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I am wondering if B17s ever flew bombing raids against the Japanese mainland, and if so, did they do it before the capture of Okinawa, which was much closer than the previously captured islands like Iwo Jima.

Some links indicating that only B29s were used.

defense.gov

Wikipedia:AirRaidsOnJapan

Iwo Jima - Tokyo (one way): 760 miles/1220 km

Coastal China/Korea to Japan distance is on the order of 800km, but Japan held most, if not all, of the Chinese/Korean coast during the war.

B17-G range - Range: 2,000 mi (3,219 km, 1,738 nmi) with 6,000 lb (2,700 kg) bombload

B29 range - Range: 3,250 mi (5,230 km, 2,820 nmi)

Motivation for this question is a question Why was the USA planning on attacking Japan before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour? concerning a claim by Chomsky asked on SE Politics that Japan had good reasons to start the war because it was feeling threatened by B-17 bombers.

Furthermore the title of the question implies not only the Japanese perception, but actual US intentions. Which I don't think is based on any kind of objective reality as the B-17 just lacked the range to bomb Japan from any area under US control (or outside the reach of Japan) in 1941.

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    B-25s were used for the Doolittle raid, but they were launched from an aircraft carrier fairly close to Japan, and on a one-way mission with intended landing in China.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 28 at 1:04
  • If feeling threatened were a good reason to start a war, we would have already passed a couple of word wars just in this century. The theoretical capability of a neighboring country attacking you is not a good reason, especially if that country is a semi-ally.
    – Greg
    May 24 at 2:41
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    @Greg: As a purely historical question, why would Japan have felt threated by bombers based on US territory, even if they had had the range to reach Japan? The logistics of bombing, especially at that range, make it not much more than a major annoyance. Seems more likely that any perceived threat would have been to their plans to attack the Phillipines, along with the rest of SE Asia.
    – jamesqf
    May 24 at 3:45
  • @jamesqf The fact that Japan has attacked everyone and everything indiscriminately suggests that we not necessarily have to find very specific reasons behind their political decisions when it was about war.
    – Greg
    May 24 at 6:34
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No, B-17s do not ever seem to have attacked the Japanese Home Islands. The Chomsky claims are a weird mixture of truth and fantasy.

There certainly were B-17s based in the Philippines in 1941, mostly destroyed by Japanese attacks when the war started. They could not have bombed Japan from there, as they didn't have anything like the necessary range. The B-17's combat radius was less than 1,000 miles and the round trip from the Philippines to Japan is 3,000 miles or more.

If the use of bases in Siberia had been possible, B-17s could have attacked Japan, but this would have involved the USSR going to war with Japan, and Stalin refused to do that until after the defeat of Germany.

While B-17s served as bombers in the Pacific until mid-1943, they were never based anywhere that would have enabled them to reach Japan. After that, they had been replaced by B-24s and B-29s. B-17s were used as lifeboat-dropping aircraft for air-sea rescue for the rest of the war, and for years afterwards, but that isn't bombing service.

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    The B-17 did not have anything like the range to make the 3000 mile round trip from the Philippines (the closest US airbase) to Japan with a bomb load. Its combat radius was less than 1000 miles.
    – Schwern
    Mar 27 at 20:12
  • @Schwern: Thanks, added. Mar 27 at 20:20
  • And before someone else brings it up, B-17s could reach southern Japan and maybe just barely Tokyo from the Chinese coast, but most of the Chinese coast was occupied by Japan. B-17s in free China would be out of range.
    – Schwern
    Mar 27 at 20:51
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    @rs.29 That would require a suicide mission though. The Doolittle Raid was one-way, but there was always a plan for the airmen to get to safety in China or the USSR. If your range gets you exactly to the target and no further, you aren't getting away.
    – Graham
    Mar 28 at 8:42
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    @rs.29 Operating at the extreme limits of your combat radius, with a return trip over the ocean, turned out not to be the greatest of ideas during the Battle of Britain when German planes - damaged and having expended fuel in dogfights or evasive maneuvers - would often run out of fuel on the return trip. I don't think any rational US commander would have contemplated more than a few propaganda raids a la Doolittle under your starting conditions, if even that. Mar 28 at 18:06
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Early versions of B-17 could likely reach SW Japan from Philippines

Since other answers pretty much explained that B-17 was not used against mainland Japan in actual war, I would like to address situation concerning B-17 on Philippines in 1941, slightly before Pacific war broke out. First of all, we must understand that version of B-17 deployed there were C and D with projected deployment of E version . B-17E was first truly mass produced variant.

Did these early variants had the range to hit Japan ? Well, maximum ferry range without refueling for E is cited as 3200 miles. Therefore, it could be expected that operational range with reduced payload could be around or somewhat less than 1500 miles. It is interesting to note that sites like airwar.ru give higher operational range to D variant compared to E variant. This could be explained by improvements in armor and defensive armament on E version. Finally, we have this official document which gives B-17E max range at 3060 miles (one way) with takeoff weight of 55 000 pounds and 2500 gallons of fuel. On the other hand, distance between Manila and Nagasaki (city in SW Japan) is somewhat bellow 1380 miles. Clark Airfield (where B-17 were stationed) is roughly at the same distance. Of course, B-17 were well in the range of Taiwan (Formosa) and Japanese bases there.

What was Japanese position about all of this ? In 1941 IJN had early variants of A6M Zero which was not much of a bomber destroyer. But IJN would probably not be tasked with air defense of mainland. Their counterpart IJA had early versions of Ki-43 which was even worse in this regard. True, there was Ki-44 but they were not yet operational, similar to Ki-45. Also, Japanese did not know exact range of B-17. They could watch occasional propaganda that appeared in US press and movies like Test Pilot. Their own experiences could have blinded them, because even their twin-engined bombers like G3M had enormous range. In retrospective, US deployment of B-17 to Philippines may have actually pushed Japan towards war instead of serving as deterrence. In a typical Japanese manner, Japanese ruling circles may have deduced it is better to strike and capture Philippines instead of waiting for US long-range aviation to grow even stronger.

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    +1 good point in pointing out that the perception of capabilities (by the Japanese) might differ from the reality of those capabilities. that's pretty much the charitable viewpoint of Gulf War 2, that the US genuinely thought Iraqi WMDs existed. and in fact the US wasnt even really good at B17 capability evaluation as the rather disastrous first raids on Germany, unescorted, would show. though the B17s might have fared better against the more fragile Japanese fighters. that said, the question asked on SE.Po claimed to know not only Japanese perception but also US intention. Mar 28 at 17:47
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    I don't know of any evidence that the Japanese in 1941 were concerned with the possibility of American air raids against Japanese cities (e.g. Eri Hotta's book "Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy" goes into Japanese motivations in 1941 in great detail and never mentions any discussion about air defense concerns). On the other hand, Japan was concerned about the potential of American air power in the Philippines interfering with their attack to the south, so it is probably accurate to say that US deployment of B17s made war more likely. Mar 28 at 18:37
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    You can't convert that easily from extended ferry range to combat radius. Extended ferry range usually involves things like adding extra fuel tanks and removing as much unnecessary weight as possible (including non-flight crew, such as gunners and bombardiers) specifically for a ferry mission. A B-17E with 2,500 gal of fuel would be near that 55,000 lb gross weight with no armaments at all. It's very unlikely that serious combat operations would have been possible, let alone attempted, at almost 1,400 miles to target with nearly the entire distance over water.
    – reirab
    Mar 28 at 20:29
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    That document itself mentions that 50,000 pound gross weight with 2,500 gal of fuel isn't even possible, so you know it's over 50,000 lb just from the fuel weight. Also, the performance numbers in the cited document were probably calculated somewhere that is not as hot and humid as Clark. They would almost certainly be worse from Clark.
    – reirab
    Mar 28 at 20:32
  • @reirab Range with 60,000 lb and 2,500 gal is 2910 miles. So I would guess that raid with reduced bomb load is entirely possible, especially if C and D variants (actually on Philippines) had longer range as that Russian site mentions.
    – rs.29
    Mar 28 at 22:16
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True, true. There were but two bomber groups in the South Pacific Theater that operated B-17s, the 19th and the 43rd. The 19th had been in action since the beginning and with arrival of the B-24 equipped 90th Bomber Group, was rotated back to it States. The B-24 proved superior to the B-17 due to its designed long distance over water capability. The in-theater 43rd Bomber Group transitioned to the B-24 by mid-1943, and USAAF B-17s in the Hawaiian Sea Frontier command were replaced By B-24s shortly after Midway as well, and that was the end of B-17 deployments in the Pacific. No, B-17s did not operate over the Japanese home islands at any point in the war. For the bare-bones presentation on the B-24 supplanting the B-17 in the Pacific and CBI theaters see https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2017/06/30/boeing-b-17-flying-fortress-vs-the-consolidated-b-24-liberator/ In addition to the long-range reconnaissance missions for the USAAF, the USMC and the USN operated the PB4Y, the naval version of the B-24, in long range patrol and photo-reconnaissance missions.

Late edit, now that I think a bit more, Add that the only B-17s flying over Japan during the war were being flown by the Japanese. They had three of them, one pieced together from pieces-parts from wrecks in the Philippines and two captured intact in Java.

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B-17's wouldn't/couldn't be used to bomb mainland Japan until just before Operation Olympic. They, along with B-24's and Lancaster's could use fields in Okinawa an a couple of Islands scheduled for invasion at the end of August, beginning of September, just south of Kyushu. It would have taken that long to build up the fields and move the Air Groups from Europe to Okinawa. At the same time, most B-17 units were transitioning to the B-29 anyway, so mostly B-24's would make it, but not B-17's.

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