B-36: Early Strategic Bomber

Strategic bombing stood at the core of the argument for a separate U. S. Air Force. The use of airplanes to deliver bombs to targets far beyond the battlefield represented an independent, offensive mission that would justify the creation of an air arm equal in status to the Army and the Navy. During the 1920s and 1930s, American airpower enthusiasts developed the doctrine of strategic bombing that would shape the U. S. air campaign during World War II. In the post-war period, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) emerged not only as the central component of the U. S. Air Force, which was created in 1947, but also of the Cold War policy of nuclear deterrence.

In 1946, with an eye toward independence, the Army Air Forces reorganized. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, commanding general of the Air Forces, established three major operating commands: the Strategic Air Command, the Tactical Air Command, and the Air Defense Command. The Air Force would take control of these commands upon its formation. As the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union took shape in the late 1940s, it became clear that the SAC would take center stage, as it was the only organization within the U. S. military with the ability and experience to deliver atomic weapons.

At first, however, the SAC was in poor shape and seemed unfit to effectively carry out its mission. Not only had postwar demobilization left it with a bare minimum of personnel and increasingly obsolete equipment, but a plan that called for the extensive cross training of personnel resulted in weakly trained crews and strained morale. Its deficiencies were highlighted during the Berlin Crisis in 1948, when Soviet forces in eastern Berlin blockaded the U. S., French, and British-controlled sectors of the city. In response, Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg ordered Gen. Curtis E. LeMay home from Europe to take command of the SAC.

LeMay took command in October 1948 and immediately oversaw the transfer of the SAC headquarters from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. Once settled, LeMay initiated an intensive training program. Although his reforms did result in some improvements, SAC remained understaffed and poorly equipped for its atomic mission until appropriations increased with the Korean War in the 1950s, and the United States formally adopted a policy of deterrence.

Under the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, SAC emerged not only as the largest component of the Air Force, but also as the centerpiece of the nation’s policy of deterrence, with its threat of massive retaliation. While overall the military shrank after 1953 and military budgets stagnated, SAC proved the exception to the general pattern. It was celebrated in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart as Lt. Col. “Dutch” Holland and June Allyson as his wife Sally. SAC gained the personnel and the equipment needed to serve as a deterrent force. Surplus B-29s from World War II gave way initially to the B-50 and then to the B-47, the first generation all-jet bomber. The first intercontinental bomber, the B-36, remained the key to deterrence until the eight-engine, all-jet B-52 appeared in 1955. To support these bombers on their long-range missions, SAC adopted aerial refueling and acquired its first tanker aircraft, the KC-97. By the end of the decade, the all-jet KC-135 entered the SAC inventory.

Convair B-36

Convair’s B-36 long range bomber is well recognized by many attributes. It was America’s first true intercontinental heavy bombing platform and the Strategic Air Command’s initial deterrence weapon. Although its service life of just 10 operational years (1949 to 1959) was short in comparison to other aircraft conceived during the same time, such as the U-2, SR-71 and B-52, which still flies today; the B-36 was the first symbol of US air power during the early stages of the Cold War.

Unlike the U-2 Dragon Lady, the SR-71 Blackbird and B-52 Stratofortress, its eventual replacement, the massive B-36 was never assigned an official name by the US Air Force. Despite this sobering fact, today much of the world recognized the huge propellant pusher bomber as the ‘Peacemaker’. The history behind the name is as interesting as the aircraft’s own life cycle. It all started back in December 1948, when the Convairiety, the Consolidated Vaultee Aircraft Corporation’s newsletter, announced a dedication and naming contest for the new plane.

“Needed is a name appropriate to their size and purpose. A name which will be in keeping with the fine, historic traditions of Convair’s fighting ships in days gone by, the Liberators, Catalinas, Coronados and Vengeance dive bombers”, read the headlines of the piece. Further instructions were provided, “the name should be one word and should not be a ‘made-up’ combination. Duplication or possible confusion with another Army or Navy aircraft names should be avoided. Preference will be given to names which relates to the size, weight, power, range, purpose and mission of the B-36”.

Accordingly to the statement, entries will be allowed from 5th January until the 28th of February 1949, after which a judging committee composed of Amon Carter, the editor of the Dallas-based Fort Worth Star, Major General Rodger M. Ramey, the head of the Eight Air Force and Lamotte T. Cohu, Convair’s president; would pick a winner. Prize for the selected one was settled at 50 dollars, plus a barrage of publicity appearance.

In late 1949, the Air Force Munitions Board Aircraft Committee, the organization in charge of matters such as name tagging, gave the contest a passive approval, but with a caveat. In a January 1949 memo, the Board stated that “The MBAC reserve the right to chose any other name if desired”. Because of this, Convair modified the rules adding that “if some name submitted by a Convair employee other than the winner of the contest is subsequently selected by the Munitions Board, the employee who submitted the name chosen will also be awarded $50”.

Although the contest was not limited to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the plane was actually developed, the region accounted for more than 95% of the entrees, the rest came from the San Diego assembly plant section. Overall, 813 submissions were received, six hundred and forty (640) ballots from Texas and 173 out of California. Among the most popular proposed names out of Dallas were ‘Longhorn’, ‘Texas’, ‘Texans’, and ‘Gardua’. Others such as ‘Condor’ and ‘Crusader’ topped the San Diego-area submissions. Interesting enough, 60 entries (49 from Dallas, 11 out of San Diego) called for the name ‘Pacemaker’.

The word ‘Peacemaker’ has its roots in the Texas’ Old West. It was use to describe the powerful Colt .45 caliber revolver, often use as a deterrence mechanism. Most of the people who conjured the word did so believing that the B-36 would serve in a similar matter. “I think that this incredible plane will be like a Colt. A weapon people respect and feared. It maintained the peace in an un-settling time. So will the B-36”, said J.G. Bohn, a Fort Worth toolmaker who, along with J.L. McDaniels, L.R. Harris, C.W. Cannon, E.M. Wilson and G.E. McKenzie were chosen to represent all the winners.

Originally the announcement of the winner was slated for 30th March 1949. But due to a logistical mix up the judging committee did not receive the final ballots until the last week of February. The revelation of the selection was made on the April 1949 issue of Convairiety. “Convair proudly announce that….have won the B-36 naming contest. This would be forwarded to the AF Munitions Board Aircraft Committee for approval”, expressed the editorial section of the paper.

Sadly for Cohu, Bohn, McKenzie and all involved with the program, religious objections by various groups dissuaded the Air Force from branding the B-36, the Peacemaker, deferring the decision to a later date. But like most bureaucratic actions that are postponed, the official name-tagging of this amazing bomber was lost in the time. As of today, the AF Arsenal Registry has no official name is listed beside the B-36.

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