The B-36 Peacemaker and the USS United States, CVA-58

Part One

The USS United States, CVA-58, was meant to be our navy’s first super aircraft carrier. Conceived, in controversy, and aborted soon after construction began, the ship was a victim of an amazing post World War II inter-service power play between the US Navy and the newly formed independent United States Air Force, (USAF). When the USS United States was cancelled, the Navy lost the opening round in the struggle between those two services to determine who would be responsible for implementing our nation’s strategic nuclear strike force

In retrospect, the cancellation of CVA-58 was a wise decision, although none of the players knew it at the time. Moreover, subsequent world events would ultimately give the Navy the role that they wanted.

The two atom bombs that ended World War II were carried by B-29 Superfortress bombers belonging to the Army Air Force (AAF) that were modified to deliver these massive nuclear devices nicknamed, “Little Boy and Fat Man.” The B-29 was the largest bomber in the air force’s inventory and the only airplane able of flying round trip from Tinian in the Marianas to the targeted cities in Japan.

But the B-29 was about to be dwarfed by a new bomber designed to replace it. In November of 1941, just before America’s entry into the Second World War, AAF planners asked for proposals for an airplane that could bomb Nazi Germany flying non-stop to and from America. It was designed to fly this distance if Britain was taken out of the war. Since aerial refueling didn’t yet exist, this massive bomber had to be self-contained.

The AAF awarded Consolidated Aircraft, (soon to become Convair,) a contract to build two prototypes of this new giant. The project was put on the back burner less than a month later after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Once Nazi Germany declared war on America, England’s survival ceased to be an issue. The Yanks were coming as friendly occupiers, or as the Brits noted: “Overpaid, oversexed and over here!”

Work on the B-36 remained dormant until the spring of 1943 when the AAF developed a new mission for their mythical super bomber, fly missions against Japan from Hawaii. One hundred bombers were ordered for delivery starting in the summer of 1945.

Instead, as we know, the Navy and Marines defeated both the Japanese Navy and Army and occupied the principal islands in the Marianas chain, Saipan, Guam and Tinian. Newly built air bases allowed B-29s to bomb Japanese cities at will. 

Nicknamed the Peacemaker, the first B-36 was rolled out Convair’s Fort Worth, TX factory in September of 1945. At first blush, it again seemed to be a beast without a mission. But, after the war ended, many of our military, political, diplomatic and think tank leaders hung their hats on the belief that nuclear weapons would prevail and determine the outcome of future wars.

At the same time, our leaders rightly sought to reduce the size of the vast armed forces that we had assembled to achieve victory in our European and Pacific campaigns. Army and Marine divisions were de-mobilized, surplus bombers and fighters were scrapped and two out of three naval ships were mothballed or scrapped. Our new goal was to establish peace and prosperity for returning veterans including the creation of  educational and employment opportunities and housing for their newly married spouses and their baby boomer offspring. President Harry Truman took this effort one step further by de-segregating our armed forces once and for all.

The law also created a new and separate service, the United States Air Force. Besides going from brown shoes and army green uniforms to black shoes and blue uniforms, the USAF divided itself into two parts, a tactical force to fight regional conflicts while supporting the army and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to deliver nukes in the next world war.

General Curtis LeMay became SAC’s Commander allowing this demanding general to create this force to his own image and liking. Le May needed new bombers to fulfill his mission and the Boeing company received two orders, one to build a medium range bomber, the B-47 Stratojet, and an intercontinental bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress. However, the B-47 would not be ready to go into service until June of 1951 and the B-52 wouldn’t be ready until February of 1955.

To fill these gaps, LeMay chose the B-50, an advanced version of the B-29, to be the interim medium range bomber and the B-36 as the intercontinental bomber. By 1947 the Iron Curtain had descended across Europe and it became obvious that World War Three would likely be between the USA and the USSR. The Peacemaker was somewhat obsolete by then being powered by six propeller engines and four jet engines, but it had a range of 10,000 miles, enough to fly round trip non-stop between the state of Maine and Leningrad. When the last B-36 was retired in 1959, its epitaph read: “The B-36 flew from the death of one air age into the birth of a new age without dropping a single bomb in anger.”

Le May wanted to extend the range of SAC’s bombers and the solution was aerial refueling. He asked Boeing to improve on the British system and Boeing developed the flying boom system that has continued to evolve to this day. After its introduction, the actual range of an airplane became irrelevant so long as tankers were available to re-fuel it.

LeMay also fought off attempts by other commanders within and outside the USAF to involve SAC in Korean Wat missions always maintaining that it existed purely for strategic missions.

SAC would remain in operation until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992.

To be continued.       .