City of Austin was the name of a Boeing B-29-55-BW Superfortress heavy bomber that flew as part of the U. S. Army Air Forces, with the Twentieth Air Force, XXI Bomber Command, 314th Bombardment Wing, 19th Bomb Group (Very Heavy), 28th Bombardment Squadron, in the Pacific Theater during the latter part of World War II.
In December 1944 the Boeing Aircraft Company delivered a new B-29-55-BW Superfortress, military serial number 44-69681, to Great Bend Army Airfield in Kansas. At the time, the B-29 was a state-of-the-art bomber designed with a pressurized cabin, a central fire control system and computer, machine guns fired by remote control, and flight control surfaces and landing gear that were powered by an electrical system rather than hydraulics (which was used only for the brake system).
The Superfortress was assigned to Combat Air Crew No. 26, who had trained together at Great Bend and were waiting an aircraft assignment. The crew of eleven consisted of aircraft commander First Lt. Hans P. N. “Harry” Gammel III, pilot First Lt. Richard “Dick” Donaldson, navigator First Lt. John Francis James, bombardier First Lt. William C. Leiby, radar operator Flight Officer Roland “Andy” Anderson, flight engineer Master Sgt. Roy Harvik, radio operator Staff Sgt. Walter Buhr, central fire control Technical Sgt. Paul “Gabby” Edmonds, left gunner Staff Sgt. Raymond “Jack” Manees, right gunner Staff Sgt. Carl Sopkovec, and tail gunner Staff Sgt. Remo J. Lodi. A twelfth crewmember was left gunner and central fire control Staff Sgt. Leland Diamond who replaced Manees on the twenty-first mission.
On December 26, 1944, the aircraft departed Great Bend and was bound for Kearney Army Air Field in Nebraska where they were issued combat equipment and clothing, put their legal affairs in order, and received vaccinations. Continuing west, they spent a night at Mather Army Air Field near Sacramento, California, before departing to Hickam Army Air Field in Hawaii. While en route, Lieutenant Gammel opened their sealed orders; their final destination was the largest of the Mariana Islands—Guam—which the Americans liberated from the Japanese five months earlier. After a night on Kwajalein Atoll, they departed for Guam and on January 16, 1945, landed at North Field, their home for the next six months.
On February 25, 1945, City of Austin flew its first mission—a daylight raid dropping incendiary bombs on Tokyo. For Crew No. 26, this was the first of thirty-five bombing missions over Japanese cities that included Osaka, Nagoya, Kyushu, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Takashima, Kagamigahara, Nobeoka, Shimonoseki, Tokushima, Ōmuta, and Mito. One mission, not counted as part of the thirty-five combat missions, was a training exercise targeting the Japanese island of Truk. Payloads included incendiary, general purpose, and anti-personnel bombs, and targets included oil refineries, aircraft manufacturing plants, storage facilities, and areas with cottage military industries.
On May 28, 1945, City of Austin took off for Yokohoma on its twentieth mission. As the plane cleared the runway, it struck the top of several trees, which damaged the aircraft’s wings, ailerons, and flaps. Barely maintaining flying speed, the aircraft lost altitude and struck the ground prior to clearing a cliff with a 500-foot drop to the ocean. The aircraft vibrated violently as it began a right turn towards the face of the cliff. Working feverishly, both pilots managed to release their bombs and gain control of the aircraft. The 500-foot drop allowed them “a chance to trade a little altitude for airspeed.” They cleared the cliff and made their way to Harmon Air Field in Guam where they landed. Damage to City of Austin was extensive enough to put it out of action for the remainder of the war. Crew No. 26 was assigned to another aircraft, and they continued to fly. On August 1, 1945, they flew their final mission, a night mission, against the city of Mito, seventy-five miles northeast of Tokyo.
Eventually, City of Austin was repaired and transferred to the 52nd Bombardment Squadron, 39th Bombardment Group. It was later modified to a KB-29M at the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kansas, and on August 8, 1954, reclaimed at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
In a 2016 interview by the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, Richard Donaldson, the last surviving crew member of Crew No. 26, explained how City of Austin received its name. While most aircrews chose their own nose art, the 314th Bombardment Wing utilized an art template that depicted a globe showing the continental United States. Each aircrew chose the name of a city, and that name was painted onto the existing art template on the nose of the plane as a pennant that was anchored with a pole to that city’s location. Flight Commander Gammel, a native of Austin, Texas, chose the name City of Austin. In a demonstration of gratitude, numerous cities sent a variety of gifts to each aircrew. In one example, City of Milwaukee, with the 93rd Squadron, received a case of beer from its namesake. To the dismay of the crew of City of Austin, they received a letter that said, “Thank you and keep up the good work.”
Many years later, John Coulter, a retired schoolteacher from Tracy, Minnesota, had heard this story from Richard Donaldson who had addressed his classes on several occasions. Coulter felt that Crew No. 26 deserved recognition for their service. On April 15, 2016, the American Legion Knebel Post 83, in Austin, Texas, and the city of Austin held a ceremony honoring Crew No. 26. Richard Donaldson, the surviving member of the crew, was in attendance. Post Commander Robert Reed opened the ceremony, and Past Commander David J. Knutson served as emcee. The ceremony included an address by the Legion’s Department of Texas Commander as well as a commemorative tribute to all the deceased members of the crew. In a fitting gesture, perhaps seventy-plus years overdue, Knutson and Austin Mayor Steve Adler presented Donaldson with a six-pack of Peacemaker beer, courtesy of local brewery Austin Beerworks.