General Lemay Sics B-29s on Japan

By the summer of 1944 the air war was taking shape in Europe. Gen. Curtis Lemay had turned a problematic bombing operation against Germany into a strategic success. No less than the German Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, would eventually come to credit Lemay’s bombers for speeding along the defeat of Germany in Europe.

China, the Pacific, and Building a New Air Force

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And Lemay’s hour had come, but it was not over. Lemay’s clock was still ticking.

Thus in July 1944 Lemay was posted to China to run air operations against Japan using the newly-developed B-29. Lemay called the China effort, “the tiny B-29 war that was being waged.”

It may have been a “tiny B-29 war,” but it posed big problems. Lemay’s first problem was that the B-29 was going through severe birthing pains. Despite its immense cost (more than the U.S. spent on the Manhattan Project that built the atom bomb) the B-29 program was plagued with serious mechanical and material defects. Its four giant engines, particularly, had the nasty tendency to swallow valves and explode and burn uncontrollably in flight. Plus, the B-29 had myriad of other advanced systems that tended to break or fail at the worst possible moment.

So the aircraft didn’t work very well. Now add the stress of flying this giant bird in combat. And do it from austere fields at the far end of logistics lines that snaked from primitive India to the undeveloped innards of China. Thus were both the flyers and fixers challenged all day, every day. Someone had to come in and figure out how to make this expensive program work.

Lemay took control of a flailing operation, attempting to bomb Japanese targets from isolated bases in China. “Everything had to be flown in,” wrote Lemay. “Every single item.” It was a 1,500 mile trek over the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas.

Lemay started with his innate ability to put the right people into the right jobs. He made the Chinese operation work better, and soon increased combat effectiveness. In the process, Lemay developed a working relationship with the Communist leader Mao Zedong. Mao started by agreeing to return downed U.S. aircrews in return for medical supplies. As the relationship evolved, Mao’s troops were scrupulous about protecting and returning downed U.S. aircrews. Mao and Lemay worked well together.

From China to the South Pacific

By the end of 1944 the Chinese operation was beginning to click. Lemay had worked his magic and set things up for success. So sure enough, at the end of the year Lemay was transferred out. He was ordered to the South Pacific to perform another of his leadership miracles with what came to be called the 20th Air Force. This was the island-based air campaign and against Japan.

Again, there were the same problems of B-29 maintenance and training in the South Pacific, as well as near-impossible logistics and primitive living conditions. Leading by example, Lemay lived out of a tent and ate basic field rations, the same as the men under his command.

Lemay quickly learned that high altitude operations against Japan were problematic on the best of days. The U.S. had almost no accurate military maps of Japan. The best that the intelligence system could do was to supply pre-war maps from the National Geographic Society.

For the B-29s that made the flight to the Japanese islands, powerful, easterly-blowing jet streams out of Northeast Asia made flying and bombing a navigational and targeting nightmare. The obvious solution was to obtain weather information from the Soviets about atmospheric conditions forming in Siberia.

Yet the Soviets stonewalled. They lived up to their reputation for secrecy. The Soviets absolutely refused to provide Lemay with any weather information. Lack of this basic information, of course, confounded aerial mission planning. Even worse, the Soviets confiscated all B-29s that made emergency landings on their territory, and interned the crews.

Lemay understood that his options for high-level bombing were constrained. So he quickly adapted his tactics and revised the operational concept.

Burning an Empire

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. a group called the “Joint Incendiary Committee” had come up with industrial requirements for firebombs. Weapon developers tested the bombs on a mockup of a Japanese town, erected in the desert of Utah. In short order the U.S. supply system procured vast numbers of incendiary bombs, and deployed them to the South Pacific munitions depots. What was going on?

Indeed, what WAS going on? Lemay never received specific orders to use incendiary bombs in one way or another. Political leaders and senior generals on the home front seldom dirty their hands or sully their reputations with such distasteful matters. (Not until the Johnson administration would a U.S. President actually select bombing targets.) But the intent and purpose of these firebombs was clear. Lemay had ‘em in order that he could use ‘em.

So he used ‘em. “No matter how you slice it, you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians,” Lemay later wrote. “Thousands and thousands. But (otherwise) we’re going to have to invade Japan. And how many Americans will be killed in an invasion? … Five hundred thousand seems to be the lowest estimate. Some say a million. … Crank her up. Let’s go.”

Thus on March 9, 1945, Lemay sent 325 B-29s flying towards Japan at astonishingly low altitudes, between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. “Throw your mask away, you fly with Curt Lemay,” was one bit of graffiti that appeared soon after.

Under two miles altitude, there was no issue of a jet stream. The aim point was Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. The B-29s thundered in, and were unexpected. The Japanese scrambled almost no fighters. Lemay’s planes dropped incendiary bombs that leveled a dozen square miles of one of the most densely-populated cities in the world.

The heat from the burning fires of Tokyo was so intense that U.S. aircraft returned to their bases covered with thick layers of carbon, and even blistered paint on their underside. Updrafts from the Tokyo fires tossed some B-29s up to 15,000 feet in the air. Powerful vortexes tore the wings off at least one B-29, and flipped other aircraft upside down, causing them to crash.

This one air raid on Tokyo killed over 100,000 people on the ground. (There’s no exact number.) The Japanese were utterly stunned at the ferocity of the U.S. attack. If the common folk of Japan had not questioned their government before, many had their doubts now. It was raining fire. Soon after the Tokyo raid, the Japanese Army sent troops into the capital to prevent rioting by civilians.

Victim Populations

Few in the West shed tears for the civilians on the ground. Some Roosevelt-era policy makers referred to Japanese noncombatants as “victim populations.” At the highest levels, Allied powers around the world were elated at the Tokyo attack.

Even Joseph Stalin was impressed. In a high form of flattery, Stalin ordered Soviet aircraft designers to build exact copies of seized American B-29s. This they did, down to the last rivet hole and shade of green anti-corrosion paint. The Soviet copy of the B-29 aircraft, built by the Tupolev Bureau, eventually flew with Soviet forces as the Tu-4. (It even had the word “Boeing” written on the pilot’s and copilot’s yoke.)

Breaking the Will to Resist

Up until the Tokyo attack, nothing seemed to break the Japanese will to fight and resist. Across the arc of the Pacific theater, and throughout Asia, the Japanese just killed, and killed, and killed. Now the war was striking home, at the heart of the Japanese Empire. So the Japanese could burn, for all anyone cared.

In the editorial salons of America, even the New York Times gave high praise to Lemay and his bombers for taking the war to the heart of the enemy. Nearer to the face of battle, U.S. troops cheered from trenches in Europe to foxholes on Pacific islands when they heard the news of the Tokyo raid. There was a better chance that they might survive the war. Japan was burning, and Lemay was lionized for his role.

Lemay kept up the aerial bombardment of Japan. He would burn them into submission. The military justification was that U.S. intelligence believed (correctly, as it turned out) that much Japanese industry was dispersed throughout urban areas in small machine shops and assembly centers. Thus there were legitimate military reasons for burning the cities. As for the “victim populations?” Well, total war was total war.

Leaflets, Mines and Overwhelming Aerial Power

Still, to spare the civilian population Lemay ordered his B-29s to drop leaflets warning people to leave areas that the planes were going to return and bomb. Indeed, Lemay personally wrote the warning message, which was then translated into Japanese.

“I’ll tell them I’m coming,” he said. Then Lemay sent the bombers, which dropped incendiaries on a long target list of Japanese cities.

Lemay’s B-29s dropped so much ordnance that the 20th Air Force literally ran out of bombs in early-spring 1945. The Navy had to divert convoys to haul more munitions to Lemay.

While he waited for more incendiary bombs to arrive, Lemay’s B-29s laid underwater naval mines along the Japanese coastline. This virtually strangled coastal shipping. Between these mines, and the deadly U.S. submarine campaign against Japanese shipping in the Sea of Japan, much of Japan’s economy ground to a halt. For example, not a single oil tanker landed at any Japanese port between March 1945 and the end of the war.

Six Months of Fire

The last six months of the war were a time of fire for Japan. Back in February 1945, the island-fighting in the South Pacific was hard and Japan was intransigent. In February it looked like this was going to be a long war.

In fact at the Yalta Conference in February, the U.S. practically begged the Soviets to enter the fight against Japan. Stalin promised Pres. Roosevelt that the Soviets would attack Japan “within three months” of the defeat of Germany.

What a difference six months makes. By mid-summer of 1945, Lemay told a reporter that he expected Japan to capitulate by October 1. Soon after, Lemay received a note from the U.S. War Department, cautioning him against making public speculations. Then again, Lemay would know because it was his bombers that were burning out Japan’s cities. Meanwhile, more and more members of the leadership circles of U.S., Britain, China and other nations started to hope that Stalin might break yet another of his promises.

The Buildup to the Last Attacks

Lemay’s campaign of great fires served as a buildup for the two atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan in August 1945. Throughout the spring and summer of 1945, when the Japanese heard B-29s flying overhead they knew that another city was doomed. In fact, when Japanese spotters noted three aircraft approaching Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, they were at first relieved that it was not one of Lemay’s incendiary air armadas.

The Hiroshima attack certainly shocked Japan, in so many ways. At the highest levels of leadership, the decision makers were utterly confused about what happened. Another city was destroyed? Hiroshima? At first they didn’t know what hit them. Where was Lemay’s air army? It took several days for Japanese physicists to confirm that Hiroshima was destroyed by a uranium-based nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, on August 9 the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. The Japanese government was still slow in understanding the mechanism of destruction. They took their time to gather basic information. Japanese physicists were shocked to discover that the second bomb was of a completely different mechanism, plutonium. The Americans had not just one, but TWO different nuclear weapon programs at work.

To the peril of their nation, Japanese leadership dallied instead of discussing surrender with the U.S. In turn, Lemay received approval to stage one final firebombing raid on an already devastated Tokyo. After this final attack the Japanese quickly signaled that they were ready to end the war.

Ending a War

In September 1945 Lemay stood on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, while representatives of the Empire of Japan signed an instrument of surrender. In the distance, the horizon began to rumble. Then came a sound of thunder, as 462 of Lemay’s B-29s flew in perfect formation across a clear sky. The Japanese watched. The world watched. The point was made.

Later, Lemay noted his thoughts as he observed the surrender ceremony. Lemay went over in his mind the course and cost of the war. He’d spent his early career flying Army planes, in something like a “flying club” atmosphere. Now he commanded the largest, most destructive assemblage of air power on earth.

Lemay had written an entirely new operational doctrine for waging conventional war. In the end, he had helped usher in the nuclear age. And through it all, ever the great captain, he asked himself what else he could have done to save the lives of more of his troops who died in the terrible fighting.

Salute the Conqueror

Not long after the surrender at Tokyo Bay, Lemay piloted a B-29 to the northern reaches of Japan. He was preparing to return to the U.S., and this was the closest large airfield from which Lemay – a great aerial navigator in his own right – could fly a non-stop, “great circle” Polar route to North America. Lemay landed at a Japanese training base, and spent the night in a barracks with 3,000 Japanese naval cadets.

A month before, Lemay was burning Japanese cities. Now the Japanese cadets guarded Lemay and his crew while they slept. The next day the Japanese sailors lined the roads, saluted and offered military honors to Lemay. Then the cadets watched and waved as Lemay took to the skies and headed north across the vast, dark Pacific Ocean.

War is a grim business. It asks much of people. From some, it takes everything. And war is personal to every participant. But past some point, nations and militaries and people have to let it go.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man? For Curtis Lemay, his hour was over – or so it seemed. Now the man was returning home. But Lemay’s clock still was running.

Thank you for reading Part II. Part III will follow.

Until we meet again,
Byron King

September 10, 2009