty.  Packed with the cargo in the rear bomb bay, but probably not on the weight and balance form, were a 12’ tall statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and two slot machines salvaged by Lt. Robert J. Petrolli following the Wendover Officer’s Club fire.  Upon reaching altitude, the orders were opened directing the crew to Kirtland Field in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not to Tinian as expected.

 

Upon arrival at Kirtland, special personnel took the aircraft to a remote site to load Fat Man Special Store #F-31 (minus the Plutonium core) into the front bomb bay.  This was the bomb that ultimately was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 hastening the surrender of Japan on August 15th. (The aircraft participated in that mission as a weather recon plane, but it was flown on that mission by Crew B-8.  The delayed arrival on Tinian and lack of time to complete the required orientation precluded Crew A-2 from flying any missions in support of either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki missions.)

 

From Kirtland, the crew flew their cargo to Mather Field in Sacramento, California, the home of the Air Transport Command, which had jurisdiction over all military aircraft departing for or arriving from the Pacific Theatre.

 

Lt. Thomas H. Brumagin and Lt. Downey recall that, “Upon arrival of V-95 at Mather Field, the aircraft was subjected to an inspection of all emergency gear per Air Transport Command requirements for all aircraft departing for overseas bases.”  This seemed redundant since the aircraft was fresh out of the factory; however, the procedure was followed.

 

About noon on July 29, 1945, the Laggin’ Dragon departed Mather Field enroute to John Rogers Field on Hawaii, Kwajalein, and ultimately, Tinian. On board were 19 souls including the flight crew, ground crew and two security agents.  All crew members with the exception of the pilots and flight engineer were in the rear crew area of the aircraft to help offset the nose heavy condition of the airplane.  On that day, had it not been for the superb performance of Crew A-2, its most important mission could have been its last.

 

With a gross weight of 136,000 pounds, spuriously recorded on the flight log to conceal the secret cargo, clearance from the tower was obtained and the taxi-out and takeoff were normal.  At about 50 feet off the ground, the gear was just being retracted when a loud “Whap” noise was heard in the aircraft and felt by the pilot through the controls.  Immediately the plane began to shake violently and started to nose down.

 

Cpl. James R. Bryant, the right scanner, was observing the gear and flaps to report “full up” position to the pilot, when suddenly; he saw a bright orange flash pass by his portal.  As the plane began to shake violently, he looked to the rear of the plane and saw the large seven man life raft flopping on the horizontal stabilizer.  Initially, tail gunner M/Sgt.  Carleton McEachern declared a fire, but Cpl. Bryant broke in on the intercom and reported no fire, but that the life raft had deployed and was hanging on the tail.

 

As pulling on the yoke and rolling trim tab didn’t help, the aircraft commander called to his co-pilot, Lt. Davis, who was described in an official report as, “6’3”, weighing 220 lbs, in good physical shape, and strong,” saying, “Help me Harry!”  Capt. Costello summoned Lt. Downey forward to his Bombardier’s position to prepare to salvo the bomb, which the pilots would reserve as a last resort. Lt. Downey was more than happy to make the quick trip forward through the tunnel in as much as he had left his parachute in the bombardier’s position.  Upon assuming his position, he cut the safety wire on the salvo switch and awaited further orders.

 

Both pilots, with feet braced on the rudder pedals and pulling with all their strength on the control yokes, were physically being bounced up and down in their seats by the intensity of the shaking.  Capt. Costello saw a clearer crash site to the right and with Lt. Davis’ help made a 10º turn.  As the wing lowered on that side, the raft and other pieces of ditching gear were dislodged from the horizontal stabilizer and the vibration of the airplane diminished to a more controllable level.  The pilots were able bring up the nose of the crippled aircraft and climb to a higher altitude and proper air speed. 

 

 Lt. Downey recalls Capt. Costello called Mather tower and declared an emergency and requested immediate landing clearance, at which time the tower asked the weight of the aircraft, which was in excess of 130,000 pounds.  The tower advised the aircraft commander to fly around until the ship reached 125,000 pounds so as not to damage the Mather runway.  Capt. Costello responded, “Fly around Hell, I don’t know if we are going to get around this time!”  Lt. Downey noted this is the only time he ever heard Capt. Costello swear.

 

There has been discussion as to possible radio interference at this time affecting communications between the tower and the damaged airplane as Capt. Costello told the crew and passengers to prepare for a crash landing. 

 

Upon approach to Mather, Cpl. Bryant watched a convoy of fire trucks and ambulances heading onto the field.  He recalls, “The touchdown was very fast, but smooth as silk.  The Curtis Electric reversible pitch props helped bring the aircraft to a stop with the nose gear just off the end of the runway but the main gear still on the hard surface.”

 

Although crashing, or a crash landing, were both strong probabilities, at no time did the pilots ever lose control of the aircraft.  What could have been a disaster ended with a safe, smooth, albeit hot, landing with no injuries or further damage to the aircraft.  Upon entering the cockpit after rolling to a stop, however, Lt. Petrolli noted that the two pilots remained in their seats, physically and emotionally drained, their flight suits soaked in perspiration.

 

Maintenance personnel at Mather appropriated the necessary parts from another B-29 on the ramp to repair the tail structure and approximately twelve hours later, the Laggin’ Dragon departed for a relatively uneventful three leg flight to Tinian, delivering the F-31 bomb casing, the Nagasaki bomb, to North Field on August 1, 1945.

 

Through subsequent examination of records and crew interviews, it appears that the oversight which could have spelled disaster was the result of security measures dictated by one of the two Military Intelligence officers attached to the aircraft for the mission. 

 

According to Lt. Brumagin and Lt. Downey, “At the orders of the Military Intelligence Officer responsible for the security of the aircraft and its contents, the ATC personnel were denied access to the aircraft by crew personnel guarding the aircraft.  The Base Maintenance Officer was also denied access and directed to the MI Officer by the guard.  After some discussion the MI Officer modified his previous orders and permitted the ATC personnel to inspect the emergency gear.”

 

“The Inspection and repacking of all gear was completed, however, the ATC personnel failed to secure the latches on the covers of the seven man life raft bay as required.  This discrepancy was noted in the maintenance record which was signed off by the MI Officer who was not aware of the potential problem that the discrepancy created.”  Additionally, the opening of the hatches and repacking were done while the crew chief and ground crew were absent, thereby having no knowledge of the potentially catastrophic lack of communication.

 

Following the end of World War II, the Laggin’ Dragon returned stateside to Roswell Army Air Field, New Mexico, where the crew disbanded.  The Laggin’ Dragon returned to the Pacific as part of the Operation Crossroads task force on Kwagalein in 1946.  It was transferred to the 97th Bomb Wing at Biggs AFB, Texas and converted to a training aircraft at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma in 1950.  The aircraft spent the next decade in that capacity and was scrapped in July of 1960.

 

The legacy of the Laggin’ Dragon crew carries on today as the 393rd Bomb Squadron, 509th Bomb Wing, continues as an active unit of the United States Air Force.  Following their success with the B-29 Superfortress, the squadron subsequently flew the B-50 and the B-47 in the 1950’s and transitioned to the B-52 in 1966, followed by the FB-111 in 1970. 

 

In another rendezvous with history, on December 17th, 1993, exactly 49 years after the formation of the 509th Composite Group, the 393rd Bomb Squadron, now stationed at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, took delivery of the Air Force’s first Stealth bomber.  Today, flying the B-2 Spirit bomber, the 393rd no doubt carries with it the spirit of the Laggin’ Dragon crew as it continues to protect our nation.


Original nose art design by John Downey

 
 

E-mail:  info@laggindragon.com

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