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The Burning of Japan
A squat, bespectacled and moustachioed Sir Arthur Harris of the RAF Bomber Command sat behind his desk and said, “They say you can’t win a war by bombing alone. I say, no one’s ever tried it.” Until then, both sides in his argument were correct. No one had won a war by bombing alone, and Bomber Harris would not get his chance. Under orders from Churchill, he began a bombing campaign against Germany with night area bombing in mid-1942 but was diverted from this task just as he started achieving results by March/April of 1944, moving away from strategic area bombing to supporting tactical bombing of France in preparation for the D-Day landings of June, 1944. After France had been liberated in August of that year, Harris redirected his heavy bombers to the wholesale destruction of German cities. In the meantime, the US Eighth Air Force, maintaining that daylight bombing would accomplish the destruction of the German ability to conduct war, continued its ‘precision’ bombing campaign during daylight hours. This policy would change in another theatre of war.
The Firebombing of Hamburg
On July 27, 1943, just before midnight, several British bombers, flying in pitch black over Hamburg, Germany, dropped tin foil strips into the air which had the effect of creating millions of radar ‘bogeys’. These false hits sent the German radar system into a state of electronic stupidity. Their anti-aircraft guns, normally controlled by radar, were wobbling this way and that and had to be switched to manual control. The Pathfinders had started fires that could easily be seen by the follow-on planes. For one hour more, a steady stream of 800 heavy bombers unleashed their incendiaries and high explosives. What happened next was unplanned. A firestorm began to feed itself with the sucking in of air into the center of the flames. Asphalt streets melted, boiled and turned to flames. Men skied on their shoes with nothing to hold on to, sucked into the flames. Three foot wide trees were uprooted and drawn into the white heat. Women running away from the fire had their babies sucked from their arms by two hundred mile per hour winds.
People taking refuge in concrete buildings were cooked. Others, jumping into water to escape the heat, were boiled. Many huddled in basements had no air or only gases to breathe. Forty-three thousand civilians were cremated in some of the most gruesome scenes of hell on Earth, thirty-seven thousand injured. After the raid, fearing further devastation, more than 1.2 million people evacuated their homes. The city, an important seaport and industrial centre, was almost completely destroyed. The details were purposely suppressed by the Propaganda Ministry. Albert Speer, Armaments Minister, stated after the war that if England had conducted raids such as this against six more cities, Germany would have thrown in the towel. England did not have the capacity at that moment to create six more firestorms. As it turned out, there was another way to create unheard of destruction from the air that wasn’t nuclear in nature. It was to take place halfway around the world about two years later.
The VLR and the B29 Program
Even before the war started the Americans developed the strategic bombing plan known as VLR (very long range) and sent out specs to aircraft builders for a long range bomber with the capacity to fly above 30,000 feet, to carry ten tons of bombs, to fly 400 miles per hour, and be able to hit targets over 3,000 miles away. This was 1938, before war was even contemplated with another country. There was little money appropriated for the development and the plan was shelved for the time being by the government but Boeing kept the project going with its own funding and was able to submit a prototype to the US Army Air Force in early 1940. In May of 1941, the government placed an order for 250 bombers and later increased that to 500.
This underlines the difference between the US strategic thinking and that of Japan. The Japanese, already at war in China since the early 1930’s, had given no thought to damaging US industrial capacity. With an economy many magnitudes greater than Japan, isolated and protected by enormous distances across the Pacific Ocean, and completely self-sufficient without requiring imports to survive, the United States would prove an overwhelming task for a country like Japan to subdue. US industrial centers were spread over vast distances, untouchable by almost anything Japan could muster. They did attempt fire-bombing the US by balloons late in the war, but this was a laughable attempt that merely dropped small bombs into the Oregon forest. Japan, without regard to strategic aims, started a war against an industrial giant. The industrial giant did have strategic aims: to starve and bomb the population of the aggressor nation into submission, thereby obviating the need to obtain a military victory on the field of battle. The Americans had come to a more scientific understanding of warfare before their enemies had, and Japan had not even considered it. They had lost the war the day they started it. A document that illustrates the Pentagon’s ability to canoodle tells us that in 1935 the Army had a plan to invade Canada. The plan details the operational problems they would encounter. Although the US had no intention of attacking its peaceful neighbor to the north, it highlights the difference between the two adversaries; Japan didn’t even have a strategy for defeating a country that it was going to attack. Japan thought that its homeland was impervious to retribution while it executed a violent blueprint of empire building against its neighbors.
As soon as the war against Japan started, the US had the intention of sealing off the main islands of Japan. After Japan’s isolation, and using some key islands as unsinkable bomber bases protected from ground attack, the Americans would begin to systematically reduce her enemy’s capacity to make war. At first, this meant precision bomb attacks by day of key industrial and military targets. That thinking would undergo revision as events unfolded.
The Production of the B29 Superfortress
The Boeing B29 was an enormous plane by the standards of the day and presented many developmental and construction problems. Unlike most aircraft built to that time, it couldn’t be constructed at one facility, rolling off an assembly line. It had to be built at four different sites. It had a pressurized cabin and tail, requiring a fuselage shaped like a tube. Its remote control guns were fired by an operator who peered through a periscope. Those guns were controlled by analog computer which calculated lead-time, wind, air pressure, all requiring much electronic gear and miles of controlling wires. The engines were the largest ever built and had a multitude of developmental problems. The B29 was a finicky airplane to fly, requiring all of its power to achieve flight. Then, once airborne, straining at maximum output to gain altitude, the unreliable engines overheated, causing many a crash. Some brake systems failed due to overheating as well. One aircraft, needing the entire runway to achieve the flying speed of 105 miles per hour, experienced a seizure of the left side brakes, causing the brake fluid to overheat, start a fire, and burn the wheel strut. There is no turning back once a certain amount of the runway is gone; it’s either fly or die. The plane crashed in a burning pile at the end of the runway with several tons of incendiaries in the bomb bay.
The development of the B29 was the most expensive project of the war. The aircraft is sometimes described fairly as being ‘plagued with problems’. Compared to the other leading bomber of the day, the Avro Lancaster, the B29 had a wingspan of 141 feet, the Lank 102, the overall length was 100 feet versus 68, the B29 could carry 12 tons of bombs without modifications, the Lank 7, its fully loaded weight 138,000 lbs versus 68,000 lbs. The B29 could achieve speeds of 400 mph, the Lank 260, but the most important difference due to a pressurized cabin and crew quarters was the ceiling of 32,000 feet versus 20,400. The B29 could fly unmolested at heights the enemy interceptors and anti-aircraft guns couldn’t even reach. In early operations most aircraft were lost due to flying mishaps and mechanical problems.
The Plan to Defeat Japan – Island Hopping
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, the US military developed a plan that could be described as follows: first, contain Japanese advancement and seal off her imports, second, capture islands, bypassing and isolating major Japanese military installations throughout the Pacific, and three, begin the systematic destruction of Japan by air, conducted from airbases built on captured islands. The plan was very sound and well thought out. The invasion of the Philippines by General Macarthur’s forces was perhaps the only diversion from this sound strategic thinking.
Firstly, US forces stopped the expansion of Japan at Guadalcanal, a small island in the Solomon chain. They reinforced Australia and New Zealand, who were justifiably panicked by the bombing of Port Darwin and demanded their troops return from the Middle East so they could protect the homeland.
The Japanese navy, starting the war with ten aircraft carriers, were suckered into defending the limits of their expansion and their carrier force was quickly whittled down by six carriers, most notably losing four at the Battle of Midway in the space of ten minutes. The Americans were down to three aircraft carriers but would end the war with fifty. The Japanese would build no more, the US campaign to seal Japanese ports from importing the necessary raw materials through submarine warfare and mines would ensure that she had no steel for that job.
Next began the island hopping campaign. The US Marines, perhaps the most effective amphibious fighting force the world had ever seen, soon seized islands off the determined but isolated Japanese defenders. In late November, 1943, the US Marines landed at Tarawa, on an island barely large enough for a fighter airfield. They then used this island fighter base to support the invasions of the Marianas islands of Guam, Tinian, and Saipan, each of which had airbases built to support the newly arriving B29 bombers. The Japanese hopelessly defended these islands to the death knowing their strategic importance; the Americans were now within bombing range of the home islands of Japan.
Meanwhile, due to intense lobbying pressure by the Nationalist Chinese, the US had sent about 110 of their large new bombers to the province of Chengdu, and had begun a bombing campaign against Japan in 1944 that proved ineffectual. The logistics of these operations were phenomenal, requiring eight flights over the Himalayas for every one flight to Japan in order to supply the far-flung bases with enough aviation fuel, ordnance, supplies and spare parts to do the job. The B29s conducted high altitude daylight bombing raids that encountered strong winds for the very first time, known as the jet stream. Japan lies at the center of a high altitude stream of cold air that rushes down from Siberia and wends its way south to the Pacific. Dropped at 32,000 feet, the carefully aimed bombs would spray all over before reaching the ground, guaranteeing that no strategic targets were destroyed. In fact, very few were hit.
Several things occurring at once were to change this ineffectiveness into success. General Curtis Lemay, a taciturn, methodical warier replaced General Haywood Hansell in the Pacific. The new island bases at Tinian, Guam and Saipan started to receive significant numbers of B29s. And lastly, Americans gave up on their ‘precision daylight’ raids. On May 9th, 1945, General Lemay took a gamble and the order that was given shocked his assembled air crews. Bombers were to go in over Tokyo at night at 5000 to 8000 feet with all machine guns and fire direction equipment removed to afford more bomb carrying capability. The planes would not waste fuel assembling and would proceed ‘Single Charlie’ to the target, and return in daylight thereby reducing the number of out-of-fuel ditchings in a dark ocean. Three hundred and thirty bombers took off that night.
Pathfinders flew in over the most densely populated sections of Tokyo and painted the center with a large burning X. For several hours into the night small groups of Superfortresses dropped their incendiary bombs made of jellied gasoline and magnesium/phosphorus. Phosphorus, known to high-school chemists everywhere, burns on contact with air. Each 500 pound bomb would explode at 100 feet, disgorging hundreds of 6 pound bomblets containing the Napalm-magnesium/phosphorus mixture. Each district of Tokyo attacked housed about 143,000 people per square mile, about four times the population density of New York.
Sixteen square miles of Tokyo and its unprepared citizens were burned that night. 140,000 were dead, thousands more injured. The dead were found in rivers, bomb shelters, schools, or simply sitting huddled in streets. The details are gruesome, more terrifying than the Hamburg raid due to an event called the conflagration fire. This event was unlike the tornado firestorm in Hamburg. It was a Tsunami of fire, a wave pushed by high winds, and like a surf wave cresting with white fire in the front, it caused the 1800 degree Fahrenheit flames to jump over houses and leap downward. Structures made of wood simply exploded. Others made of concrete baked their occupants in a matter of seconds. Most bodies recovered were not charred black, but pink, or expanded like an over-steamed hot dog, their clothes vaporized. The intense heat pushed by a wave of fire-fed wind had done the job.
The military evaluation deemed that this one raid had removed thirty percent of Tokyo’s strategic contribution to the war effort, more than all the ‘precision’ daylight raids conducted to date at the cost of only a few aircraft. The main problem the air crews experienced was running into the conflagration fire at 5,000 feet. One B29 was pushed up vertically so violently that it did a loop-de-loop at 450 miles per hour, and flew out of the resulting dive with its wings bent upward from the strain. The crews also had to contend with sucking in the fumes of cremated bodies from below causing many of them to vomit.
The next step in the plan was to extend this treatment to the remaining cities of Japan, starting with the largest industrial sectors, namely Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kawasaki, Yokohama, and Tokyo again until it was reduced to a smoldering ruin. Next, each city with populations of under 500,000 to 100,000 were targeted and destroyed, most of them not requiring any follow up visits. By now the numbers of bombers had reached 800 per raid and the targets were running out. The only cities left not burned flat were under 100,000 population but they made it to the list too.
By August, 1945, before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Lemay had stated that the XXI Air Force had run out of targets. Twenty one million Japanese were homeless. War production had effectively ceased. Had the Japanese not surrendered, they would have begun to starve in large numbers. Ironically, the atomic bombs which accounted for less than 3 percent of Japanese bomb damage may have saved Japanese lives as well as American, the former from starvation at the onset of winter, the latter from costly invasion of the Japanese homelands.
What’s the morality of conducting this form of warfare? Is burning civilians who construct ships, fighters, and bombs their troops used to conquer peaceful neighbors in orgies of violence less moral than meeting those troops on the field of battle? Lemay faced no such dilemma and brought the war to an end within eight months of his promotion. It’s safe to say, Bomber Harris was proven right – wars can be won by air power as was shown with the burning of Japan.
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