How American Air Power Helped Seal the Fate of Imperial Japan

This appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
December 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIB-29MilitaryTechnologyHitlerJapanAir ForceTokyoWarHistory

How American Air Power Helped Seal the Fate of Imperial Japan

American bombers helped crush Imperial Japanese industry and were also the plane that delivered the two atomic bombs.

Firestorm in Tokyo: Civilians Become Targets

In early March, LeMay commented to his public information officer, “This outfit is getting a lot of publicity without having accomplished much in bombing results.” That was about to change. Twentieth Air Force had decided that precision bombing was ineffective and that the construction of Japanese cities made them ideal targets for fire-bombing attacks. The change was the result of a major moral shift in the United States. Deliberate attacks on noncombatant civilians had previously been considered immoral. Justification for urban attack was seen in recent Japanese announcements that all men up to age 60 and women to age 45 were part of a civilian mobilization to defend the country against Allied invaders.

LeMay also decided to make a major change in tactics, scheduling future missions at night, at comparatively lower altitudes, reasoning that Japanese antiaircraft defenses were not well organized and that Japanese guns were less accurate than German weapons. In a move to increase payload, he ordered many of the bombers stripped of their machine guns, which had been installed to defend against Japanese fighters.

LeMay developed tactics calling for lead squadrons to mark the target with napalm-filled bombs designed to cause fires to attract the attention of Japanese firefighters. The lead formation would drop its bombs at 100-foot intervals, but the main force, delivering M-69 incendiaries, would drop at half the distance for better concentration with each crew bombing individually. The mission plan called for 334 B-29s, the largest formation to date, with a target date of March 9, 1945. The force was so large that it took three hours for all the airplanes to become airborne.

The bombers encountered the familiar heavy clouds and turbulence on the way to the target, but navigators managed to find their checkpoints using radar. Weather conditions over Tokyo were good, and the pathfinders marked their targets without difficulty. The rest of the formation came in at staggered altitudes between 4,900 and 9,200 feet. An increasing wind fanned the flames of the fires caused by the napalm and incendiaries, producing an expanding firestorm. As the fires spread, bombardiers dropped their bombs on the edge of the fire, thus increasing the size of the conflagration. The target area bordered Tokyo’s main industrial area and included a number of factories, but the main targets were the thousands of homes and feeder plant buildings. Construction in the area was so congested that the fires spread like they were in dry brush, causing flames so high and heat so intense that nothing could escape.

The disaster that befell the citizens of Tokyo that night was one of the worst in human history. The fires spread throughout the city and were only hampered by wide firebreaks, particularly along rivers and canals. Although thousands of people managed to find solace in the waters, the heat was so intense that water in some of the shallower canals literally boiled. Widespread panic increased the death toll as people attempted to run through the flames to escape, only to fall in the intense heat and perish. Radio Tokyo called the attack “slaughter bombing” and compared it to the destruction to Nero’s Rome. The comparison was in error. The damage to Tokyo was far worse. Japanese morale plummeted, and the already rising peace movement in the government gained considerable strength. Resolve among those Japanese who had been willing to fight to the death against invasion began to crumble.

Losses among the B-29s had been high, but the rate was still less than that of previous missions. LeMay’s decision to go in low had been justified. He did, however, decide to arm the bombers once again for future missions in the event Japanese night fighter defenses became more effective. Nicknamed “Old Iron Ass,” LeMay did not give the Japanese any breaks.

By Bombing Alone

On the afternoon of March 11, a force of 313 bombers took off for Nagoya. Some 285 actually got over the target, but the damage was not as great as inflicted on the Tokyo mission. Bombardiers spread their loads over a wider area, and the light winds over the city failed to produce the conflagration that destroyed Tokyo. Smoke was still rising from the Nagoya attack as the first of 301 bombers took off for a mission against Osaka, which had yet to be hit by American bombs. Aborts left 274 B-29s to find a target obscured by 80 percent cloud cover. The necessity of using radar actually led to a closer concentration of bombs and a resulting conflagration that wiped out eight square miles of the heart of the city, including the main commercial and industrial areas. The Nagoya raid proved that the Tokyo mission had been no fluke.

LeMay flew five fire-bombing missions before the kamikaze crisis during the invasion of Okinawa led to a diversion of the B-29s to attacks against the airfields on Kyushu from which they originated. The success of incendiary missions led him to conclude that while the official Twentieth Air Force mission was to prepare the Home Islands for an invasion, it was possible to force Japan to surrender by bombing alone.

On April 25, LeMay wrote a letter to Norstad informing him of his belief. LeMay was not alone in his conclusion. Two weeks before LeMay wrote his letter, Twentieth Air Force Director of Plans Colonel Cecil Combs recommended that fire-bombing missions be stepped up immediately after the surrender of Germany to force Japan to do likewise. Former ambassador to Japan Joseph C. Grew believed that Japan was on the verge of surrender and advised President Harry Truman of his belief. Numerous other high-ranking officers, including MacArthur and his subordinate, General Kenney, shared the belief.

The strategic bombing campaign was placed on hold for almost a month as 75 percent of XXI Bomber Command missions were directed in tactical attacks. Most of the strategic missions during the period were high-altitude precision missions with high explosives, but LeMay managed to get in a few fire-bombing raids, including two against targets around Tokyo Bay. By the end of May, LeMay had sufficient resources to mount raids of more than 500 planes, and by mid-June the cities ringing Tokyo Bay had been burned to the ground. June 15 concluded Phase I of LeMay’s Urban Bombing Campaign, and the results were spectacular. Japan’s six largest cities had been bombed to ruins, and the country’s industrial base was in shambles. Casualties among the Japanese population were well over a million, with the dead numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Bombed into Submission

The capture of Okinawa brought Fifth and Seventh Air Force B-24s within range of targets in Japan, and the Liberators joined the Superfortresses in the fire raids against Japanese cities while North American B-25 Mitchell bombers struck targets on Kyushu in preparation for the upcoming invasion scheduled for November 1. Navy aircraft carriers joined the attack on Japan along with Army fighter-bombers operating from Iwo Jima and the Ryukus. The Japanese people were being subjected to the most intense aerial bombardment in history, and their resolve was beginning to wear down.

President Harry Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945, calling for the unconditional surrender of Japan, and many in the Japanese government wanted to accept it. Three members of the cabinet objected on the basis that the Declaration placed the fate of the emperor in question and branded members of the country’s former government as war criminals (the Japanese government had gone through two reorganizations since the invasion of Saipan).

American bombers began dropping leaflets warning the Japanese that their entire population was in danger of starvation, and it was hardly an empty threat for a country that was largely dependent on food imports. The fact that the Japanese were losing their resolve became apparent on August 4, when Fifth Air Force pilots operating over Kyushu came back to report that white flags were being waved throughout the island. Two days later, the first atomic bomb exploded in the sky over Hiroshima.

Although popular myth relates that Japan surrendered because of the detonation of the atomic bombs, in reality the new weapons had little effect on an already demoralized population. This was partially due to the distances from the target cities to Tokyo. Most Japanese were only aware that a terrible new weapon had been detonated—few realized its importance. When President Truman promised a rain of destruction from the skies on Japan, he was addressing a country that had already been bombed into near oblivion. On August 14, the emperor addressed the Japanese people for the first time in history, telling them that the country was surrendering.

This article by Sam McGowan originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Reuters.