In September 2012, after a Duluth News Tribune story on the death of native Duluthian and World War II Veteran Robert J. Willman, a bomber pilot, reader Kyle Chisolm asked us, “Do you think you can track down the fate of this B-29 bomber, “The City of Duluth?” Kyle, we’re happy to say we can finally give you an answer. [Note: this article was first published Janaury 2013]
The “City of Duluth” was first flown by Duluth’s own Robert J. Willman, a 1938 graduate of Denfeld High School. In September of 1942 Willman enlisted in the Army Aviation Cadet program, completing flight training the following April. He spent the next two years training pilots at Gardner Field in California and at Pecos, Texas.
In 1944 Willman had apparently had enough of instructing others, training first to fly the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and then as a commander of the B-29 “Superfortress,” the largest bomber used during World War II. In early 1945, following training, he was promoted to captain and assigned as a pilot with the 330th Bomber Group of the 314th Bomber Wing.
The 314th, as part of the effort to help sell war bonds back in the states, named their bombers for the “City of” the commander or one of his crew. The tradition involved every one of the eleven-member flight crew: each put the name of his home town in a hat, one would be drawn out, and that name would go on the port side of the plane’s fuselage as a logo four feet in diameter, a Navy blue globe with an outline of the United States in orange or yellow and a white flag pole indicating the city’s geographic location, waving a flag emblazoned with the words “City of….”
In a memoir of his war years, Willman tells how his crew conspired to name their plane after its commander: “I called my crew together and asked each one to put the name of his hometown on a piece of paper. We’d put all the names in a hat and have one of our mechanics pull one name out of the hat…. I believe there was a conspiracy. Without a doubt, there were eleven pieces of paper in that hat, all with the name ‘Duluth’ on them.”
So the plane was named the “City of Duluth”—but she was also known as the “She-Wolf.” While the city name went on the plane’s port side, crews were allowed to put other images on the starboard. Most chose “pin-up” images of young women. William’s crew chose “She Wolf,” but Willman gives no reason for the decision.
Willman and his crew flew the “City of Duluth” to an air base in Guam with other B-29s. They flew their first mission on April 12, 1945, bombing an chemical plant that made gasoline additives near Koriyama, about 100 miles north of Tokyo. On that first mission they spent 18 straights hours in the plane. Just five other missions would follow before Willman and his crew were plucked from the war to return to the U.S. and train future B-29 crewmen at Muroc Army Air Field near Lancaster, California, in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
By July Willman and his crew were back in Guam for the remainder of the war. They were assigned to fly the “City of Red Bank,” also known as the “Happy Savage,” and successfully flew her on nine missions before the war ended. In total, Willman and his crew flew 15 combat missions over Japan.
Meanwhile, the “City of Duluth” underwent a name change. Its new crew picked a new name, the “City of Lynchburg,” and had the right side of its fuselage decorated with the phrase “Don’t Worry ’Bouta Thing.” Her captain was Charles Woolwine, and he and his crew flew her on eighteen missions over Japan. At the war’s end, the “City of Duluth/Lynchburg” had flown 24 combat missions over Japan.
After the war, the plane found its way to Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, along with other planes the U. S. military no longer needed. According to Duluth military researcher Alvin D. Grady (who is compiling book of Duluthians who served in the Army Air Force during World War II), she was scrapped on December 4, 1953. Only one B-29 is airworthy today. Another is undergoing restoration and several un-restored planes are part of museum exhibits.
Robert Willman left the military on January 4, 1946. He returned to Duluth for a time, during which mayor George W. Johnson presented him with the “key to the city,” for flying the city’s namesake. The mayor also wrote the War Department, requesting to have the “City of Duluth” flown to the Zenith City by Willman and his crew. Johnson was obviously unaware that the plane’s name had changed, not that it would have mattered: the War Department denied the request.
Except for a period during the Korean War, when he was recalled to active duty, Willman spent the thirty years of his civilian career as a pilot with Delta Airlines before retiring in 1976. He died August 15, 2012 in Wilsonville, Oregon, at age 92.
You can read Willlman’s own account of his World War II experience—including tales of the first six missions flown by the “City of Duluth”—by visiting Veterans Memorial Hall online at the Vet’s Hall website. The current exhibit at the Vet’s Hall in the St. Louis County Heritage Center (Depot) also features Willman’s story.
Do you have a history question for Maryanne Norton? Email her at info @ zenithcity.com.