by Charlie Harlow

    After completing the four week gunnery school and returning to Barksdale, I was immediately assigned to a bomb squadron where I became a gunner on a B-29MR flying crew. As for my AF career, things could not have been any better.   I enjoyed the camaraderie  of being on an air crew and the experience of flying to many places around the world

    I was now a full-fledged ignorant B-29MR flight crew member in the 301st Bomb Wing.   I defined myself as ignorant because I had a lot to learn about the “Top Secret” special equipment on the B-29MR aircraft and the mission of the wing.   Over and above the standard B-29’s, the B-29MR aircraft could carry an A-Bomb, had a longer range, and could get refueled in the air. All the gun turrets were removed except the tail turret

both B29s

B-29 MR Serial # 44-83997 up front with the standard B-29 below

The B-29MR aircraft number 44-83997, a”B” model had a tail turret only. In the above picture, you can see the air refueling receptor nozzle below the “A”  on the rudder. There were small porthole windows instead of gunnery blisters.   The forward bomb bay was modified to carry an A-bomb. The rear bomb bay was modified to carry an extra gas tank.   The blue color on the rudder tip signifies the 353 Bomb Squadron. The “A” signifies the 301st Bomb Wing.  The square around the “A” signifies the second Air Force.


..................................................................................................................Painting by Charlie Harlow


The designation KB-29M was assigned to 92 B-29s that were converted to aerial tankers using the British-developed hose refuelling system. In addition, 74 B-29 aircraft were converted as receivers for this system under the designation B-29MR. In retrospect, this hose refuelling system was unbelievably awkward and cumbersome, and it is a wonder that it worked at all. That it was so successful is a testament to the courage and ability of all concerned.

The primary goal of the project was to extend the range of the B-29 fleet to make it possible to attack targets in the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. You can read much more about this project at :http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_bombers/b29_22.html

My crew once flew this aircraft 44– 83997,  on a two week TDY to Sidi Slimane AFB,  French Morocco.  We stopped for refueling in the Azores and Bermuda both going and returning.   Our crew again flew this aircraft on a non—stop flight from Barksdale AFB,  LA to Brize Norton AFB in England.  We were airborne almost 23 hours.   Air refueling was accomplished about halfway over the Atlantic Ocean.   I was the refueling operator on our aircraft.  We took on about 5000 gallons of gas and it took about 45 minutes.  This was with the old British “looped hose” system.  The tanker was behind us and we received the gas by hose through a nozzle near the tail of our aircraft. (See above photo)  

(Note: our aircraft 44–83997, is the same aircraft that served late in the war with Japan and was named Little Wheels

little wheels

"B" Model B-29, serial # 44-83997 on Saipan 1945


Same aircraft as a B-29 MR in England, 1953, 2nd/Lt Paul S. O'Leary


The B-29MR aircraft were developed in the late 1940s as a result of the Cold War threats from Russia.   Seventy-four  were made.   Thirty-two of them were in the 301st Bomb Wing. The 301st actually got started at Smoky Hill AFB in Kansas in 1946 and moved to Barksdale in 1949. The wing had three bomb squadrons. Each squadron had three standard B-29s and twelve B-29MRs assigned. Also, in the wing there was an air refueling squadron with about twenty KB-29M tankers assigned.

The “MR”  stands for modified receiver, a misnomer for an atomic bomber if there ever was one.   The wing’s mission was simple.   If the Russians started something, we would retaliate by dropping some A-bombs on Russian soil.   With everything being ”top-secret“ and on a need-to-know basis, all crew members were not privy to all the facts of the mission.  I had enough sense to know that it was going to be one very risky mission.   Things I did not know then and now know,  is that our targets were deep in the Ural mountains some 2000 miles inside Russian borders.   That made the missions  the ”one way” variety because we would very soon run out of gas after the bomb drop.  Mind you,  this “one-way “ type of mission was not developed by a bunch of aircrew members thinking about becoming heroes. It was the Emergency War  Plan  (EWP)  of the Strategic Air Command and applied to all of SAC’s  atomic bombers, about 300 of them in the early 1950s.


The doctrine in existence between the United States and Russia was Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Of course, the Russians knew there was a 301st Bomb Wing and that we had the capability of delivering atomic bombs. Supposedly, they did not know how, when, which way, and many other crucial details of the mission. As a result, all crew members needed to have Top Secret clearance. Even with that in effect, infor- mation was only disseminated on a need to know basis. Because, in those early years, atomic bombs were in control of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). All crew members also had to have an AEC clearance.

    Training was a constant process.   In the air, TDY trips to French Morocco , Libya and  England to practice radar bomb site flights to numerous US cities; practice bomb runs dropping “blue devils” on a bomb range target and then camera exercises with a gun sight mounted camera shooting at fire fighter aircraft making simulated attack passes on our aircraft.

    And there was a seemingly never ending amount of ground training schools/classes including  aquatic survival, wilderness survival, escape and evasion, altitude chamber, Russian language, aircraft identification, air refueling  operator, radiation monitor, parachute/personal equipment, crew member cross training, first aid,  aircraft emergency procedures, 50 caliber machine gun maintenance, bomb loading (including A-bombs),  skeet range, prisoner of war behavior, small firearms and OQ range ---   firing live ammo at small radio controlled aircraft from actual gun sights and turrets.


The Young Charlie Harlow
B-29MR Gunner

Probably the most intense training of all was SAC survival school at Camp Carson in the mountains of Colorado.  After four days of training in the classroom, we were taken to a site 10,000 feet high up in the Rocky Mountains.   I think it was called Saylor Park.  There were snow storms while we were there.   While there we were taught how to live off the land.   Our quarters were teepees that we made from old parachutes. 

The only food that was readily available was pemmican bars that looked and tasted like dog food.   It came in bars wrapped in tin foil.   It was a high energy food that was also packed in the E–1 survival kit.  Some guys would not eat the pemmican and they suffered.   I learned to warm it up in my armpit and byte off a chunk like you would a candy bar.   After a few days with nothing else to eat, the pemmican tasted pretty good to me.

We also had to go on an escape and evasion trek.   Each crew was dropped at a separate point “A”  and had to try and make it back to point “B” while guys acting like big bad Russians with red stars on their helmets with dogs and helicopters,  were trying to find us. Our crew made it without getting caught. That training was undoubtedly the most miserable 9 days of my life.   However, I would not swap that experience for anything.

Living quarters at SAC survival school, Camp Carson, Colorado. March 1951

Crew rescue demonstration. SA–16 JATO take off after crew jumped aboard.   Carson,  Colorado March 1951.
It should be noted that what follows in this paragraph are the thoughts of a person that has long finished his Air Force career and has accrued more than 60 years of retrospect and time from his assignment in the  301st Bomb Wing and its mission to deliver A-bombs to Russia.   That tour of duty is the most significant of my 28 year Air Force career and I consider it an honor to have been involved so close to the issues of the cold war with Russia.

Although most people in the world , and probably even to this day,  would have been involved in a nuclear holocaust of hundreds of Russian and American A-bombs going off in a short period of time. The end radiation effect on the Earth’s  atmosphere would have been devastating, And that is not to even mention the massive destruction  in both Russia and the United States from the bomb blasts.  The importance of the deterrent influence the 301st Bomb Wing and other wings like it, had on Russia cannot be overstated.

Assuming that somehow we got safely on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the Ural mountains after a bomb drop, what were our chances of getting out of there? Many years later, I asked that question to a retired Colonel that was  in the same B-29 MR squadron I was in. His reply,”First thing you have to realize is, there is a new world out there with overwhelming problems. Who is going to get concerned about a few  Air Force people camping out in the Urals?   After time goes by, there could be a swap involving the Russians camping out in the Rockies. Who knows? There is no clear answer to your question. “

Then there was another big question. Did the Russian bombers get through to drop an A-bomb on your home and family?  Are they dead or alive?

(NOTE: I was trained on the Geiger Counter and was designated the radiation monitor on our crew. If we ever went on an  “end it all” mission, I would have a Geiger Counter with me and my job was to keep the rest of the crew informed of any high levels of radiation as the mission progressed. 

An example would be flying through or close to someone else’s mushroom cloud. Then if we survived the mission and managed to get safely on the ground somewhere in eastern Russia, and if I still have my Geiger Counter, I would be able to measure the radiation fallout from the clouds coming from the West.

In 1953, the B-29MR era came to an end. I was transferred to a B-36 unit in the  92nd bomb wing at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane Washington. Prior to reporting  there I would be going to Lowry again for some more schooling. This time it will be a B-36 RCT and gunnery schools from June until November 1953.