The B-32 Dominator was probably the least famous of America’s WWII warplanes, and was completely irrelevant to the outcome of the war. It is more interesting as a study on the methods and economics of how the USA dismantled it’s mighty war machine in the immediate years after WWII.
(Acres of surplus WWII bombers at Davis-Monthan AFB in 1946.)
Background of the B-32 Dominator
Development of the B-32 started before WWII, in June 1939. US Army Gen. W.G. Kilner delivered a study that recommended development of a new bomber to succeed the B-17 Flying Fortress, initially designated “VLR” (Very Long Range). It was to have a speed of 350 kts and range to deliver one ton of bombs to a target 2,600 miles away. After Germany occupied France in 1940, and looked poised to possibly invade Great Britain, the project had added urgency. General Kilner also suggested that, despite the added cost, two separate designs from two separate companies should be developed; in case one turned out to be a failure.
The US Army Air Corps (the Air Force did not yet exist) issued a request for four quotes. Boeing entered their XB-29 design, Lockheed their XB-30, and Consolidated their XB-32. The fourth company, Douglas, quickly withdrew their XB-31 proposal and dropped out.
The clear favorite was Boeing’s design, which was ordered as the B-29 Superfortress in May 1941. However it was decided to still pursue a “fall-back” option and Consolidated’s B-32 was selected. A pre-production order was placed in June 1941.
Consolidated felt it had a head start and might even later pry the “main” order away from Boeing, which was having teething problems with the Superfortress. This was not to be. The Dominator quickly fell behind schedule. The prototype B-32 was not completed until 1 September 1942, half a year late, by which time Boeing had already started on it’s first 500 production B-29s. In February 1943, the frustrated Army cancelled the B-32 project, only to reinstate it in March.
The B-32 Dominator was 82’1″ long with a wingspan of 135′. It was powered by four Wright R-3350-23A Duplex Cyclone air-cooled piston engines (the same model as the Superfortress) and had a top speed of 310 kts with a range of 3,304 NM. It had a ten-man crew and carried 10 tons of bombs. As designed, it’s pressurized cabin allowed a ceiling of 31,000′. The most recognizable feature was the very tall tail fin, which was chosen during the test phase after the original twin-rudder layout proved to be a failure.
As designed, the original defensive armament was extremely odd. There were eight fuselage .50cal machine guns; a pair each in Sperry A-17A “gunspheres” in the nose and tail, two ventral and two belly unmanned retractable streamlined turrets, a 20mm gun and two more .50cal machine guns in strange rearward-firing remote-control mounts in each of the outboard engine nacelles, and finally one fixed .50cal machine gun in the front of each wing, fighter-style. All of these guns were aimed by crewmen in the cabin through retractable periscopes, and coordinated by a primitive computer.
The Dominator was fitted with the then-top secret Norden bombsight, and also had AN/APQ-5 and AN/APQ-13 bombing radars for night or overcast missions.
The pressurization and crew oxygen systems were incredibly complicated and never worked correctly. Even the landing gear was complicated and held up the design for a bit. All in all, the original B-32 design was quite possibly the most complex warplane on Earth at the time.
Final development and service during WWII
On 10 May 1943, one of the prototyopes crashed, killing the lead test pilot and further setting the project back. In December 1943, the US Army sent a team to Consolidated to save the B-32 project from a second and final cancellation. The defensive gun fit was changed to the two A-17A mounts, and three normal manned turrets. The Sperry computer had proven impossible to train crews on in a reasonable time and was abandoned, and the bizarre nacelle and wing guns were deleted. The troublesome pressurization system was deleted, making the B-32 a low/medium altitude bomber only.
Even with the changes, the US Army was on the fence about the B-32. None the less, an order for 1,500 Dominators was placed, with a thousand to be built in Ft. Worth, TX and five hundred in San Diego, CA. The engines were built under license by General Motors in Chicago, IL.
The first production B-32 wasn’t delivered until 19 September 1944, by which time the B-29 was not only in service but already flying combat missions. Clearly, there was no longer any need for a “fall-back” bomber design, but since so much money had already been sunk into the Dominator, production continued and the total final order was actually increased to 1,966 planes.
It was also decided to build a conversion trainer version, the TB-32. Forty were ordered, of which twenty-nine were built new and the last eleven converted from combat bombers by stripping off the guns and installing an AN/ARN-7 radiocompass.
The only unit to operate the Dominator in WWII was the 386th Bomber Squadron, which had previously flown A-20 Havoc attack planes. The B-32 made it’s combat debut on 29 May 1945, attacking targets in the occupied Philippines. Later raids were mounted against more distant targets in Taiwan. By the end of July, the 386th had fully converted to the B-32 and plans were made to convert three more squadrons over the winter of 1945/1946.
The final missions of the B-32 were the most notable, even though they did not involve any bombing. During the twenty-day interim between the second atomic bomb drop on 9 August and the arrival of the occupation fleet off Japan on 29 August, B-32s (now in Okinawa) flew reconnaissance missions over the Japanese home islands. The actual reconnaissance value was small, but the flights tested Japan’s willingness to refrain from further combat before the surrender ceremony on 2 September 1945. For the most part, they did, however there was one serious exception.
On 18 August 1945, two B-32s were making a reconnaissance flight over Tokyo when they were attacked by NIK2 “George” fighters. Both planes were hit and one suffered multiple injuries. One crewman, Sgt. Anthony Marchione, died and sadly became the last American KIA of the Second World War. During the occupation, the Japanese pilots told American investigators that they felt their airbase was under imminent threat from the bombers. During the 1970s, one of the pilots, the ace Warrant Officer Sadamu Komachi, said that in fact his pilots were enraged that American planes were parading over the Emperor’s palace before the official surrender and acted on the spur of the moment. Ironically, Komachi himself had flown in the 7 December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, so he took part in the first and last air engagements of the Pacific war.
The last B-32 mission was on 28 August 1945. Two of the four planes crashed from non-combat reasons and further flights were suspended.
As a final indignity to the B-32, in late August 1945 the State Department requested the Army stop publicly referring to the design as the “Dominator” as they felt it inappropriate for the transition to peacetime.
After WWII: “Terminal Inventory”
Immediately after the surrender, the plan to convert more squadrons to B-32s was cancelled. The 386th Bomber Squadron itself was recalled to the USA, returning shortly after Thanksgiving Day 1945. At the same time, the US Army stopped all further training on the B-32. On 6 January 1946, the 386th began conversion to a reserve B-29 unit and turned over it’s Dominators for disposal.
A futile, half-hearted effort to lobby in favor of the B-32 was made, pointing out that the brand-new planes (still under production, in fact) were a quality design and had state-of-the-art AN/APT-2 jammers and AN/APQ-13 radars. One plane had been converted while being built into a “long-range commando insertion aircraft” demonstrator with the bomb racks replaced by benches for paratroopers. That idea went nowhere.
In October 1945, The US Army completely cancelled the entire B-32 Dominator program. As the USA had already shifted back to peacetime accounting, this began the predictable disputes over what was, and wasn’t, a “filled order”.
At the time of the contract’s cancellation, 118 Dominators (including the 40 TB-32s) had already been delivered to the US Army (not all of these had been issued to a frontline squadron). This total included six brand-new, fully war-ready B-32s which had been accepted by the Army in the previous several days, but, were still at the Ft. Worth factory.
The rest of the contract was classified as: Shop-Assembled GFE (Government-Furnished Equipment) which were planes complete with third-party contract gear like the Norden bombsight installed; WIP GFE (Works-in-Progress) which were planes incomplete, but, with some government-furnished equipment installed; and WIP which were planes at any stage (including not even started) without any government-furnished equipment.
Of the remainder of the Convair contract (Consolidated merged with Vultee during the war), 12 planes were judged by the Army to be Shop-Assembled GFE. The government paid for these aircraft and took physical delivery of them. Another 37 Dominators were judged to be WIP GFE, these were stripped of their government furnished-equipment (with compensation for this labor only), but no payment was made on the actual aircraft portion of them. These 37 stripped airframes were disassembled by the workers who had just built them and sold at a loss to local scrappers. The WIP planes (the rest of the whole order) was not compensated at all, and was Convair’s loss to bear. Most of these planes had not yet been started.
Termed “Termination For Convenience Of The Government”, postwar contract cancellations such the B-32 were common in 1945. They had a variety of effects on wartime defense industries. To some companies (like Ford), it was barely a blip on the radar and in a few cases, even welcome, as they could make better margins on civilian goods. For other companies (in this particular case, Convair) it was a temporary hardship which was made up in the 1950s by the need to replace WWII gear made obsolete by inventions such as the jet engine and ballistic missile. For other defense companies still (Brewster, for example) it was a death blow. Generally, smaller companies were hit harder. To try and soften the blow, a law (“Regulation V”) allowed for the due dates of loans to companies with cancelled wartime contracts to be deferred until ten days after the government had made full payment on all previous orders. This did help a little, but not much. Much has always been said about how the gear-up of America’s industry for WWII was the greatest industrial achievement ever, but little is usually mentioned about the painful period of 1946-1949 for companies heavily into weapons production.
All of the B-32s which were already in service, plus the dozen Shop-Assembled GFE examples, were declared “Terminal Inventory” meaning the military did not desire them for either active use or reserve storage.
After WWII, the federal government established thirty collection airfields for surplus WWII warplanes (both reserve storage and terminal inventory). Beginning in October 1945, the B-32s began to be flown to these collection airfields. Specifically, Kingman Army Airfield, AZ; Walnut Ridge Army Airfield, AR; and Davis-Monthan Airbase, AZ; were chosen for the B-32s.
(B-32s parked at Kingman Army Airfield in the Arizona desert during December 1945, about 3 ½ months after the end of WWII.) (A massive sprawl of B-17, B-24, and B-32 bombers at the Walnut Ridge facility in Arkansas in November 1945. This was only nine or ten weeks after the end of WWII and the collection later grew still larger.)
Once at the collection airfields, legal custody of the Dominators passed from the Army to the War Assets Administration (WAA), a government department of the New Deal-era Reconstruction Finance Corporation in charge of selling surplus WWII goods. Some effort was made to find a new home for the B-32s; unfortunately the diagram of countries the USA was willing to sell strategic bombers to, and, countries able to afford strategic bombers, was a very tiny crossing.
The only real interest in the complicated B-32 was from France, which considered buying the planes in a one-time cash deal. The French aerospace industry put severe pressure on their government not to buy the planes, and nothing ever became of it.
With no sales forthcoming the WAA sold the B-32s for scrap. Most of these planes were still fresh and in any other circumstance, such waste would have been unconscionable. In particular, the twelve Shop-Assembled GFE Dominators were literally brand new, as in their one and only flight had been from the factory to the collection airfield.
Most of the B-32s at the Kingman, AZ facility were bought by the Wunderlich scrap company.
As for the B-32s at Walnut Ridge, AR, they were bought by the Texas Railway Equipment company which actually bought the airfield’s entire collection of discarded WWII warplanes, (4,800+ total of all types) in one of the largest postwar scrap contracts.
(B-32 Dominators at Walnut Ridge in late 1946. The four-digit serials were added after the planes were parked, so that a fire or other problem could be identified by binoculars amongst the acres of parked bombers.)
The first step of the scrapping process was to ensure all government-furnished equipment had been removed. Because so many warplanes were being discarded in the last months of 1945 and beginning of 1946, it was not uncommon for errors to occur, and for the scrappers to discover radios, life preservers, radar scopes, and sometimes even .50cal machine guns still in the planes. On a few very rare occasions, Norden bombsights had been left onboard. Those were sledgehammered on the spot to ensure they didn’t get lost further downstream.
Next the plane’s fluids were drained. Reportedly, a Texas Railway Equipment executive later bragged that the company had covered it’s payroll overhead from the Walnut Ridge job simply by barreling and reselling the aviation fuel left onboard the planes. Some of the B-32 Dominators had seen such little use that their motor oil could be salvaged and reused.
Next the engines were removed. These were considered more valuable intact as they could be cannibalized for spare parts, and in any case the steel would have contaminated the aluminum.
To physically recycle the airframe, it was too time-consuming to manually take them apart, so large guillotines as seen below chopped the bombers up.
(A bomber guillotine in action at Kingman in April 1947. The plane pictured is not a B-32 Dominator but rather a B-24 Liberator, “Missouri Miss”, which had ended WWII as part of the 530th Bomber Squadron on Okinawa, flying alongside the 386th’s Dominators.)
Because aluminum is light, but chunks of cut-up bombers were bulky, it was not economical on a dollar-per-ton basis to ship the chopped-up pieces by rail. Instead, several small temporary smelting furnaces were quickly built right in the middle of the collection airfields.
The smelting furnaces melted the chopped-up aircraft into ingots of mixed-alloy aluminum. These could be shipped inexpensively and marketed in a uniform way. The ingots were sold to metal companies who generally refired them to remove any impurities and yield pure aluminum.
For the stored B-32 Dominators, the scrapping process was generally completed by the end of 1948. The now-independent US Air Force had earmarked one B-32 for permanent preservation, however due to a paperwork error it was scrapped in August 1949. None survive today.
There were two B-32s which did linger on after that, however. One of the TB-32s somehow missed the 1945/1946 collection program and ended up at Keesler AFB, MS. As there were no longer any spare parts or trained B-32 pilots it was permanently grounded, but it was used as a “tinker-trainer” for aircraft mechanics during the first part of the Korean War.
Finally, the last B-32 Dominator in anything close to complete shape was actually one of the early YB-32 pre-production planes, which somehow ended up at McClellan AFB, CA. It was used as a firefighting trainer until 1956, appropriately alongside a discarded B-29 Superfortress.
From a military perspective, there was nothing wrong with the B-32 Dominator. It was a good, quality strategic bomber. From a dollars & cents standpoint, about $124 million (about $1.97 billion in 2015 dollars) was spent on the B-32. Other than a few irrelevant missions at the tail end of the war, the military had nothing really to show for it.